March 16, 2000

Human Rights and Trade Policies

The existence of the World Trade Organization as something of a talisman of hope or of evil, depending on one’s predilections and the obvious continuance of gross and blatant human rights violations by the mainland Chinese regime make it difficult to view the range of possible relationships between the United States and China with anything resembling dispassion. So I would like to ask readers to engage in a thought experiment that posits the possibility that something other than the current alternatives groveling to the Chinese in the name of "free trade" and profits or treating China as a potentially hostile regime or even a current enemy might be possible.

The question I would like to ponder is under what kind of politico-economic arrangement critics of human rights abuses, both in government and in private organizations, would have the most moral authority to criticize such abuses in China. A related question, which I doubt can be answered with certainty, is under what sort of international arrangement critics of China’s manifest abuses of the people over whom its rulers claim power might have the best chance of influencing change in a positive direction which I take to be some notable reduction in such abuses.


I take it as something of a given that the Chinese regime, still putatively Communist in character (although it’s likely that the communism serves more as a cover for the old guard hanging onto power than as something sincerely believed by more than a handful) engages in gross human rights violations. The crackdown on what appears to be the relatively innocuous Falun Gong "sect," dubbed "Strike Hard" in 1999, has continued and been made formally permanent in 2000, with several thousand more practitioners swept into prison. The government continues to terrorize Christian "home churches" not granted official status and recognition by the government.

In Shandong province recently, police beat a 60-year-old woman to death with their bare hands. Also in Shandong, government "hospital workers" forced a feeding tube down the throat of a hunger striker, rupturing his lungs and trachea so that he drowned in his own blood.

The U.S. State Department’s annual human rights report on China, released in February, noted that China’s "poor human rights record deteriorated markedly throughout the year." Censorship of the press and suppression of religious activities were intensified. An internal security assault on vocal critics of the regime was "broadened and intensified." Government "extrajudicial killings," along with "torture," "forced confessions," "arbitrary arrest" and "incommunicado detention" were "widespread and well-documented."


The US State Department might be viewed as something other than an impartial observer a problem worth more exploration later – considering the US constituencies with a stake in Chinese policy and various political cross-currents. But many human rights experts, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have some respect for these reports, and most of their inquiries tell similar tales. "VIP Reference," a journal published by Chinese dissidents in the US, has chronicled attempts to crack down on cyberspace, specifically the December closed-door trial of Lin Hai, a computer entrepreneur who gave 30,000 Chinese e-mail addresses to the journal.

The Information Centre of Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China, based in Hong Kong, documents similar atrocities, including the closing of 200 newspapers in December along with attacks on home churches.

In short, the mainland Chinese regime remains brutal and totalitarian. Some of this brutality may reflect the frustration of the old men in power who seem helpless to cope with harder economic times after a decade of growth and seem to know at some level of consciousness that they can’t hold back the tide of change forever. But the reasons matter little to those brutalized by the regime.


The tools available under current policy options to people in the United States and elsewhere in the world who are genuinely horrified by such repression are of dubious morality or effectiveness. The Clinton administration wavers between toadying and sounding tough sending the president to China to compliment and suck up to Chinese leaders in the hopes that they’ll play nice sooner or later, then criticizing from the safety of Washington. Neo-conservatives and some elements of the religious right seem to believe that a judicious application of economic sanctions and military threats will do the job.

From a moral standpoint, both approaches are problematic. The administration this year wants China given permanent "normal" trade relations with the US as a prelude to welcoming the mainland into the vaunted World Trade Organization. This course requires a good deal of winking, nodding and make-believe. The State Department report, for example, was issued with as little publicity or fanfare as possible, lest it get in the way of "improved relations" or "constructive engagement."

Going the sanctions and military buildup route involves using coercion (on one’s own people; it is US businesspeople whose activities are restricted since even the US doesn’t yet claim direct authority over the Chinese) and the threat of coercion and/or outright war. And as has been the case with Cuba and Iraq, the sanctions are almost certain to impose much more suffering on ordinary Chinese people the putative objects of our humanitarian concern than on the government leaders who oppress them. Sanctions more often strengthen the hand of a repressive regime, becoming a scapegoat on which to blame economic stagnation and domestic policy failures and often enough a pretext for renewed domestic repression.

Both these policies, pandering and punishing, claim to be "realistic." But if the object is genuine change in the direction of more political and economic freedom, it is hard to argue that they have accomplished much. The Chinese regime might well continue or intensify repression for strictly domestic reasons tales of large numbers of unemployed Chinese roaming the countryside in the wake of economic distress seem genuine enough. But sanctions or the threat of sanctions provide a handy pretext that authoritarian regimes have seldom been slow to use to justify some crackdown they wanted to do anyway.

Meanwhile, the pander/criticize stance of the administration the preferred approach of most foreign policy elites lacks consistency and deprives US authorities of any semblance of moral authority. It is easy for Chinese leaders to sell US bouts of criticism as simply opportunistic ways to forward constantly shifting policy goals rather than genuine concern often enough with a great deal of justification.

Text-only printable version of this article

Alan Bock is Senior Essayist at the Orange County Register and a weekly columnist for WorldNetDaily. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995). His exclusive column now appears every Thursday on

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But what if official US policy were different than either of these alternatives? What if, preferably as part of a larger reorientation of US policy around the world, the US government announced that it would eliminate all tariffs and other barriers to trade between the US and China, while abjuring any official effort to influence, pressure, change, shift or "reform" domestic Chinese policy. In other words, US policy would be full engagement, with as few barriers as possible, at the level of economic, social, cultural, tourist-related and personal interchange, and as little engagement one way or another as possible at the level of political and diplomatic pressure.

