China: The West Needs to Promote Both Trade and Human Rights

The historic meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Obama last week, billed as a chance to improve relations between the two superpowers, revolved largely around sensitive economic issues such as industrial cyber-espionage. Meanwhile, the news that the European Union has just lodged a complaint at the World Trade Organization against China is just the latest development in a rapidly escalating trade dispute. This growing preoccupation with trade threatens to sideline the wider issue of how best to promote human rights and democratic reform in China, a country whose political future is set to determine the course of the 21st century.

The Chinese leadership tends to stress its economic achievements in order to justify the continued oppression of its people, pointing to the millions who have been lifted out of poverty through three decades of rapid economic growth. But while it is important to recognize this progress, it in no way excuses the ongoing imprisonment and torture of political dissidents or the complete suppression of freedom of speech. It is completely disingenuous to suggest that China must choose between economic prosperity and political freedom. It can and must have both.

A handful of high-profile dissidents, including one of the authors of this piece, have come to embody the voice of Chinese protest in the West. But we are merely the tip of the iceberg. The brutal imposition of the one-child policy, endemic corruption and relentless political repression are all causing widespread anger with the Chinese authorities, from the victims of illegal land grabs to the growing numbers in the educated middle class who find themselves locked out of a decent career through lack of political connections. Whether it is through traditional rural demonstrations or new, modern forms of online protest, the Chinese people are increasingly expressing their frustration with the ruling Communist Party. Their voices cannot be ignored forever. As economic growth begins to slow and China faces up to its momentous social, environmental and demographic problems, calls for political reform will become impossible to ignore.

For the West, the question arises of how best to aid this process of reform. Some, both in Europe and the U.S., are demanding a much tougher approach towards China, including the imposition of punitive sanctions and high import tariffs. But this is undeniably motivated more by a desire to protect vested domestic economic interests, rather than as a way to put political pressure on the Chinese government. Crucially, such an approach risks fueling the perception that the voicing of human rights concerns is only used as a means of criticism in order to justify protectionist measures against China.

This would play into the hands of the Chinese Communist Party, which is keen to portray any Western interference as an attempt to contain China's growing global economic power. Moreover, putting up greater trade barriers would punish ordinary Chinese citizens and threaten the process of economic engagement that is bringing them into closer contact with the outside world. Finally, indiscriminate China-bashing risks unwittingly bolstering support for the current regime - by stoking the flames of nationalism and provoking resentment towards the West.

Instead, a targeted approach is needed which clearly distinguishes between the Chinese people and their government. Last month's decision by the US government to impose sanctions on 18 individual Russians accused of human rights violations is a good example. Another case in point is Germany, which has seen an explosive growth in trade with China over the last decade but has also taken a robust approach to human rights. Angela Merkel has led the way in trying to defuse the recent trade row between the EU and China. But since coming to power she has also been vocal in criticizing China's human rights record. This shows that the promotion of trade and human rights need not be mutually exclusive. Close engagement with China over economic issues should be combined with a strong and consistent line on human rights.

Last month, we launched a transatlantic pact between the EU and US to highlight individual human rights abuses in China and around the world. We believe that a strong and coordinated approach will prevent China from playing a divide and rule strategy, and that the combined economic and political clout of the EU and U.S. will draw more attention to the plight of political prisoners and help to secure their release. Furthermore, such an approach should amplify the voices of Chinese political activists and civil society groups and embolden their calls for bottom-up political reform. However, such efforts will be undermined if the U.S. and EU member states are perceived to criticize the Chinese government solely for their own self-interested economic reasons.

Western governments must also guard against hypocrisy by addressing their own human rights problems. The recent revelations over U.S. online surveillance, as well as longstanding issues such as Guantanamo Bay and drone strikes, all give ammunition to the Chinese regime, which now publishes its own highly critical annual human rights reports on the United States. The failure of Western countries to condemn the human rights abuses of close allies such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain also gives rise to accusations of double standards. Such hypocrisy must be addressed if the West is to be truly credible in its efforts to promote human rights abroad.

Ultimately, the Chinese government will not be able to resist the growing internal pressure for political reform. Throughout history, there has been no authoritarian regime which has not eventually crumbled before the inherent human desire for justice and freedom. But by showing solidarity with political dissidents while promoting China's ongoing integration into the global economy, the U.S. and Europe can strengthen progressive social and political forces and encourage a stable, democratic transition. Combining economic engagement with consistent political pressure over human rights is the best way to promote China's emergence as a peaceful global power, and ensure that the Chinese people are given the government they deserve.

Chen Guangcheng, blind Chinese human rights activist

Edward McMillan-Scott, Vice-President of the European Parliament for Democracy & Human Rights and Transatlantic Relations