The State Department’s recently released annual human rights report again condemned China’s abuses. It reiterates that the Chinese government is committing genocide against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang and subjecting them to forced labor, forced sterilization and arbitrary imprisonment. Meanwhile, Beijing is leveraging its economic clout to bolster its military to challenge America’s position in the world and potentially invade Taiwan, upon which our crucial semiconductor supply chain depends.
Lawmakers from both parties have backed the Biden administration’s threat to impose sanctions on China if it bolsters the Russian military. But Beijing is a bigger threat to our security and our economy than Moscow ever could be – and has committed a long line of human rights abuses. So why has the United States barely used sanctions against China, especially in relation to its actions vis-à-vis Russia due to its invasion of Ukraine?
It’s not that we haven’t tried to slow the flow of American money and technology to China. It’s just that we didn’t try very hard. From tariffs, to preventing Chinese companies from acquiring American high-tech companies, to the growing list of sanctioned Chinese companies, little has succeeded in changing the basic calculus of American companies. Even if the Uyghur law on the prevention of forced labor, which came into force in December, increases the cost of doing business with China, it is unlikely to deter it.
US finance companies and venture capitalists continue to pump money into the country. Leading high-tech companies continue to transfer key technologies, including to the country’s military-industrial complex.
We need a different approach – and an era not too distant from our past can provide a roadmap.
During the Cold War, although trade with the Soviet Union was much more limited than it is today with China, it still became important to communist authorities. Trade grew steadily from 1969 to 1974 and was expected to continue to grow after the signing of the 1972 Soviet-American Trade Agreement. But in 1974 it stagnated.
This was due to a provision of the Commerce Act of 1974 known as the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which made commerce and all government investment guarantees and loans to non-market economies (the communist bloc) dependent freedom of emigration and other human rights. . Jackson-Vanik also applied to China until it joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, sparking heated debate every year over whether the president should waive his terms.
Jackson-Vanik’s impact went beyond trade: he was part of a larger movement to make human rights a much more important element in relations between the Soviet Union and the West. . This movement worked to gradually win over the elites and populations of the Soviet Union, eventually dissolving belief in the regime as the differences between the systems became more apparent.
The amendment had such a broad impact because the rights it targeted were easy to understand, both in the United States and abroad. It amplified the message of the amendment, making it clear to people around the world what America stood for.
A similar act could have the potential to be a game changer when it comes to China today. In this case, legislating a tariff based on an annual and highly independent public assessment of China’s human rights record in a few specific areas would not only radically change the incentives companies face, but also generate a global publicity of the abuses of the Chinese party-state. .
The rights selected should be so fundamental that they are immediately understood across cultures, such as respect for the rule of law, freedom of religion and conscience, due process and fair trial, and protections against discrimination based on ethnicity or religion. After all, reputational damage only works if everyone considers the behavior in question to be wrong.
While our deep entanglement with the Chinese economy makes blanket sanctions difficult to implement, trade can still be a useful “stick” to punish and ideally change behavior, if used wisely. Conditioning trade on human rights could make people around the world, including in China, realize the advantages of a society that respects these rights, over one that does not. A trade amendment like Jackson-Vanik would severely limit Chinese growth, cut funding for the Chinese military, and force Chinese exporters to consider how the Chinese Communist Party’s behavior affects their own interests. Hopefully, such pressure would trigger change from within, as it did during the Cold War.
Seth D. Kaplan, senior lecturer at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University, is the author of Human rights in thick and thin societies. He previously lived in China for seven years.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.