U.S. Must Deliver on Promise of Making Human Rights the Guiding Principle of its China Policy

(Chinese Human Rights Defenders, January 17, 2011) In a speech before the United Nations last fall, President Obama emphasized that “part of the price of our own freedom is standing up for the freedom of others,” stating that “this belief will guide America’s leadership in this 21st century.” During Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington this week, Obama must send a strong and clear public message that his administration is committed to standing up for the freedom of Chinese citizens. The U.S. government should take this opportunity to articulate a coherent and strategic approach to the promotion of human rights in China, a central part of which should be direct and vocal support for China’s civil society.

The Chinese government rejects efforts by the international community to raise rights concerns as “imposing Western values” or “interfering in China’s internal affairs.” Yet the Chinese Constitution contains language explicitly affirming the guarantee of Chinese citizens’ human rights, and China is a state party to major human rights conventions and covenants as well as an active player in the UN Human Rights Council. The U.S. government and the international community in general must not shy away from holding the Chinese government accountable for its words and deeds. As a matter of principle and its commitment to make respect for human rights a guiding principle of foreign policy, the Obama administration should invoke international human rights norms to hold the Chinese government accountable to its constitutional and treaty obligations to protect the rights of all Chinese citizens.

Although the Chinese government appears confident and powerful internationally, its greatest fear is of its own people—the government spent $75 billion in 2009 on maintaining internal “stability,” a figure nearly on par with its spending on the military ($80.5 billion) in the same year.[1] While the Chinese government is investing huge amounts of money in tamping down dissent and silencing calls for reform, Chinese citizens are organizing and leading tens of thousands of mass protests annually— workers’ strikes over lack of labor protection, protests in ethnic minority regions such as Tibet and Xinjiang, and demonstrations organized by teachers, veterans, bank employees, victims of pollution, and others. The internet has radically changed the ability of individuals and groups to make their voices heard on these and other issues: now, as one Chinese scholar puts it, “everyone has a microphone.”[2]

Through protesting, posting information on the internet, and petitioning the government, citizens are also fighting against corruption, forced expropriation of their farmland, and demolition of their homes. Yet, as their actions become bolder, they face an increasing risk of retaliation from officials. The more support Chinese civil society is able to obtain from the international community, the more effective Chinese activists can be in their efforts to promote human rights.

In order to live up to the administration’s promise to make human rights a guiding principle of its China policy, CHRD calls on the U.S. government to:

  1. Continue to make strong and clear public statements supporting civil society, human rights and human rights defenders in China. A lack of such messages can be read by the Chinese government as a compromise in exchange for the government’s cooperation on other trade and strategic matters. Take every opportunity to speak directly to the Chinese people, and not just to the government.
  2. Continue to raise individual cases of activists at all meetings with the Chinese government. CHRD urges President Obama to continue to speak publicly and privately to demand the release of his fellow Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, the imprisoned writer and activist Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波), as well as to raise other individual cases, including that of human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng (高智晟), who has been “disappeared” after being subjected to arbitrary detention and torture. Many former prisoners of conscience and persecuted activists have reported encouragement and even reduced mistreatment after their cases were publicly or privately raised with the Chinese government.
  3. Strengthen direct contact with activists and show public support for their activities. Meet with civil society actors during official visits to China. Visit the homes of activists under illegal house arrest. The U.S. government should increase its diplomatic presence at trials of activists, and attend activities organized by members of the civil society. The U.S. government’s resources to promote human rights and rule of law in China should focus on civil society organizations and actors.
  4. Hold the Chinese government accountable to its own constitutional and legal commitments to its citizens, as well as its international obligations. Play a leadership role in multilateral institutions, such as the UN Human Rights Council, to strengthen international human rights norms and mechanisms.
  5. Facilitate internet freedom, central to organizing efforts by China’s civil society. The U.S. government can provide direct technical and financial support to efforts to undermine the Chinese government’s “Great Firewall,” to train activists on internet security, and to discourage U.S.-based companies from supplying technology to the Chinese government to assist with online censorship and surveillance.
  6. Make “rule of law” assistance programs and the “legal experts dialogue” relevant to legal and administrative problems responsible for systematic human rights abuses. One example is the problem of widespread torture, a topic currently generating great attention, if little concrete action, within China. The U.S. might use its legal aid resources to address issues such as how to prevent deaths in detention and how, in court trials, to reject evidence that was extracted by forced confession. U.S. legal aid could also be used to strengthen protections for criminal defense lawyers from prosecution or being barred from practicing law as punishment for representing victims of human rights abuses.
  7. Resume the U.S.-China Human Rights Dialogue only if transparency and participation by representatives of civil society in China are guaranteed. Any future dialogues should be open—i.e., publicly reported in full—in their agendas, their objectives, and their outcomes. The talks should be resumed only if it can be shown that real progress has resulted from the previous round.  Non-governmental human rights organizations in both countries should be invited to participate in the dialogues, to engage in parallel dialogues, or at least be sufficiently consulted and heard well in advance and afterward.

Media Contacts

Renee Xia, International Director (English and Mandarin), +852 8191 6937 or +1 301 547 9286

Wang Songlian, Research Coordinator (English and Mandarin), +852 8191 1660

David Smalls, Researcher (English), +1 347 448 5285

[1]Perry Link, “China: From Famine to Oslo,” January 13, 2011, New York Review of Books, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/jan/13/china-famine-oslo/

[2]“Yu Jianrong is Hot,” Southern Metropolis Weekly, December 8, 2010, translated excerpts at China Digital Times,


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