Voices
David Guttenfelder/AP

Not-so-smart power

Selling off human rights is no way to buy economic peace

Issue: "Wealth and poverty," March 14, 2009

QUESTION: The-I notice that you're going to go visit a church on Sunday.

SECRETARY CLINTON: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: And when Madeleine Albright visited . . . a church, she actually came out and made a statement calling for religious freedom in China. Are you planning to do anything like that, or is it just going to be, kind of, just a basic church visit?

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SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I thought I would just go to church. (Laughter.) That's kind of what I was planning to do. . . .

When Hillary Clinton testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January, she tried to set herself apart from her predecessor by pledging to use "smart power," which she defined as "the full range of tools at our disposal-diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal, and cultural-picking the right tool, or combination of tools, for each situation."

This is not a radical idea, she told the committee. And with "smart power" peppering nearly every speech during her inaugural journeys as secretary of state across Asia-I'll add that it's perhaps not very smart, either.

The news conference in Seoul on Feb. 20 was a blatant example (quoted above from the official State Department transcript). Clinton tossed off the idea that attending church in China had significance-in a country her own State Department described as "restricted" when it comes to religious practice, and where respect for freedom of religion has remained "poor."

In answer to questions about what she planned to say to Chinese leaders about human rights, Clinton told the reporters, "Our pressing on those issues can't interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crisis."

By declaring human rights and religious freedom off the table before she set foot in Beijing, Clinton jettisoned the first leg of smart power: how governments treat their own.

According to the State Department's latest International Religious Freedom Report on China: "Severe crackdowns against unregistered Protestants and Catholics, Muslims, and Tibetan Buddhists continued, and the government increased its control over some peaceful religious practices."

The State Department's report on human rights in China runs 108 pages, and the document details arbitrary arrests and detention of dissidents, abuse in law enforcement and criminal procedures, internet censorship, and the running grievances of the one-child policy. In April and May 2007, according to the report, authorities forced dozens of pregnant women in Guangxi Province to undergo abortions, some as late as nine months.

Clinton's determination to stay on the economic and climate-change message-touring a "clean" power plant built in partnership with General Electric and pressing Chinese leaders to continue buying up U.S. debt-is steeped in irony. A year ago Sen. Clinton said President Bush had to "ensure foreign governments don't own too much of our public debt." In a February 2008 letter to then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, she complained about "the exposure of our economy to economic developments in countries like China. As we have been running trade and budget deficits, they have been buying our debt and in essence becoming our banker."

Her cursory Sunday visit to a Beijing church also stood in contrast to a visit she made in 1998 with then-President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. The president and Albright gave brief speeches to the congregation highlighting the importance of spiritual values to a nation. And President Clinton, upon learning that a woman who tried to speak to him was hustled away, later made a point to meet with her. This time authorities also hustled away some churchgoers, but Hillary Clinton made no apparent attempt to follow up on them.

As China copes with its own recession, with factory closures and falling exports, the likelihood for human-rights abuses grows. By pointedly avoiding the fundamental topic, the Obama administration in its desperation to have China continue buying U.S. Treasury bonds is selling its soul. With only weeks to go before the 50th anniversary of a crackdown in Tibet that forced the Dalai Lama into exile, and only months to go before the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, it is bartering with Chinese freedom lovers as well.

If you have a question or comment for Mindy Belz, send it to mbelz@worldmag.com.

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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