Wednesday, August 20, 2008

CAP report

As someone who cares about China and counts himself a "progressive" (for lack of a better label in the context of American politics) I was excited to hear about the release of the Center for American Progress' (CAP) report, "A Global Imperative: A Progressive Approach to U.S.-China Relations in the 21st Century." 

CAP is one of the many liberal (or should that be "progressive"?) institutions that sprang up following the disastrous 2000 U.S. presidential election with an eye toward building a new, Democratic-leaning Washington brain trust to counter the think tanks patiently built by the Right over the 1980s and 1990s.  

So what do these new, trail-blazing non-Rightists have to offer U.S.-China relations?

The authors of "A Global Imperative", who consulted an impressive list of academics, activists and former officials in preparing the report, rightly note at the start that American presidents tend to have a schizophrenic relationship with the PRC.  Bush, Clinton and Bush again have all swung awkwardly from confrontation with China at the beginning of their presidencies and back to accommodation at the end of their terms.  In the place of this waffling, the report reasonably proposes a consistent strategy from the start of the new president's time in office--be he Obama or McCain--one that focuses on both areas of cooperation and areas of respectful push and pull.  

CAP's key suggestions are hard to argue with: "embed China" in international institutions (though this has been happening for some time, largely on the PRC's initiative--not because of some grand U.S. plan, Zoellick's speeches notwithstanding); "manage potential downside and upside risk" (I'd hope so); "better understand China" (obviously a good thing); "collaborate with China" on certain issues, such as WMDs, diseases, and the environment; "cooperate with other nations to influence China:" "reestablish U.S. moral authority" on human rights issues; and "prepare to compete globally."

The devil is in the details. And the report is, unfortunately, sparse on specifics, except when it discusses two areas of potential collaboration between the U.S. and China. These two areas are combating global warming and achieving "win-win" economic relations.  I will focus on the latter.

CAP recommends making the establishment of a larger Chinese middle class (and thereby boosting Chinese consumption and lowering the trade deficit) a shared goal of U.S. and Chinese policymakers. This could be done, says CAP, through cooperation in the International Labour Organization (ILO) on the Decent Work Agenda for China, supporting Chinese labor law reforms that have been opposed by U.S. businesses in the past, and talking about China's social safety net as a part of the two countries' strategic economic dialog.   The U.S., meanwhile, should get its own house in order economically by fixing its finances, retraining workers, etc.

In principle, these are good suggestions.  But while the U.S. should engage the ILO more in general (starting with signing more of the organization's conventions), influencing China through a tripartite body isn't simple--you have to rally U.S. businesses and labor, along with the bureaucracy. I doubt that American companies would heed a mere moral exhortation to stop getting in the way of China's labor reforms, as CAP implies, without some legislation at home holding them to the fire, such as an International Right to Know law. And Chinese officials, moreover, like the leaders of any country, are unlikely to be crazy about talking about their internal social security and health care policies as a part of high-level economic meetings with foreigners... and so this item will likely be quietly dropped, if it is pushed by the new president at all.

The truth of the matter is that though measures such as those recommended in the report can help, there is a glaring hole.  It is civil and political rights.  

CAP deals with this issue by essentially saying that the U.S. should scrap Guantanamo and end torture--"reestablish U.S. moral authority"--before it lectures anyone.  But freedom of speech and freedom of association are integral to the improved labor conditions sought by the report's writers in the PRC. And even reining in Chinese pollution is related to jobs, which are related to potential protests by the unemployed, which are related to rights... just as reining in pollution is related to jobs and angry voters and rights in the U.S.

I usually feel a bit uneasy whenever human rights, especially civil and political rights, are brought up in the context of country-to-country relations.  No country, least of all the U.S., seems qualified to throw the first stone.  Equally importantly, the involvement of nation states in rights discussions can undermine the work of unions, NGOs and private individuals by allowing them to be painted as the tools of foreign powers.  

There is a danger, too, as Balakrishnan Rajagopal suggests, of bringing rights into development discussions in particular.  The rhetoric of development tends to colonize rights, elevating some rights and downplaying others (Rajagopal's example is how evictions for infrastructure projects are viewed as more understandable than evictions for purely political reasons).  

