This week, China agreed to resume its human rights dialogue with the United States. Beijing broke off the discussions in 2004 after Washington sponsored a U.N. Human Rights Commission resolution attacking the Chinese government’s record. “We are willing to have exchanges and interactions with the U.S. and other countries on human rights on a basis of mutual respect, equality and non-interference in each others’ internal affairs,” said Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, after meeting with Condoleezza Rice on Tuesday in the Chinese capital.
China has, off and on, maintained human rights “dialogues” with about a dozen nations. Beijing always acts as if its participation in these discussions is a favor to the international community, but they actually benefit Chinese autocrats. The dialogues permit them to maintain the appearance of progress without having to make concessions of any lasting significance.
China, under President Hu Jintao, is suffering under a crackdown that has now lasted a half decade. The political system in 2008 is more repressive than it was in 1998. And there is even less room today for political discussion than in 1988. The Communist Party, incredibly, is moving backward.
This regression coincides with China’s drive to host the Olympics. In 2001, at China’s final presentation before the International Olympic Committee’s vote, Liu Qi, the head of the country’s bid committee, said “I want to say that the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games will have the following special features: They will help promote our economic and social progress and will also benefit the further development of our human rights cause.” It has not worked out that way, however. As Robin Munro, a veteran human rights campaigner, noted this week, the Chinese government has made a “mockery of promises made.” Worse, the intensifying crackdown could “become the new normal” in China after the Games are over.
“China is at a special, historic stage of its development,” said Wang Baodong, a Chinese Embassy spokesman in Washington, responding this week to criticisms of his country’s human rights record. “We do not deny that there are a lot of problems.” Wang is correct that this is an especially crucial time for China. While Beijing’s leaders are pushing the country back, the Chinese people are surging forward. There is more societal change in China than in any other nation at this moment.
The human rights dialogues, if they have any positive effect at all, show the Chinese people that their government fails to meet acceptable standards of conduct and therefore brings shame on their nation. As such, the discussions promise the same benefit as the Helsinki Final Act of 1975. Yet the dialogues with China won’t have the same impact until Western presidents and prime ministers are willing to be as forthright about China’s communists as they were about the Soviet ones.