You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Human Rights Matter. Genocide Matters. And We Can't Let This Opportunity To Do Good Go To Waste.

The fourth and final part of a TNR debate on the Beijing Olympics.

In this TNR debate, Steven Clemons of the New America Foundation and New Republic deputy editor Richard Just discuss the appropriate response to the Beijing Olympics. In light of China's manifold human rights problems, what is the right response from fans, Olympic athletes, presidential candidates, and the U.S. government itself? Click here for the first, second, and third parts of the exchange, and here for a slideshow story about meaningful Olympic protests.

From: Richard Just

To: Steven Clemons

Click here for the previous entry in the conversation.

Let me take Steve's points one by one. First, he apparently sees little distinction between the opinions of the Chinese government and the Chinese people. He therefore thinks that any steps we take to protest the government's behavior will invariably "humiliate a billion people." Is that really true? Measuring public opinion in an authoritarian society--where people are reluctant to express their true feelings to pollsters, or even friends, or even perhaps themselves--is a grossly imperfect exercise, so I would be wary of any sweeping assertions about what the Chinese people as a whole think. The eminent China scholar Perry Link has addressed this issue, cautioning that government officials "often deliberately present themselves as speaking for all of China when their actual goal is a narrow strengthening of their own rule. A world lulled into the habit of equating 'China' with 'the Chinese government' is too easily misled." The lesson here is not that we can assume that all Chinese people will always welcome U.S. meddling on human rights, whatever form it takes. But to just assert, as Steve does, that most Chinese would be offended by thoughtful protests from the U.S. government on their behalf strikes me as an unwarranted leap.

The fact that it is very difficult--maybe impossible--to know how the Chinese populace at large feels about politics leaves those of us on the outside in a difficult position when it comes to human rights, particularly the question of human rights and the Olympics. Clearly, the general Chinese population contains nationalists who would rather that we mind our own business; and clearly there are others who would welcome American protests against their government. Which view commands the most sympathy from the population as a whole? It is difficult to know, and the answer is undoubtedly complex. Either way--whether we speak out or remain silent--we risk finding ourselves on the wrong side of Chinese public opinion. But Steve is so fixated on the risks of protesting the Chinese government's outrageous behavior that he ignores the possibility there are risks associated with not protesting that behavior--particularly at a moment (the run-up to the Olympics) when there is a reasonable expectation that liberal democracies will protest. If we send our athletes to the Olympics but do not as a society find some way to formally register our displeasure with Chinese abuses--if President Bush honors the Chinese government by going to the Games but does nothing to suggest revulsion at Beijing's worsening human rights record--we risk (no, we are) sending a terrible message not only to the dissidents and intellectuals, but also to any resident of China who harbors hopes of someday enjoying political or religious or reproductive freedom. That message? The world honors the men who suppress you. And it has forgotten your plight. Steve does not seem to see a risk in demoralizing Chinese liberals; I do. One thing we have often heard from dissidents in authoritarian societies is that it is important for them to know that they are not forgotten--that the world has not given up on either them or their aspirations to one day live in freedom. Not for nothing did Yelena Bonner, wife of the Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, tell a gathering of Americans in 1986, "Please, do not forget us." Don't we at least owe critics of the Chinese government the same thing we gave to Sakharov and other Soviet dissidents: affirmation that we are rooting for them? And an assurance that when they say, "Please, do not forget us," we are listening?

My next problem with Steve's argument comes when he asserts that the U.S. government is in no position to lecture China on human rights because of Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and Guantánamo. He says that "our government's own hand in the promulgation of abuse ... makes any gesture toward China even more hollow than it would otherwise be." I don't know if this is a normative point (it is wrong for us to lecture others given our own record) or a practical one (it is ineffective for us to lecture others given our own record); Steve doesn't say. If it's a normative point, then it's a ridiculous one. Let me be clear: I deplore the Bush administration, and I deplore the way it has treated detainees. But the list of characteristics that distinguish America (a fundamentally liberal polity, albeit one with serious imperfections) from China (a fundamentally illiberal polity) is too long to even contemplate. (And, by the way, comparing China's crackdown in Tibet to the DC police's handling of World Bank protesters--as Steve does--is a strained analogy, to put it mildly.)

