Why Aren’t Trade Negotiators Talking About China’s Human Rights Abuses?

By Matthew McMullan
Nov 18 2019 |
Riot police advance down a street in Hong Kong. | Getty Images

The White House doesn’t want to scuttle talks over democracy protests and re-education camps.

The Trump administration and the Chinese government reportedly have been close to a “phase one” trade deal for some time now, but Turkey Day is almost here and there’s still nothing announced.

What’s the holdup? These are the two largest economies in the world we’re talking about! People are getting antsy.

Look, I get it: These kinds of negotiations don’t exactly move fast. We’ve all got a million things vying for our attention. For example, tomorrow I have to make sure the dog gets a walk, but I also have to pick up the dry-cleaning and rake the yard. The Trump administration is the same way; it has a million things on its plate and the president’s attention is on the impeachment hearings, a topic about which he tweeted approximately 4,000 times in the last week.

The Chinese government, meanwhile, has problems of its own. Which problems am I talking about?

Am I talking about the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong? They’re now in their sixth month, and they’re growing more violent. Or am I talking about the ongoing humanitarian disaster in China’s far west? The New York Times just published internal Chinese Communist Party documents detailing the government crackdown in Xinjiang meant to erase any ethnic identities among the Muslim minority there. They implicate senior party leadership (including Xi Jinping himself) in this effort, which has resulted in a dragnet that imprisons people in a network of “re-education” camps.

Hong Kong or Xinjiang? I’m, in fact, talking about both!

We have-in-hand evidence of carefully planned human rights abuses by an authoritarian government whose mouthpieces are urging it to use live ammunition on college students elsewhere who are protesting to preserve the right to vote in free elections. Shouldn’t these kind of things be considered in trade negotiations with that government?

Back before the United States normalized trade relations with China in 2000, human rights were a trade issue. There was even a rule in the Trade Act of 1974 called the Jackson-Vanik amendment that essentially made Congress review the trade status it applied to China each year.

But that rule has been long shelved. And although some Trump administration officials have criticized China for its actions in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, the administration months ago shelved the idea of tying Xinjiang to these talks. Congress has been preparing legislation that would lay financial sanctions on Hong Kong authorities responsible for the gangs of cops clubbing protesters and pepper-spraying people who talk back … but the bill is moving slowly because there are fears the White House may veto it. Because they don’t want to upset trade negotiations.

So the Trump administration isn’t bringing up Xinjiang and Hong Kong in the China trade talks. That's disappointing.

I wonder what his Democratic rivals think about this. After the New York Times’ Xinjiang story broke, Elizabeth Warren called it cruel and bigoted and Pete Buttigieg tweeted something too. Others, like Cory Booker and Joe Biden, a few months ago suggested placing sanctions on specific Chinese officials for their roles in the crackdowns.

It might be a little too specific to hope that these candidates would raise the idea of considering human rights in Chinese trade negotiations – but how about they at least mention it? Any mention at all of the Democrats' proposed China policies would be better than nothing. In their last hours-long, televised primary debate, China came up only twice and in passing.

They have another debate on Wednesday. Let’s hope they something – anything! – to say about the China trade deal (and China’s human rights violations, too).