The World

Climate Change Is Not a Reason to Give China a Pass on Human Rights

Those of us who live in Beijing’s shadow know there’s nothing “progressive” about turning a blind eye to its abuses.

TOPSHOT - This overhead photo shows the sun rising above the skyline of Shanghai on a polluted day on February 23, 2018. (Photo by Johannes EISELE / AFP) (Photo by JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - This overhead photo shows the sun rising above the skyline of Shanghai on a polluted day on February 23, 2018. JOHANNES EISELE/Getty Images

In a widely-publicized July 8 letter, four dozen American advocacy groups—including the Sunrise Movement and the Union of Concerned Scientists—demanded that President Joe Biden and Congressional Democrats reverse their “antagonistic posture” in favor of a more cooperative relationship with Beijing to “combat the climate crisis.” The signatories also attempted to frame the current administration’s China approach as a surrender to pressure on the right that’s counterproductive to global governance as well as responsible for xenophobia against individuals of East and Southeast Asian descent, and therefore “doing nothing to actually support the wellbeing of everyday people in either China or the United States.”

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Alas, they seem oblivious to realities on the ground for those of us who live in the shadow of Chinese Communist Party hegemony. It’s not “progressive” to ignore a regime that opposes multiculturalism, weakens  trade unions, regulates women’s choices through centralized population control, persecutes the LGBTQ+ community, militarizes international waters, and incarcerates ethnic minorities in concentration camps. Without shared values, solidarity is impossible.

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Make no mistake: climate change is indeed an urgent, existential danger. Amid the record-breaking heatwave sweeping across the Pacific Northwest and floods that pummeled cities on the East Coast, China, too, is hit with extreme weather patterns, even as the government is more than happy to downplay that. A proposed “shift from competition to cooperation” at the state level would convey legitimacy and moral equivalence for Beijing. While the letter was correct to note that “climate change has no nationalistic solutions,” doesn’t appeasement of geopolitical expansion and well-documented atrocities precisely privilege the interests of nations over peoples?

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Recent White House occupants, from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama, all embraced China’s rise, often at the expense of genuine human-rights concerns there. The abandonment of Maoism in the late 1970s produced only materialism and inequality, not (as many pundits predicted) any other form of liberalization.  Serious champions of climate justice, rather than misdirect their anger at the long-overdue bipartisan unity against Chinese crimes against humanity, should offer realistic means for Beijing to change its atrocious behavior first.

This isn’t a matter of prioritizing human rights over climate change. Practically nothing in their record suggests that Chinese leaders have any intention of honoring their end of the bargain in binding, bilateral agreements. Look no further than the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong and 1987 Sino-Portuguese Joint Declaration on Macau, each of which promised these territories 50 years of political autonomy. Unfolding now in both, however, is the systematic dismantling of every pillar of free society, from press freedom and due process to peaceful protests and open elections. No wonder Human Rights Watch’s latest report characterized this as “the darkest period for human rights in China since the 1989 massacre.”

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The moral grandstanding behind opposing a so-called new Cold War—as if current tensions were solely the result of U.S. actions—fails to acknowledge that Beijing is capable of perpetuating imperialism in its own right. One case in point is the Belt and Road Initiative, a massive program of investments and infrastructure projects abroad. Designed to overcome China’s own overproduction dilemma at a time of stagnating wages and inadequate domestic demand, it targets developing countries in the region with extraterritorial legal arrangements, debt-trap diplomacy, and, unsurprisingly, environmental exploitation.

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We need to deal with China as it is, not as we wish it to be. Climate solutions should be based on transnational partnership, democratic engagement, and adherence to a rules-based world.
Beijing, to this day, refuses to own up to its mistakes in the COVID-19 pandemic, not to mention its longstanding intellectual-property thievery and forced technology transfer. It’s also keen to export authoritarianism: threatening to invade Taiwan, supporting North Korea’s dictatorship, and shielding the coup d’état in Burma from condemnation.

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To imagine this thuggish actor on the international stage—whose state-run media indulges in mocking Greta Thunberg—is somehow innocently waiting to advance a climate agenda (if only other countries would be nicer to it) is naive. Last year, it built more than triple the amount of new coal power capacity as the rest of the world combined and funded $474 million worth of coal-sector projects abroad. Thanks to its polluted megacities, it’s the single largest carbon-dioxide emitter that continues to increase at a higher rate despite already doubling that of the United States. Neither can we gloss over the solar panels made in Xinjiang using cheap coal-generated electricity and unfree Uyghur labor.

At the end of the day, granting Beijing blanket concessions and expecting positive outcomes constitute little more than wishful thinking. “We’re in a contest, not with China per se,” as Biden put it at the G-7 summit in England last month, “but a contest with autocrats, autocratic governments around the world.” Should Americans wish to lead, they must be willing to listen. The voices of the oppressed ought to matter more than any superpower; creating a more humane, habitable world begins with respecting everyone’s basic dignity.

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