First a Pivot, Then a Pass to Authoritarian China

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Staff Editor

The public has been told that the Obama administration is avoiding new entanglements in the Middle East as part of its “Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy,” better known as the Asia Pivot. This relative neglect of the Arab world at a decisive moment in its history has already exacted a terrible price, with popular calls for democratic political reform increasingly squelched by tear gas, torture, and air strikes, and warped by desperation and cynical sectarian demagoguery. A new U.S. push for democracy and human rights in China might help offset the moral and strategic damage elsewhere, but there was no evidence of such an effort in the recent meeting between the U.S. and Chinese presidents in California.

During National Security Advisor Tom Donilon’s hour-long press briefing after the summit on Saturday, the words “human rights” were uttered but once, in passing. “Democracy” and “reform” never came up.

The White House has focused instead on economic and security issues like North Korea’s nuclear weapons, Chinese territorial disputes with U.S. allies, bilateral trade obstacles, environmental pollution, and rampant industrial espionage and theft by Chinese hackers. Donilon said President Obama was hoping to develop “rules and norms of behavior in cyberspace” with Xi Jinping, his Chinese counterpart.

What the administration does not appear to appreciate is the extent to which progress on all of these topics is impeded by China’s authoritarian governance system and the Chinese Communist Party’s refusal to reform it. Just a day after the summit ended, a Chinese court sentenced the brother-in-law of Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo to 11 years in prison in what is widely seen as a case of political persecution. Liu himself is serving an 11-year sentence for advocating democratic reforms; others have been punished or silenced merely for calling on the government to observe the rights nominally enshrined in the existing constitution.

In a political arrangement with no checks or balances, no independent oversight or enforcement, no uncensored media or empowered courts, China has struggled in vain to address even problems of fundamental domestic importance, including corruption and food safety. Supposing Chinese leaders were inclined to make generous concessions to the United States, how could one be sure that their decisions would be fully implemented? On issues ranging from reporting of economic statistics to handling of local dissidents, Chinese officials are more accustomed to skirting or violating their own “rules and norms” than upholding them. In many ways, the current system depends on this rule breaking.

Perhaps the most troubling component of the Obama-Xi dialogue is the so-called “new model of great power relations,” by which the two leaders hope to avoid a classic showdown between rising power and established power, opting instead for friendly cooperation and competition—and presumably, for Xi at least, an eventual passing of the superpower baton.

The most recent example of such a cooperative transfer is the shift from British hegemony in the 19th century to American dominance in the 20th. Crucially, during the transitional period, these two powers were both open societies with democratic political systems at their core. Britain consequently saw little genuine danger in making room for American leadership, whereas Germany (imperial and Nazi) and Russia (imperial and Soviet) held far more menace.

This raises the question of how Obama proposes to bring off a safe and amicable Chinese rise without any significant focus on political reforms. Xi is unlikely to make such changes on his own initiative, and has even blamed the Soviet Union’s collapse on the military’s hesitancy to crush popular resistance during the 1991 hard-line putsch against Mikhail Gorbachev and his glasnost policy. Chinese Communism, by contrast, survived its democratic crisis in 1989 by freely using military force against protesters in Tiananmen Square and elsewhere.

Nevertheless, popular demand for greater freedom and the rule of law in China has surged again in recent years. While it is possible that the regime could again suppress it by force, the country has become far more intertwined with the U.S. and global economies than it was 24 years ago, raising the stakes of any turmoil. In a commentary this month, former U.S. ambassador Jon M. Huntsman Jr. and Eurasia Group president Ian Bremmer observed that “for better and for worse, America and China are bound together in a form of mutually assured economic destruction.” They argued that this called not just for close cooperation, but also for an abandonment of futile “sermonizing” on human rights. In fact, the dangers inherent in continued repression in China suggest that an emphasis on political reform is more important now than ever.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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