The Debate | Opinion

It’s Time for an International Human Rights Alliance to Defend Democracy

By now, the need for principled solidarity in the face of the PRC’s abuses should be obvious.

By Times Wang and Jianli Yang for
It’s Time for an International Human Rights Alliance to Defend Democracy
Credit: Pixabay

As the U.S. election enters its closing stages, both campaigns have been relatively silent about the main foreign policy question facing the country: the People’s Republic of China (PRC). One reason is, of course, that there is a remarkable degree of consensus that it was a bipartisan fantasy to believe that, as the PRC integrated into the global economy, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would naturally loosen its grip on power. Now, leaders in both parties — indeed, leaders in democratic countries the world over — seem to agree a change in approach is needed. And, regardless of the election’s outcome, we urge everyone who cares about democratic values to deepen that sense of solidarity in the months and years to come.

By now, the need for principled solidarity should be obvious. Standing alone, even the United States has difficulty preventing the PRC from eroding democratic values. Dependence on the PRC, combined with financial incentives, bends everything – from domestic policymaking, to the behavior of private institutions like Disney or the NBA, to the tenor of discussions occurring in American universities – away from democratic principles.

Both major American political parties rightly recognize this as a problem, and there has been little partisan disagreement over, for example, targeted sanctions relating to CCP abuses in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Tibet. Nor have prominent Democrats criticized the current administration’s aggressive responses to the threats to national security posed by the success of PRC-based technology companies beholden to the CCP.

The problem is that smaller democracies like Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Canada are still largely left to fend for themselves, at least formally. Security alliances exist, but they were built to address military, not economic, coercion. Thus, when the Australian government called for an international investigation into the origins of COVID-19, the PRC blocked Australian meat imports and imposed tariffs on Australian barley. And, while other democracies might be willing to offer moral support, Australian businesses and taxpayers bear the economic costs alone.

This should end. In response to the kind of cynical and economically coercive statecraft the PRC is practicing, a new kind of alliance, like NATO, marrying economics with democratic principles, is needed. Such an idea is hardly rocket science, but it does require patience, discipline, forbearance, and long-term focus. It is also the best response to the CCP’s own pursuit of a decades-long strategy of maintaining a united front with its allies and dividing-and-conquering its opponents.

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What should members of a united, democratic front commit to doing? At a minimum, they should credibly promise to assist each other economically if any member is retaliated against by the PRC — or any other country, frankly — for mere non-violent advocacy. Free speech is foundational to democracy, and when entire countries are hampered in their ability to speak freely and publicly, democracy everywhere suffers. Among other forms of collective economic defense, an alliance might ask members to respond to such retaliation with coordinated imposition of tariffs; to create a pool of capital to help a targeted country withstand economic pressure; and to release strategic reserves of essential materials, such as rare earth metals, that a would-be economic bully might withhold.

Members should also make credible promises to improve their own human rights records, and to be more consistent in human-rights-oriented critiques, given that hypocrisy over human rights is rightly, if cynically, denounced by those who don’t believe in human rights at all.

Members might also reward each other for passing domestic legislation linking human rights abuses to foreign policy, with enforcement mechanisms like individualized sanctions against responsible officials. And they might hold regular, coordinated, and public discussions about whether to boycott cultural events hosted by countries with poor human rights records.

Finally, members should make two important rhetorical commitments. As Confucius admonished in his teaching on the “rectification of names,” sloppy terminology has political consequences. Thus, members should stop conflating democratic values with “Western” ones, a label that dishonors democracies like Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan. After all, the belief that everyone, including the ruling class, should be subject to the impartial application of law, has never been exclusive to “the West.” To label such a belief “Western” is therefore absurd on its face, and plays right into the self-serving claim, made by autocratic regimes the world over, that their culture is somehow “different.”

Second, members should stop conflating autocratic regimes with the countries they rule over. “China” is not a synonym for the “CCP,” nor are “Russia” or “Iran” synonyms for their respective autocratic regimes. Using country names as a shorthand to refer to democratically elected governments, as this article does, makes sense, but doing so for autocratic governments confers unearned legitimacy, invites bigotry against already-oppressed citizens, and injects conceptual confusion.

To be sure, any effective alliance requires members to cede a measure of sovereignty. But any country that claims to be a democracy that respects human rights, the rule of law, and free speech, should have no problem letting similar countries pass judgment on those claims. We are already living in a multipolar world, and going it alone — even for the United States — is increasingly untenable.

Ironically, the CCP itself owes its power in part to principled solidarity around a coherent set of moral beliefs. During the Chinese Civil War, Mao Zedong rallied poor farmers around the explicitly moral message of throwing off their capitalist and imperialist oppressors, whose main domestic avatar was the corrupt Kuomintang. Today, it is the CCP — which still permits Mao’s portrait to hang over Tiananmen Square, despite leaving behind one of the previous century’s bloodiest and most inhumane legacies — that has proven to be morally bankrupt.

Accordingly, regardless of whether one favors Trump or Biden, regardless of whether a particular democracy leans center-left or center-right, and regardless of one’s views on American imperialism, so long as one claims to believe in ideals like the rule of law, human rights, and free speech, one should recognize that advancing those ideals requires putting aside our lesser differences. The CCP and other autocratic regimes would like nothing more than to continue dividing us along ethnic, partisan, national, or various other solidarity-weakening lines. If we fall for it, those who will suffer most in the long run are the citizens of those regimes, few, if any, of whom really want to live in societies dominated by lies, fear, and violence. And, while lasting democratic change ultimately depends on the organic efforts of those citizens, those of us lucky enough to live in democracies would do well to not undermine such efforts by letting increasingly powerful dictators play us against each other, to the detriment of democratic values everywhere.

Times Wang is the founder of North River Law PLLC, a law firm focused on litigation related to human rights. He is the son of Wang Bingzhang, one of the most famous political prisoners of China 

Jianli Yang, a Tiananmen veteran and former political prisoner of China, is founder and president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China.