No issue in Sino-American relations invokes as much passion as human rights. At stake, however, are much more than moral concerns and hurt national feelings. To many Americans, the Chinese government is ultimately untrustworthy on all issues because it is undemocratic. To the Chinese government, U.S. human rights pressure seems designed to compromise its legitimacy, thereby casting an altogether different light on what might otherwise be “normal” disputes in international relations over such issues as trade, arms sales, and intellectual property rights.
Washington’s diplomatic pressure has produced little progress on human rights in China, and, indeed, human rights advocacy rarely yields immediate results whenever target governments, especially major powers such as China, put up strong resistance. But Americans’ lack of understanding about political and social developments in China has also aggravated the situation and led to misjudgments about timing and degrees of pressure. What has been missing in the public debate in the United States is the Chinese voice. Western attention has focused mainly on Beijing’s declared policies and Chinese dissidents’ opinions. Hence, U.S. policy prescriptions and media commentaries are too often based on the simplistic view of a repressive Communist government ruthlessly frustrating a society of aspiring democrats, as represented by courageous human rights fighters like Wei Jingsheng. But does anyone know what China’s “silent majority” thinks? The evidence suggests that the Chinese majority is in fact quite vocal in its own circles, expressing strong opinions about China and US. policy toward it.