(CNN) -- "No nation has more opportunity to advance the cause of democracy," said then-Sen. John Kerry at his recent confirmation hearing to become U.S. secretary of state. "And no nation is as committed to the cause of human rights as we are." This weekend, Kerry will have arguably his best opportunity to demonstrate that commitment to rights in an environment in which tough, effective and audible American diplomacy is needed: China.
Chinese officials will no doubt have pressed hard to ensure that all discussions of human rights remain behind closed doors, a strategy Beijing employed during then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's and President Obama's first visits to China. While U.S. officials have in some circumstances delivered tough human rights messages to Beijing, all too often, senior U.S. officials' concerns about human rights remain inaudible to those who most need to hear them: activists and ordinary people struggling every day to protect their rights in China.
China's brand new leadership headed by President Xi Jinping has offered up mildly pro-reform rhetoric on matters such as the arbitrary detention known as re-education through labor, the one-child policy and the household registration system, which discriminates against rural citizens.
Over the past decade, as China's economy grew to become the world's second largest and its international heft increased dramatically, the government made no comparable strides with respect to human rights protections. Basic freedoms including free expression and association remain elusive. There is no independent judiciary, and no week goes by without human rights activists, dissidents or whistleblowers being detained or jailed. There are no independent labor unions.
No foreign leader bothered to temper his or her congratulatory message to the new Chinese leadership with a suggestion that the government transition process should have been driven by popular participation, not designation by the Communist Party.
Some of the government's most recent low-lights include the persecution of not just peaceful government critics but also their children and extended families. Not only does the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo remain in jail, his wife, Liu Xia, remains under utterly baseless house arrest in Bejiing; meanwhile, several relatives of Chen Guangcheng, the blind legal activist who sought refuge from persecution in the United States in 2012, continue to endure trumped-up legal charges and harassment in Shandong province.
Rather than engage in an urgent discussion about what is driving Tibetans to self-immolate in protest at Chinese policies, authorities are prosecuting, arresting and jailing an ever growing number of Tibetans. To demonstrate that China was powerful enough to hunt its enemies beyond its borders, national television broadcast live from their cell the last hours of four Burmese alleged to have run drugs and killed Chinese sailors; the final frames showed the men being put into trucks that would take them to the execution grounds.
Yet a growing number of people inside China are courageously challenging these and other abuses, including land seizures, forced evictions and abuses of power by corrupt cadres. Based on law enforcement reports, official and scholarly statistics estimate that there are 250-500 protests each day, with anywhere from 10 to tens of thousands of participants.
An informal but dedicated network of activists monitors and documents human rights cases under the banner of a country-wide "weiquan" (rights defense) movement. These activists face a host of repressive state measures. All these people—regardless of whether they are organized into groups, whether they identify themselves as activists, and often despite the fact that their work is peaceful and theoretically protected under Chinese law—face the risk of harsh reprisals.
Human rights in China continue to be treated by visiting government leaders as a somehow uniquely neuralgic topic, largely because the Chinese government and constituencies in other countries perceive them to be so. But this view misses a key connection: the United States and others are unlikely to see progress on the broad diplomatic, economic and security issues in their bilateral relations unless the Chinese government implements reforms to allow a free flow of information, an independent judicial system and the ability of people in China to speak their minds freely.
Human rights concerns aren't a boutique issue, and securing progress on rights will deliver progress on a host of other issues.
If Kerry's stated commitments on democracy and human rights promotion are to be meaningful, he needs to point out in Beijing that the new leadership is denying political rights, not upholding them. He is obliged to speak about real human beings and the specific abuses that have been heaped upon them, not to offer up abstractions for fear of irking his hosts. And if he is to contribute to real change in China, he needs to acknowledge and express support for the extraordinary diversity of people in China today who seek to live in a society governed by law, not officials who are above it.
Kerry's official hosts may not appreciate this truth-telling approach, but a larger audience in China likely will.