America, this is your wake-up call.
China’s 11-day refusal to release the 24 American crew members downed over the South China Sea after an overeager MiG pilot crashed into their surveillance plane suggests, if nothing else, that there’s something deeply wrong with America’s policy of nurturing China’s business interests despite the tendency of that nation’s leaders to govern their people the way Whitey Bulger ruled in South Boston. In the 12 years since the first President Bush averted his eyes when the Chinese leadership unleashed the legions of the 27th Army — jacked up on amphetamines to make them more aggressive — upon democracy activists in Tiananmen Square and their model of the Statue of Liberty, America’s political relationship with China has gone from bad to worse. (The attack is now believed to have taken as many as 2600 lives.) And now, in the wake of Congress’s decision late last year to grant China Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR), Beijing seems to view America the way a heroin dealer sees an addict — as an easy mark.
No matter how President George W. Bush spins the release of the 24 crew members, it won’t address the central issue: a country that does not respect its own people can never be trusted to respect anyone else. And no American administration has done more than pay lip service to the cause of human rights in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). After the Tiananmen massacre, former president Bush dispatched then–secretary of state James Baker to China to ease relations between the two countries — and though Bush the elder announced some mild sanctions in the direct wake of Tiananmen, he went out of his way to appease Beijing. For example, so as not to anger China, he vetoed a measure that would have extended the visas of Chinese students living in the US. Former president Bill Clinton, despite his charges during the 1992 campaign that his predecessor “coddled dictators,” unlinked the causes of trade and human rights in China and pushed to grant Beijing PNTR. As for George W. Bush, even as he has hinted at selling warships to Taiwan, he has also indicated a willingness to push for China’s entry into the World Trade Organization and to back the PRC’s favored “One China” policy. But no country that represses its own people, bars unions, and permits slave labor by prisoners can be anything other than a rival to American interests.
The central issue is the human-rights issue,” says Arthur Waldron, a professor of international relations at the University of Pennsylvania. “If China becomes a freer country, we’re not going to have as many problems with them. If you have a humane, democratic regime, they’re not going to be a problem internationally.”
But American foreign policy toward China doesn’t reflect this philosophy. Instead, policy is shaped by the debate between the business lobby, which looks longingly at China as a source of cheap labor, and the security hawks, who think Beijing should be treated as Moscow was during the Cold War. The status of China’s human-rights activists on the information food chain mirrors that held by bicycling advocates within regional transportation planning — they’re seen as well-meaning people who aren’t, uh, exactly at the center of the debate. The movement to free Tibet, for example, is pigeonholed in foreign-policy circles as a PETA-like boutique issue rather than a serious fight for freedom.
Charles Kernaghan, the director of the National Labor Committee (NLC), experienced the sidelining of these issues firsthand when his group released a report in July 2000 detailing the complicity of American corporations in Chinese human-rights violations. (Unionizers in China, Kernaghan points out, find themselves fired, locked in psychiatric hospitals, and fed mind-altering drugs; scholar Robin Monroe’s article in the February Columbia Journal of Asian Law documents China’s practice of incarcerating union activists in psychiatric prisons.) “When you’re talking about human rights and worker rights in China and established US corporations, the world is a very lonely place,” says Kernaghan, who had trouble getting his report publicized. “You’re certainly not going to find a lot of support in the foreign-policy establishment.”
The continued decline of the US labor movement doesn’t help. Last year, the AFL-CIO strongly opposed Congress’s vote to grant China PNTR. Its position comes partly, of course, from self-interest: Chinese slave workers take jobs away from American workers. But there’s another aspect to the labor movement’s interest in China. Throughout the Cold War, labor stood at the forefront of the struggle against Communism. At a time when Richard Nixon and American business interests sought détente with the Soviet Union, the AFL-CIO put the spotlight on such human-rights activists as Andrei Sakharov and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Labor reached out to the Solidarity movement in Poland and kept the pressure on. But labor’s voice has been muted amid a corporate stampede to do business in the People’s Republic, a force that wasn’t present in the earlier debates over the USSR and Poland.
The 11-day diplomatic standoff vindicates what labor activists have been saying for some time. “Policies come back to bite the people who make them when they are shallow and they ignore worker rights and human rights and women’s rights,” says Kernaghan. Adds Thea Lee, the assistant director of public policy for the AFL-CIO, “There’s no sense in which the process of trade liberalization and economic growth in China automatically fixes or addresses the workers’-rights or human-rights problems.”
Regardless of any American saber-rattling toward China, the imperative here is moral, not military. America needs to inject concern about human rights into all of its dealings with China, suggests Harry Wu, a pro-democracy activist who spent two decades as a political prisoner in China. “Tell Chinese authorities no free lunch,” he says. “We want to see political progress — human rights, not just economic development.”