May 31, 2017
Margaret K. Lewis is a professor of law at Seton Hall University School of Law and a Fulbright research fellow at National Taiwan University School of Law.
As the world reflects on this week’s anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests and subsequent violent crackdown by the PRC government, it is worth contemplating what President Donald J. Trump would do if faced with a similar situation. When asked about Tiananmen during the campaign, Trump said he was not “endorsing” China’s response, but he called the demonstrations a “riot.” Would President Trump see a riot or a massacre if the events of June 4, 1989, were replayed today?
The U.S. bombing raid in April that President Trump linked to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons against civilians suggested that human rights would be prominent in shaping foreign policy. Yet President Trump’s remarks during his recent visit to Saudi Arabia and praise for leaders with deeply problematic human rights records, such as Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, caution otherwise.
Specifically regarding China, in March 2016 the Obama administration joined eleven other countries in issuing a rare statement expressing “concern[ ] about China’s deteriorating human rights record” and calling on China “to uphold its laws and its international commitments.” The United States was noticeably absent a year later when eleven countries—including Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom—sent a letter to the Chinese government expressing “growing concern over recent claims of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in cases concerning detained human rights lawyers and other human rights defenders.”
The Trump administration is admittedly not breaking the mold: U.S. government policy towards China has always been, at least to some degree, pragmatic. President Jimmy Carter entered office with human rights as a cornerstone of his foreign policy. Nonetheless, even he recognized the United States’ many interests when dealing with China and normalized relations. President George H. W. Bush suspended military contracts and technology exchanges with China following the Tiananmen Square massacre. President Bill Clinton, however, restored China’s most favored nation trading status four years later and quickly relaxed rhetoric that China must make significant progress towards conforming with international human rights standards.
While the tension between principles and pragmatism is not new in U.S. policy towards China, the current dismissive attitude towards human rights is jarring. The past four months indicate that policy decisions based on immediate economic and security calculations will prevail over long-held human rights values. As I have argued elsewhere, this is a mistake. Addressing human rights in both a principled and pragmatic way requires not just stating that human rights matter in the abstract but also articulating an integrated, executive-branch-wide plan for how human rights will be raised in various contexts.
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