What America Must Do: The China SyndromeBy Yang Jianli
January/February 2008Showing that U.S. friendship is not for sale will earn the respect of a billion people.
Many people think that the United States’ influence has waned and its image has been tarnished. I have yet to arrive at the same conclusion. Since I was released from a Chinese prison in April 2007, having served five years for investigating labor unrest, I have spoken to a great number of people around the world about this very topic. In my mind, the United States remains a great country, and its people a great people. It continues to be the only global force with the authority to promote democratization and safeguard freedom and security. I do believe, however, that the United States has a consistency problem. It is a country that was founded on the principles of freedom, democracy, and certain inalienable rights of the common people, but the desire to meet short-term interests tends to compromise faithfulness to these principles. That inconsistency weakens American credibility. Since the violent crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989, U.S. policy toward China has been fickle, even erratic. One day, trade is used as leverage to promote human rights in China, and the next day a thousand reasons are given why that leverage should not be used. Many people wrongly assume that pressuring the Chinese government on human rights triggers ill will toward Americans on the part of ordinary Chinese citizens. In fact, it is the United States’ constant seesawing that reinforces the popular belief that Americans only act for their own material gain. The lofty statements followed by inaction have led the Chinese people to conclude that some American politicians, scholars, and businesspeople are hypocrites. Their self-imposed censorship when dealing with the Chinese government is disappointing. I have never opposed trading with China, but I cannot support a policy that is so wholly inconsistent. The next American president can take concrete steps to demonstrate that U.S. policy on China cannot be bought and sold. Human rights conditions, no matter how small, should be attached to every issue the United States brings to China. Little by little, the United States must push for change. The administration should systematically and publicly engage Chinese democrats both within and outside China, with the long-term goal of helping to establish a constitutional democracy. And finally, the United States should push China to hold local elections. Beijing is not wholly opposed to the idea, because it may help diminish the local corruption and abuses of power that the central government is eager to curb. Promoting democracy and freedom around the world will panic dictators and even puzzle those who have been brainwashed by their rulers, but it will not lead to disrespect. Only paying lip service to cherished beliefs or failing to follow up promises with actions will court disdain. Yang Jianli is president of the U.S.-based Foundation for China in the 21st Century. In April 2007, he was released from prison in China, where he was tortured and held in solitary confinement, after serving five years on political charges.