But when rights are nearly entirely ignored in elite policy--what Tibet protests?  what jailed petitioners?--it is hard not to worry that rights have dropped in importance and will begin a slow decline into obscurity.  

How should rights be addressed, then?  

Perhaps enhanced exchange is the solution.  China and the U.S. have an ongoing human rights dialog now, of course, but it is unproductive, at least judging from Assistant Secretary Kramer's recent trip to Beijing. He had talks and talks, while dissidents who might mar his visit were rounded up (America's human rights were also conspicuously not on the table--it was solely a discussion of China and its problems).  

A better model might be a public, joint run-down of mutual complaints, perhaps based on each country's human rights reports on the other (China periodically puts out a report on U.S. human rights, just as the U.S. State Department does on other countries). 

But I really don't know what would work.  This, along with cold-blooded interest, is at the core of any debate about the U.S. and China and it has no easy solutions.


Zhuang Fei said...

But perhaps the rhetoric of "advocating human-rights in China" is merely a means of appeasing a general public sentiment that demands its leaders do this as just one of many things on a long laundry list of to-dos.

Or perhaps it is political leverage for other countries to pressure China economically or geopolitically. How much influence this actually has on the Chinese decision-making process is negligible, I believe.

Old Tales Retold said...

I think much of this rhetoric falls into the first category you gave: "...appeasing a general public sentiment that demands its leaders do this as a just one of many things on a long laundry list of to-dos." Groups like CAP are one conduit for American public opinion, if more often than not only for elite opinion.

Regardless of where the human rights rhetoric comes from---public pressure or ulterior, geopolitical interests---human rights is inescapably an issue in U.S.-China relations, just as human rights are an issue in U.S.-EU relations (America's use of the death penalty spurred protests against Bush during his first trips to Europe; these protests were replaced later by protests against the American invasion of Iraq, Guantanamo, and torture).

What I found strange about the CAP report---and I should re-read the post to see if I'm repeating myself, but I'm being too lazy!---was that the report seemed to avoid the issue altogether, or more accurately, only dealt with rights in the context of the U.S. setting a better example.

Ultimately, there has to be some sort of mechanism for talking through this issue. The mechanism would have to be even-handed, with the U.S. human rights record also in question, and linked in some way to substantive policy.

Any ideas?

Zhuang Fei said...

I think that no matter what report CAP or any other Washington think-tank issues, the most crucial players in all of this (Chinese government officials) won't really take heed.

In fact, I highly doubt if the native Chinese (too busy finding a way to survive and find meaningful career paths in an economically-modernizing society complicated by money, power, and connections) or overseas Chinese (oftentimes exchange students too busy pursuing high-paying/stable jobs abroad as a means of justifying the high price of their education) would care much either. Every Chinese exchange student I've talked to seems bent on getting a job first, and simply acknowledging that "yea there are problems over there but hey it's not going to get fixed anytime soon". At first it was hard for me to accept such an attitude as huaqiao but I came to realize that they do have their reasons.

In the end I think such reports are not successful in bringing about significant social change in China because 1) even if the US government acts upon it it is unlikely that the Chinese government will respond, and 2) the Chinese government likely does not care much about what these reports say in the first place.

My solution for salvaging the future of China is to strengthen its legal system. Anecdotal evidence suggests that corruption is less embedded in police and local law enforcement than it is in local/regional government offices. Thus a stronger legal system (supported by an increasing number of lawyers) would serve as the foundation to allow China to solve many of its own problems, just like it has in the past.

Old Tales Retold said...

I agree that strengthening the legal system in China is vitally important. I would say, though, that this strengthening needs to work in tandem with other changes. There needs to be pressure for social reform, for example.

In fact, I think in many countries the legal system has changed precisely because it had to deal with new demands from people who had previously been excluded from the political process (or were being excluded and were demanding in).

I agree there's plenty of apathy in China, as in a lot of countries. And reports don't add up to all that much. At least, perhaps, we can start conversations.