U.S. Human Rights Policy toward China

Article excerpt

Key Points

* For the last several decades, U.S. policy toward the People's Republic of China (PRC) has consistently subordinated human rights concerns to geopolitical or economic interests.

* The human rights situation in China has deteriorated significantly over the last two years.

* Both a new U.S. administration and China's bid to host the 2008 Olympics offer opportunities to influence human rights in China.

During the 1970s and 1980s, U.S. officials viewed China as an important counterweight to the power and influence of the Soviet Union. The primary U.S. objective--to contain the Soviet threat--took precedence over any concerns about repression or human rights violations in China. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, however, Washington policymakers have struggled to redefine a strategic framework for the U.S. relationship with China. Under the Clinton administration, there was a lot of talk about the importance of human rights, but many Clinton foreign policy initiatives emphasized opening China's economy to U.S. companies more than enhancing human right protections. With the new Bush administration, there is an opportunity to revise U.S. policy to more effectively address human rights concerns. Equally important, as China bids to host the 2008 Olympics, Beijing may be more responsive to international pressure to improve its human rights record.

International scrutiny and censure of China's human rights violations is needed now more than ever, as China's human rights record has deteriorated significantly over the last few years. Authorities in China have responded to perceived internal threats with arrests, censorship, and even the incarceration of dissidents in psychiatric institutions for treatment of "political monomania." Essentially, any group viewed as a threat to the rule of the Chinese Communist Party is subject to harsh treatment. Human rights violations have largely been targeted at four general groups: democracy activists, religious groups, labor and peasant organizers, and members of movements for self-determination.

The repression against democracy advocates has been particularly severe in the last two years. In the summer of 1998, a group of political activists attempted to establish an official opposition party, the China Democracy Party (CDP). After five months of trying to limit the CDP's activities, Chinese authorities initiated the first wave of arrests in November. During 1999, at least 34 members of the CDP were sentenced to prison terms of up to 13 years on charges of attempted subversion, and another four fled into exile.

Repression of religious groups is also on the rise, as the Chinese government has denounced some groups as "Western anti-Chinese forces. …