China: Economic Growth Isn’t Expanding Freedoms

August 24, 2010 - 4:30 AM
Economic success aside, the human rights situation in China is not improving. But the Obama administration's approach to China thus far has been to play down the violations. That should change.
While enjoying the final few weeks of summer, many Americans may have missed the news that China just passed Japan. Its economy now ranks second in the world, trailing only our own.
 
Great news for Beijing, but it sparks a less welcome question: Economic success aside, is the human rights situation in China improving? The sad answer: Not at all.
 
In 2009, “security forces reportedly committed arbitrary or unlawful killings,” says one comprehensive report. “Kidnapping and buying and selling children for adoption increased over the past several years, particularly in poor rural areas.” Further, “Female infanticide, sex-selective abortions, and the abandonment and neglect of baby girls remained problems due to the traditional preference for sons and the coercive birth limitation policy.”
 
These statements weren’t penned by human rights groups, or by “China-skeptics” at conservative organizations like The Heritage Foundation. They’re from an annual detailed report written by the U.S. State Department, which usually goes out of its way to be diplomatic in its criticism of foreign governments.  
 
For more than three decades now, our State Department has compiled what it calls “the most comprehensive record available of the condition of human rights around the world.” The result is the annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, an authoritative accounting of human rights.
 
Experts at The Heritage Foundation reviewed these State Department reports and found that, while China is making vast economic progress, it isn’t moving forward on human rights.
 
“The trend line of the PRC’s respect for internationally recognized human rights has remained generally flat since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre—not improving, and occasionally worsening,” observes Walter Lohman, head of Heritage’s Asian Studies Center.
 
The Obama administration’s approach to China thus far has been to play down the violations.
 
During her first trip to Asia as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton claimed there was no point pressing Chinese government officials on human rights issues. “We know what they’re going to say,” she explained to reporters. She added that economic issues mattered more to American policy. Encouraging Chinese leaders to make progress on human rights issues “can’t interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crisis.”
 
For his part, Barack Obama chose not to meet with the Dalai Lama on the Tibetan exile’s first visit to Obama’s Washington. “The president has since made amends, but the impression remains that under the right circumstances, concerns about Tibet are tradable,” Lohman notes.
 
There’s no question that economic issues are crucial. China is a major trading partner and investment destination for the U.S.  For lack of other viable alternatives, China also buys massive amounts of Treasury Bills.  Fine. The problem is not the Chinese share of our debt, but the debt itself—which is truly alarming. 
 
Still, it’s Pollyanna-ish to assume that China’s economic growth alone will inevitably lead to improvements in its human rights record. After all, we’ve been waiting decades for that to happen, and our diplomats admit there isn’t even a glimmer of hope on the horizon.
 
“The verdict is still out on whether prosperity ultimately leads to political freedom,” Lohman writes. “Nothing in the interim results has yet confirmed such a connection. And the payoff on the much better bet of economic freedom leading to political freedom has been delayed by the stalling of Chinese economic reforms short of true liberalization.”
 
It’s time for the administration to act, by making human rights once more a major concern of American diplomacy. The State Department reports offer excellent insights about human rights abuses around the world. The next step is to set human rights benchmarks and exercise diplomatic pressure to move offending regimes to meet them.
 
By holding Chinese officials to higher standards, our government can improve lives in China even more quickly than its growing economy has.