A realistic approach to democracy and human rights in China begins at home

A realistic approach to democracy and human rights in China begins at home
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Idealism or realism? The Biden administration appears to be struggling with this question as it formulates its foreign policy. During his speech at the U.S. Department of State (DOS), President BidenJoe BidenCourt nixes offshore drilling leases auctioned by Biden administration Laquan McDonald's family pushes for federal charges against officer ahead of early release Biden speaks with Ukrainian president amid Russian threat MORE committed to calling a Summit of Democracy and pushing back authoritarianism. 

Some would argue this is an idealist endeavor. Biden also recognized that the United States will work with China to accomplish American interests. This would be a pragmatic approach that would allow him to address two of his administration’s top priorities — COVID-19 and climate — with authoritarian China.

However, in the same speech, Biden also said the United States will pushback against China’s human rights violations and challenges to democracy. Again, one could argue that it is idealistic to think that any country but China could positively change Beijing’s human rights practices. If the Biden administration wants to achieve American interests when working with China, it would do well to recognize the limits of American power on Chinese democracy and human rights issues while effectively practicing American values at home to enhance moral authority.


Beijing’s position has always been clear: the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) overriding priority is maintaining power. China’s President Xi Jinping effectively said this at the 2021 World Economic Forum. The policy was reiterated by Yang Jiechi, director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the CCP Central Committee, only days before Biden’s first foreign policy speech.

Despite the redline, the Biden administration has begun engaging China at a high-level on democracy and human rights issues. U.S. Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenOvernight Defense & National Security — Inside Austin's civilian harm directive North Korea sparks US condemnation with latest missile launch Republicans again call for Oversight hearing on Afghanistan withdrawal MORE raised democracy and human rights issues in China, specifically mentioning Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong, before addressing security concerns during his first call with Yang, his Chinese counterpart. According to the Chinese readout, Yang opened with China’s vision for the U.S.-China relationship and then stated both countries should respect their individual political systems. Instead of focusing directly on accomplishable American interests, the Biden administration seems to have prioritized a Chinese redline. This poses several questions for the democracy and human rights component of the administration’s China policy.

First, what does the Biden administration want to see China do on democracy and human rights? Does it want regime change? Does it want self-determination for Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong? Or is the administration’s goal a return to collective leadership and less visible human rights abuses?

Second, will the Summit of Democracy address authoritarian China? Will there be a leaders’ communiqué with a specific reference to China and how the summit participants should approach it on democracy and human rights issues? Will Taiwan join? Is the summit’s goal to declare an informal containment policy against China and other authoritarian states?

Regarding the broader multilateral front, will the Biden administration rejoin the United Nations (U.N.) Human Rights Council and press for an investigation of China’s human rights abuses? Will it use other U.N. agencies, the G7 and the G20 to systematically and visibly raise human rights issues in China? 

To be clear, China’s democracy and human rights record is atrocious. It has grown increasingly totalitarian and engages in inhumane treatment of some of its minority groups. One need only look at forced labor in Xinjiang. But given the Chinese regime’s redlines and the fact that it is up to the Chinese people to decide upon their desired form of government, the Biden administration must adopt a realistic approach once it has concluded its review of the U.S.-China policy.

Dealing with China in a way where the United States can achieve its interests while standing up for its values will be difficult. The Biden administration needs to approach democracy and human rights in China with clear eyes and aim for benefits to the American people while avoiding unnecessary conflict. Doing this starts at home and we have a lot of work to do.

Quinn Marschik previously served in the Trump administration as the policy advisor to the deputy undersecretary for International Affairs at the U.S. Department of Labor.