The long history of censorship, dissident repression, and human-rights violations in China is, for the most part, globally recognized. We have seen images of thick clouds of pollution covering Beijing, and we have read about horrifying conditions in factories and industrial plants throughout China and the culpability of U.S.-based corporations. We are aware that China has occupied Tibet since October of 1950 and, according to Human Rights Watch, has committed crimes against the Tibetan people and their religion — for example, destroying temples and monasteries, placing Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the 11th Panchen Lama, under house arrest for almost 20 years to prevent him from joining the religious leadership in exile in India, and regularly arresting Tibetans for flying their own flag in public. China’s record on these and other issues has been widely documented.
We also know that a global economy complicates how we understand that reality. As consumers in a global economy, we are constantly faced with ethical dilemmas: Are we responsible, by our consumption of goods made in China, for the Beijing pollution or the questionable conditions for factory workers? Would it make any difference if we boycotted products made in China, such as iPhones or Nikes or the plethora of cheap plastic goods? Would it alter China’s policies if we staged global protests against China’s censorship and repression or called our representatives and senators and lobbied them to crack down on China’s lax labor laws? Some people feel that any effort, no matter how small or isolated, makes a difference.
But determining an ethical approach is a balancing act. For example, does engaging China diplomatically amount to an endorsement of Chinese policies, past or present? On the flipside, does a policy of isolation effect the change we want?
Most Americans are unwilling to give up their Apple products, gym shoes, or tchotchkes in the hope of economically pressuring China to change its policies. Neither are Americans, on average, engaged enough politically to lobby their representatives. Even if we could successfully boycott Chinese products, it would make little difference, since Chinese currency is pegged to the U.S. dollar, and spending U.S. dollars in any way supports the Chinese economy. And because China holds $1.2 trillion of U.S. debt, any support of the American economy supports the Chinese economy as well. This is the reality of the global economy.
When President Richard Nixon visited the People’s Republic of China in 1972, diplomatic channels were opened for the first time in 25 years following the Communist Party takeover of China. Some observers were appalled that the American president would sit down with Mao Zedong, a leader who showed himself capable of egregious violence against his own people and the freedoms they enjoyed. Now, some 40 years later, the public face of China has changed drastically. Trade relations between China and America have not only benefited the economic prosperity of both nations, but also changed the face of the global economy (whether those changes are for better or worse is open to debate). The economic exchange has brought China into relationships with many countries, and it has moderated the country’s policies. The hardline communist economic policies of the past are a distant memory, and the harsh realities of the Cultural Revolution have given way to a society more greatly influenced by Western nations. Nixon’s radical steps 40 years ago impacted that transformation. Despite what appeared to be (and continues to be) insurmountable differences, the two leaders negotiated beyond the impasse toward a reconciliation and trade relationship that changed both countries.
Over the past 40 years, has a moderate approach to our relations with China provided for fruitful progress in Chinese economic policies? Has this approach nuanced a more progressive policy toward domestic labor and censorship laws? Change can be frustratingly slow. While Chinese economic policies have opened up, China is still a one-party system. Dissidents are regularly imprisoned, the press is severely restricted, and labor laws are still abysmally lax. History, however, teaches us that one of the best ways to encourage democratic growth is through engagement. Maintaining relations with China does not require us to endorse its crimes against the Tibetan people, its labor laws, its censorship laws, or its human rights abuses. Rather, it allows us to remain engaged with China in the hope of continuing to influence the types of change we’ve seen around the globe when adversaries work toward economic rapprochement.email print