While the President has sought to build a strong personal relationship with Chinese President and Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping -- in part to yield cooperation on North Korean proliferation -- the administration must develop a long-term policy approach that challenges China to abide by its international commitments, adhere to universal standards and embrace the rule of law.
Principled American leadership is needed now more than ever. In recent years, the bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China's (CECC) annual reports have found that under President Xi's leadership, China has failed to deliver on long-promised economic reforms and has become more authoritarian domestically. It is also increasingly dismissive of international norms and "Western" ideas, and more assertive in its extraterritorial reach.
Although President Xi has stressed the need for global connectivity and openness, domestic censorship leaves little room for journalism and public debate -- just last week the use of WhatsApp, a popular messaging app, was blocked. As stated in the report, China "continues to strengthen the world's most sophisticated system of internet control and press censorship and forges ahead with what it calls 'internet sovereignty.'"
Xi has worked hard to consolidate his power, demanding strict ideological discipline from Party and government officials and using an extensive anti-corruption campaign to eliminate many of his political rivals.
Over the past year, Chinese authorities targeted labor and environmental activists; demanded loyalty from scholars and intellectuals; and clamped down on foreign non-governmental organizations, media outlets, think tanks, and internet companies. Restrictions on religious freedom also intensified, particularly in ethnic minority Tibetan and Uyghur areas. Coercive enforcement of population control policies continued in violation of international standards. And the government persisted in forcibly repatriating North Korean refugees to face near certain persecution and even death, in contravention of China's international legal obligations.
Twenty years after the British handover of Hong Kong the long-term viability of the "one country, two systems" model designed to safeguard autonomy and judicial independence in Hong Kong from Beijing's control is increasingly uncertain given brazen central government interference and the imprisonment of pro-democracy Umbrella Movement leaders.
Despite promises by the Chinese government to establish the rule of law, it still uses the law to repress and control, as seen with the Foreign NGO law, which stifles the ability of Chinese NGOs and rights advocates to partner with foreign NGOs and work on issues deemed politically sensitive by authorities. Similarly, the cybersecurity law lacks basic free speech and intellectual property protections. If the law is implemented as written, foreign companies may have to choose between breaking the law or aiding Chinese security agencies.
This year also saw the tragic death of Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, while he was in state custody. His untimely death reminded the international community of the appalling treatment experienced by China's political prisoners -- more than 1,400 of which are contained in the CECC's Political Prisoner Database. Authorities continue to arbitrarily detain his widow, the artist and poet Liu Xia.
The activities of China's human rights lawyers and civil society advocates were also further criminalized and credible reports emerged of their torture in detention. In the face of constant harassment, several of the lawyers' wives have courageously and effectively become advocates for their spouses, often at great risk to themselves and their children.
These issues necessitate high-level engagement from US policymakers and elected officials, beginning with Trump, who should challenge his Chinese counterpart to keep the many promises he made regarding China's commitment to the rule of law, the opening of the Chinese economy and free trade, adherence to the rules-based international order, and reciprocity.
Chinese government repression may temporarily satisfy a desire to control its citizenry and maintain its grip on power, but such measures often have the unintended consequence of stoking resentment and prompting activism in individuals who may have otherwise chosen not to engage. As China suppresses authentic religious expression, the number of religious adherents multiplies; as China censors the Internet, circumvention tools proliferate; as China brutally represses rights lawyers, their loved ones take up the mantle of their cause.
While the current Chinese government may never be the responsible stakeholder envisioned by proponents of Beijing's entry into the World Trade Organization 16 years ago, we must not forget that the desire for freedom, justice, and democratic openness are not alien to China or its people. America must stand for its own interests, but it is in America's interests to see the Chinese government uphold human rights norms, respect the rule of law, and adhere to universal standards. President Trump would do well to remember, even in the midst of heightened diplomacy on North Korea, that governments which trample on the basic rights of their own citizens are unreliable international partners.