U.S. must assist China in building democracy

A plethora of politicians and interest groups condemn human rights abuses in China and urge Clinton to “contain” the power of its rulers, but few put forth substantive paths for building a congenial China. They loudly decry grievances, call for U.S. pressure to force China to behave, and go on to express ever-greater anger because Clinton views engagement as vital to American strategic and economic interests. When addressing the perennial problem of human rights in China, one must realize two givens: the Communist rulers yield absolute power in China, and the U.S. government’s capacity to counter their domestic abuses is limited.

Basically, human rights violations are perpetuated against three groups – political dissents, religious minorities, and mothers of unborn children. Jiang Zeming deflected these accusations by arguing instead for economical growth and relieving mass poverty. But politically, he believes that these above “lawbreakers” need to be severely punished, because national stability is at risk. The corrupt Communist government’s legitimacy lingers solely on economic prosperity. If dissents unleash mass protest against nepotism and favoritism among officials, the government might collapse; likewise, losing Tibet or the parts of western China will hurt its prestige (remember the intolerance for Taiwanese independence). Finally, forced abortions are a product of the drive for economic development. Thus, fears of falling from their positions of power keep Chinese leaders from listening to human rights doctrines.

With an obsessive reliance on inhumane measures to maintain power, Chinese rulers have been playing games with American pressure. A few years ago they released Wei Jingsheng temporarily (a few months) to enhance their chances for getting the 2000 Olympics; just a few days ago, they released him again to consummate Jiang’s visit. In Harvard, Jiang said the Chinese government made mistakes in the past-an inconsequential gesture that got front-page press. These minor PR displays do not constitute progress. A realistic, permanent solution lies in transforming the entire political/legal system to democracy in the long run, and check and balances in the near future.

Instead of reprimanding China verbally and threatening it with trade sanctions, which keeps Chinese rulers in line for a few months at most, the U.S. should encourage and assist in restructuring of the government institutions. Such measures will limit the despots’ power from the inside, through binding legal standards and procedures enforced by a independent judicial system, checks and balances, and accountability to a politically- aware public. Though it will be tough to diffuse political power from the “criminals/ gangsters” in Beijing (as Wei calls them) into the hands of the people, such a goal is the only path toward democracy.

Otherwise, the Chinese government will remain tyrannical, no matter how loudly activists complain. As in a household, domestic violence in China cannot be resolved by external pressure alone-only when despotic Chinese rulers submit to functional laws and public opinion will every Chinese enjoy human rights.