Amy Gadsden, a Senior Fellow with FPRI, is Associate Dean and Executive Director of International Programs, University of Pennsylvania Law School. She served as Resident Country Director for China at the International Republican Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing democracy worldwide, from 2006–08, and as Special Advisor on China at the U.S. Department of State from 2001-03.
Twenty years after the Chinese government’s crackdown on student protestors in Tiananmen Square, it is still easy to call to mind the iconic images from the weeks of protests that were crushed on June 4, 1989. The most famous is that of the young Chinese man who blocked a tank trying to make its way down Chang’an Avenue. As the tank was maneuvered from left to right in an effort to get around him, the young man dodged bravely in front of it, evoking a Chinese David squaring off against a mechanized, militaristic Goliath.
The Goddess of Democracy, the sculpture designed by art students as the symbol of the protests, is perhaps the second most popular image of those tumultuous weeks. The alabaster statue, which so obviously referenced the French Revolution’s Marianne and America’s Statue of Liberty, faced off against the famous image of Mao Zedong mounted on the Forbidden City’s gate. Her placement and visage embodied the innocence, hope, and naivete of the ill-fated student movement.
A tired looking Zhao Ziyang coming to the Square at dusk to urge students to clear off; the tent cities that housed the thousands of students who streamed into Beijing from around the country to join the movement; the burning cars and bloodied citizens who fell to the People’s Liberation Army as they cleared the Square on the evening of June 3 and 4—these are some of the other images that come to mind when thinking of those events twenty years ago. Together they stand as a permanent exhibit of the unpredictable protest which escalated that spring.
The international community was stunned by the events of June 4, 1989. China was a communist country, but it was not an “evil empire” like the Soviet Union. The Tiananmen crackdown forced the United States, along with its European allies, to place human rights high on its foreign policy agenda with China, something it had been able to avoid throughout the 1980s. After Tiananmen it was clear that we could not have a relationship with China that did not raise questions about the crackdown and the way the government and the Communist Party violated international human rights norms in suppressing and prosecuting the participants.
Twenty years later the United States is still operating with a human rights policy forged in the Tiananmen crucible. The anniversary of the crackdown has led many Chinese activists and specialists to examine the fate of China’s democracy movement and debate prospects for future political reform. Equally valuable at this time of reflection is to ask whether America’s human rights policy toward China has worked and how it might need to be reconsidered given the developments of the last twenty years.
Throughout the 1990s, America’s human rights policy toward China focused on pressuring the Chinese government to release political prisoners. The pattern of public pressure and public release is now a familiar one. Shortly before a major diplomatic visit or event, China would yield to demands to release a prisoner, thereby removing a thorny issue from the list of talking points and creating goodwill for subsequent talks. Thus, in 1993, Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng, imprisoned in 1979 for penning an opposition essay during a brief period of political openness, was released from prison just prior to the International Olympic Committee’s visit to Beijing as part of its review of Beijing’s bid for the 2000 games. (He was rearrested and in 1997 exiled to the United States.)1 Similarly, Tiananmen student leader Wang Dan was released from prison in 1998 shortly before President Bill Clinton traveled to China for the first post-Tiananmen presidential visit to China. Over the years, dozens of dissidents and political prisoners have been released as a result of public pressure and private negotiations between the United States, China, and other governments. The high-profile ones, such as Wei and Wang in the 1990s and more recently a string of Tibetan dissidents, were exiled to the United States. Others were given reduced sentences or released on medical parole and allowed to remain in China, where they continue to be watched very closely by authorities.
By the mid to late 1990s, the human rights talks with China expanded beyond the issues raised by Tiananmen to address a longer laundry list of human rights concerns, including workers’ rights, freedom of expression, religious persecution, criminal justice reforms, implementation of China’s one-child policy and more. In the late 1990s, the United States and China began to hold formal but irregular “Dialogues” on human rights aimed at covering the panoply of concerns. But prisoner releases remained at the core of these dialogues. They were considered “the currency of the realm” for evaluating the impact of America’s efforts to seek improvements on human rights in China.
In the 2000s it became customary for the United States and other governments to submit prisoner lists (sometimes numbering in the hundreds) to the Chinese government, requesting information about the status of suspected political prisoners. During the Bush administration, Ambassador Clark T. Randt made a point of repeatedly highlighting a “top-ten” list of prisoners that the United States wanted to see released. When one of the “top-ten” was released, a new name would be added to the list. Sadly, there was never a shortage of political prisoners to take the place of the person who had been freed.
At the decade’s end, however, even with hundreds of prisoners still serving sentences in violation of their human rights, the era of “prisoner diplomacy” with China has waned. No clearer sign of that came than in 2008, when China hosted the summer Olympic Games. Four months before the Games’ start, the Chinese government unleashed a massive crackdown in Tibet following clashes there between Buddhist monks and police. Leading up to the Games there were hundreds of articles and panel discussions highlighting this incident and China’s overall poor human rights record. And, yet, the United States and other governments made no public requests for prisoner releases and the Chinese government freed no one. A once de rigueur piece of human rights theater had not taken place and, more surprisingly, no one seemed to object.
Under the current administration, the appetite for a prisoner-based human rights policy has weakened. When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton debuted on the diplomatic stage in China in February 2009, she made a point of elevating cooperation with China on pressing transnational problems over human rights issues. In a moment of candor that was highly criticized, Secretary Clinton dismissed the importance of raising human rights with her Chinese counterparts, saying, “We know what they are going to say because I've had those kinds of conversations for more than a decade with Chinese leaders.”
