Since President Trump’s inauguration, many Americans galvanized by his policies on such issues as immigration, women’s rights and freedom of information have engaged in vociferous activism. They have held peaceful demonstrations, written critical posts on the Internet and phoned their legislators. Some have even filed lawsuits and contemplated their own forays into electoral politics.
A world away, people across China also have strong views about domestic and international politics, but they have no such opportunities. That’s because Chinese President Xi Jinping — who arrives this week at Mar-a-Lago, Fla., for his first meeting with President Trump — has succeeded in crushing virtually all avenues for public debate.
Xi has overseen China’s worst rights rollback since the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. Peaceful protesters, from feminists raising awareness about sexual harassment to the Tiananmen Mothers, have been met with detention and house arrest. When some Communist Party members wrote to Chinese leaders criticizing their authoritarian tendencies and urging that they resign, authorities responded by detaining 20 people thought to have been involved. Human rights lawyers taking politically sensitive cases to court have not only been blocked from doing so — they’ve also disappeared and been tortured. People campaigning independently, even on topics the authorities say they support, such as anti-corruption or inter-ethnic dialogue, now find themselves rewarded with life sentences.
Four decades into its “reform era,” China is exponentially more powerful, yet its leaders continue to deny people the right to start a political party or independent newspaper, or even back the government's own position on corruption without fear of retribution.
Equally important, human rights abuses by Chinese authorities increasingly affect people all over the world. Chinese authorities have taken to detaining citizens of other countries — inside and outside China — such as Taiwanese activist Lee Ming Cheh, Swedish bookseller Gui Minhai and American businesspeople Sandy Phan-Gillis and James Wang, and denying their embassies access to them.
China is not short of talented, critical investigative journalists, but they are forbidden from publishing articles about domestic problems, some with international consequences and audiences, such as public health scares, food or product safety concerns and even accurate air quality statistics. The government has recently adopted laws and regulations that enable data collection and counterterrorism exercises outside China.
Even business groups such as the American Chamber of Commerce now regularly identify China’s politicized judicial system as a key obstacle to leveling the playing field on trade and innovation.
Despite talking tough on contentious questions such as Taiwan, trade and the South China Sea, when it comes to human rights, Trump administration officials have seemed unwilling to confront their Chinese counterparts. On his first trip to Beijing as secretary of State, Rex Tillerson said human rights are "embedded in everything we do," but there was no concrete evidence that they were reflected in anything he did or said. The administration’s unwillingness to sign a letter to Beijing with 11 other countries condemning the torture of Chinese human rights lawyers suggests future timidity rather than toughness. And the similarity of views between U.S. and Chinese officials on human rights touchstones such as treatment of Muslims and press freedom is worrying.
Amid the uncertainty in American and European politics, brutal conflicts in the Middle East and chaos in weak states, China’s leaders pitch their governance model as an attractive alternative. To the extent Beijing succeeds it is because the state has taken utmost care in controlling reports about endemic inequalities, injustices and corruption.
No one should be fooled by President Xi’s hollow endorsement of political reform, human rights and international cooperation in Beijing, Davos or the United Nations General Assembly. The U.S. retreat from human rights has already elevated the international credibility of Xi and his “China model” of might over rights, and it could strengthen his hand in crushing dissent during a critical leadership transition in China.
It’s a safe bet that Xi will be pleased to leave human rights off the Mar-a-Lago agenda. Whether Trump will recognize that a frank discussion of human rights concerns is beneficial both for people across China and for U.S. interests is less clear. One thing is certain: If rights in China get ignored, there won’t be any demonstrations in Beijing or editorials in China’s press expressing outrage and demanding reform — an outcome bad for both countries.