If, on the other hand, Steve is making a strategic point, he is on stronger ground--but I still disagree. Yes, Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo have seriously hurt our ability to campaign for human rights by damaging our international credibility; and yes, contra the neocons, international credibility matters. But what is the correct response? The first response is to elect a liberal president who can restore our good name in the world--and I hope we do that. But should the second response really be to shut up about human rights until we get our own house in order? Of course not. I am not suggesting that President Bush lecture the Chinese people about how superior we are to them; I'm not suggesting that he say, "I am boycotting the opening ceremonies of the Olympics to protest Chinese human rights abuses, and please, allow my people to teach you about liberalism, for we are experts." Besides, the Chinese don't need to be taught about freedom or human rights by us. They have plenty of courageous countrymen fighting for exactly those things. But our elected leaders ought to be publicly endorsing those people--not turning their backs on them at a moment when they are expecting our support. Abu Ghraib has made it more difficult for American leaders to do this, but that doesn't mean they are excused from the task of trying, or that it simply can't be done.

Next: I already explained in my last post why I dislike Steve's ironclad rankings of foreign-policy priorities when dealing with China. I don't discount the importance of working with China on nuclear proliferation, economics, or climate change. But, unlike Steve, I'm not willing to just stick human rights fourth on the list and say it has to come after these other things. To me, that is a formula for never dealing with it.

I also think Steve's rigid ordering of these priorities betrays a bias towards the short-term. In the short-term, there is no doubt that we need to work with the existing Chinese leadership, awful as it is, on a number of issues (especially North Korea). But it would be very much in our long-term interest for China to (someday) emerge as a liberal society. This is not going to happen anytime soon, but it is not an impossible dream. Who knows whether it will be a matter of decades or centuries, but we have an interest in doing what we can to nudge China in that direction. Emboldening everyone from high-profile dissidents to average Chinese as they keep pressure on their government should be part of that strategy.

Will that yield any results? Steve is dismissive: He derides the notion that protests by American politicians surrounding the Olympics can have any effect on human rights in China. "Please tell me--actually, show me--that human rights advocacy is about results and not grandstanding," he writes. But China is not North Korea or Burma; the men who run Beijing are capable of brutality, but they are not wholly unresponsive to groundswells in public opinion. Last year, a poll found a spike in religious belief among Chinese. The government has taken note of that trend and tried to co-opt it. The point is, the Chinese government occasionally (sort of, kind of) listens to its people. Is it so far-fetched to believe that dissidents could prod the government toward reform on certain issues? And shouldn't we be encouraging them?

Perhaps my biggest problem with Steve's foreign-policy hierarchy is that it gives short shrift to one issue in particular. Before I say what it is, I want to offer a disclaimer: I realize that people tend to overvalue the importance of issues that they study or write on or care about. And so the environmental writer believes that climate change must take precedence over everything else, and the labor activist believes that no issue can supplant trade in our give-and-take with China, and so on. All of which is to say that I am aware of my own myopia on Darfur, which I write about and follow more closely than almost any other issue. And yet: I have to say, I think Steve--like many others in Washington, like the Bush administration itself--is massively understating the degree to which genocide prevention ought to play a role in our foreign policy. I'm not going to say that ending the Darfur genocide is more or less important than stopping nuclear proliferation or slowing climate change or isolating North Korea, but I will say this: Genocide is a uniquely awful thing, and, with more than 400,000 Darfuris dead, ending it by whatever means necessary deserves to be in the mix with our most urgent foreign-policy goals. Beijing is a huge part of the problem in Sudan. And there is some evidence (which I cited in my last entry) that China will respond to public pressure on this issue. If the Olympics provide a chance to ramp up the pressure, then I want my president to do exactly that.

One final thing: Steve mentions that he recently attended a meeting in China with Wesley Clark, but that Clark failed to mention human rights. I don't know if this is (as Steve implies) evidence that China's human rights record is better than we think--or just evidence that Wesley Clark should care more about human rights. But since we're picking guides to China, my choices are Hu Jia and Teng Biao, human rights activists who wrote the following last September (which was recently reprinted in The Washington Post): "When you come to the Olympic Games in Beijing, you will see skyscrapers, spacious streets, modern stadiums and enthusiastic people. You will see the truth, but not the whole truth, just as you see only the tip of an iceberg. You may not know that the flowers, smiles, harmony and prosperity are built on a base of grievances, tears, imprisonment, torture and blood." Hu Jia is now in jail. Please, do not forget him.

Richard Just is deputy editor of The New Republic. Steven Clemons is Director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation and publisher of The Washington Note.

By Steven Clemons and Richard Just