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China, Human Rights and the Role of Washington: A Debate

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Chinese President Hu Jintao is in Washington, D.C., for his first official state visit to the White House. Many critics noted that Obama, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, was hosting a banquet for a leader who is imprisoning another Nobel Peace Prize laureate: the jailed Chinese human rights activist and writer Liu Xiaobo. We host a debate on China, human rights and the role of the United States between Sharon Hom of Human Rights in China and Marc Blecher, a professor of politics and East Asian studies at Oberlin College. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Chinese President Hu Jintao is in Washington for his first official state visit to the White House. Hu landed at Andrews Air Force Base Tuesday afternoon and had a rare private dinner with President Obama and the First Lady. After lunch at the State Department on Wednesday, Hu arrived at the White House amid the pomp and ceremony of an official state visit, complete with military band and 21-gun salute. Outside the White House gates, a few dozen demonstrators gathered calling for a free Tibet.

The series of meetings with Hu at the White House included one attended by business executives from powerful corporations including Goldman Sachs, Microsoft, General Electric and Boeing. The New York Times said, quote, “the White House has sought to turn Mr. Hu’s visit into a kind of trade show for American companies.”

AMY GOODMAN: Just before the summit, President Obama and Hu Jintao held a rare joint news conference and announced a $45 billion trade deal between their two countries.

Many critics noted that Obama, as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, was hosting a banquet for a leader who is imprisoning another Nobel Peace Prize laureate: the jailed Chinese human rights activist and writer Liu Xiaobo. Obama referenced human rights in his address and admitted that differences on human rights were a “source of tension.”

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I have been very candid with President Hu about these issues. Occasionally they are a source of tension between our two governments. But what I believed is the same thing that I think seven previous presidents have believed, which is, is that we can engage and discuss these issues in a frank and candid way, focus on those areas where we agree, while acknowledging there are going to be areas where we disagree.

AMY GOODMAN: Chinese President Hu Jintao acknowledged that “a lot still needs to be done” in China over human rights.

PRESIDENT HU JINTAO: [translated] China is a developing country with a huge population and also a developing country in a crucial stage of reform. In this context, China still faces many challenges in economic and social development, and a lot still needs to be done in China in terms of human rights.

AMY GOODMAN: For more on the issue of human rights and China, we’re joined by two guests. Sharon Hom is the executive director of Human Rights in China, an international NGO based in Hong Kong and New York. She’s joining us in New York. And joining us from Cleveland, Ohio, Marc Blecher, a professor of politics and East Asian studies at Oberlin College and the author of several books, including China Against the Tides.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Sharon Hom, let’s begin with you.

SHARON HOM: Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: The human rights situation in China and how important is it to be raised here while Hu Jintao is meeting President Obama and other legislative leaders?

SHARON HOM: Well, as Secretary Clinton’s inaugural Holbrooke lecture laid out a very comprehensive — how important human rights is and that it is the fundamental pillar for trade and all the other aspects of the relationship. But unfortunately, as documented extensively by human rights organizations like my own, like independent bodies at the U.N., the human rights situation in China is intensifyingly — it’s deteriorating. And also, across the board, for civil society, for freedom of expression, for the lawyers, the crackdowns, it’s quite a serious situation.

I think the Chinese government’s response to Liu Xiaobo receiving the prize really gives an insight to the depth of the problem. And that is, China embarked on an intense threatening and intimidation campaign of the international community, including all the foreign missions in Oslo, not to attend and really threatened the Norwegian government, and really couldn’t —

AMY GOODMAN: Not to attend the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony.

SHARON HOM: Well, threatened the Norwegian government in the lead-up that there should not be a Chinese decision. And I think the committee got very clear indications that it could not be a Chinese recipient this year. And the committee, I think, with great credit to their — you know, their credibility, the principled stance they took, felt that you really needed to give a prize this year to a Chinese recipient, and particularly one who has peacefully advocated for democratic reforms in China and has been sentenced to 11 years for simply peaceful activities. So I think that the reactions during the lead-up to the Nobel Prize, the crackdowns, the house arrests, the detentions, the disappearances, asking people like activists, lawyers — the spokesperson for the Tiananmen Mothers, Ding Zilin, wrote about her 75 days of detention and house arrest and intimidation. And this is an elderly, you know, person, not in very good health, who, as your listeners might know, lost her son in 1989 in Tiananmen Square. So, these all are an insight into the differences that have been referred to endlessly in this visit.

And it is important that, yes, there are differences, but there is a fundamental difference that’s really being papered over in the talks and in all of the — and that fundamental difference is, this is not simply a difference of political systems. This is not simply a difference of culture or language or histories. This is a difference in that the Chinese government is a one-party authoritarian system that absolutely has zero tolerance for critical, different voices. And I think Liu Xiaobo is a great symbol of that. And for the U.S. government to think that it’s possible to have sustainable economic trade and exchanges with a government that is not accountable to its own people, that is not transparent and that is rife with corruption and does that have a functioning legal system, and that cracks down on judges and lawyers and doesn’t have an independent media and doesn’t have independent civil space, how is that going to be a constructive, cooperative system — relationship, I mean, that’s good for the U.S. and that’s good for China?

