Forty years ago, the arch-conservative American President Richard M. Nixon shocked his country and the world by visiting communist China, a country that the United States did not recognize and whose soldiers had fought American soldiers in the Korean war.

Last week, that historic occasion was marked in Beijing by Chinese and American officials — and by a former official, Henry Kissinger, who at 88 years of age is the only senior official who was intimately involved in the historic event who is not just alive but still active.

Much has happened since that visit in 1972, which signaled to the world that Washington was making a dramatic change in its China policy and that the diplomatic commitment to the Republic of China government in Taiwan, then still headed by dictator Chiang Kai-shek, was about to end.

China at the time was still in the grip of the Cultural Revolution. Interestingly, when then Premier Zhou Enlai offered to explain that tumultuous campaign to Kissinger during his secret visit the previous year, the American official initially demurred, saying he did not want to intrude into China’s internal affairs.

Similarly, Nixon, in his talks with the Chinese premier, said that he was only interested in China’s foreign policy and did not raise the issue of human rights.

Even U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who was deeply committed to human rights throughout his career, did not raise the issue when he formally extended American diplomatic recognition to China in 1979.

In those days, America’s need for Beijing’s cooperation to counter the Soviet Union was foremost in Washington’s mind and easily trumped human rights in China.

It was only after the 1989 Tiananmen Square military crackdown and the disintegration of the Soviet Union two years later that the United States took seriously Chinese human rights issues.

Ironically, the human rights situation in China, though still poor, is vastly superior to what it was in the 1970s, when Chairman Mao Zedong was regarded as a god and his word was law.

But now, again, America needs China’s cooperation on a whole range of issues, including Chinese help to revive the American economy by buying its debt and by accepting more American exports.

It is little wonder, then, that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on the eve of her first official visit to Beijing in 2009 that human rights would not be emphasized during her trip. And, as she asked then Australian prime minister, Kevin Rudd, how do you act tough with your banker?

For years, Western leaders have been telling China that improving human rights would be in its own interests.

As narrated by Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying while in Hong Kong last year, “a famous statesman said when criticizing China” that “only with improvement of human rights can a country be more prosperous, stable and successful.”

“I can agree with the statement,” the diplomat said. “But look around the world at this time, which country fits the three adjectives at the same time, ‘prosperous,’ ‘stable’ and ‘successful.’ The U.S.? Britain?”

Her answer was China. “We fit the three adjectives,” she said, “with confidence.”

So China, it seems, has shown that human rights as defined by the West are irrelevant, at least to a country’s economic success.

But why, then, did President Hu Jintao complain just the other day that the influence of Chinese culture is not commensurate with China’s international status, and that “the international culture of the West is strong while we are weak.”?

The Chinese leader was bemoaning China’s lack of soft power, or in Harvard international relations scholar Joseph Nye’s words, “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than through coercion.”

Why, Beijing should ask itself, is China not as influential as it should be despite its ancient civilization and its recognition as the world’s second largest economy?

The answer must be that other countries, while impressed by China’s great economic feats over the last three decades, do not find China attractive despite its “stability,” “prosperity” and “success.”

Evidently, China feels that it is not enough to be admired for its economic achievements and feared for its military might China, it seems, also wants to be liked, even loved.

To achieve that result, China needs to win the respect of the world by first respecting the rights of its own people, precisely because they are human rights.

No one can force China to behave in a certain way. China itself will have to determine what to do. And, if it wants the world to believe that it is truly a great civilized country, it will have to respect the rights of each individual Chinese citizen.

Frank Ching is a journalist and commentator based in Hong Kong.

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