Now that the U.S. election is decided, the Obama administration needs to revisit its strategy for addressing the dismal human rights situation in China. Hopefully, the U.S. Ambassador to China's recent visit to Tibetan areas signals this much needed change. On September 26, Ambassador Gary Locke quietly visited the Aba prefecture of China's Sichuan Province, where frustration with the Chinese government's repression of Tibetan culture, language and religion has erupted in more than 40 cases of self-immolation by Tibetans.
Ambassador Locke's action is a welcome gesture that ends a four-year U.S. policy of sidelining human rights issues that began with Hillary Clinton's very first visit to China as secretary of state in 2009. Just before setting foot on Chinese soil, Secretary Clinton stunned the world, and the thousands of Chinese citizens gathered to welcome her outside the new U.S. Embassy in Beijing, with the widely quoted statement that human rights issues and the systematic repression of ethnic and religious minorities, including the Tibetan people, "can't interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate-change crisis, and the security crisis."
World events of the past four years reveal the naivete of this position: that human rights, in a globalized world, can be compartmentalized and dealt with apart from other affairs of state.
The whirlwind of the "Arab Spring" that now sweeps across the middle east and North Africa speaks of the folly of doing business with tyrants and dictators without connecting relationships with these leaders to improving relationships with their own people. The result of this policy of "pragmatism" is always the same: the dictators fall, periods of national and regional instability ensue and the U.S. finds itself trying to catch up instead of playing the leader. This U.S. policy of putting Chinese human rights "on the back burner" only displayed weakness to the Chinese government. As a result, the human rights situation has worsened and the situation in China has become even more volatile.
Despite the Chinese government's efforts to minimize this volatility, the despair of the Tibetan people is just the tip of iceberg. Collectively, the plights of Tibetans, the Uyghurs of the northwest autonomous region, the House Church Christians, the Falung Gong, the victims of land grabs by corrupt officials and the unbelieveable scourge of forced abortions of millions of women throughout China, as well as the imprisonment of intellectuals -- epitomized by President Obama's fellow Nobel Peace laureate, Liu Xiaobo, who is now serving an 11 year sentence -- create a social framework of smoldering timber ripe for a firestorm that, if ignited, will make the Arab Spring look like a backyard brushfire.
Human rights and freedom are not Western concepts; they are not "internal affairs." They are the fundamental building blocks of a civilized world. This is codified in the much overlooked Universal Declaration of Humans Rights adopted by the United Nations, of which China itself is a signatory. The history of the 20th Century and the lessons of this new century tell us that wherever freedom is suppressed and human rights denied, internal stability and world peace are compromised.
It is in the interest of individual governments to advance the freedom and human rights of its people. It is, however, in the interest of world peace and security that the United States take the lead by connecting advances in democratic reform and human rights in China with progress on other bilateral issues. The importance of this connection was simply and profoundly stated by the Nobel Committee in announcing the award of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. "The Norwegian Nobel Committee has long believed that there is a close connection between human rights and peace. Such rights are a prerequisite for the ‘fraternity between nations' of which Alfred Nobel wrote in his will."
Ambassador Locke is to be commended for his visit to the Tibet region, even though he knew it would offend the Chinese government. Even more importantly, Ambassador Locke's subsequent online "town hall meeting" where he publicly deplored the situation and urged the Chinese government to "meet with the representatives of the Tibetan people to address and re-examine some of the policies that have led to some of the restrictions and the violence and the self-immolations ... we are very concerned with the human rights condition here in China," sent a clear message to the Chinese government that human rights in China is a vital interest of the United States. It is now incumbent upon the administration to back up the Ambassador's brave actions with real and sustained policies that encourage and reward the Chinese government for improving its human rights record. The Chinese government knows deep down that this must be done -- they just do not know how to do it. With the new U.S. administration and new leadership in Beijing, the time is right for America to lead the way toward democratic reform in China, and toward a more peaceful world community. Only then can China truly take its rightful place among the community of nations.