The US 2012 Election and China: why a real dialogue about human rights will never happen

Despite a prominent presence in the campaign, US policy towards China is very unlikely to change - especially on the hyper-sensitive topic of human rights.

Scholars and commentators have been very assiduous spectators of US-Chinese relations in this US presidential election year. Various kinds of predictions and socio-political prognostications have been drawn over the last few months, either about a second term for the Obama administration or a new Romney administration. Specifically, US foreign policy towards the rising China has become one of the key themes of debate between the two candidates. Romney has promised that if he was to become president, he would label China as a 'currency manipulator'. He has also repeatedly accused China of stealing intellectual property from the US. During his first term, Obama's shift towards a tougher stance on China - the second-largest trading partner and largest holder of US securities – became apparent after a state visit in 2009. And, on Beijing's side, the increasing geopolitical importance of the new 'Great Game' in the South China Sea (where China thinks the US are steadily building a new containment policy), the Dalai Lama's visit to the White House last year, and American inaction on the sovereignty dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Island between China and Japan, have seemingly upset the People's Republic, troubling relations with the Obama administration.

China-bashing has become a common strategy for both candidates during the presidential campaign. The campaign itself has partly shaped the perception US citizens have of China – many are now convinced there will be a new wave of 'Yellow Peril' with the emergence of an irresponsible Leviathan that will harm Americans’ vital economic and political interests. Conversely, Chinese mainstream media also cosnpires to formulate a simulacrum of an encroaching American imperialism; China’s peaceful rise has been intentionally and repeatedly disturbed by Washington.

What about the human rights dialogue between the two giant superpowers? The Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations have all expressed concerns and/or condemned cases of human rights abuse in China. For instance, during Wen Jiabao's visit to the US in 2011, Obama said, "History shows that societies are more harmonious, nations are more successful and the world is more just when the rights and responsibilities of all nations and all people are upheld, including the universal rights of every human being." When Liu Xiaobo received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 (while imprisoned in China as a political dissident), Obama also commented that "Mr. Liu reminds us that human dignity also depends upon the advance of democracy, open society, and the rule of law. The values he espouses are universal, his struggle is peaceful, and he should be released as soon as possible."

For Beijing, a fervent supporter of the principle of non-intervention and a classical vision of sovereignty, human rights-related issues are domestic affairs that aren't open to any foreign interference. Moreover, the concept of 'Asian values' strengthens the arguments of Beijing officials - that China is a very different country that adheres to different social and political arrangements. Specifically, Confucianism, which emphasises family values and 'benevolent despotism', has become a socio-political prescription for Asian countries since the late 1990s. In other words, China respects human rights, but the list of rights should be open to interpretation and re-prioritisation depending on its cultural context – and possibly very different from the western definition. For example, China, according to Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, should above all emphasise, "the right to adequate clothing and food" (Wenbaoquan).

As a consequence of these diverging views, there has been never been a real dialogue about human rights. There has never been a solid attempt to increase cooperation with regard to the touchy subjects. Rather, all we have witnessed (from both sides) has been the theatrical monologues each camp delivers to its own citizens adapted according to their social expectations. For the US, the human rights rhetoric and meetings with figures such as the Dalai Lama are necessary symbols to keep the moral high ground in the international arena, whitewashing the human rights atrocities that lie at the door of the US. More importantly, these symbols are proofs for US citizens that the US is the unrivalled exporter of liberal democracy. For China, the 'Ministry of Truth' in every administration department utilises the academic and cultural resources of 'Asian values', 'Orientalism', 'American Imperialism' to justify the regime's own atrocities: there is a strong enemy out there, but we are doing just fine. There could be some 'hiccups' – 'necessary costs' - during the process, but sooner or later, we will prevail. 'Asian values', by that time, will be universal.

Alas, this is why a 'human rights dialogue' between the US and China will not take place, not even after the 2012 election. The standard repertoire of human rights rhetorical stances are merely tools for the US and China: above all else, both of them need to win the hearts and minds of their own people.

This article is part of the 'How it looks from here' openDemocracy feature on the 2012 US elections. For more worldwide perspectives on the presidential race, click here.

About the author

Antony Ou is the Research Director of China Focus at the Centre for Strategic Research and Analysis (CESRAN) and China Review Editor at Political Reflection Quarterly.

 

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