A naturalized American citizen, Wu received asylum in the United States in 1985 and founded the Laoghai Research Foundation (laoghai is the Chinese word for gulag). When Wu returned to China in 1995 to do research for his group, Chinese authorities held him for 66 days before sending him back to America. “If [the US] is a country very concerned about democracy, human rights, our leaders would put this on the table all the time,” says Wu, who scoffs at the idea that “money can change the authoritarian status of a repressive government.” Economic ties between the countries won’t help democratize China, he contends: “The engagement policy is only engaged with money.”
“With human rights, they say China is different,” Wu says of that policy’s supporters, noting that some of them ironically are the same people who venerated Ronald Reagan for his anti-communism. (For proof of the right’s changed tune, look no further than a May 2000 paper from the conservative Heritage Foundation, titled “How Trade with China Benefits Americans.” The report notes that Chinese trade “increase[s] people-to-people contact, help[s] to limit government control of people in China, and ... empower[s] the Chinese people to take charge of their own destinies.” Better ask the People’s Liberation Army about that.) If increased investment rather than direct confrontation leads to democracy, asks Wu, “why did Ronald Reagan call the Soviet Union the Evil Empire? Why did he say ‘tear this wall down’?” President John F. Kennedy also challenged the Soviets in Berlin, Wu points out; he didn’t try to strike business deals with them.
Wu says his research suggests that American trade actually contributes to China’s aggressiveness. The funds that China gleans doing business with US corporate interests — including Lockheed, which is helping China develop satellite rocket technology — end up financing missile and weapons development. Wu traveled to the Russian Pacific port of Vladivostok to examine former Soviet warships the Russian Navy can no longer afford to support. The cash-rich PRC scooped them up. As for business advocates’ contention that economic pressure can’t change China’s behavior, Wu points out that when American corporations were concerned about copyright infringement and convinced the US government to sanction China, Beijing quickly backed down.
As cable-news talking heads blather on about Bush’s performance in handling the spy-plane crisis, we should re-evaluate the course America has taken since Tiananmen. For starters, we might want to consider some of the things that worked in the Cold War. During the early 1970s, the labor movement, neoconservatives, and human-rights advocates all united to advocate putting more pressure on the Soviet Union. Senator Henry Jackson, a Democrat from Washington, sponsored one particularly controversial measure. Jackson’s bill tied the Soviet Union’s treatment of refuseniks (Soviet citizens, usually Jewish, denied permission to emigrate) to the sale of American grain. The farm and business lobbies vehemently opposed this legislation. Eventually it passed, and Jackson-Vanik, as it came to be known, crystallized the moral element of America’s policy toward the USSR. This pressure eventually convinced the Soviets to free Anatoly Sharansky, a prisoner of conscience whose televised release from prison became a symbol of the struggle for freedom.
By focusing on human rights, highlighting the work of Harry Wu and others, and tying business deals to democratic development, the US can address some of the root causes of its conflict with China — and avoid the trap of simply militarizing the problem. Toward this end, says the AFL-CIO’s Lee, human-rights activists will begin raising shareholder resolutions that curtail corporate work in China. Labor sources say corporations such as Wal-Mart and Nike may face such actions.
The US House of Representatives took a step in the right direction last week when it passed Resolution 56 by a vote of 406 to six. The resolution, which urged the United Nations Human Rights Commission to criticize China’s human-rights record, mentioned China’s treatment of religious cults, closure of places of worship, repression of political dissidents, and other outrages — but, interestingly, did not note its treatment of workers. Even so, the resolution “signaled a willingness” on Congress’s part to take a somewhat tougher stance toward China, says Matt Gobush, a spokesman for Representative Tom Lantos (D-California), who sponsored the measure. (Lantos, a Hungarian Jew who fought against the Nazis in World War II, founded the Human Rights Caucus on Capitol Hill.) Lantos is preparing a campaign to oppose China’s bid for the 2008 Olympics. “We believe that’s a real litmus test on human rights,” says Gobush. “The Chinese do not deserve the Olympics.” Lantos, he adds, will not allow Americans to forget the human-rights aspect of our dealings with China. “Just as we did during the Cold War and our struggle with the Soviet Union,” Gobush says, “we will let those who are being persecuted know that here in the United States they have support.”
If anything good comes out of the recent crisis, it will be a shift in American popular opinion that leads Congress and the administration to re-examine our relationship with China. The starting point lies with the American-based corporations so interested in doing business with Beijing. As Waldron says, “The business community is quite happy to have a place where not only are wages quite low, but if there’s any business about unions, [the authorities] can go crack heads.” But eventually “Nike and Reebok will learn that they’ll pay some price from doing business over there,” says Kernaghan of the NLC, which waged the public anti-sweatshop campaign that almost put Kathie Lee Gifford out of business several years ago.
Perhaps a groundswell will rise from the universities, where the civil-rights and anti-war movements coalesced in the 1960s and the anti-apartheid movement took hold in the 1980s. But so far things don’t look promising. The Princeton student newspaper, the Daily Princetonian, reported on the plight of Li Shaomin, a Chinese-American alumnus of the university’s graduate school who has been arrested by the Chinese police. When asked whether the university would help try to free Li, a spokeswoman for Princeton replied that the school did not have “an institutional role to play.” In the absence of a campus movement, the next stage in US-China relations may hinge on whether labor activists and public pressure can force American businesses and other institutions interested in the PRC to factor human rights into their business.
Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]phx.com.