No one expected there would be good news. The United States and China have just concluded two days of talks on human rights, and unsurprisingly, it yielded very little beyond the talk itself. In the past two months, China has begun one of its most significant crackdowns in years. Lawyers, activists and dissidents have been arrested, detained or put under house arrest. Some have simply disappeared. Despite widespread condemnation of China’s repressive turn — condemnation from many capitals besides Washington — the Chinese government has been unrepentant. Indeed, it stepped up its dragnet against dissent by arbitrarily arresting the well-known artist Ai Weiwei, and violating its own laws by holding him incommunicado for weeks.
It wasn’t always like this. Once upon a time, you could expect these diplomatic meetings to yield something. It might be a small concession, and it might not materialize right away. But a dissident would be released. A human rights activist would be permitted to emigrate for “medical reasons.” There was a little give and take in the interest of the wider relationship. The practice became frequent enough that the direct flight from Beijing to Detroit was called the “dissident express.”
That wasn’t the mood in Beijing this week, however. According to Michael Posner, the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, his Chinese counterparts were not even willing to give answers to the most basic questions about the whereabouts and condition of those detained.
For starters, China changed. It is far richer, stronger and bolder than the China of the 1980s or 1990s. In those years, one often heard the argument, especially among China hands, that if Beijing had a larger stake in the system, it would act more responsibly. It was a nice theory, but so far there is little evidence that it’s correct. If anything, China of late appears to care less what others think of it.
Nor was this crackdown even precipitated by events in China. None of these activists were holding rallies or calling for an end of the Chinese Communist Party. There is no evidence that they had stepped up their activity. China’s rights lawyers—one of the main groups targeted in recent weeks—are far less political than Chinese dissidents 20 or 30 years ago. Rather, this wave of arrests appears to have everything to do with the revolutions ripping through the Arab world. The Arab Spring has put China into a deep freeze.
Posner thinks that the human rights situation in China will improve with time. Unfortunately, he is probably wrong—and not just because the country is on the eve of a leadership transition, a moment that typically favors conservative policies and tight security.
He is wrong because any regime that is wealthier and stronger than ever before, yet unleashes its harshest crackdown in decades because of political revolutions thousands of miles away, is fundamentally insecure. If China’s stunning economic success hasn’t already changed this fact, no rise in GDP ever will.
When I was in China in February, at the outset of this crackdown, I met with one of the rights lawyers who had yet to be detained or put under house arrest. I asked him why he and his colleagues were under so much pressure from the regime. “They are getting more afraid and there are less choices for them,” he replied. “The regime, [president] Hu Jintao and [premier] Wen Jiabao, appear to be less confident than when they took power.” Recent events suggest he is right. And if that’s the case, there is no reason we should change the conversation.