"Don't they know they need us?" So wrote a Chinese human-rights activist friend of mine, expressing frustration at the Obama administration. Since taking office, President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton-both of whom mustered some criticism of China's rights record while they were candidates-have said that human rights shouldn't "interfere" with other issues in the U.S.-China relationship, knuckled preemptively under Chinese pressure not to meet the Dalai Lama, and generally behaved as if the United States has no power in the bilateral relationship.
The Obama team seems to think that such an approach will elicit greater cooperation from China. This is a miscalculation that demoralizes China's small but vibrant human-rights community and gives the government leeway to crack down harder. As President Obama prepares for his first trip to China later this month, he needs to rethink his approach.
Beijing is clearly moving backward on human rights. Since Mr. Obama took office, the Chinese government has disbarred human-rights lawyers, rolled back key legal reforms, imprisoned critics and further tightened Internet and press censorship. It has tried to unilaterally impose new filtering software on all computers sold in China-ostensibly to block pornography but probably to control political discourse too. It has executed Tibetans suspected of taking part in March 2008 protests, despite concerns about due process, and "disappeared" dozens of Uighur men and boys in the wake of the July protests in Xinjiang.
The human-rights deterioration in China directly affects the U.S. and other Chinese trading partners. For example, the domestic press was prepared to write about a widespread case of tainted milk in June last year, but due to the ban on bad news during the Beijing Olympics, the story wasn't published until September. By that point, tens of thousands of children, including some outside China, were sickened, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a general alert against processed foods from China. This had echoes of the SARS outbreak, which Beijing tried to handle by stifling all news of it. While the profusion of domestic Chinese media outlets in recent years implies a trend toward greater openness, the reality is that the government can and does continue to restrict expression, regardless of the consequences.
Given China's importance to efforts to fight climate change, the Obama administration has expressed unprecedented interest in China's environmental practices. But hopes for real environmental change will go unfulfilled if the Chinese government does not provide more transparent information about pollution and environmental degradation, and does not improve its tolerance of whistleblowers and environmental activists. It is precisely these people who should be sought out by U.S. government, because they would be instrumental in actually enforcing any agreement on the ground.
The crackdown has an impact on businesses operating in China, too. Executives of Australian mining giant Rio Tinto were jailed in July on grounds of violating state secrets laws and are still behind bars. While the charges were downgraded in August to "industrial espionage," the fact that they were initially accused and held for a month under the state secrets law still is worrying. The contents of the state-secrets law are classified, making it impossible to know how to avoid violating it, especially in a commercial context. A "state-secrets" charge cannot be challenged in open court-and can be applied retroactively.
Nor is this the only threat to foreign businesses posed by China's legal system. Jude Shao, an American businessman arrested in China in 1998 on charges of bribery and tax evasion, was unable to speak to a lawyer until his trial commenced more than two years after his arrest. After a trial without due process, he was sentenced to 16 years in prison, 10 of which he served before being released on parole. It is manifestly in the interest of the global business community to press for systemic legal reform.
Ironically, the most vigorous-and effective-defense of human rights to date from the Obama administration emanated not from the White House or the State Department, but from the U.S. Trade Representative and the Department of Commerce. When the Chinese government announced in June its intention to install Internet filtering software on all personal computers, these two agencies publicly objected not just on pragmatic policy grounds that to do so would be incompatible with World Trade Organization rules, but also that it would threaten "freedom of expression, and the free flow of information."
These incidents demonstrate that basic, universal human rights-such as the right to freedom of speech and assembly-are inextricably linked to trade and security issues. It is profoundly shortsighted not to try to make progress on both. Without the right to speak one's mind peacefully in public, and without the right to seek redress through a legal system that considers all who come before it equal, the potential for serious unrest remains high. The state-run press has quickly mobilized sometimes virulent and violent anti-American sentiment, clearly illustrating the relationship between the uncensored flow of information and the full spectrum of U.S.-China relations.
As President Obama himself told the United Nations General Assembly in September, democracy and human rights are not "afterthoughts," but are instead "essential to achieving" America's core economic and security goals. The president needs to explain publicly that the protection and promotion of human rights in China is not a millstone in the larger bilateral relationship, but part of the fundamental premise. Without it, all major goals in U.S.-China relations will remain elusive.
Sophie Richardson is Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.