April 20, 2006

U.S.-China summit meetings traditionally include discussion of Beijing's human rights practices. When President Hu Jintao of China visits the White House on Thursday, the Bush administration's own problematic record will make the conversation more awkward than usual, but the topic undoubtedly will, and should, come up. This time, however, the focus should not be limited to China's repression at home. President George W. Bush should also raise China's troubling indifference to human rights abroad.

When it comes to human rights, China's foreign policy is deliberately agnostic. As Hu puts it, China operates "without any political strings." Inspired by how it would like to be treated by others, Beijing adheres to a policy of "noninterference in internal affairs," trading, investing and providing aid without regard to whether its partner is a democratic visionary or a tyrant.

Yet the effect is anything but neutral. When Western governments try to use economic pressure to secure human rights improvements, China's no-strings rule gives dictators the means to resist. Chinese investment and aid can still sometimes help fight poverty, and it is not as if Western governments always have human rights foremost in mind. But as China's quest for new markets and natural resources spreads around the world, its de facto support for repression has become increasingly common.

The people of Darfur have paid perhaps the steepest price for this policy of indifference. China's massive investment in Sudanese oil fields has helped Khartoum finance militia in Darfur that have murdered tens of thousands of people and displaced more than two million. Some of these funds were used to purchase Chinese arms for Darfur. Western oil companies, like Canada's Talisman, have withdrawn from Sudan, but China, the largest investor, remains.

To make matters worse, Beijing has prevented the United Nations Security Council from imposing sanctions of any strength on Khartoum. Emboldened, the Sudanese government is resisting pressure to accept a UN peacekeeping force in Darfur.

In Angola, China's policy has hampered efforts to halt massive corruption. From 1997 to 2002, $4 billion disappeared from Angola's public coffers - the equivalent of the amount spent on social programs in that period. The International Monetary Fund insisted on greater transparency as a condition for lending, but China offered billions in loans without these conditions.

As President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe uses mass evictions to attack 700,000 of his perceived political opponents, Western governments have sought to isolate him. China, by contrast, remains a major source of investment and military hardware.

China's human rights agnosticism is not limited to Africa. Last May, less than two weeks after Uzbekistan's government massacred hundreds of protesters in Andijon, China welcomed President Islam Karimov to Beijing for a state visit, complete with a 21- gun salute. China then announced a $600 million oil deal with Uzbekistan.

Similarly, China is the most generous supporter of the military junta in Myanmar and the autocratic government of Hun Sen in Cambodia. As for Nepal, most governments condemned the king's 2005 coup and cut military assistance, but China maintained warm relations and kept military aid flowing.

Troublesome as this record is, China is sometimes willing to accommodate Western concerns if they are firmly expressed. China did not prevent the UN Security Council from granting the International Criminal Court jurisdiction over the crimes against humanity committed in Darfur. Beijing also dropped its objections to a tribunal in Cambodia for its one-time ally, the Khmer Rouge.

But convincing China to move beyond these rare exceptions requires making it pay a price for its policy of indifference to repression. China's ruling Communist Party claims an ideology of looking after the little guy. But Beijing's uncritical support for tyrants has been a disaster for the ordinary people of those countries. If China, in effect, is going to quench its thirst for oil with the blood of Darfuris, if it is going to invest in governments like Angola's that squander its people's funds for education and health care, its disgraceful conduct should be highlighted.

So when Bush brings up human rights with Hu, the conversation should not stop at China's borders. Bush should speak not only for the people of China but also for the citizens of China's business partners. He should encourage Hu to stand with the victims of official violence and corruption, not with the governments that repress them.

Kenneth Roth is the executive director of Human Rights Watch.