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Commentary by Gao Wenqian: Human Rights and the U.S.-China Diplomatic Chessboard

January 19, 2017

HRIC Senior Policy Advisor Gao Wenqian shares his views on U.S.-China relations reshaped under Donald Trump and some surprising implications for the human rights situation in China.

Human Rights and the U.S.-China Diplomatic Chessboard

Gao Wenqian

Human rights have always been a piece on the U.S.-China diplomatic chessboard. While the United States upholds liberty, democracy, and human rights as its founding ideals, national interest considerations have always guided its foreign policies. This is true of all past U.S. administrations, both Republican and Democratic. President-elect Trump’s clamor to “Make America Great Again”—though demagogic and pie-in-the-sky—flows from the same vein. Any perceivable variations merely reflect the shifting priorities of America’s national interests over time.

Nixon’s rapprochement with China was motivated by the strategic necessity of “forging alliance with China against the Soviet Union” during the Cold War. The same thinking has been maintained by all ensuing administrations. Carter, though long known for his commitment to protecting human rights, established official diplomatic relations with China soon after he took office. After China’s June Fourth crackdown, Bush Sr. barely waited for the blood to dry before sending a special envoy to secretly meet with Deng Xiaoping and reach an agreement on preserving U.S.-China relations. Clinton, having pledged to never coddle “tyrants, from Beijing to Baghdad” during his campaign, soon went on to extend the most-favored-nation (MFN) status to China, delinking human rights from trade. Even Hillary Clinton, who would normally emphasize human rights principles, stated that human rights would not be on the agenda of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue. Since the end of the Cold War, the world’s democratic countries—with the U.S. at the forefront—have adopted a policy of appeasement toward China, consistently yielding, feebly, to China under the assumption that China’s democratization will come naturally with its economic development. That this was a fallacy has only started to sink in over the past couple of years. While certainly a positive development, the realization has come too late: grave mistakes had already been made.

Now, let’s look at the Chinese side of this diplomatic history. When the Communist Party of China (CPC) first took power, Mao Zedong adopted the “leaning to one side” (一边倒) strategy and formed an alliance with the Soviet Union against the United States. Later, after China and the Soviet Union turned against each other, Mao launched “Ping-Pong diplomacy” (乒乓外交), holding out an olive branch to the United States. The move clicked with Nixon’s game plan, resulting in what Kissinger referred to as a “quasi-alliance” between the United States and China against the Soviet Union, thus triangulating global strategic relations. But after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the original strategic context for the triangular relations ceased to exist. Under Deng Xiaoping’s guiding principle of “laying low while cultivating strength” (韬光养晦), China cast aside the socialist banner in order to pursue a policy of “getting rich while keeping a low profile” (闷声发大财). And beginning with the Jiang Zemin administration, that policy gradually morphed into one of close economic ties with the U.S. (while staying “cold” on political ties) and close political ties with Russia (while staying “cold” on economic ties). Since Xi Jinping took office to lead a rising China, he has overturned the CPC’s collective leadership system, reversed the “laying low while cultivating strength” strategy, rejected universal values and international human rights standards, challenged international rules and attempted to lead the way to change them, and become a troublemaker in the international community.

Many observers believe Trump’s election win signals a reversal of globalization. But in fact, the problem is not globalization itself. It is the unequal trade-offs that democratic and autocratic countries have made in doing businesses with each other in the course of globalization. China disobeys international rules and pursues economic development at the expense of the environment and human rights. These actions have severely damaged American’s interests, hollowing out its economy and enervating its industries. Under these circumstances, American transnational companies and the Chinese government have been the biggest beneficiaries, while the American and Chinese people have become the victims: Americans get cheap goods but lose their jobs; Chinese migrant workers get work opportunities but have no human rights protection at all. If Trump really would like to successfully tackle U.S. unemployment and trade imbalances, he should recognize China’s human rights issues. They are not just China’s problem, but also the world’s problem. If China’s human rights issues are not effectively solved, the American people will be greatly harmed as well.

The United States is the only country that China fears. Relations with the U.S. are a cornerstone of China’s domestic and foreign policies, where even the slightest disturbance can set off a domino effect. The two countries have different social institutions and totally different value systems. While many areas of cooperation between the two in economy, trade, and international affairs exist, many conflicts over interests and values also arise from geopolitical considerations and economic cooperation. Contention has progressively escalated over the past few years and threatens to outweigh cooperation. Among the four major topics of U.S.-China relations—international security, economics and trade, human rights, and the environment—human rights are the most embarrassing issues for China and are absolutely off limits because they concern the legitimacy of the CPC regime. No member of the international community is allowed to cross this red line.

