The recent China crisis should teach us what we failed to learn from Tiananmen
Square: You can't negotiate with people who violate human rights
by Seth Gitell
AMERICA, THIS IS your wake-up call.
China's 11-day refusal to release the 24 American crew members downed over the
South China Sea after an overeager MiG pilot crashed into their surveillance
plane suggests, if nothing else, that there's something deeply wrong with
America's policy of nurturing China's business interests despite the tendency
of that nation's leaders to govern their people the way Raymond
Patriarca ruled on Federal Hill. In the 12 years since the first President Bush
averted his eyes when the Chinese leadership unleashed the legions of the 27th
Army -- jacked up on amphetamines to make them more aggressive -- upon
democracy activists in Tiananmen Square and their model of the Statue of
Liberty, America's political relationship with China has gone from bad to
worse. (The attack is now believed to have taken as many as 2600 lives.) And
now, in the wake of Congress's decision late last year to grant China Permanent
Normal Trade Relations (PNTR), Beijing seems to view America the way a heroin
dealer sees an addict -- as an easy mark.
No matter how President George W. Bush spins it, the release of the 24 crew
members won't address the central issue: a country that does not respect its
own people can never be trusted to respect anyone else. And no American
administration has done more than pay lip service to the cause of human rights
in the People's Republic of China (PRC). After the Tiananmen massacre, former
president Bush dispatched then- secretary of state James Baker to China to ease
relations between the two countries -- and though Bush the elder announced some
mild sanctions in the direct wake of Tiananmen, he went out of his way to
appease Beijing. For example, so as not to anger China, he vetoed a measure
that would have extended the visas of Chinese students living in the US. Former
president Bill Clinton, despite his charges during the 1992 campaign that his
predecessor "coddled dictators," unlinked the causes of trade and human rights
in China and pushed to grant Beijing PNTR. As for George W. Bush, even as he
has hinted at selling warships to Taiwan, he has also indicated a willingness
to push for China's entry into the World Trade Organization and to back the
PRC's favored "One China" policy. But no country that represses its own people,
bars worker unions, and permits slave labor by prisoners can be anything other
than a rival to American interests.
THE CENTRAL issue is the human-rights issue," says Arthur Waldron, a professor
of international relations at the University of Pennsylvania. "If China becomes
a freer country, we're not going to have as many problems with them. If you
have a humane, democratic regime, they're not going to be a problem
But American foreign policy toward China doesn't reflect this philosophy.
Instead, policy is shaped by the debate between the business lobby, which looks
longingly at China as a source of cheap labor, and the security hawks, who
think Beijing should be treated as Moscow was during the Cold War. The status
of China's human-rights activists on the information food chain mirrors that
held by bicycling advocates within regional transportation planning -- they're
seen as well-meaning people who aren't, uh, exactly at the center of the
debate. The movement to free Tibet, for example, is pigeonholed in
foreign-policy circles as a PETA-like boutique issue rather than a serious
fight for freedom.
Charles Kernaghan, the director of the National Labor Committee (NLC),
experienced the sidelining of these issues firsthand when his group released a
report in July 2000 detailing the complicity of American corporations in
Chinese human-rights violations. (Unionizers in China, Kernaghan points out,
find themselves fired, locked in psychiatric hospitals, and fed mind-altering
drugs; scholar Robin Monroe's article in the February Columbia Journal of
Asian Law documents China's practice of incarcerating union activists in
psychiatric prisons.) "When you're talking about human rights and worker rights
in China and established US corporations, the world is a very lonely place,"
says Kernaghan, who had trouble getting his report publicized. "You're
certainly not going to find a lot of support in the foreign-policy
The continued decline of the US labor movement doesn't help. Last year, the
AFL-CIO strongly opposed Congress's vote to grant China PNTR. Its position
comes partly, of course, from self-interest: Chinese slave workers take jobs
away from American workers. But there's another aspect to the labor movement's
interest in China. Throughout the Cold War, labor stood at the forefront of the
struggle against Communism. At a time when Richard Nixon and American business
interests sought détente with the Soviet Union, the AFL-CIO put the
spotlight on such human-rights activists as Andrei Sakharov and Aleksandr
Solzhenitsyn. Labor reached out to the Solidarity movement in Poland and kept
the pressure on. But labor's voice has been muted amid a corporate stampede to
do business in the People's Republic, a force that wasn't present in the
earlier debates over the USSR and Poland.
The 11-day diplomatic standoff vindicates what labor activists have been saying
for some time. "Policies come back to bite the people who make them when they
are shallow and they ignore worker rights and human rights and women's rights,"
says Kernaghan. Adds Thea Lee, the assistant director of public policy for the
AFL-CIO, "There's no sense in which the process of trade liberalization and
economic growth in China automatically fixes or addresses the workers'-rights
or human-rights problems."
Regardless of any American saber-rattling toward China, the imperative here is
moral, not military. America needs to inject concern about human rights into
all of its dealings with China, suggests Harry Wu, a pro-democracy activist who
spent two decades as a political prisoner in China. "Tell Chinese authorities
no free lunch," he says. "We want to see political progress -- human rights,
not just economic development."
A naturalized American citizen, Wu received asylum in the United States in 1985
and founded the Laoghai Research Foundation (laoghai is the Chinese word
for gulag). When Wu returned to China in 1995 to do research for his group,
Chinese authorities held him for 66 days before sending him back to America.
