China has ever so clumsily drawn attention again to the unpleasant topic of its human rights record. President Barack Obama is traveling to democracies around Asia and making it a point to emphasize that their economic prosperity is in part a result of their democratic systems. A week earlier, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that China will need to reform politically if it is to continue to grow. And yesterday, British Prime Minister David Cameron prodded (ever so gently) China to respect its citizens' human rights.
These are not the Bush and Blair governments. None of these leaders is a crusader for democracy. Quite the contrary, Secretary Clinton began her China policy by downplaying China's human rights abuses. And President Obama came into office thinking that he had to apologize for Bush's attempts to promote democracy. Rather, what is clear to all of these leaders is that there is a strong connection between China's external behavior--increasingly aggressive--and its internal repression, in some ways worsening. In fact, this proposition is controversial now only among some political scientists. It is noteworthy that contrary to what so-called realists would predict, as the administration (and the world in general) grows more hard-headed about China, its human rights abuses are receiving more attention.
Indeed, China is making its human rights abuses more of an issue in international affairs. This is partly because China is a victim of its own success--the media pays more attention to it as it grows in stature. In turn, China is no longer content with simply jailing activists such as Liu Xiaobo, a common practice in the PRC. It now internationalizes its human rights abuses: it has bullied the Britain, Japan, and South Korea, among others, not to attend Liu's Nobel peace prize ceremony and it has downgraded relations with Norway, the committee's host country.
The comments of British and U.S. leaders certainly provide succor to China's many reformers. And the West (by which I mean liberal democracies) must stand up for the rights it holds dear. But ultimately, political leaders will not convince the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to change based on "its own self interest." (This line of reasoning is not unique to Clinton or Cameron. Former President George W. Bush also used it to try and convince Hu Jintao that democracy was in his interest.) The CCP knows very well what its interests are, and democracy is not one of them. Indeed, democracy would threaten the vast array of perquisites enjoyed by CCP leaders and their families. Instead, democratic leaders should find ways to engage the many Chinese who embrace liberal values, so that when and if the CCP really does face a ruling crisis, there are Chinese democrats ready to take the helm--and we know their cell phone numbers.
Dan Blumenthal is a resident fellow at AEI.