Shadow Government

Tiananmen's Anniversary is a Chance for Obama to Fight for Human Rights in China

"I believe that a world of greater freedom and tolerance is not only a moral imperative -- it also helps keep us safe."

"America's support for democracy and human rights goes beyond idealism -- it's a matter of national security. Democracies are our closest friends, and are far less likely to go to war.... Respect for human rights is an antidote to instability."

- President Barack Obama, West Point commencement address, May 28, 2014.

The president reaffirmed a longstanding pillar of U.S. foreign policy at West Point last week. A world of greater freedom and respect for human rights is a world that is safer and better for the United States. This is not really a controversial statement. It is common sense, believed and articulated by every president since at least since World War II.

But on the 25th anniversary of the hope and then tragedy at Tiananmen Square, what are we willing to do to act "on behalf of human dignity" in China? The question has always vexed U.S. statesmen.

From President Nixon's opening to China in 1972 until the Tiananmen Square tragedy in 1989, U.S. presidents were content with China's economic progress. It was not unreasonable to think that, just like Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea, China would also make the transition from economic growth to political liberalization.

Then on June 4, 1989, the "Beijing Spring" ended in a nightmare. Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping was unwilling to allow political liberalization to accompany his economic reforms. Every U.S. president since Tiananmen has had to balance a desire for political reform in China against other national interests such as stable bilateral relations and strong economic engagement.

The first President Bush helped Chinese dissident Fang Lizhi, but made other questionable decisions. After Tiananmen, he famously sent National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft to reassure the "butchers of Beijing" that the bilateral relationship would not suffer all that much.

President Clinton de-linked trade relations from Chinese progress on human rights. He believed, however, that the Internet and free trade would inevitability put China on the "right side of history."

The second President Bush prioritized religious freedom in China and often met with pastors and other religious leaders to press this cause. He shared Clinton's unwarranted optimism that a more liberal economy in China would lead to political reform.

President Obama has yet to find his voice on issues of human rights and democracy in China. Though his administration negotiated the release of human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng, it has not initiated any other efforts on behalf of human rights in China.

Since Tiananmen, then, U.S. human rights policy toward China has been uneven at best. But it is a mistake to neglect or grow complacent about the issue. Here's why:

First, while change in China is inevitable, democratic change is not. As Minxin Pei predicted, China is now in a "trap." The economic reforms it requires -- from an efficient and open capital market, to property rights -- also demand a loosening of political control and the protection of individual rights.

But Chinese President Xi Jinping seems unwilling to make those changes. It is no wonder that a Chinese political warhorse like Wang Qishan is encouraging his colleagues to read not Tocqueville's Democracy in America, but The Old Regime and the Revolution. There is reason to fear that the corrupt "red aristocracy" at the top will falter and that there is no real civil society between the state and the people. If so, then the "next" China may look more like France after the French Revolution than America after the American Revolution.

Second, respect for human rights in China may help tame the Sino-American security competition. Beijing and Washington are not destined to fight. Indeed, the U.S. has stood with China for most of American history.

While China and the United States have a number of serious conflicts of interests, some stem from the way in which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) defines its interests. Although there is no officially sanctioned debate about foreign policy in China, some Chinese elites are openly embarrassed about having a "Party" instead of a "National" foreign policy.

China's foreign policy serves the CCP first and foremost, which means protecting its absolute rule from threats, foreign and domestic. Japan and the United States may be rivals in the eyes of the CCP but so are, according to the CCP's propaganda arm, "constitutional democracy" and other "Western" values. For the CCP, Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo is as much of a threat from his jail cell as U.S. ships based in Japan.

And it unrealistic to expect Washington to develop real trust for a country that abuses its people's rights at home. It is axiomatic that since the CCP settles disputes by coercion at home it will do so abroad. This is why President Obama is correct in his assessment that more freedom and democracy make us safer -- the way a regime behaves at home is a good indicator of how it will behave abroad.

The many Chinese fighting against corruption and injustice and repression hold the keys to the future of Sino-American relations. Should they prevail, China and the U.S. may continue to have their differences, but true friendship is also possible.

Back to the main question: What, if anything can the president do to support the furtherance of human rights in China? We can play an "inside" and an "outside" game.

We can provide moral support and political support to Chinese reformers and activists. This involves more meetings and greater communication with dissidents as well as efforts to break down the "great firewall" of Internet censorship. And, we can shore up democratic/capitalist allies, creating free institutions that a freer China might want to join. A free market Trans-Pacific Partnership is one such institution. An Asia-Pacific league or concert of democracies is another.

