Nick Christensen PS472F98 Professor Raymond Tanter


A Standoff Between Giants: America’s Policies Towards the Human Rights Record of China

As the twenty-first century draws nearer, increasingly more and more people--from national leaders to scholars to entrepreneurs--have their eyes on China. A booming economy and dramatic military buildup will make China the undisputed superpower of the Pacific, second only to the United States, in just a matter of years from now. With this ascent to Great Power status, both China and the United States are faced with the challenge of how to regard one another in the event of conflicting interests.

A conflict of this sort has already surfaced and begun to cause problems in Sino-American relations; the issue of human rights violations in China. The American government occasionally takes it upon itself to speak out against Communist China’s violations of civil liberties generally recognized by the international community. These violations, eerily reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984, include "disappearances", public executions, and imprisonment of political dissidents as tools to contain and control public opinion (1). To deter this behavior, the United States issued orders to China to improve the human rights situation there, or incur harsh economic penalties; severe tariffs on all Chinese exports to the States, which alone consumes roughly one-third of all of China’s exports, making it China’s single biggest customer (2). This would have had a devastating effect on the trade surplus between the two nations, causing economic slowdown and social unrest in China.

Clearly it was in China’s interest to follow through with the United States’ demands. But they did not. No significant progress was made in the treatment of China’s political prisoners. Both countries knew that, but nothing else was done about it.

China remains at the top of the world’s list of worst human rights violators, as well as the top of the United States’ list of favored trading partners. How can this be? China’s decision to defy American demands in the face of economic punishment goes against all political theories of rational action. Rational action theory is a doctrine of political science based on the assumption that actors (nations or heads-of-state) will make decisions that are in their best interest--decisions that seek pleasure or gains and avoid pain or losses. If this theory is the true basis for all political behavior, how can one account for a nation, that when threatened with a fair amount of punishment by a more powerful nation, does not concede to the threat, but publicly defies it?

One can account for such circumstances, but only through a different lens. Where rational action theory falls short in explaining complex political behavior, prospect theory picks up where the other left off. The theory attempts to explain, using psychological reasoning, the decision-making processes people go through and why they often choose seemingly non-rational options. It is a theory that examines the psychological and intellectual perspective of the decision-maker, and how his personal point-of-reference can distort reality and result in an otherwise unexpected decision.

Our general question about how a nation threatened could openly snub a more powerful nation set the stage. To address that question, we must fill in the variables with actual countries in an actual standoff. To answer the question, we then must then look inside the minds of each actor, and apply what we find to prospect theory. By looking at the situation from each actor’s point of view, and by estimating how each actor weighed the options and perceived the threat, we find an explanation for unexpected, irrational behavior. Such is how we will treat the case of human rights and economic consequences in China.

The battleground of China’s human rights record was arranged by Bill Clinton, at the time a candidate for the 1992 presidential election. One of Clinton’s campaign points against George Bush was Bush’s soft policy towards human rights violations, particularly after China’s military massacre in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989. It was not necessarily Clinton’s major selling point in the election, but he continued to be critical and disapproving of the Chinese government’s oppressive ideals into his presidency. In May of 1993, however, criticism became policy in an executive order that addressed the human rights condition. Clinton told Chinese leaders they had exactly one year to improve human rights in China, or risk being removed from the list of most favored nations. The "most favored nations" is a list of the major countries the U.S. trades with, and standardizes the tariffs imposed on exports to the U.S. Nations not on the list are often bogged with exceedingly high tariffs that make most trade with the U.S. not worth the while to the exporting nation.

A year passed, and the deadline came and went. In the year that transpired, the United States appeared to stick by its ultimatum up until the very end, sending diplomatic officials (including Secretary of State at the time Warren Christopher) to China to publicize the American stance on human rights. But meetings between Chinese and American officials did nothing to deter China, and most importantly did nothing for the human rights condition there. Chinese authorities told Secretary of State Christopher that the threat was outrageous. After the talks (at ten weeks before Clinton’s deadline), China expanded the already overwhelming power of police to detain, or restrict the activities of, democratic and labor union activists as well as leaders of religious and ethnic minorities (3). In the end, China had made none of the significant improvements in human rights that were demanded by Clinton--by the May 1994 deadline, or at any time thereafter. In fact, a year later the annual State Department report on China found widespread human rights abuses to have continued, and even increased. "Overall, in 1995, the authorities stepped up repression of dissent. By the year’s end, almost all public dissent against the central authorities was silenced by intimidation, exile, or imposition of prison terms or administrative detention." (4)