In other words, the US would become, as former President John Quincy Adams famously advocated, "the friend of freedom everywhere but the guardian only of its own." Economic relationships would no longer be tied to or controlled by political and military ( i.e., imperial) goals. The US would announce that it recognizes fully that no regime, including itself, has anything resembling a perfect record on respecting human rights or promoting human freedom. Aside from maintaining a sufficient defense to guard against any imminent threats of invasion or military blackmail (which might well include a missile defense capability) the United States would concentrate on protecting and extending freedom in the United States, being content to serve as an example to the rest of the world rather than a vocal instructor or military enforcer of the ideals it claims to hold dear.


It seems unlikely that the United States would ever adopt such a policy. Yet I warrant that the vast majority of ordinary Americans would prefer it to the present policy of asserting the right to intervene in whatever country displeases us this week. And even radical changes in policy do occur over time.

In his fascinating and valuable (if sometimes disconcertingly wrongheaded) recent survey of the history of the 20th century Jude Wanniski notes some of the history of the approach to tariffs in the US this century. The Smoot-Hawley tariffs in 1929 pushed these taxes to unexpectedly high levels (much higher than in 1913) and, I believe (though others disagree) were a major factor in bringing on the Great Depression. They were so punitive that they blocked a good deal of trade.

When policymakers recognized some of the ill effects of such tariffs, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, they reduced some of them through the stratagem of "most-favored-nation" exceptions to them for countries US elites wanted to woo politically or trade with extensively. Then, beginning with the General Agreement on Tariff and Trade, (GATT, the precursor of the WTO) the "developed" countries in the late 1940s announced that their goal was to reduce tariffs and barriers to almost zero through reciprocal international agreements. This led to some genuine reductions. But the language of the Smoot-Hawley regime remained, and those with whom the US maintained relatively unhampered trade relations still went by the "most favored nation" moniker, as if free trade were a benefit reserved only for the politically privileged.

In the past couple of years, however, Madeleine Albright and other diplomats have come to use the term "normal trade relations" to describe the relationship they want with China. To be sure, their preference is not for genuine free trade but for trade heavily managed, more often in the service of political ends than of impartially applied rules, by international bureaucracies of the enlightened and wise amongst us. But the psychological shift is underway: relatively unhampered trade is to be seen as "normal" rather than something reserved for the "most favored."

It will take a long time and in all likelihood the replacement of most of those who run foreign policy now, along with the Bushies waiting in the wings before genuinely free trade, with almost no government control rather than constant government control, is viewed as "normal." But we could well be moving in that direction. The Internet and e-money are pushing us in that direction.


Now for the thought experiment. In such a regime of free as in free of government control and management trade, accompanied by a political policy of non-intervention and war avoidance, what would become of the moral authority of US critics of human rights policies and practices in China and elsewhere?

I suggest that not only would more private groups which would be free to organize boycotts and other voluntary forms of economic pressure become involved in trying to reduce human rights abuses, but the government (or what remained of it) would have more credibility. Imagine a US president who would be able to say, in honesty, something like the following:

"Now you know that we’re not going to start a political crusade or impose economic sanctions because we’ve determined they are harmful to our own freedom, which is our highest goal. But I must say that what is going on in China is utterly deplorable. Some Americans, as is their right, refuse to do business in China because of the way the regime represses non-official religions. I assert no right nor do I have any wish to force the Chinese to change their policies. We’ll continue to allow trade. But I urge my associates in the Chinese government to consider not just how bad such policies make the regime look in the eyes of decent people throughout the world, but to consider the opportunities the Chinese people are losing not only by the loss of investment and trade from foreign businesspeople who are repulsed by repression, but by keeping the creative and constructive abilities of the Chinese people in chains."

I maintain that it is very possible not guaranteed but possible that an American president who had renounced political and military pressure would have enhanced moral authority to make such a statement. Since he would not be seeking to change policies, the criticism could not be seen as a justification for new policies of hostility.

The major determinant of the content of criticism could very well be and perhaps even be generally seen as being the truth rather than whatever would give the president a temporary advantage in the constant jousting of great powers. Having given up the Great Power game, the United States would not only be more influential as an example, it could very well have more moral authority than it possesses now.


This enhanced moral authority is hardly a sure thing. Different US presidents might very well have different levels of character and different images in the world. Some might be respected and some might be despised. And there is certainly no guarantee that the Chinese or anybody else would listen to a credible criticism and decide to straighten up immediately.

But might not such a regime be worth a try? I still believe the vast majority of Americans would prefer to live in a country that leads by example rather than by force. And the risks of such a policy, while not invisible, would be relatively minimal. Yes, there would likely still be aggressors in the world, but a defense devoted to actual defense rather than to policing the world should be able to keep most American relatively safe. As the economy grew as a result of more resources being available to the constructive sector rather than to the government, as the country became increasingly decentralized, with pockets of power dispersed, the costs of invasion or conquest would rise accordingly.

Most of all, however, Americans might have the chance to live in a country of which they could be unreservedly proud. And the citizens of any country that adopted similar policies would have the same opportunity.

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