JUAN GONZALEZ: But isn’t that — from the point of view of many of these corporations that were attending these private meetings, isn’t that part of the way that they have been able to flourish in China, precisely that they’ve been able to build their companies in an — under an authoritarian system? And that — it seems to me that many of these meetings between Chinese and American leaders, there’s almost like a perfunctory discussion of human rights for the press and the media, while the real business goes on behind the scenes between the corporate leaders and the government leaders in China. In your sense, to what degree President Obama, in his remarks, and even President Hu, who said at one point, yes, China has a lot to do in this area, were basically playing to the media while they were, at the same time, dealing with the real business of the relationship, which is promoting more economic development?

SHARON HOM: I think your reference to it as playing to the media is really right on, that there were a lot of high-level discussions leading up to the summit meeting, so many of the agreements that were announced at the press conference had not been reached during the discussions. Of course, a lot of that — but this is about standard — I think, you know, had been worked out way in advance.

GE has been in China, I think, almost a hundred years, perhaps one of the oldest. And some of these companies were actually instrumental during the lead-up to the Olympics in building the state-of-the-arts biometrics systems of monitoring and surveillance and the cameras and the digital, so they actually have benefited from being part of building the architecture of surveillance, I think, in China, as well. And they — I think it’s shortsighted. It’s not very good business to think that you can continue to do business and make a profit off of the backs of Chinese workers and of a system that is essentially not accountable. And you can start seeing that there are businesses who have found that if they needed to go into a dispute resolution system, of which there are no independent — a system, that will be a real — a real problem.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to get Professor Marc Blecher’s response to the human rights situation and what Sharon Hom, head of Human Rights in China, has to say. Professor Blecher, thanks for joining us.

MARC BLECHER: It’s an honor to be on your program, Amy and Juan.

Of course, the situation that Sharon describes of the Chinese state locking up political opponents is repugnant. The question is, what do you do about it? The story that Sharon has told us about how much tighter things got after the Nobel Prize was given to Liu Xiaobo actually shows us the problems of lecturing China on human rights or going further, in this case by the Nobel Committee making such a pronounced political point out of the human rights situation in China. The issue then becomes, what do you do about it? What Sharon’s story told us is that the more you raise it, the more you raise it in public, the more the Chinese state will react against it, the more they will actually harden things and make things worse for the very people we’re trying to help.

The best way to help political opponents in China is through quiet, back-channel sorts of operations. There is a very interesting outfit called the Dui Hua Foundation — I encourage the audience to google them and look them up — run by a gentleman named John Kamm, who actually have been successful in helping political opponents who have suffered mistreatment in China. But they work quietly behind the scenes in ways that allow the Chinese state to relax things in some individual cases, but not lose face about it. So, I’m wary of lecturing the Chinese state or of actually bigger shows of Western opposition, like the Nobel Prize, because I think they actually hurt the people who everyone is trying to help in this situation.

AMY GOODMAN: Sharon Hom, your response?



SHARON HOM: I’m sorry, was I cutting off Professor Blecher?

AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, Sharon Hom?

SHARON HOM: Yeah. I think the lecturing China is — I think it’s extremely important, what Marc is saying about paying attention to potential negative effects of raising the human rights issues. And I totally agree that the real issue is what to do about it. But what to do about it is, the starting point is what is already being done and what Chinese people are already attempting to do to reform and to address these issues. And it’s not just political opponents. It’s really a too narrow and an inaccurate characterization that the voices inside China that are raising issues are simply political dissidents.

Liu Xiaobo himself was not only writing about political reform. He was raising issues of the slavery of children working in the brick kilns. He was raising issues of corruption. He was raising the issues that Chinese people themselves are raising and that the lawyers are attempting to raise, and that when lawyers — the Beijing Lawyers Association — this is what they’re doing. In the law area, the Beijing Lawyers Association called for direct elections instead of party-appointed leaders of their own bar association. They were threatened, had their licenses suspended and also had their law firms — some of them, one of them — shut down. When Chinese women’s rights groups became too strong and got too much support from the international funders, they, too — most recently, the Beida women’s center was shut down.

So, independent media continue to write. You have over 400 million online netizens. You have hundreds of millions of bloggers. And what they’re doing is not only raising political issues. They’re raising the environment. They’re raising health. They’re raising tainted milk scandals, where 100,000 children have been affected. They’re raising workers’ rights. They’re raising the problem of wholesale theft of their land in the villages, so that they —

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think Tunisia is making them afraid, the revolution there?