To understand why China would run such an apparently irrational risk of ignoring a U.S. ultimatum, one first has to understand why the United States could not carry out the ultimatum in the first place. Simply put, the costs outweighed the benefits. One of the principle tenets of prospect theory is that actors tend to think in terms of their gains and losses, rather than their net assets (5). Actors in prospect theory would rather stay with the status quo then risk actually losing something. From the perspective of the White House in May of 1994, the China situation was seen in this light. The status quo, the point-of-reference for the United States was the current state of healthy, active trade with China, despite its poor human rights record. If Clinton actually removed China from most favored nation status, it would have thrown a monkey wrench into the gears of the Chinese economic machine, being basically cut off from the American market. Furthermore, China would have no doubt retaliated in a similar fashion, vastly restricting American sales and investments in the Chinese market, the world’s fastest growing. These two results had too much potential for long-term damage, especially with respect to the potential for gain that would have resulted, which was progress in human rights. Human rights are nice in a crusade of ideals, but have little return in an economic sense. So for the States, the losses here were grossly out of proportion to the gains. Rather than risk the huge economic loss for the relatively small gain in human rights, the U.S. preferred to remain at the status quo. China was not going to follow orders, and Clinton could not justify carrying out the strategy of punishment. He had to back down.

The Chinese government seems to have been aware of all of this. In calling Clinton’s bluff early in the game, China was free to not only do as they wished with respect to human rights, but to highlight the incident internationally as evidence of the United States’ lack of resolve. This was probably a high priority, especially considering that in early 1994, during a high-level meeting in Beijing of government officials and other authorities, the United States was declared as China’s main adversary, and a hegemonist threat to all of Asia (6).

China’s behavior in the human rights showdown can be further understood by examining how the situation is framed, or perceived, from the Chinese viewpoint. It is this fear of hegemony, rooted in the memories of Western imperialism during the last century, which drives much of China’s foreign policy attitudes. After a long history of colonization and having to tolerate dominant Western countries doing as they please in Asia, China is particularly sensitive to any political power greater than itself in the surrounding region. So any orders issued from the West are interpreted not only as meddling in China’s own internal affairs, but as creeping imperialism or hegemony--the threatening assertion of power by a Western nation in Asia.

This put China in what a prospect theorist would call a "basement of fear". This is a position in which the actor in the basement is faced with restricted options and will emphasize the avoidance of loss over any gain. When leaders focus on their potential losses in this situation, they may panic, take risks, and act irrationally. This makes the threat used to deter a certain behavior counterproductive, inasmuch as it induces the very behavior it was designed to deter (7). In other words, the economic threat issued to China by the United States may have so vividly reminded the Chinese of an imperialist Western attitude that it scared them into responding irrationally.

Framing the situation with respect to losses and gains can also help explain much of Chinese public opinion regarding human rights, which in turn explains why the issue is not one of such idealistic priority as it is for many in the United States. In just the last twenty-five to thirty years, Chinese quality of life has improved dramatically. From the original status quo of widespread poverty, menial government-issued jobs, and seclusion from modern advances in medicine and technology, Chinese citizens now have greatly improved economic conditions, opportunities to study at modern schools in a global context, and enjoy many modern conveniences (7a). Oppression and government prohibition, once components in all aspects of life, now only apply to political opinion. While this still seems atrocious to those from the "land of the free" who live with the luxury of the First Amendment, it is a pretty good deal to the citizens of China, compared to what they were living under before. In short, the Chinese don’t care about those human rights the same way Americans do. Absence of a few civil liberties is reasonable price to pay for a modern economy and lifestyle. From the American point-of-reference, political oppression is a drop from their status quo, and therefore, Americans see the human rights record in China as a problem. From the Chinese point-of-reference, however, political oppression is a small inconvenience and they have otherwise made tremendous gains from their status quo. Therefore, the Chinese do not see the poor human rights record to be the same type of problem as the Americans do.

Predictions for the future outcome of Sino-American relations with respect to the human rights issue are split by the analysts. But all agree that the first and most important deciding factor that will write the human rights story in China, of course, is China itself. That is to say, the political path that China takes in the next century will foreshadow how the country will treat its people.