Both of these approaches would help Chinese liberals make their case about what country China should become.

In the short term President Obama can wade into the internal Chinese debate by writing an open letter (translated into Chinese) to his fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. The CCP will try and censor it, but Chinese Internet users are savvy. It will circulate. Such a letter would be a powerful boost to Liu who sits in prison as well as to Chinese on the front lines of reform.

The Chinese people will decide how hard to push for liberty and human rights. But as President Obama stated last week, our own long-term security is linked to freedom and China. We can begin to tip the scales toward the reformers.

Update: Watch Daniel Blumenthal further explain the problem of how the United States should address China's human rights abuses below.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Tiananmen Square at 25: Looking Back and Looking Forward

Wednesday marks a quarter century since the Tiananmen Square massacre. It also marks what, in hindsight, looms as a tragic crossroads in modern Chinese history, when then-leader Deng Xiaoping made the gruesome choice to privilege the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) monopoly on power over the path of reform and liberalization. I recently looked back at this post I wrote five years ago on the 20th anniversary. Other than revising the date, when it comes to China's failure to come to terms with the Tiananmen legacy or to allow more freedom for its people, that same post could be written today almost verbatim. Such is the continuing tragedy of Tiananmen Square.

Yet while five years hence the CCP's repressive internal rule remains the same, in that same time the geopolitics of Asia have shifted substantially. It may seem now like distant history, but 2009 witnessed the shared hopes of the Obama administration and Beijing to forge a "G-2" economic partnership of China and the United States, with other countries of the region envisioned in cooperative supporting roles. Instead today brings a region fraught with tension, division, suspicion of Chinese hegemony, and fears by other Indo-Pacific nations of American weakness and retrenchment. These trends are exemplified by tense exchanges between the United States and China at regional security conferences, neo-imperial territorial claims by China and aggression against the maritime vessels of neighboring countries, and a percolating China-Russia condominium based on shared interests in energy, countering American power, and preserving authoritarianism.

It is that latter factor that connects contemporary Asia with the legacy of Tiananmen Square. Beijing's willingness 25 years ago to massacre its own citizens, and refusal today to admit it, let alone atone for it, illuminates this uncomfortable reality: The internal character of the CCP drives much of its external behavior. 

This suggests that as the Obama administration continues to wrestle with how to operationalize its rebalancing to Asia, a robust strategy should include promoting human rights and political reform in China. Doing so does not mean "imposing American-style democracy on China"; it means supporting the desires and efforts of many Chinese people for greater liberty and a more accountable leadership.

There are a number of specific ways that the Obama administration could pursue this goal. To begin with, it could invite former Tiananmen Square student movement leaders, many of whom now live in exile in the United States, to meet with President Obama in the Oval Office. It could also increase funding for the China programs in the State Department's Human Rights and Democracy Fund;

To send a clear message about the importance of human rights policy, the administration could ensure that anytime President Obama or Secretary Kerry meets with a senior Chinese leader, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Rights, and Labor Tom Malinowski is also present in the room. This will also empower U.S. human rights officials in the eyes of Beijing.

On top of this, it should scrap the moribund U.S.-China Human Rights Dialogue, which has accomplished little in recent years and is used by Beijing as an excuse for inaction on human rights. In its place, the administration could convene a multilateral human rights dialogue with China consisting of the United States, European Union countries, Australia, and other interested democracies that can present a united front and communicate the importance of improving human rights for China's global standing.

A final thought. This New York Times story about previously unreported dissension within the People's Liberation Army (PLA) over the order to use force against the student demonstrators reminds me of an encounter I had several years ago when working on the National Security Council staff. I gave a West Wing tour to two Chinese men who had both been at Tiananmen Square in 1989, in very different roles. One of them was a leading student demonstrator; the other was a PLA officer commanding one of the army units engaged in the crackdown. In later years both of them converted to Christianity and became leaders in China's burgeoning house church movement. Their ministry activities incurred the disfavor of Beijing, including imprisonment for one of them, and both eventually sought asylum in the United States, where they became close friends.

As we walked through the White House, I reflected on how their common faith could bring such a powerful reconciliation between two men on opposing sides of the Tiananmen massacre. Such stories are not unusual given the remarkable growth of that faith in China. Yet the fact that these two men remain unwelcome in their home country reveals an underappreciated cost in human capital: The CCP's repression deprives China of some of its most courageous and innovative citizens. That, too, is part of Tiananmen's unfolding legacy.

Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images