Over the past 10 years, China has become an increasingly important presence and influence in international politics. The nation’s economy has grown exponentially as the initiatives first introduced and implemented by Deng Xiaoping’s Four Modernizations plan have matured and borne fruit (Austin & Chapman, 2002), and in 2006, the national economy continued the trend of double-digit growth that was established at the beginning of the decade (Layne, 2008).
The scope of China’s influence and the position it stands to assume in international affairs is considerable (Ikenberry, 2008). Ikenberry (2008) points to three particular accomplishments that have strengthened China’s credibility as a superpower. First, he notes, the size of the economy has quadrupled since the latter part of the 1970s and its steady, consistent rise is expected to continue, irrespective of the general downturn in world markets (Ikenberry, 2008).
Second, the world’s other powers are increasingly depending upon China to serve as a site of manufacturing and production, solidifying China’s role as an indispensable actor in world markets (Ikenberry, 2008). Finally, China has maintained an impressive import-export ratio and has amassed a formidable reserve of more than $1 trillion, insulating the country against any sudden and unanticipated threats to the economy (Ikenberry, 2008).
Despite these important accomplishments, the Chinese president is advised to acknowledge and respond to a matter of urgency that may not only undermine the national economy, but which may also erode other nations’ trust and confidence in the country as an equal trade and political partner. China has worked diligently over the past 40 years to gain a respectable position as an influential world actor, but as much of the country’s policies and practices, both domestic and foreign, have matured other crucial policy agendas have been overlooked.
One policy area in need of critical executive attention is the matter of human rights. Given that China was granted accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001 and that the country will be hosting the 2008 Olympics in the capital city, the world’s eyes and expectations are cast towards China, hopeful that the country will prove to be not only a robust leader in trade and economic affairs, but also a trendsetter in human affairs. It is time for the executive powers of the nation to review and revitalize human rights policies, both domestic and foreign, not only as confirmation that China has achieved holistic growth, but also as an assurance that China possesses all of the attributes necessary to become and remain a respectable world power.
Overview of Current Policy Concerns
In the modern era, China has had a number of embarrassing and, world critics would say, egregious, episodes in which human rights violations caused negative attention to be directed towards the Chinese government. Beginning with the intellectual oppression of the Cultural Revolution, the poor handling of the Tiananmen Square protests, ongoing concerns about sovereignty in Tibet, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, and persistent complaints about religious freedoms for groups such as Falun Gong and freedom of speech issues for journalists, activists, and government critics, China has been criticized for “supporting a string of despots, nuclear proliferators, and genocidal regimes, shielding them from international pressure and thus reversing progress on human rights and humanitarian principles," both within the country’s own borders and in the region, as well as beyond the continent (Klein-Ahlbrandt & Small, 2008, p. 38). At present, the Chinese government is bearing intense scrutiny for its alleged involvement in providing Sudanese rebels with arms in exchange for oil and other natural resources, thereby exacerbating the civil war and genocide in Sudan (Klein-Ahlbrandt & Small, 2008). The provision of arms has only intensified existing concerns about China’s modern human rights history, and it is anticipated that protestors, activists, and other concerned stakeholders will use the Olympic Games as a platform for exposing China’s human rights track record before the world and embarrassing the government into pursuing a new policy agenda. In order to avoid this type of public shaming before an international audience at an event of world importance, President Hu is urged to consider implementing the policy recommendations articulated below.
The sphere of China’s influence is vast. As the most prosperous country in the region, China possesses the resources needed to exert influence and authority over other nations where human rights abuses are rampant, such as Burma. However, the government cannot rightfully exercise this influence until it acknowledges and corrects its own deficiencies (Klein-Ahlbrandt & Small, 2008). For this reason, it is recommended that President Hu implement a three-pronged policy for improving China’s human rights practices and protections, as well as for improving the country’s human rights reputation. The three-pronged policy includes making immediate and highly visible adjustments in China’s involvement in Sudan; taking immediate and highly visible actions to support Tibet’s sovereignty; and to take immediate and highly visible action with Falun Gong. By focusing on these three specific areas, President Hu will be addressing the world’s most acute, persistent, and visible concerns. Furthermore, by making observable and measurable advances in these three areas, the world will gain assurance that China is working on a broader agenda of social change, one that does not stop with addressing the most profound and persistent problems, but one that begins by addressing those problems. The specific recommendations for each area are discussed below.
