Skip to main content

Letter to US Secretary of State John Kerry on his Forthcoming Trip to China


Dear Secretary Kerry,

We write on the occasion of your forthcoming trip to China, your first as secretary of state.

That the Chinese government has failed to make significant progress on basic human rights protections should be of deep concern to the United States. China’s weak institutions, opaque government, and stranglehold on information make it at best an unpredictable partner, yet one that will continue to have considerable influence on the international system for the foreseeable future. It is manifestly in the interests of the US to visibly align itself with those inside China pressing for reform and human rights protections. We recall agreement with senior US officials that the United States is unlikely to achieve a host of diplomatic, economic, or strategic goals with China absent an independent legal system, the free flow of information, and the right of people to peacefully express their views. We urge that you pursue confident, prominent human rights diplomacy with the Chinese government, with activists inside China, and across the ever-broadening spectrum of American interests with respect to China.

The United States has recently distinguished itself in a number of ways with respect to defending human rights in China. It assisted the departure of Chen Guangcheng and his family from China, deployed Ambassador Locke to express concerns about Tibet by visiting a monastery in Sichuan, and has on some occasions, such as the January 2011 inaugural Holbrooke lecture, spoken forcefully about the many and serious human rights abuses in China.

Yet these efforts are not commensurate with the scope and scale of the problem, nor do they reflect the kind of coordinated, consistent approach the US can muster. The past decade in China has entailed economic growth, urbanization, and China’s rise as a global power, but little progress on human rights. The government rolled back protections on the administration of justice, presided over a significant rise in social unrest, including the largest inter-ethnic incidents in decades in Tibet and Xinjiang, and expanded the power of the security apparatus. The government remains an authoritarian one-party system that places arbitrary curbs on freedom of expression, association, religion, prohibits independent labor unions and human rights organizations, and maintains party control over all judicial institutions.

More robust, consistent, unapologetic diplomacy can be deployed to address the fundamental challenge presented by the Chinese government’s intransigence on human rights. The US has promised a “whole of government” approach to human rights, yet it is hard to find evidence that agencies other than the State Department are systematically raising the issue or doing so in a coordinated fashion. The majority of senior American officials visiting China consistently fail to raise rights issues in a manner audible to those who most need to hear that concern: activists in China. By the end of the previous administration, State Department officials had stopped providing information about the substance of the already-flawed bilateral human rights dialogue. These steps not only undermine the US’ advocacy on human rights, but also reinforce Beijing’s ability to dismiss American human rights promotion as weak and inconsistent.

As you prepare for your forthcoming trip to China, we urge that you:

  •   Speak to an audience in China beyond the government.

The degree of contestation in China today is extraordinary, and has increased even since the beginning of the first Obama administration. Some of this takes the form of countless public protests across the country; other methods include publishing essays or poems in journals or on-line. Many of those efforts are pushing for the same priorities the US articulates, particularly the rule of law and the freedom of expression, and many of those who participate also do so knowing they take risks. They are also increasingly aware of the role that other governments play in pressuring Beijing.

Yet some American officials continue to use phrases such as “the US and China don’t see eye-to-eye on human rights.” Such a formulation is problematic, as it conflates the Chinese government with the people of China, and omits the significant number of people in China with whom the US agrees about human rights. In doing so, the US passes up key opportunities to express solidarity and support, as it does in so many other places. Similarly, American rhetoric and gestures to reassure the Chinese government of the US’ intentions leads some officials to speak and act without nuance, in ways at odds with a human rights message. How should Tibetans or Uighurs enduring Chinese government restrictions on their rights weigh the US’ stated commitment to human rights promotion against its persistent welcoming of “China’s rise,” a phrase that appears to endorse the Chinese government’s rise? How should those in China arguing for democracy perceive the absence of US criticism on the recent leadership transition in China, an exercise premised on massive denial of political rights, when it regularly disparages similarly flawed efforts in other countries?

If the United States is to be perceived as an honest and consistent defender of human rights by people in China, it is essential to acknowledge their realities and struggles—in other words, welcome their rise, not just the rise of the party-state. The US must clarify and expand on the idea that the US and vast numbers of people in China do indeed see eye-to-eye on the need for human rights protections, the rule of law, and justice, even if the Chinese government does not. It is of course important to frame remarks in a way that reiterate the depths and breath of US interests, but also to calibrate them in a way that will resonate with those in China who are taking large and small risks every day to push for the changes the US also says it wants.

  •   Publicly enumerate human rights abuses and remember defenders.

Senior Chinese officials have a long history of discouraging foreign officials from making public reference to human rights abuses or defenders; Chinese officials insist that if such discussions happen at all they take place behind closed doors. Yet that kind of “private” diplomacy allows the Chinese government to deny such discussions—and, indeed, such abuses— took place. Such advocacy is also invisible to those who most need to hear it: the public and defenders in both countries. To be credible with activists in China, and effective in pressing the Chinese government, the US must raise individuals’ cases and the kinds of abuses they face publicly.

We urge that you use as a benchmark for a public speech in Beijing the human rights portion of former Secretary Clinton’s January 2011 Holbrooke lecture, which named individual human rights defenders and a slew of persistent abuses, ranging from enforced disappearances to Internet censorship. We urge that you prioritize these cases and issues, which represent some of the most serious human rights violations:

  • Imprisonment of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo and the house arrest of his wife Liu Xia
  • Imprisonment of Chinese human rights attorney Gao Zhisheng
  • Imprisonment of Uyghur Journalist Gheyret Niyaz
  • Disappearance of Mongolian human rights activist and writer Hada
  • Arbitrary detention, freedom of expression, party control over legal institutions, an expanding and unaccountable domestic security apparatus, domestic violence, and the need to abolish the discriminatory hukou, or household registration, system.
  •   Explicitly urge the Chinese government to resume negotiations with the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan leaders.

We note with appreciation your long-standing interest in Tibet. As the crisis of self-immolations in the region has continued since February 2009, we have documented a host of abusive responses from central and local authorities, including an unprecedented surge in spending on security in the region, the expansion of a grassroots-level surveillance apparatus, the imposition of government officials in monasteries, the denial of state benefits for family members of those who have self-immolated, and efforts to prosecute as “incitement” mere discussions about immolations.

Despite the increasing death toll, there is still no evidence to suggest willingness on the part of Chinese authorities to address the grievances articulated either by those who have self-immolated or more broadly by Tibetans, including those that represent basic human rights violations: pervasive restrictions on the freedom of religion, little or no ability to challenge large-scale resettlement programs fundamentally reshaping Tibetans’ socioeconomic reality, or even a failure to uphold the autonomy law. We believe that absent significant international pressure the Chinese government will continue to refuse to reengage with Tibetan representatives; we therefore urge that you identify this as a matter of considerable concern for the United States.

We look forward to discussing these and other issues with you.


Sophie Richardson

China Director


Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country