The State Department has released its annual human rights report, summarizing the state of human rights in most countries around the world. The report indicated a decline in several Asian, Middle Eastern, African and Eastern European countries, but it was especially critical of China. Its accusations are serious, and real steps must be taken to lower incidences of human rights abuses — regardless of effects on U.S. relations
The report came out shortly after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Asia. While in Beijing, Clinton said human rights concerns would not interfere with U.S. cooperation on important issues like the economic crisis and global warming.
China is a huge agent in both the economy and the environment, so refusing to cooperate with the country would be ineffective, but human rights activists have interpreted Clinton’s statements to mean that human rights are a secondary concern.
She said a continuing debate over human rights with China would not necessarily be productive. This sparked protest from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and politicians. Republican Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey told MSNBC that Clinton’s statements were “a shocking display of pandering.”
According to the New York Times, China owns more than $1 trillion of American debt, giving the U.S. little economic leverage when it comes to pressuring China and making it difficult for the U.S. to do anything more than criticize human rights abuses. However, some action must be taken. If the U.S. were to work with the United Nations to impose sanctions on China, there would be a real chance for change, because China is suffering from its own economic problems.
The report’s detailed section on China stated, “The government of China’s human rights record remained poor and worsened in some areas.” The report also noted an increase in severe cultural and religious oppression, especially in minority regions such as Tibet. China continues to restrict the basic rights of all citizens, including rights to privacy, free speech, assembly, movement and association. Authorities also abused their power by torturing prisoners, coercing confessions and committing extrajudicial killings.
The oppression and abuses were especially strong during the Beijing Olympics and the unrest in Tibet last year. The Chinese government reacted violently after a demonstration by Tibetan monks last March, killing as many as 218 Tibetans, according to the report, while Chinese officials reported only 21 deaths. The report also stated that as many as 1,100 Tibetans disappeared soon after the violence.
Following the outcry over her remarks in China, Clinton supported the State Department report by presenting it to the press and saying the Obama administration would work with government and private organizations to improve human rights conditions around the world.
According to MSNBC, she told reporters, “We must rely on more than one approach as we strive to overcome tyranny and subjugation that weakens the human spirit, limits human possibility and undermines human progress.”
Clinton affirmed her support for human rights without directly referencing China. More action is needed than vague promises, but the government seems fearful of upsetting China — a caution rooted in America’s economic entanglement with the Asian world power.
On the same trip to Asia, Clinton had no problem criticizing the military government of Myanmar (formerly Burma), which was also singled out in the report for “severe human rights abuses.” The U.S. has already imposed sanctions on the Myanmar government, but Clinton believes more should be done.
While visiting Tokyo University, Clinton said, “We are looking at what steps we could take that might influence the current Burmese government and we are also looking for ways that we could more effectively help the Burmese people.”
By applying this same determination to China, the Obama administration could pave the way to the restoration of basic human rights. Continuing to ignore these abuses will only grow to have an effect on all areas of American-Chinese relations.
Michael Hardcastle is a freshman majoring in mass communications.