Misreading China: The Harm of Ignoring Human Rights

On Wednesday First Lady Michelle Obama heads to China, reportedly on a mission to charm the Chinese government. She will be traveling without the president, but with her two daughters and her mother.


As Reuters describes it:

U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama is expected to steer clear of controversial issues such as human rights when she visits China this week but her trip could help advance a top item on her husband’s foreign policy agenda: deepening Washington’s ties with Beijing.

The article goes on to cite someone who worked as an aide to former First Lady Laura Bush, praising the prospects of this ethics-lite excursion, noting that it will be good optics, and play well in China, to have Michelle Obama meet with China’s first lady, drop by schools, take the kids to visit the Terra Cotta warriors, and so forth. The message is that by declining to rock the boat, Michelle will be honoring her motto of “do no harm.”

While the intentions here may be good, this is a terrible misreading of China, of international politics and of America’s vital place in the world. China is one of the world’s worst violators of human rights, and its government holds sway over more than 1.3 billion people — more than one-sixth of humanity. For just one of the latest cases in the news, see the Wall Street Journal‘s editorial on “Death in Chinese Custody,” about a human rights advocate, Cao Shunli, who last September tried to fly to a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. She never made it out of the Beijing airport. She was arrested, she was denied medical treatment as her health failed, and she died in custody. For more information on the system that killed her, reports are so legion that it’s hard to know where to begin — but one place would be the State Department’s latest country report on human rights practices in China, which talks about the coercion, repression, censorship, enforced disappearances, torture, coerced confessions, discrimination and more.


The Chinese are not fools. Both the people and the government know how this system works. Plenty of them know that it is wrong. That is precisely why Beijing crushes dissent, and tries to paper over these violations on the world stage. Ignoring the Chinese government’s abuses of its own people might make for a more pleasant chat over tea with China’s first lady. But it will not inspire China’s government to treat America with respect, nor will it deepen Chinese-American ties.

Rather, it will underscore the perception that America is a shrinking power — less and less willing to stand up for its own values, and ever more willing to ignore profoundly troubling realities in hope of gaining favor. What plays as politeness over tea will be read as weakness in the global theater. It is just such messages that helped embolden Russia’s Vladimir Putin to move into Ukraine. He has evidently calculated he can defy America and get away with it. And while an American first lady is not an official maker of policy, her manner of visiting China does send a message. To whatever extent it affects U.S.-China ties, it also goes some distance toward defining the terms on which those ties evolve.

China’s rulers do not make their geostrategic decisions based on pleasantries over tea. They weigh the real, massive, concrete costs and benefits of dealing with America. And while they might like the idea of an America unconcerned with human rights, they will quite likely also read into that the message that America is growing weak, and increasingly deferential — and that, too, will affect their political math. They are well aware that the global rules of the game are shifting as America retreats. They are surely contemplating the terms on which they wish to deal with the U.S. — and part of that calculation involves what they, like Putin, might be able to get away with — not only at home, but abroad. For America’s first lady to bring human rights into the equation would be an important move — showing both strength on the part of America, and far more respect for the people of China than any agenda of ignoring human rights in the improbable hope of doing no harm.

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