Tackling the Tough Issues

According to press reports (which I take to be accurate at least in their broad outlines), tragedy continues in Tibet. No matter where one stands on the substance of the issues involved, I’d think everyone can agree we need to see a way forward that ends the violence and allows all the people living in Tibet to coexist peacefully, with their human rights protected. (I should note that I am someone who has no quarrel with the US government’s longstanding position that Tibet is a part of China.)

I don’t know enough about the issues to have recommendations for the parties involved. However, I do have thoughts on how the US government should approach issues such as Tibet and human rights with the  Chinese government. My thinking here was sparked by a comment that former Washington Post Beijing Bureau Chief John Pomfret made in his blog a few days ago. Here’s the link to the full post: http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/postglobal/pomfretschina/2009/03/hillary_tibet_human_rigthts_china.html, and here is the quote that caught my eye [John was explaining why he thinks Hillary Clinton was wrong to publicly “downplay” human rights in Beijing]:

“First, her pronouncements could embolden the Chinese. China’s security services do pay attention to what the United States says publicly. Saying you’re going to down play human rights could be interpreted by China as a green light to break heads.

Second, announcing that a lot of other issues are more important than human rights (operative Clinton quote: Human rights “can’t interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crises”) makes it harder to raise human rights as an issue when they do become important. You look silly. And your interlocutors won’t take you seriously.”

I like John (heck, I had him over to speak on “Media and Internet Freedom” at the course I run for the State Department), but will part ways with him on these points.

First, I think the power public US government comments hold over China’s security services is pretty minimal, especially on an issue such as Tibet, where Beijing believes it is in a struggle to keep the region from breaking away. It may be that lots of public (not just US) outrage over the case of an individual dissident can temper the treatment such a person gets in the Chinese system. However, even at that (see next paragraph) it is not clear to me that such public comments (especially from the US government) are the most effective way to encourage China to move away from practices we find objectionable.

And I’d particularly differ with John’s second point. The fact is (per my first entry in this blog), making cooperation on global threats the centerpiece of US-China relations first of all ensures we are focused on the issues that can most negatively affect the American (and Chinese) people. But in addition, it builds trust and credibility with China’s senior leaders. This positions US officials to have greater impact in China when (privately I hope) they pull their counterparts aside, note their commitment to cooperation, and express their profound concerns over violence in Tibet, release of a particular dissident, or other human rights issues.

I have felt for some time that the public airing of US government concerns about human rights in China did more to help reassure US domestic constituencies that an administration was concerned about these issues than anything else. Maybe it’s better instead to focus on those methods really help move the ball forward with China in the direction that I think most Americans want to see it go.

Note: I want to emphasize that my focus above is on how the US government should approach Tibet and human rights issues with China. I’m not suggesting that human rights groups, in the US or elsewhere, should close up shop or fall silent. Topic of what works most effectively for non-governmental groups is a subject for people with more NGO experience than I to explore.

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