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Making China Listen

It's time for Congress to adopt a new strategy for dealing with human rights abuses in the People's Republic.

12:00 AM, Apr 19, 2006 • By YING MA
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While Chinese President Hu Jintao prepares to face the White House this week on issues ranging from the bilateral trade deficit to China's role in resolving the North Korean and Iranian nuclear crises, Representative Chris Smith (R-NJ) is planning to slam the Chinese regime for its political repression.

The House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations, which Smith chairs, will hold a hearing this Wednesday to condemn the Chinese government for its policies of religious persecution, forced abortions, Internet censorship, and human organ harvesting.

Unfortunately, few besides Smith's witnesses and the usual human rights activists will care. These days, a tinge of sadness pervades most congressional hearings and resolutions on the important subject of human rights in China. Simply put, China is not listening.

It wasn't always this way, and it doesn't have to be this way. Throughout the 1990s, Congress made China's human rights record a crucial consideration in every annual review of China's trade status. But when Congress granted permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) to China in 2000, Washington lost its most potent leverage against Beijing on the issue of human rights.

Having voted against trade with China, many of the most vocal congressional crusaders for human rights in China have viewed every revelation of continued or new human rights violations in China as an opportunity to denounce the approval of PNTR. When revelations surfaced in February that American companies had acquiesced to Chinese pressure for online censorship, congressmen such as Chris Smith, Dana Rohrabacher and Tom Lantos--all opponents of PNTR--pointed out that bilateral trade has failed to make China a more humane place as trade proponents had promised.

Still, this style of China bashing is no longer sufficient for addressing the shortcomings of Chinese society or the failures of U.S.-China policy. Other members of Congress, having decided to delink the issue of human rights from bilateral trade between the United States and China, show no interest in rehashing that debate again. Legislation introduced by Rep. Smith to deter and penalize American businesses that collaborate with the Chinese government's internet censorship campaign now languishes in the House.

Within China, the regime continues to resist political liberalization, but it faces intensified opposition from numerous segments of the Chinese population. In recent years, peasants have rioted against land seizures; environmental NGOs have drawn attention to toxic drinking water and massive air pollution; Internet users have helped expose government cover-ups like the breakout of the SARS crisis in 2003; lawyers have sued state-owned enterprises on behalf injured or unpaid workers; and public intellectuals continue to decry the regime's complicity in the daily suffering of its citizens.

The Chinese regime has responded to this bourgeoning political opposition with a multi-faceted approach: paying off some while jailing others; restricting the activities of some while cracking down wholesale on others. Meanwhile, it is indoctrinating the public with the idea that continued economic growth requires a measure of stability that only the Communist party can provide.

Will bottom-up pressures from Chinese society force the regime to adopt meaningful political change? Or will the regime merely become more adept and sophisticated in managing popular discontent? No one knows for sure.

Yet those in Congress dedicated to improving human rights in China, like Rep. Smith, show little inclination to recognize such pressing challenges. They bash the Communist colossus, which is probably cathartic. They press for the release of jailed Chinese dissidents, which continues to be necessary. But they could also do a great deal more to explore ways to support and harness numerous strands of dissent and discontent in China.

First, they ought to ask some tough questions about what the United States can and should do to promote political liberalization in China. Has rule of law assistance to China in fact encouraged the rule of law, or will it merely improve the regime's ability to rule by law? Should the United States massively increase funding for NGOs in China, or will that only draw government ire to Chinese activists? Is it enough to increase funding for media like Voice of America and Radio Free Asia to broadcast into China, or must the United States also worry that its message of freedom is diluted by Chinese nationalism?

As the recent controversy surrounding Cisco, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! shows, American companies are not human rights watchdogs and are in no position to ask such questions. Similarly, numerous China scholars and congressional members are so enamored with China that they believe any program of dialogue and exchange to be useful, as if dialogue were the end rather than the means. Those congressional critics who have not been afraid to bash China could fill this void.

They could continue to wish that America is not trading with China, or they could recognize that changing the complex China that has emerged under Sino-American economic engagement will require more complex solutions. If they choose the latter, congressional action on human rights in China may finally reemerge from irrelevance with the respect that it deserves.

Ying Ma is an NRI Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.