SHARON HOM: Before Tunisia, there was the color revolution. And before the color revolution, there was what was happening in the former Soviet Union. So, the Chinese authorities were watching very carefully and were paying attention. And in fact, for the color revolution, they sent teams of researchers to study the [color] revolution and produced an inside internal report, which was on: these were the dangers of the [color] revolution. So, most recently, Tunisia, where the riots have been filled by rising food prices, where China’s food prices have risen to over seven percent with high unemployment, including now reaching the university graduates, where they have no job possibilities — it’s reaching beyond these 700 rural inhabitants — there is now rising protest and social unrest in China. And China is very worried about the Jasmine Revolution.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But those protests are coming in the face, at the same time, of enormous growth and prosperity for huge numbers of the Chinese, compared to their previous existence. So you have the problem of the need for individual space for expression, while at the same time people’s lives are getting better for a significant number of the population, not all.

SHARON HOM: Yeah, I think that the number of 200 million people lifted out of poverty is absolutely right. And the challenges facing China are complex and difficult. And China, despite its one-party state, despite its lack of space for civil society, has made very important progress in some of these areas. But the 200 million lifted out of poverty needs to be balanced in perspective. It wouldn’t mean too much to you if you were one of the 400 million who are drinking water contaminated by human waste. It wouldn’t mean very much to you if you were one of the 200 million — over — migrants whose children have no access to education or healthcare. And it wouldn’t mean too much to you if you were one of the 700 million — that’s double the population of the U.S. — who are living with a rural, what they call a hukou, household registration system, where there’s a complete collapse of basic services and basic goods. We’re not talking about freedom of expression; we’re talking about fundamental human dignity and right to housing, homes, jobs, water, health.

AMY GOODMAN: And Professor Blecher, the Chinese criticism of the United States when it comes to issues of human, economic rights?

MARC BLECHER: Well, as we know, the Chinese take a view of human rights that’s very different than ours, one that they say emphasizes social and economic rights, whereas we emphasize political rights. And so, in some sense, we’re talking at cross purposes. I think the way they hear our criticisms of their problems in political rights would be mirrored if they lectured us on economic and social issues in this country. Now, they’re not in much of a position to do that. I’m very glad to hear what Sharon said about how her notion of human rights actually includes the tremendous suffering of poor people, sweatshop workers, impoverished farmers and the like in China. So, China is not in much of a position to lecture us on economic and social rights, either, just as I think we are ill-advised to lecture them on political rights.

On the wider question of political expression in China, I would hate for audiences to think that China is a place where no one can speak out on anything. In fact, what Sharon has told us is exactly the opposite. There is a tremendously broad and increasing scope for all manner of political debate and expression in China these days. There are lively debates in the Chinese press, in Chinese universities, in all manner of media on all sorts of policy issues — about the environment, about healthcare and so on. A Chinese-born political science colleague of mine, who 10 years ago was trying to get some progress on issues around — policy issues around healthcare, around coal miners’ deaths, around wages, things like this, 10, 15 years ago he and like-minded young Chinese scholars tried to influence the Chinese government, working through existing channels, by writing policy papers and trying to get executive summaries of their articles and their policy recommendations onto the desks of leading officials. Today, they do it very differently. They advocate their positions by publishing op-eds in Chinese newspapers. There is an increasing scope for lively political debate in China.

There are certain boundaries that people know they shouldn’t cross. Calling for competitive elections that might throw the Chinese Communist Party out of power is a no-no. Liu Xiaobo was very brave in raising all the issues that Sharon mentioned. The reason he got in so much trouble was not because he raised issues of poverty and so on, but because he called for the abolition of the People’s Republic of China. Now, he should be able to do that, but the fact is that’s the limit. But short of that limit, there is tremendous scope for debate in China today, and we should applaud that, and we should allow the conditions for that to grow. The problem with badgering China about political human rights is that the more we do it, the more the government cracks down, and the more difficult it is to actually expand the scope for debate. The best way we can do things to improve political rights and political expression in China is to help create the conditions in which the Chinese government feels increasingly secure.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Blecher, we’re going to break. We’re going to go on to the issue of the economy, with the enormous economy that China is. Ten seconds for response, Sharon Hom, though, as we wrap up this segment.

SHARON HOM: Yeah. I think it’s extremely important that it’s not Human Rights in China or my own particular personal notion of human rights and that after World War II, there is an international human rights system, which Chinese government has signed on to every major international human rights treaties. So that’s the framework of accountability that we’re really talking about, and that Chinese citizens themselves, including the 10,000 more signers of Charter ’08, are calling for the implementation in domestic law of international human rights.

AMY GOODMAN: Sharon Hom, thanks so much for being with us, executive director of Human Rights in China. We’ll go on to talk about China’s position in the world when it comes to the amount of money they spend and also the economy that is ever expanding. Stay with us.

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