There are those who think China is well on its way to becoming politically much like the United States. They see China as the last Great Communist Empire, ruled by a regime on its last legs. Its successors, supposedly waiting in the shadows for the Communists to fall will bring a "major move towards a more pragmatic and reformist government, a move towards a more pluralistic, if not democratic, system." (8) It logically follows, then, that the new system would lend itself to modern Western ideals of human rights. United States intervention would no longer be necessary as soon as this transformation took place. These analysts were predicting the great reform to take place in the early 1990s, as soon as then leader Deng Xiaoping died. But directly thereafter, Jiang Zemin, the current Communist ruler, was appointed and the regime has maintained its hold on the country and its people. There has remained, as we have seen, no real change with respect to human rights in the course of Chinese power changing hands.

It seems much more likely that Communist China will take a long time to relinquish power to democracy--much to the dismay of those who see Western-style government as the key to fair treatment of people there. Furthermore, whatever the system of government in the People’s Republic of China, it remains a simple fact that the United States cannot expect another nation to unquestionably accept and adopt the American system of human values. But that does not mean the U.S. is unable to influence the human rights situation in China.

One policy option for deterring China’s human rights abuses is the continued threat of economic reprimand. Hopefully, future administrations in the U.S. will look to the record of success this method had before implementing it again. It is undesirable to enforce economic sanctions of China to improve human rights. These sanctions do little, if anything to improve China’s treatment of its people, and they do much to needlessly harm the American economy. This is the lesson that President Bill Clinton had to learn the hard, and embarrassing, way before backing down to Jiang Zemin in 1994.

With that said, there remain a number of more desirable things the United States can do in the advancement of human rights if China stays Communist (and with that, fundamentally suspicious and defiant of the U.S.), as is likely to, in the first decades of the twenty-first century. It begins within the borders of the United States.

Education and spreading the knowledge of human rights abuses in China are the key to organizing and fostering change. The U.S. should support organizations--governmental and non governmental alike--that deal with and study China and encourage them to accurately document and publicize the human rights violations there. Groups that support the democratization of China should also be involved in swaying public opinion.

In the international community, forums of countries, like the United Nations, should concentrate on making the condition of human rights in China a widespread, public issue. The United States can garner support in these circles to apply firm pressure to China through censure and international scrutiny.

Within China itself, the U.S. should continue giving strong support to Radio Free Asia, which began broadcasting in 1996. The mission of these journalists is to report truthful and reliable news about events in China, not news reports filtered and distorted by the communist government. With this resource, Chinese citizens may become more aware of the human rights situation in their country, and move to change it.

These are the policies with which America will have the most influence in the realm of China’s human rights affairs. They are simple yet sensible, and anything more direct would be meddling with the sovereignty of another nation. These policies of information and awareness also allow the United States to unambiguously voice its ideals and its opinion of the human rights situation, while maintaining the healthy trade relationship it has with China. Improving human rights in China is an exercise in U.S. diplomatic strategy; exercise that will no doubt be needed as national interests cross paths and conflicts arise between the two superpowers of the twenty-first century.






(1) "People’s Republic of China—a Summary of Amnesty International Concerns." In Amnesty International Library [Online], 1998. Available: WWW URL:

(2) "People’s Republic of China: Key Economic Indicators." In 1997 Country Reports On Economic Policy and Trade Practices. U.S. Department of State [Online], 1998. Available: WWW URL:

(3) Richard Bernstein and others, The Coming Conflict With China (New York: Random House, Inc., 1998), 99.

(4) "China Human Rights Practices, 1995." In Country Reports of Human Rights Practices. U.S. Department of State [Online], 1996. Available: WWW URL: gopher://

(5) Jack S. Levy, "An Introduction to Prospect Theory." In Avoiding Losses/Taking Risks, ed. Barbara Farnham (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1994), 10.

(6) Lo Bing and others, "Military Leaders Pursuing Hard Anti-USA Stance," Cheng Ming, May 1, 1994, cited in BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, May 13, 1994.

(7) Raymond Tanter, Rogue Regimes. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998), 66.

(7a) "Social Indications of Development for China." In Social Indications for Development Database. World Bank [Online], 1993. Available: WWW URL:

(8) "Bush’s China Policy: No More Mr. Nice Guy?" Transcript of American Interest, broadcast May 4, 1991, Federal News Service, May 3, 1991.