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Commentary | PERSPECTIVE ON CHINA

Lower the Decibel Level on Human Rights

Instead of threatening dire consequences that won't be carried out, engage the Chinese in attentive conversation.

March 10, 1997|GEORGE BLACK | George Black is research and editorial director of the New York-based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights

In death as in life, timing can be of great importance. The death of Deng Xiaoping, for example, though long awaited, happened at a moment when the scent of change was in the air. A new U.S. administration is in its early days, and U.S. policy toward China has effectively reached an impasse, even as a presidential summit approaches. If only the ingredients of a new policy also were at hand, especially in the intractable area of human rights.

If we exercise a little imagination, perhaps they are. When we think of China and human rights, a single image is locked in our minds. There it was again in all the Deng obituaries: that lone figure facing down the tanks on Chang'an Avenue, near Tiananmen Square. To be fair, it is one of the indelible images of the television age. At the same time, no matter how often we look at it, its meaning is not susceptible to change.

Almost eight years after Tiananmen, the elements of the human rights debate remain similarly frozen in place. The discussion revolves around the jailing of dissidents, the occupation and brutalization of Tibet, the demand for Red Cross access to China's vast prison system.

Also largely static are the sources of leverage that we seek to bring about change. The United States' human rights policy has centered on the threat that terrible consequences would ensue if China failed to mend its ways. The first and largest consequence would be the withdrawal of China's most-favored-nation trade status. The problem with the threat of trade sanctions, as many people noted, was that MFN was much like a nuclear weapon; we were never actually going to drop it.

Meanwhile, the rights picture grows grimmer. Political dissent has been totally silenced; Tibet remains under occupation; China's jails are full and the Red Cross is no closer to gaining access to them. Worse, persecuted individuals have been inflated into diplomatic bargaining chips. The now-ritualized prisoner release game has bred great cynicism on the Chinese side. It suggests either that the fate of a few individuals is all we care about or that these individuals are indeed, as Chinese conservatives argue, the leading edge of the latest global conspiracy to contain or even overthrow the Chinese state.

When confronted with a door that remains stubbornly locked, one's first impulse is to pound harder upon it. But what if the door is in fact ajar? The key to developing a more effective human rights policy may lie in unrecognized sources of leverage. This means being aware of what is happening inside China.

Since 1989, open political dissent and formally independent organizations have been crushed. But paradoxically, systemic changes are underway that are similar to those that were being advanced by an alliance of party reformers and independent thinkers before the watershed of Tiananmen.

China is in the midst of reforming its legal system. In the process, it has taken some important steps toward reining in the arbitrary exercise of power, which is the real bane of the Chinese system. On Jan. 1, a revised criminal procedure law took effect. In many areas, it still falls short of international human rights standards. But in others, such as pretrial detention, access to defense counsel and the determination of guilt by prosecutors rather than judges, it promises improvements.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of the new law is the bureaucratic struggle that went into its creation. To the degree that there is progress, it represents a victory for those who are interested in bringing China more closely in line with international norms of conduct, and in a setback for conservative forces within the security apparatus.

Imagine two possible conversations. In the first, U.S. officials present their Chinese counterparts with a list of political prisoners, threatening dire consequences--which the Chinese know is a bluff--if they are not released. We have tried this conversation and it has failed.

But what if the conservation went like this instead? "Your summary trial and punishment of dissidents is a disgrace; not only does it fall short of minimal international standards, but it increasingly conflicts with the direction in which you have begun to move your own criminal justice system." The dissidents are still squarely on the agenda; nothing has been sacrificed. Yet this is a different conversation. It signals an attentive awareness of Chinese reality rather than obstinate attachment to a static agenda. In asserting that both sides have a stake in the rule of law, it appeals to enlightened self-interest.

If we are to escape the present impasse, it may be that it is a change in the conversation, rather than a louder voice or the threat of a bigger stick, that offers the greatest hope of improving human rights in China.

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