At a recent symposium on China at Columbia University--and again in a debate in Foreign Policy magazine with James Mann--scholar David Lampton argued that critics of China's human rights policies should find mild ways of engaging the Chinese government. His example of such engagement was the well-worn path of "legal reform."
A few other, more refreshing examples have cropped up. Elaine Chao, the head of the U.S. Department of Labor, unusually put forward a good idea: working with China to build a strong pension system and improve workplace safety (link). As the Change to Win delegation of trade unionists travels through China on what is the inaugural visit to the country for the Teamsters (but not SEIU, whose head has been before), other ideas are coming forward. As usual, the blog Global Labor Strategies offers good advice:
"It is not up to U.S. unions to decide what kind of labor organization China should have – that is up to Chinese workers. Some will no doubt struggle to establish independent organizations; others will “bore from within” in the official union structure. U.S. trade unionists need neither to endorse nor to shun either the official union or independent efforts. They can relate to both, supporting worker-friendly initiatives like the draft contract labor law while steadfastly maintaining the basic right of all workers to unions and leaders of their own choosing. And they can demonstrate a commitment to that principle in practice by pressuring U.S.-based corporations to offer those rights to their workers in China" (link).
This advice is good outside of labor. We don't need to limit ourselves to the kind of engagement Lampton praises--traditional human rights activism is also important. But there's no need to take engagement off the table, either.