For this reason, during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, senior CPC leaders did an internal assessment of the candidates. They concluded that Hillary Clinton would pose tougher challenges to China due to her emphasis on democratic and liberal values; and businessman Donald Trump, vowing to put America first and prioritize economic interests, would not be inclined to fight hard to defend American values. They believe that Trump will only focus on economic disputes with China and brush aside human rights issues. Moreover, Trump also advocates for downscaling the U.S. global strategic position, which will allow China a chance to catch a breath, a “period of strategic opportunity,” in China’s official parlance. Based on these considerations, the Chinese leadership decided to help Trump in the election despite not believing that he would win. Unlike Russia’s blatant hacking attempts to interfere with the U.S. election, China’s approach was more covert: chiefly, disseminate through WeChat (微信) groups a large number of fake news stories aimed to smear Hillary Clinton. This was an important factor that turned many traditionally apolitical Chinese Americans into vocal Trump supporters.

But Trump is in fact not someone who is so easy to deal with and may prove a tough adversary for China. According to informed sources, after Trump got elected, the CPC senior leadership was at a loss and the Chinese diplomatic circle scrambled frantically, but failed to find someone with personal connections with Trump for a prompt introduction. In a desperate rush to please Trump, the powers-that-be let him win a trademark lawsuit that had dragged on in China for ten years. But Trump was not impressed. Exploiting the ambiguous political implications of his actions as the President-elect, Trump moved preemptively with a telephone call with the Taiwan leader Tsai Ing-wen, challenging the “One China” policy and sparking a huge controversy. Furthermore, the manifest mutual fondness between Trump and Putin may even presage a U.S. strategic pivot toward Russia to contain China. 

Even though Trump is politically illiterate and inexperienced in governance, he is a sharp businessman and knows how to apply his business negotiation skills and strategies to international affairs. He would array all the chips that can give him leverage over his opponents to test their limits, to get the upper- hand at the negotiation table, and force his adversaries to surrender. Trump’s real target was not Taiwan’s political status per se. The move was a feint, using Taiwan as leverage to pressure China into economic and trade concessions, so that he would be able to keep his campaign promise to his voters.

The Trump-Tsai phone call broke a long-standing protocol on China upheld by past U.S. administrations, hitting China precisely where it hurts. The Taiwan issue is the key item in what China sees as its “core interests” and the most sensitive subject in U.S.-China relations. In the words of the Taiwanese writer Li Ao (李敖), “Taiwan is China’s balls.” Trump’s playing of the Taiwan card to force China into economic and trade concessions is an unbearable blow to a China that is already facing a deteriorating economy on all fronts. Economic troubles are the biggest political problem for the Chinese leadership because economic growth has been the lifeline of the CPC regime. An economic collapse would bring about social crises and even political ones. China now finds itself in a quandary where moves in either direction—economic or political—may invite more troubles.

For years, the Chinese authorities have relied on inciting nationalistic sentiments to bolster popular cohesion. This strategy is proving dangerous at this moment. Trump’s challenge of the “One China” policy has effectively “touched the tiger’s bottom” (摸了老虎的屁股). It has put China in a bind, as neither a soft nor a hard stance seems a viable option: a soft stance would risk the Chinese government’s loss of credibility at home and a chain reaction abroad, which might prompt other countries to follow suit; and, given his erratic and unpredictable nature, a hard response is likely to provoke Trump and further sour relations between the two countries, leading to more severe consequences. Having been able to get its way in the world for so long, China suddenly has to deal with Trump, the loose cannon. After weighing its options, China appears to have had no choice but to exercise restraint for now. As the Chinese saying goes: “Even a bully fears a loose cannon” (横的怕楞的).

Admittedly, it would not be an easy task for Trump to change the paradigm of U.S.-China relations some 40 years in the making, especially given the fact that China has become a major power and that the two countries are intricately connected in areas such as economics, trade, and international security. U.S.-China relations will most likely be fraught with friction and disputes during Trump’s term, while remaining in a general state of “fighting but not fracturing” (斗而不破). But the problem is that China is now in troubled times with its economy deteriorating on all fronts and the CPC steeped in an internal power struggle in advance of  the 19th CPC National Congress this fall. To make things worse, Trump’s challenge to the “One China” policy has shaken a cornerstone of China’s domestic and foreign policies. The combination will definitely affect China and produce a chain reaction. Let’s wait and see what happens.

The progress of human rights in China demands international pressure, in which the leadership role of the United States is of utmost importance. That being said, it is the Chinese people themselves who need to fight hard for their own rights. Even though human rights are just a chess piece on the U.S.-China diplomatic chessboard, once U.S.-China relations are destabilized, the existing world order will be transformed, and perhaps an opportunity would emerge to push for progress in China. Granted, Trump tends to make empty promises, is not inclined to fight hard to defend American values, and probably couldn’t care less about China’s human rights situation. But this does not mean that he couldn’t use human rights issues to pressure China. Doing so would put Xi Jinping in an even bigger predicament, running him ragged. To those who are concerned with human rights in China, now might not be the time to despair. The show has just begun.