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Right Turn
Posted at 12:00 PM ET, 06/16/2011

Human rights spotlight: China

Beginning today, Right Turn will do a feature each Thursday on some aspect of international human rights. While human rights is a frequent topic on this blog depending on the news of the day, there are trends and individual incidents that often don’t get much visibility. We’ll try to look at some of those on a weekly basis.

When it comes to China, “legal expert” doesn’t pop to mind. In fact, China expert and former State Department official Kelley Currie, who is a fellow at a think tank specializing in Asia, told me yesterday, “Chinese rulers don’t believe in the rule of law.” “Law” is a tool manipulated to serve the No. 1 agenda item on the Communist regime’s to do list: Preserve the Communist regime.

But the State Department puts out this sort of nonsense: “The Legal Experts Dialogue brings together government and non-government experts from the U.S. and China to address the benefits and practical implementation of the rule of law. The Legal Experts Dialogue offers a unique opportunity to explore key legal issues of mutual interest to both the U.S. and China. The United States is interested in pursuing in-depth discussions and practical cooperation on the rule of law during the meeting.” What issues do we have in common with China when it comes to law? None, I would suggest.

By giving China this cloak of respectability, the U.S. avoids confronting China on a system that is not “legal” in any sense that we and the West understand. Moreover, as Currie explained to me, China’s attendance at these meetings becomes “a favor to the U.S.,” which will be used to demand something in return for China’s participation in a farcical forum.

In a briefing in May 2010 in a similar U.S. Human Rights Dialogue meeting, the State Department revealed what an utter joke these sorts of meetings are:

Today we visited several sites in Washington. We met this morning with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who hosted us at the Supreme Court to discuss rule of law and the role of lawyers in society. We met with Cardinal McCarrisk at Catholic Charities Anchor Mental Health Center to talk about the relationship between the religious community and government in human services, social services, humanitarian issues. We also met with officials of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service to discuss labor rights, collective bargaining. And we met at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where Tom Carothers hosted a delegation there to talk about the nexus between human rights, rule of law, and food safety.
The discussions we had were candid and constructive, including a range of areas where we disagree. We plan to continue the discussions in a variety of fora, including a legal expert’s dialogue, and we agreed to set the dates and agenda to restart those discussions soon. We also agreed to a next round of this dialogue to be held in China in 2011, and we are discussing further expert discussions both on religious freedom issues and on labor. I look forward to working with our Chinese counterparts to continue these discussions.

Thunk. When asked what issues the administration raised, the briefer instead provided pablum (“a real possibility of dialogue, shared experience, and mutual interest in having both these expert dialogues and other areas where we work together”).

It is laughable that in a forum designed to promote transparency and accountability, the administration won’t say what it is doing:

QUESTION: Why can’t you talk about the specific cases that you raised? The Spokesman often mentions things that he — that the State Department is concerned about in China. Why not lay out what you mentioned?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: It is, I think, for two reasons: One, I don’t — we talked about a large number of cases, and those cases are in very different places. In some cases, I think we’re going to be more effective if we continue the discussion privately. There’s other cases. I can mention Liu Xiaobo, whose case I’ve mentioned before. We’re going to — we raised it. We’re going to continue to raise it. In that case, I think our judgment is that there is — it’s important for us to be publicly reiterating our concern. Gao Zhisheng is another, the lawyer, whose case we’ve expressed concern about, we’ll continue to do.
So I cite those as examples. I don’t want to go into every case. But we genuinely are committed and spent time discussing very specific cases and very specific concerns in the areas where our disagreements are most profound.

There was another meeting of the legal experts this month, and a briefing is expected today. One can expect more of the same.

Meanwhile, China’s human rights behavior is worse than ever. China has grown more flagrant and brutal in its domestic repression. The arrest and disappearance of two prominent human rights lawyers, Jiang Tianyong and Teng Biao, highlight the degree to which China feels unconstrained by the “rule of law” or any international standards. There have been no apparent consequences for this conduct, although occasionally the secretary of state pops up with a generic speech on human rights.

This is not only a moral tragedy but a strategic error of significant proportions. Our laxity on human rights and unwillingness to deal seriously with cyber-warfare and cyber-theft practiced by the Chinese convey a lack of seriousness about checking China’s aggression. The administration seems obsessed with developing a political relationship with a nation that shares none of our values or interests, rather than forecfully asserting our own interests. In a revealing interview with Josh Rogin, outgoing deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg prattled on:

What we point to is that, on most of the big issues of our time, that we’ve come to understand that we have a lot of common interests, and that we are going to be more successful in pursuing them if we do it together, beginning with the earliest engagement, which was on the economic issues, that China and the United States have a critical role to play in dealing with the world financial crisis of 2008 and long-term, sustained economic growth. And while I wouldn’t pretend that we’ve resolved all the bilateral economic differences between us, we have worked well in the G-20 and in a global setting, and we have made some progress on the trade and financial issues.
I think that both on North Korea and Iran, it’s important to recognize how much positive convergence we’ve had. If one would have asked two years ago, for example, on dealing with Iran, how much we would be in sync with China I think they would be amazed how well this has worked, both in terms of the formal stuff in the Security Council, but also in the P5+1. The Chinese have been fully on board, they haven’t undercut it, they’ve been very clear and consistent with the need for Iran to meet their obligations (and they’ve worked as a partner with us on that), and they’ve been very restrained in their political and economic engagement with Iran.

The self-delusion is striking. China has acted responsibly on North Korea? We have “a lot of common interests.” Sigh.

There is little wonder that China is running amok. We convey unseriousness and provide excuses, such as the legal-experts forum, for China to do nothing on issues we care about. So far, however, there is little recognition within the administration of the degree to which our own policy, our lack thereof, has contributed to a more brutal and aggressive China.

By  |  12:00 PM ET, 06/16/2011

Categories:  Human Rights

 
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