NEW DELHI — With a Nobel Peace Prize to his credit, U.S. President Barack Obama was widely expected to advance universal values. Yet he has signaled that promotion of human rights is a tool to be used only against the small kids on the global block who hold no major economic benefits for the United States — the Burmas and the Belaruses.
In relation to the world’s largest and oldest autocracy, China — which has intensified its crackdown on democracy activists, Internet freedom and ethnic minorities — Obama has only compounded the mistake of his secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who in 2009 said that the U.S. will not let the human-rights issue “interfere” with closer Sino-American relations.
Chinese President Hu Jintao’s just-concluded U.S. tour was noteworthy not for his grudging admission that his country has a subpar human-rights record, with China’s state-run media promptly expurgating his comment that “a lot still needs to be done in China in terms of human rights.” Rather the visit was notable for the manner Obama bent over backward at the joint news conference with Hu to virtually rationalize China’s human-rights abuses.
Asked by a questioner to explain “how the U.S. can be so allied with a country that is known for treating its people so poorly [and] for using censorship and force to repress its people,” Obama replied that “China has a different political system than we do”; that “China is at a different stage of development than we are”; and that “there has been an evolution in China over the last 30 years” and “my expectation is that 30 years from now we will have seen further evolution and further change.”
In truth, Obama followed in the footsteps of Hillary Clinton by publicly downgrading human rights in America’s China policy, contending that differences over “the universality of certain rights” will not come in the way of better relations with China because “part of human rights is people being able to make a living and having enough to eat and having shelter and having electricity.”
Although citizens in China now enjoy property rights, freedom to travel overseas and other rights that were unthinkable a generation ago, some things have changed for the worse, such as the greater repression in Tibet and Xinjiang, more-sophisticated information control and online censorship, and whipping up of virulent nationalism as the legitimating credo of communist rule. Yet Obama affirms that China is moving in the right direction and wants its suppressed citizens to patiently wait 30 years for further change.
The proffered rationalizations for repression, including earlier stage of development and the importance of alleviating poverty, beg the question: Why the macho approach, for example, against impoverished Burma, which, unlike China, has no record of routine executions, or employing gulag labor to make goods for export, or dispatching convicts as laborers on overseas projects?
During his recent Asian tour, Obama attacked Burma three times while in India, and then in Indonesia sung a line opposite to the one he intoned in Hu’s presence: “Prosperity without freedom is just another form of poverty.”
If Tunisia’s popular uprising holds a broader message, it is that U.S.-backed despots in the Arab world have created pressure-cooker societies, where the pent-up anger takes the form of fundamentalism, extremism and even terrorist violence. What Arab nations need is a safety valve — true democratic participation that would empower the masses and decide issues at the ballot box.
Yet narrow geopolitical interests crimp U.S. ability to promote democratic empowerment in the Arab world. A quiet cold war that pits the U.S., Israel and the Sunni oil sheikdoms against Iran, Syria and their allies, Hamas and Hezbollah, ostensibly validates Washington’s cozy relationships with despotic Sunni Arab regimes, including a jihad-bankrolling Saudi Arabia.
With Washington reluctant to push powerful Russia on human rights, the weight of democracy sanctions or pressures falls on the small, economically vulnerable states. Because such actions bring no economic pain in the form of job losses in the West or higher oil prices, the Cubas and Zimbabwes of the world have become the kickable “Chinas.”
But this raises a larger question: Can promotion of human freedom and the rule of law become a geopolitical tool wielded only against the weak and the marginalized? When the small, poor states fall victim, the world tends to turn a blind eye to even genocide. As the cases of Burundi and Rwanda showed, the world did nothing to stop genocidal killings there.
Obama’s leniency toward the big human-rights abusers overlooks an important connection between their internal and external policies. How China, for example, treats its citizens has an important bearing on the way it treats neighbors and other states. Freed from real pressure to adhere to universal values, any powerful autocracy will be less willing to play by the rules on trade, resource, security, currency and other issues. If anything, this opens up space for it to subtly help shape new international rules in the years ahead.
Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, is the author of “Asian Juggernaut” (HarperCollins USA, 2010).
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