Change Nature of Involvement in Sudan
As China’s economy has flourished, its interest and ability to engage with other nations as an investor and trade partner has expanded substantially. Although China has a storehouse of natural resources, as its role as the world’s manufacturer has grown and as economic and physical growth has accelerated, the country has become more dependent upon foreign oil; as a result, China has expanded its presence in Latin America and Africa. In exchange for oil, China has provided weapons to rebel forces in Sudan, exacerbating a genocidal crisis and attracting the criticism of other developed nations. China must reevaluate the arms policy and consider withdrawing support through arms, providing other forms of payment for oil. In addition, China must diversify its oil dependencies, relying not only upon Sudan as a source of oil, but also upon Venezuela and other oil-rich nations. In this way, the country not only reduces the likelihood of scandal through association with rebel forces, it also decreases dependency upon a single nation for its needs, thereby averting problems should relations with the oil providing nation sour.
Assess Sovereignty Issues in Tibet
China’s relationship with Tibet has long been a point of contention and criticism in discussions about China’s human rights policies, and the Tibet issue has become the cornerstone of Western activists’ demands for reform. Recognizing that the issue of sovereignty is more complex than activists and critics would like to admit, it is recommended that President Hu take a more active role in reassessing the feasibility of Tibetan sovereignty. One immediate and visible step to take would be to schedule a series of meetings with the Dalai Lama to reestablish diplomatic relations and to open a dialogue about sovereignty and concerns. Should the Tibetan leader and his people vote for sovereignty, the Chinese government must assist the Tibetans with a comprehensive decolonization plan that will take into account political, economic, and social factors. While tangible affirmation of sovereignty need not be implemented immediately, discussions and negotiations with the Dalai Lama would be a good-faith step that would assure the international community of China’s commitment to work towards a peaceable solution.
Provide Vocal Restitution to Falun Gong
As with Tibetan sovereignty, the granting of full religious freedoms is a complex issue that will take time and considerable attention to a wide range of historical and contemporary variables. However, one immediate and visible step that is recommended is for President Hu to meet with Falun Gong leaders and listen to their concerns and requests. By providing this form of “vocal restitution" to Falun Gong adherents, the Chinese government is not endorsing the religion, but it is signaling a willingness to discuss concerns openly and to begin laying the foundation for revision of long-standing policies.
As with any policy process, the decision to address these three prominent and persistent concerns about human rights in China will require a significant investment of time, energy, and genuine commitment on the part of the president and his staff. Yet by initiating discussions and revising policies that have clearly been ineffective for all stakeholders—including the Chinese government, which has attracted intense world scrutiny and approbation—the president will be affirming the fact that China has entered a new era, is fully modernized, and is willing and able to be a full and influential power on the world stage. Conversation is a natural place to begin policy revisions; the development of theory and practice through dialogue and reflection has long been central to this culture (Angle, 2008). A renewal of traditional Chinese and Confucian values that have sustained the country for centuries can be a logical first step for reshaping human rights policy in China (Angle, 2008).
Angle, S.C. (2008). Human rights and harmony. Human Rights Quarterly, 30(1), 76-94.
Austin, A.E., & Chapman, D.W. (2002). Higher education in the developing world. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Klein-Ahlbrandt, S., & Small, A. (2008). China’s new dictatorship diplomacy. Foreign Affairs, 87(1), 38-56.
Ikenberry, G.J. (2008). The rise of China and the future of the west. Foreign Affairs, 87(1), 23-37.
Layne, C. (2008). China’s challenge to US hegemony. Current History, 107(705), 13-18.