At Foreign Policy, former Amnesty International Executive Director William F. Schultz considers how to “pressure Beijing.” Aside from taking a little too literally Chinese government statements about “the Chinese” and their supposed hurt feelings, Schultz, who is now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress (disclosure: my former employer), makes an interesting suggestion:
What is the appropriate tack to take? The most successful human rights engagement with China—such as that of John Kamm, a former head of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong who has intervened on behalf of hundreds of political prisoners—is characterized by what one might call respectful tenaciousness. Trying to crack Chinese Internet censorship or highlighting the cases of those mistreated for seeking to advance the rule of law or exercise free speech, for instance, is always appropriate. But so is applauding China’s attempts to control corruption or experiment with local elections.
Effective human rights work requires two things. First, it requires a tragic sense of history—a recognition that, no matter what we do, we will never be able to save everyone from misery or suffering. Sometimes, for example, despite its immense power and resources, the U. S. government’s own ability to influence human rights is limited, and its willingness to do so in a bold way is compromised by competing interests. We who care about human rights would do well to recognize that and shape our recommendations to the U.S. government accordingly. Otherwise, we risk even greater marginalization than we already experience.
But secondly, good human rights work requires persistence and a long view, the recognition that human rights have become the lingua franca for much of the world and a ticket of admission to widely honored membership in the international community. The United States with its plummeting approval ratings around the globe has learned that the hard way. China too will learn eventually that the best way to avert hurt feelings is to avoid prompting criticism in the first place.
The whole construct of “pressure” feels problematic, but I think what Schultz proposes is a significantly more sensitive tack for advocacy and diplomacy. It’s an open question, though, whether a government that stakes much of its domestic persona on a national sense of pride will really change behaviour for the sake of avoiding criticism.