The Secretary’s comments were demoralizing for activists inside and outside of China. And while her comments were offensive to some, they nevertheless captured an understandable weariness surrounding America’s human rights policy toward China that had been building for years. After two decades of pushing prisoner cases and talking with the Chinese government about human rights concerns, it is hard to point to measurable results from the talks beyond a list of released prisoners. And yet, China has changed so much in the past twenty years. Secretary Clinton was not wrong to be weary of bilateral dialogues on human rights; but it would be wrong if the United States were to back off its support of human rights and political reform in China.
The human rights policy that had been forged in the wake of Tiananmen assumed that the Chinese government was the appropriate partner for discussing human rights and the need for reform. In the 1990s, when the dialogues began, this was a logical assumption. With the exception of a few dissidents, Chinese citizens were not broadly engaged in demanding better governance, less corruption, or a fair legal system. Whatever legal or governance changes were taking place were government driven (and primarily motivated by a desire to reassure investors that China was a safe bet). But over the last two decades the change agents in China have shifted. The Chinese Communist Party, as many analysts have noted, is committed to retaining its power by maintaining authoritarian control. They have pulled back on important governance reforms in recent years, such as introducing competitive elections at the local level, and attempted to rein in lawyers and other activists who want to push the judiciary to uphold its own laws and the government to be more accountable and transparent. But there is still pressure for reform in China. It is coming not from the government, but rather from the Chinese people . America’s human rights policy toward China should adapt accordingly.
In the 1990s, when the United States and other countries began their human rights dialogues with China, there were virtually no grassroots civil society organizations. If a foreign government wanted to discuss women’s rights, environmental awareness, criminal law concerns, or labor concerns, the default counterparts across the table were the All China Women’s Federation, the State Environmental Protection Administration, the Ministry of Justice or the All China Federation of Trade Unions, respectively. Occasionally there were academic experts on these topics who proved valuable interlocutors, but community-based organizations were nonexistent. Private lawyers were few in number and fewer were the ones inclined to take up rights-based cases. There were no bloggers exposing local abuse of power. And there were few activists able to advocate for a cause.
Today that has changed. China has a small but capable NGO movement focused on a range of local, national, and even international concerns, from public health to environmental awareness to discrimination against migrants and minorities. The rights consciousness movement has energized lawyers and citizens to take up sensitive legal cases and push the legal system to abide by Chinese law and international norms. Every day, bloggers and netizens use the Internet to expose corruption and highlight rights violations. And even in the area of political reform, there are brave Chinese citizens who are vying to get nominated as independent candidates for local people’s congresses. American policy toward China has not ignored these developments, but it has not made a priority of them either.
Under President Bush, the United States began a program to support democracy, human rights, and the rule of law in China by quietly providing grants to NGOs, universities, and others who partnered with reform-minded organizations in China on specific projects. This program has operated with little fanfare in the belief that more and better work could be done without a spotlight. The program provided approximately $100 million from 2002-2008 and supported some of the most cutting-edge reform issues in China, such as access to justice, civil society building, and expanding public participation in governance. By comparison, the State Department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative has contributed five times the amount to support civil society and development in that region.
What should a post-Tiananmen policy look like? First, it should not forget Tiananmen’s legacy of raising the individual cases of political prisoners. As former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Lorne Craner would say when asked why the United States should continue to raise such cases, “Human rights are first and foremost about human beings.” The State Department has established mechanisms for raising these cases and it should keep them intact. But beyond individual case work, the United States should find ways to speak directly with Chinese reformers and civil society organizations about their strategies for improving governance, protecting rights, and increasing popular participation in government. It should give them a seat at the table on relevant issues from public health to the environment to labor concerns to governance and legal reform. It should meet regularly and publicly with NGOs both in China and here in the United States. Washington should no longer put a priority on human rights dialogues with the Chinese government (what one well-informed human rights activist has called “dialogues of the deaf”) but rather speak directly with Chinese civil society instead. At a minimum, such dialogues will suggest that the Chinese government should be listening to its own citizens groups.
In 1989, China stood on the precipice of history. After the Tiananmen crackdown it was unclear whether economic liberalization would continue and what the future of China might look like. It turned out to be another chapter in the story of China’s economic development, not its political reform. It would be comforting to think that China over the next twenty years will liberalize, but it is naive to assume that such changes are inevitable. China’s civil society groups offer tremendous hope for the protection of human rights in China and the Obama administration, perhaps above all others, should grow comfortable investing in this hope.
You may forward this email as you like provided that you send it in its entirety, attribute it to the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and include our web address (www.fpri.org). If you post it on a mailing list, please contact FPRI with the name, location, purpose, and number of recipients of the mailing list.
If you receive this as a forward and would like to be placed directly on our mailing lists, send email to FPRI@fpri.org. Include your name, address, and affiliation. For further information, contact Eli Gilman at (215) 732-3774 ext. 255.
On November 15th at the FPRI annual dinner Fouad Ajami was presented with the Seventh Annual Benjamin Franklin Public Service Award. The event was attended by over 360 people.
Dr. John M. Templeton, Jr. was dinner chairman.
Special Partner Event
Al Qaeda and Jihadi Movements After Bin Laden
Special Partner Event
The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict between America and Al Qaeda