"If [the US] is a country very concerned about democracy, human rights, our
leaders would put this on the table all the time," says Wu, who scoffs at the
idea that "money can change the authoritarian status of a repressive
government." Economic ties between the countries won't help democratize China,
he contends: "The engagement policy is only engaged with money."
"With human rights, they say China is different," Wu says of that policy's
supporters, noting that some of them ironically are the same people who
venerated Ronald Reagan for his anti-communism. (For proof of the right's
changed tune, look no further than a May 2000 paper from the conservative
Heritage Foundation, titled "How Trade with China Benefits Americans." The
report notes that Chinese trade "increase[s] people-to-people contact, help[s]
to limit government control of people in China, and . . . empower[s]
the Chinese people to take charge of their own destinies." Better ask the
People's Liberation Army about that.) If increased investment rather than
direct confrontation leads to democracy, asks Wu, "why did Ronald Reagan call
the Soviet Union the Evil Empire? Why did he say `tear this wall down'?"
President John F. Kennedy also challenged the Soviets in Berlin, Wu points out;
he didn't try to strike business deals with them.
Wu says his research suggests that American trade actually contributes to
China's aggressiveness. The funds that China gleans doing business with US
corporate interests -- including Lockheed, which is helping China develop
satellite rocket technology -- end up financing missile and weapons
development. Wu traveled to the Russian Pacific port of Vladivostok to examine
former Soviet warships the Russian Navy can no longer afford to support. The
cash-rich PRC scooped them up. As for business advocates' contention that
economic pressure can't change China's behavior, Wu points out that when
American corporations were concerned about copyright infringement and convinced
the US government to sanction China, Beijing quickly backed down.
AS CABLE-NEWS talking heads blather on about Bush's performance in handling the
spy-plane crisis, we should re-evaluate the course America has taken since
Tiananmen. For starters, we might want to consider some of the things that
worked in the Cold War. During the early 1970s, the labor movement,
neoconservatives, and human-rights advocates all united to advocate putting
more pressure on the Soviet Union. Senator Henry Jackson, a Democrat from
Washington, sponsored one particularly controversial measure. Jackson's bill
tied the Soviet Union's treatment of refuseniks (Soviet citizens, usually
Jewish, denied permission to emigrate) to the sale of American grain. The farm
and business lobbies vehemently opposed this legislation. Eventually it passed,
and Jackson-Vanik, as it came to be known, crystallized the moral element of
America's policy toward the USSR. This pressure eventually convinced the
Soviets to free Anatoly Sharansky, a prisoner of conscience whose televised
release from prison became a symbol of the struggle for freedom.
By focusing on human rights, highlighting the work of Harry Wu and others, and
tying business deals to democratic development, the US can address some of the
root causes of its conflict with China -- and avoid the trap of simply
militarizing the problem. Toward this end, says the AFL-CIO's Lee, human-rights
activists will begin raising shareholder resolutions that curtail corporate
work in China. Labor sources say corporations such as Wal-Mart and Nike may
face such actions.
The US House of Representatives took a step in the right direction last week
when it passed Resolution 56 by a vote of 406 to six. The resolution, which
urged the United Nations Human Rights Commission to criticize China's
human-rights record, mentioned China's treatment of religious cults, closure of
places of worship, repression of political dissidents, and other outrages --
but, interestingly, did not note its treatment of workers. Even so, the
resolution "signaled a willingness" on Congress's part to take a somewhat
tougher stance toward China, says Matt Gobush, a spokesman for Representative
Tom Lantos (D-California), who sponsored the measure. (Lantos, a Hungarian Jew
who fought against the Nazis in World War II, founded the Human Rights Caucus
on Capitol Hill.) Lantos is preparing a campaign to oppose China's bid for the
2008 Olympics. "We believe that's a real litmus test on human rights," says
Gobush. "The Chinese do not deserve the Olympics." Lantos, he adds, will not
allow Americans to forget the human-rights aspect of our dealings with China.
"Just as we did during the Cold War and our struggle with the Soviet Union,"
Gobush says, "we will let those who are being persecuted know that here in the
United States they have support."
If anything good comes out of the recent crisis, it will be a shift in American
popular opinion that leads Congress and the administration to re-examine our
relationship with China. The starting point lies with the American-based
corporations so interested in doing business with Beijing. As Waldron says,
"The business community is quite happy to have a place where not only are wages
quite low, but if there's any business about unions, [the authorities] can go
crack heads." But eventually "Nike and Reebok will learn that they'll pay some
price from doing business over there," says Kernaghan of the NLC, which waged
the public anti-sweatshop campaign that almost put Kathie Lee Gifford out of
business several years ago.
Perhaps a groundswell will rise from the universities, where the civil-rights
and anti-war movements coalesced in the 1960s and the anti-apartheid movement
took hold in the 1980s. But so far things don't look promising. The Princeton
student newspaper, the Daily Princetonian, reported on the plight of Li
Shaomin, a Chinese-American alumnus of the university's graduate school who has
been arrested by the Chinese police. When asked whether the university would
help try to free Li, a spokeswoman for Princeton replied that the school did
not have "an institutional role to play." In the absence of a campus movement,
the next stage in US-China relations may hinge on whether labor activists and
public pressure can force American businesses and other institutions interested
in the PRC to factor human rights into their business.
Seth Gitell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.