One of the least attractive rituals of spring — skirmishing between Beijing and Washington over Chinese human-rights practices — is already under way. The first volley was fired last month with the publication of the U.S. State Department’s annual human-rights report. It took Beijing to task for a deterioration in civil rights last year, prompting denials and countercharges by the government in China.

China should be called to account for its behavior, but this particular ritual is not the best way to get results. Aggressive U.S. efforts to protect human rights worldwide may be well-intended, but they are unlikely to work; a multilateral program is better. Just as important, a change in emphasis is needed. Holding China up to Western standards has little impact in that country; holding the government in Beijing up to its own standards is the way to proceed.

In its annual survey of human rights around the world, the State Department charged that “the Chinese government’s poor human-rights record has worsened, and it continued to commit numerous serious abuses.” The concerted effort to crush the Falun Gong group, whose stubborn defiance of Beijing has prompted even harsher repression, was singled out, as was China’s ongoing campaign to stamp out nationalism in Tibet.

Beijing rolled out its now familiar litany of countercharges: The West was interfering in Chinese domestic affairs, the United States used unrealistic standards to assess Chinese behavior and, adopting the line that the best defense is a good offense, Beijing countered with its own assessment of U.S. human-rights practices. It concluded, to no one’s surprise, that the U.S. did a poor job protecting the rights of its own citizens.

The fight will continue when the United Nations Human Rights Commission meets later this month in Geneva. There, the U.S. will once again offer a resolution condemning China’s human-rights practices. That resolution is likely to fail, since China will be exerting every bit of leverage it has, marshaling forces to vote against the resolution.

The process is frustrating. In fact, it’s hard not to conclude that it does the U.S. a disservice: Washington looks like a bully, it seems hypocritical (not only do standards sometimes depend on the target government, but America’s willingness to do business with those same governments looks strange, to say the least) and ineffectual. Rarely does U.S. condemnation produce any change.

That does not mean that the process is pointless. The energy that China devotes to fending off the charges is proof enough that public condemnation stings. In a move that appears designed to deflect criticism at the Geneva meeting, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress last week ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights four years after Beijing signed the pact. Beijing’s willingness to release political prisoners ahead of big bilateral meetings, like its attempt to soft-pedal human rights during the International Olympic Committee’s visit to Beijing last month to assess its bid to host the 2008 Games, is more evidence that China understands the West’s approach and can play the human-rights card when it needs to.

But scoring points is not the issue; getting Beijing to adopt less repressive human-rights policies is. And changing that behavior has remained beyond the West’s grasp — at least so far.

There is an alternative, argues Jeffrey Wasserstrom, an associate professor of history at Indiana University. “Washington’s criticisms of China should take as their starting point Beijing’s own claims about history and politics,” argues Wasserstrom. “The best way to get the Chinese leadership to sit up and listen is to point out how its current policies resemble those of historic groups to which it claims to be superior.”

Writing in World Policy Journal, Wasserstrom makes his case for holding China to its own standards. He notes, for example, that the Chinese Communist Party’s condemnation of prodemocracy activists in Tiananmen Square in 1989 was reminiscent of the rhetoric Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek used to discredit the communists in the 1940s. The killings in June 1989 are hard to distinguish from the use of force by foreign-run police forces against anti-imperialist riots in 1925.

To take another tack, the West could point out that Chinese emperors issued pardons and amnesties when they took power to get their rule off to a good start. “The amnesties allowed even criminals who had committed violent acts to be set free, while [President Jiang Zemin], Washington might have noted, was unwilling to release even a few prisoners of conscience,” writes Wasserstrom.

“Washington might have stressed that . . . Jiang Zemin had begun his period of rule in a far less benevolent fashion than had some heads of the supposedly much more autocratic imperial dynasties of the distant past.”

Of course, the Chinese leadership will do what it thinks necessary to protect its position. As “The Tiananmen Papers” has made clear, the CCP elite felt the prodemocracy activists posed a direct threat to its survival. The current government, made up of men who either made those decisions or owe their positions to those leaders, is unlikely to reverse policy or rewrite history — not when such a move would undermine its own legitimacy.

But recasting the human-rights argument in Chinese terms would make it easier for any successor government to do just that. By framing human-rights policy decisions within a distinctly national context, those men and women would have protection against charges that they had bowed to foreign pressure. It would also allow them to claim that they were acting consistently with Communist Party ideals.

This new approach would not create a new constituency for change, but it would allow like-minded forces in China to be assertive without fear of being attacked as foreign lackeys. Showing a little understanding of Chinese history and a sensitivity to its domestic politics could pay dividends in its own right.

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