For blue skies, first clear the air on human rights
By Zhang Zuhua and Jiang Qishen
Sunday, November 22, 2009

BEIJING -- On his trip to China last week, President Obama negotiated with our government on climate change and other issues such as economic recovery, currency regulation and denuclearization. He noted at his town hall meeting in Shanghai that China and the United States lead the world in carbon emissions and that, unless these two countries can agree on what to do, the rest of the world is unlikely to do much, either.

Obama also spoke eloquently of American respect for free expression, rule of law and other human rights, declaring these to be "universal" values. But at the same time, the president and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have made it clear that they do not want to let human rights interfere with other major issues, such as climate change, on which they need Chinese cooperation. Clinton made this point bluntly in Beijing in February, and Obama offered a concrete concession to China's rulers when he decided to avoid the Dalai Lama in Washington in October.

But this approach is misguided in several ways. The Chinese government does not reciprocate when it is given things for free. It simply takes them and moves on. Foreigners may not know this, but to people in China it is plain as day.

More important, human rights in our society are not an isolated item that can be set aside while all else moves forward. Human rights are not just a humanitarian matter of helping a few dissidents get out of jail. They are a systemic problem that is connected to openness, rule of law, popular supervision of government and other values Obama hailed in Shanghai. Progress on many fronts will be easier if human rights are better observed.

Take climate change. How will the world be sure that the Chinese government observes any pledges it makes on global warming? Through trust?

What happened at the Beijing Olympics last year should counsel caution. Before the Games, Beijing promised "free demonstration zones" for Chinese protesters, then arrested and jailed the citizens who followed through. Officials also pledged a schedule of progress toward pollution-free "blue skies," then "fulfilled" the pledge by shuffling their monitoring stations around.

The government promised more freedom to foreign reporters, but since the Olympics it has systematically stepped up its efforts at media control, especially of China's domestic reporters. If promises are made about carbon emissions, how will we monitor compliance? Would it not be better if the many Chinese people who are concerned about pollution were free to report what they observed?

Popular awareness of environmental problems has grown immensely in China in recent years. Chinese people do not like fetid air, foul water or the prospect of a cooked planet any more than anyone else does. But the citizens who speak out on these issues are repressed. Government officials, whose interests are often intertwined with the industry and commerce that is responsible for pollution, do not want complaints about the environment to be expressed publicly.

For example, Wu Lihong, a farmer in Jiangsu province, began reporting on the dumping of industrial waste into Lake Tai in the early 1990s. The authorities told him to stop, and he would not. Today he is in prison, serving a three-year sentence on the absurd charge of extortion. Last year, Tang Zhirong, in Hunan province, complained about the effluent of an aluminum processing facility and received an 18-month prison sentence for obstructing official business. Now out of prison, Tang remains under 24-hour surveillance.

Sun Xiaodi, in Gansu province, complained for years about pollution from a uranium mine and recently accused local officials of fraud. In July he was sentenced to two years in a labor-reform facility for "illegally providing state secrets overseas" and "rumor-mongering." His daughter Sun Haiyan was sentenced to 18 months on the same charges.

Near Chengdu, in Sichuan province, a crowd gathered in early May of last year to protest the construction of a chemical plant in their neighborhood. Chen Daojun, a freelance journalist who reported on the demonstration, is now in prison for three years for "inciting subversion of state power."

These are not isolated cases; there are many like them throughout China. They are also the cases and the people whom Obama and Clinton set aside when they choose not to let human rights interfere with other matters.

In Shanghai, Obama did his best to speak directly to the Chinese people about universal values. (It was not his fault that he was given only limited time, with a prescreened audience, and was broadcast only locally.) The president spoke of human rights as valuable for their own sake. And he is right. But he also must see human rights as they relate to the challenges on which he wants to make progress with the Chinese government. Over the long term, human rights have everything to do with the quality of the Chinese "partner" that the American people are seeking.

Zhang Zuhua and Jiang Qisheng are two of the original drafters of Charter 08, a document calling for greater democracy and human rights in China. Originally signed by about 300 Chinese activists and intellectuals, it now has about 10,000 signatories.