September 10, 2015

Diplomacy in the Time of Repression

Note: Article originally published on Wall Street Journal Asia.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s first state visit to Washington takes place this month amid China’s fiercest crackdown on human rights in recent memory. With authorities rounding up lawyers, increasing restrictions on the Internet and pushing a sweeping new national-security law, the Communist Party is aggressively consolidating its authority.

Many issues are on the state-visit agenda, but for Washington to relegate human rights to the periphery would be a mistake. The Obama administration should demonstrate its opposition to Beijing’s abuses and its support for Chinese citizens seeking vindication of their basic rights.

Since assuming power in late 2012, Mr. Xi has rendered himself the most powerful Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping or even Mao Zedong. U.S. officials are increasingly alarmed at how he has shrunk what little room the Chinese people had to exercise their rights.

The Xi government has released a draft counterterrorism law that criminalizes “thought, speech, or behavior” that attempts to “influence national policy-making” or “subvert state power.” A draft cybersecurity bill meanwhile requires local data storage, expanded censorship by Internet providers, and real-name registration for all Web users. Another law would place the activities of all foreign nongovernmental organizations under the authority of China’s Ministry of Public Security.

A new national-security law adopted in July gave broad new powers to the Chinese security apparatus. Shortly after, the government cracked down against the growing “rights defense” lawyers’ movement, detaining more than 200 lawyers and placing others under intense surveillance.

During ministerial-level U.S.-China talks in June, Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi said that “in advancing human rights, China’s achievements are there for all to see.” Yes, and these “achievements” show a rapidly deteriorating human-rights environment.

Freedom House this year measured repression in 17 categories, from political dissidents and grassroots activists to Internet users and legal petitioners. It found that repression has risen in 10 of the categories since November 2012 and remained constant in six. In only one category—restrictions facing legal petitioners—did repression decrease even mildly.

Amid discussions of the Chinese economy, cyberattacks and tensions in the South China Sea, President Obama should note that supporting human rights isn’t a matter of imposing American will or exporting Western values, but of affirming the principles of China’s own constitution and international commitments.

U.S. officials should address both individual cases, like that of imprisoned Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, and broader trends, such as the crackdown on lawyers and pending security legislation. These concerns should be raised in both private meetings and in public.

Washington could also expand efforts to back technologies that permit Chinese Internet users—the world’s largest online population, at nearly 650 million people—to access uncensored information and communicate securely. Circumvention and encryption applications can assist regular Chinese in evading the Great Firewall and the watchful eye of government monitors.

U.S. efforts to support human rights in China should be aimed not merely at cajoling Beijing into improving its practices, but also at demonstrating to the Chinese people that America stands beside them. On fundamental human rights, the people of China—and America—should know where Washington stands. 

Mr. Fontaine is president of the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C.