As the representative of a United States administration that came to power promising greater respect for human rights (closing the infamous Guantanamo Bay prison is top of the agenda) Secretary of State Hillary Clinton showed remarkably little interest in the subject during her first official visit to China last weekend. It was not a great advertisement for the politics of hope and high-mindedness in a country where a husband and wife cannot allow their love to produce a second child without official permission.
The government of China is one of the world’s most systematic offenders against human rights, as the latest US State Department report on human rights practices around the world, released on Thursday, confirms. The authoritarian communist state is still suppressing religion, minority cultures and political dissent, interfering in due legal process, detaining and harassing dissidents and petitioners, carrying out extra-judicial killings, torture and coerced confessions of prisoners, forced labour (Amnesty International puts the number in labour camps at half a million) — and more. Some of these practices increased rather than diminished during 2008, says the report.
One of the most fundamental abuses of the rights of Chinese citizens is Beijing’s population control policy, which restricts the right of parents to choose the number of children they will have and the period of time between births. The State Department report says that the policy “retained harshly coercive elements in law and practice” last year, and that the government does not intend to change it for at least another decade.
Writing in the London Times before Mrs Clinton’s visit, Hong Kong correspondent Michael Sheridan reported: “Abuses of women’s reproductive rights, some of which break China’s own laws, are provoking outrage as Chinese public opinion wakes up to the persistence of forced abortion, compulsory sterilisation and even infanticide.” Although abuses are more widely reported and discussed these days — especially on the Web — some officials are stepping up repressive measures, said Sheridan. He cited two horrifying stories of babies born alive after forced abortions more or less at the point of birth — and then casually or violently killed; and of a woman, Zhang Kecui, dragged from the street by officials to be sterilised because she had failed to have this operation after her second child. Sheridan said some women activists hoped Mrs Clinton would speak up for them.
Such hopes were dashed when, before she even reached China, Mrs Clinton told reporters that such issues “can’t interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crisis”.
It became clear that she was more interested in encouraging Beijing to keep buying US Treasury bonds than sending messages about the importance America places on freedom and democracy. For this she was severely criticised by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, the latter condemning her strategy as segregating human rights into a “dead-end dialogue of the deaf”.
Mere rhetoric, of course, is no use to the half million people Amnesty says are imprisoned in labour camps, or to the believers who are constantly harassed and detained for worshipping according to their faith. And it may be true, as Mrs Clinton said, that the dialogue with Beijing on human rights has grown “predictable”, a rhetorical exchange of shots over Tibet and Taiwan. But isn’t it precisely this sort of stalemate that Obama was elected to fix? Didn’t the euphoric crowds at the inauguration expect him and his team to do things differently?
Hillary Clinton is still getting political mileage out of her rather daring plug for human rights — including a mention of forced abortions and sterilisations — during a speech she gave at the UN women’s conference held in Beijing in 1995. To quote her biography on the State Department website: “Her famous speech in Beijing in 1995 — when she declared that "human rights are women's rights, and women's rights are human rights" – inspired women worldwide and helped galvanize a global movement for women’s rights.” But really, you can’t live forever on the capital of one speech made when you were a mere president’s wife. The world's women — those still in danger of being dragged off the street into an abortion clinic at any rate — are waiting for more.
To give credit where it is due, Mrs Clinton went to church on Sunday morning in Beijing — at a state-sanctioned church, to be sure, but, as a sign of the importance of religious freedom, it was a gesture that other official visitors would do well to emulate. However, at a meeting with about 20 handpicked women leaders later in the day she spoke only in general terms about the need for equality for women and the fact that it had not been achieved in any society “certainly including my own”. The women in turn spoke about progress being made against domestic violence, about women entrepreneurs and gender preference — for boys in the countryside and girls in the cities. These are all politically correct topics, even in China, and ignore the way the one-child policy has pushed traditional son-preference to the extreme of “gendercide”.
Well, the economic crisis certainly creates a new climate for relations between Washington and Beijing; they need each other desperately. Unfortunately for human rights, America seems to be the more desperate of the two.
But there is another reason why Mrs Clinton may be silent where she spoke up so boldly before. Straight after his election President Obama reversed the Mexico City Policy that withheld federal funding from NGOs that perform or promote abortion as a method of family planning. Last week the Democrat dominated House of Representatives has approved funding of $545 million for international population control programmes, plus $50 million for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which supports China’s population policy and, inevitably, the central role which abortion, forced or otherwise, plays in it.
Under these circumstances it would be just a little hypocritical of Mrs Clinton to do a replay of her 1995 speech. Indeed, although she may genuinely abhor coercion in such matters, we know that she accepts abortion as a means of birth control (“safe legal and rare”) and there is nothing to indicate that she rejects the basic aim of population control, which is to stabilise the number of humans on Earth.
Ironically, if this programme plays out in China, it will be a very different country from the economic powerhouse that the world currently finds so indispensable. It will have fewer of the younger workers who make up the more skilled part of the workforce, more older workers, and a lot more elderly people, the majority of them poor and reliant on social support. Beyond the recession and current massive unemployment of migrant workers there is the fact that the supply of new skilled workers will begin to contract within four to six years.
Even from the economic point of view, then, Mrs Clinton’s setting aside of human rights in favour of fixing the recession and climate change is short-sighted. One had hoped that she and the Obama administration generally would promote the fundamental rights of the Chinese people as a matter of principle, but, failing that, self-interest and pragmatism suggest that making human rights an integral part of relationships with China is still the best way to go.
Deals done over the heads of people who lack the most basic freedoms of family and public life can only bring shame on those who benefit from them.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.