The U.S.-China relationship is under duress as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) continues its campaign against universal values and human rights. From the internment of an estimated 1.8 million Uighurs in political reeducation camps to the undermining of freedom in Hong Kong, the CCP is on a mission to consolidate its power and advance its own interests to the detriment of the Chinese people.
The CCP’s actions merit a strong response, which is why the U.S. should press into its longstanding role in promoting human rights and values in Asia.
There are, at least, three critical reasons why the U.S. should promote values as a part of its foreign policy strategy toward China:
1) Promoting human rights in China advances the U.S. free and open Indo-Pacific strategy. The U.S. cannot forsake values at a time when they are so clearly under threat. Instead, the U.S. should embrace and strengthen the values component of the Trump administration’s free and open Indo-Pacific strategy as a means of maintaining influence in the region and its reputation as a responsible stakeholder.
U.S. strategy in Asia is predicated on the promotion of its own interests, which includes the promotion of values. The CCP has been brazen in its targeting of universal values and U.S. interests.
The CCP claims, for example, that its mistreatment of the Uighurs is an internal matter – the implication being that it is outside of any country’s purview to criticize or craft policies to address these injustices. But the CCP’s decision to rapidly collectivize and inter millions of Uighurs is hardly an internal matter, especially not when it uses surveillance technology with parts imported from abroad to engage in such suppression and when it subsequently exports that surveillance technology, along with its model of governance to other countries in Africa, Latin America, Asia, and beyond.
The CCP similarly claims that what it does in Hong Kong is an internal matter. But its decision to introduce and then pass a new national security law that has extraterritorial reach suggests otherwise. Already Beijing has issued arrest warrants for Samuel Chu, an American citizen, and Nathan Law, a British resident, for their involvement in the pro-democracy movement, which flies in the face of the Party’s brash and inaccurate claims.
Taking a stand on values is taking a stand for U.S. interests and preserving a model of governance that prioritizes people over politics.
2) The CCP doesn’t view human rights concerns as peripheral, but as central. The CCP does not see concerns over Hong Kong or unrest in Xinjiang, for example, as secondary order issues. They are central and top policy priorities because both threaten the CCP’s core interests of maintaining its rule, own internal stability and safeguarding its sovereignty.
Case in point: Hong Kong. According to the CCP’s own rhetoric, its swift implementation of the new national security law was in response to 2019 protests where millions of Hong Kongers took to the streets to object to the extradition bill. The CCP is threatened by the rhetoric of democracy and freedom. The CCP is threatened by its own people.
Likewise, when the U.S. government treats concerns of Uighur Muslims, threats to freedom in Hong Kong, or the CCP’s long-waged war on religious freedom as unimportant, it acts from a position of weakness and misses out on opportunities to apply relevant tools in its foreign policy toolkit.
Gratefully, over the last few months, the U.S. has recognized the weaknesses of a strategy toward China that omits values. The U.S. ramped up efforts to respond to human rights challenges in China, rightfully sanctioning Chen Quanguo, the Xinjiang Party Secretary, and other members of the CCP and just last week targeting the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), an entity headed by Chen to carry out human rights violations in Xinjiang. It has also responded with strength by revoking Hong Kong’s special status after Beijing took unprecedented steps to undermine its autonomy, even sanctioning Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive and others for standing by as Beijing undermined Hong Kong’s autonomy. These moves convey the integrated nature of human rights in U.S. priorities.
3) Prioritizing human rights alleviates the suffering of the Chinese people. It is easy to lose sight of the reasons why we pursue the policy solutions that we do. While the Chinese government is quick to erode, abandon, and directly violate the rights of the Chinese people, the U.S. should stand at the ready to protect and preserve their rights, even and especially, when their government chooses not to.
The U.S. did so, for example, when in the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak, the U.S. government and civil society organizations like Samaritan’s Purse, provided masks and supplies to suffering peoples in Wuhan. The U.S. didn’t provide support merely to present a certain image to the world, but to tangibly help where and when the U.S. can.
U.S. policy should also seek to amplify the voices of the Chinese people. Their voices should be at the forefront, as in the case of the BBC’s recent publication of a video from a former Uighur model, Merdan Ghappar, from inside a camp in Xinjiang. Ghappar describes his lice-infested living quarters where he recalls hearing “a man screaming from morning until evening” and others sounds of people enduring torture. In the video, he himself is chained to a bed in the facility where he was being held. Stories like Ghappar’s, while hard to hear, are necessary for putting names and faces to crises the CCP seeks to conceal. Stories like his, more importantly, may provoke action from governments far and wide to respond to what some are calling genocide.
The U.S. should not view the promotion of human rights as contrary to U.S. interests, but rather strategic, to raise. Therefore, a successful U.S. China strategy requires emphasizing the values components of the free-and-open Indo-Pacific strategy, recognizing the complementarity of the promotion of human rights and national security priorities, and by amplifying the voices of the Chinese people.