China and Trump – So What About Human Rights
I wrote the following for a discussion on ChinaFile. It will be published at https://www.chinafile.com/conversation/how-should-trump-deal-china-and-how-should-china-deal-trump on November 11 U.S. time.
CHINA AND TRUMP – SO WHAT ABOUT HUMAN RIGHTS
By David Schlesinger
Pity the Chinese human rights campaigner or intellectual who looked to the United States as a beacon, a model, a source of pressure or merely a font of rhetorical succor. What now under President Trump – what signals can he give to China, what signals will he give to China, and what cues will President Xi Jinping be looking for and receive?
In 1989, American journalists brought China’s Tiananmen demonstrations to living rooms and the world, the students’ Goddess of Democracy rhyming visually and symbolically with the Statue of Liberty. The U.S. Embassy was a space of asylum for Fang Lizhi. American lawmakers used their bully pulpits. Sanctions were imposed, for a time, and some kind of bottom line was visible if not always totally clear.
The State Department published its annual Human Rights Report – never much more than an annoying goad in the Chinese side, to be sure, but at least a rhetorical reminder that human rights were (are) a fundamental part of U.S. foreign policy.
But what happens when a U.S. president models himself after strongmen?
Trump’s praise of Putin, in no way a human rights paragon, is not encouraging.
Will the U.S. have any credibility, even if it wished to have, to protest the beating or harassment or jailing of a Chinese reporter when Mr. Trump’s anti-journalist rhetoric and the actions of his supporters have been plainly on view for the world to see?
Will a Chinese labor activist feel any moral support at her back if a Trump administration turns up the heat on domestic expressions of dissent?
Will a Chinese NGO, fighting a draconian new law and regulations, find any joy from the U.S., or only the negative example of the potential defunding and harassment of Planned Parenthood, itself an NGO, in the U.S.?
To be clear, Republicans have traditionally been strong on holding China to human rights standards; a Republican was president during Tiananmen. This has been a bipartisan issue.
But President-elect Trump is a Republican in name only, and his proclivities seem to tend much more to the authoritarian.
In the current atmosphere within China, I can even imagine President Xi thinking that some compromise on trade or currency might be a reasonable exchange in return for a more isolationist Trump administration giving a freer hand in the South China Sea and a more authoritarian Trump giving a freer hand at home. What a bargain.
Even if these are not Trump’s intentions, the signs that they could be are there. And if he doesn’t want these things to happen, he will need to change the signing firmly and quickly to avoid a very tragic result.