Human Rights Becomes a Second-Day Story

Despite the saturation coverage of the China trade deal in today’s New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal, not one sidebar could be found examining its implications for human rights. It isn’t as though the issue of human-rights abuses has gone away; China’s crackdown on the Falun Gong continues (click here to read a summary of a recent Amnesty International report, and here to read a pretty good Post Op-Ed column by E.J. Dionne), and several Republican presidential candidates made (admittedly partisan) noises about human rights when the deal was announced yesterday. The Timesreported that Human Rights Watch endorsed the China deal, but failed to point out that the organization is conditioning its support in the following way:

Before giving China permanent NTR (Normal Trade Relations) status, we hope Congress will insist on limited, meaningful steps to improve human rights. For example, within one year of getting permanent NTR, China should ratify one or both of the two key UN human rights treaties it has signed, and take other steps.

This may or may not be an ineffectual gesture on Human Rights Watch’s part; what’s significant is that the news coverage of the China deal presented the human-rights issue as so negligible that such questions didn’t even need to be answered. (Presumably they will in the coming days, as editors scramble for fresh angles.) As Human Rights Watch observed in a statement last month to the Senate Foreign Relations committee, human-rights concerns have loomed smaller for the United States and China’s other major trading partners “even as the Chinese government’s restrictions on freedom of expression and association grew tighter.” (Click here to read the whole thing.) It may be that, contrary to recent experience, greater trade ties will now foster greater freedom in China. Or it may be that they won’t. There seems a growing consensus that attempting to withhold admission to the World Trade Organization as a means to advance freedom is futile and will only hurt U.S. interests. What’s striking is the lack of interest in examining whether this premise is correct.