The Role of Human Rights in Contemporary U.S. Foreign Policy towards China

Seminar Paper, 2002

28 Pages, Grade: 1,0 (A)


Table of Contents


1. Background
a) Foundation of Human Rights in Political Theory
b) Universality vs. Cultural Relativism

2. China’s Human Rights Situation

3. Human Rights and China Policy during the Clinton Administration

4. Bush’s China Policy and Human Rights




Due to economic reforms that were started in the late 1970s, China has stepped into the center of international politics and economy during the past years. These reforms helped the country to achieve an immense economic upturn with annual growth rates of almost ten percent[1] and thus made China become an ever more important actor on the international stage of politics.

According to the quadrennial American Public Opinion Report by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations[2], in 1999, sixty-nine percent of the American public and ninety-seven percent of leaders believed that China will play a greater role in the next ten years. About two years after the report, this estimated tendency seems to confirm itself, as China is, for example, currently undergoing the process of accessing the World Trade Organization (WTO) and is also going to host the 2008 Olympics. In his article “Facing Reality in China Policy,“ David Shambaugh emphasizes China’s importance in America’s future: “There may be no more important country in America’s future. China is undoubtedly a rising power in both absolute and relative terms.”[3] Furthermore, the 1999 Public Opinion Report revealed that fifty-seven percent of the public and fifty-six percent of leaders considered China to be a possible threat to U.S. vital interests[4] and Shambaugh, agreeing on this consideration, stresses the urgent task for the current administration to get China policy right[5]. He demands that the United States have to question how to adapt to China’s rise as well as how quickly and towards what ends China is modernizing, stating that “a prosperous, stable and responsible China is cleary in American national interests – and modernization in certain civilian realms will move China in that direction.”[6]

What role does China’s human rights situation play in this context? Embracing citizens’ rights against impairments by authorities, human rights represent an essential “civilian realm”. Its full development and realization in China is steadily suppressed by its authorities, denying the most fundamental freedoms such as the freedom of expression, association or religion to their citizens. The question at hand is how the United States, so far widely considered to be the world’s only superpower, should handle human rights issues in its foreign policy towards China. According to the “Americans and the World” web site, which is maintained by the “Program on International Policy Attitudes”, a strong majority of Americans regards promoting human rights as an important priority for U.S. foreign policy[7]. In the opinion of a very strong majority the U.S. should be more concerned with human rights in other countries as its economic involvement due to globalization increases[8].

The Editor’s Note from the Foreign Affairs issue from January / February 2001 points to the existing gap between economic and political development in Chinese society: “In China today, economic reform continues apace. Political liberalization, however, remains essentially frozen – as it has been since the tragic suppression of student demonstrations in the spring of 1989.”[9] The United States have been and are strongly supporting China’s economic development by granting it permanent Normal Trade Relations, for example, and investing directly in China’s manufacturing sectors. The 1999 trade deficit of $68.7 billion with China was the United States second largest.[10] But whereas China has been liberalizing its market, using American interests to gain profits, it largely maintains its defensive and rejecting attitude about changing its human rights situation.

Which conclusions can be drawn from the Clinton administration’s handling of human rights in China policy? And which tendencies can there be detected concerning the role of human rights in the current Bush administration’s policy towards China? I will address these questions in order to conclude with an assessment of which insights can be gained from the Clinton administration's foreign policy towards China and the role of human rights and what should be done for the future. However, the debate about human rights is still shaped by some major controversies. I therefore begin by shortly presenting the foundation of human rights in political theory and the controversy between universalists and cultural relativists as well as China’s current human rights situation in order to justify the concerns about human rights in China.

1. Background

a) Foundation of Human Rights in Political Theory

The origins of the concept of human rights can be dated back to ancient Greece and Rome, where the school of Greek stoicists brought up premodern natural law doctrines and Roman law granted certain universal rights that extended beyond the rights of citizenship.[11] But only after the Middle Ages were these natural law doctrines evolved to liberal political theories about natural rights. The English philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke as well as the German philosopher Immanuel Kant paved the way for modern human rights theory.

Hobbes’ merit in regard to human rights is first of all a purely theoretical one. Unlike Locke and Kant did later, he did not actively support a right to liberty or basic civil rights. But his philosophy is nevertheless fundamental for the further development of the human rights theory as he created the conditions for an individualistic concept of natural law. He did not see man as being determined in an existential order dependent on God, as was common in the middle ages, but as having natural, inalienable rights, independent from society or a transcendent order. In his Leviathan he states: “The right of nature, which writers commonly call ius naturale, is the liberty each man hath to use his own power, as he will himself, for the preservation of his own nature, that is to say, of his own life; and consequently, of doing any thing, which in his own judgement, and reason, he shall conceive to be the aptest means thereunto.”[12] The importance of Hobbes’ theory regarding human rights is that he establishes the right of self-preservation as everyone’s right to anything they need in order to preserve their life. His theory underlying is the premise that all men are born equal, which is as crucial as his mentioning of human reason. However, regarding his ideas about the establisment of a state by a social contract among individuals, who transfer their rights to a sovereign, Hobbes is still far away from modern human rights theory as he allocates all power to the sovereign, i.e. state authority, and human dignity as well as civil liberties do not play a role in his theory yet. But still, in the condition of the state the right to self-preservation remains inalienable and positive law is supposed to be adapted to natural law. This is crucial as a first basis for modern human rights theory. It was John Locke who took the next steps, embedding civil liberty and the protection of property in his theory about natural law.

Locke’s progress towards a modern human rights theory was that he expanded Hobbes’ basic provision of the inalienable, individual right to self-preservation beyond the right to life to the right to liberty and property. In his Two Treatises of Government he states: "The State of Nature has a Law of Nature to govern it, which obliges every one: And Reason, which is that Law, teaches all Mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his Life, Health, Liberty or Possessions."[13] As Kevin L. Cope points out, with his law of nature, Locke establishes the idea of the universality of certain rights: "Valid in both the state of nature and civil society, the law of nature is transcendental and superpolitical. The law of nature is not tied to any territory, institution, regime, place, tribe, or people. It is universal – it applies anywhere and everywhere. (…) It provides a foundation for enforcing certain fundamental rules without respect to locality."[14] Equally important for our contemporary concept of human rights is that Locke argues for the people's right to resistance against illegitimate authority and the abuse of power by the state.[15]

In the eighteenth century Immanuel Kant then took Hobbes' and Locke's ideas one step further. He finally "re-created the old unity of morals and politics in a revolutionary new conceptual framework and on the basis of a revolutionary new theory of justification."[16] In contrast to his predecessors, he solely appeals to the legislative reason, purified from all anthropological features and excluding all elements of nature. Proposing that everyone should act in such a way that all would be well if everyone else acted like them, his emphasis is on freedom. Each individual freedom should not impinge on the freedom of others. His concept of right states: "Right is … the totality of conditions, under which the will of one person can be unified with the will of another under a universal law of freedom."[17] As Kersting explains, Kant's law of right from reason is a universal formal law of the freedom of action.[18] Thus, Kant's philosophy is the cornerstone for the modern concept of personal freedom and human dignity which are essential to the concept of human rights as it developed step by step out of the ideas of these philosophers and the historical conditions by which they were stimulated.


[1] U.S. Department of State, “Background Note: China” (

[2] Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, "American Public Opinion & U.S. Foreign Policy 1999" (

[3] David Shambaugh, “Facing Reality in China Policy”, Foreign Affairs , January / February 2001, p. 64.

[4] Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, "American Public Opinion" (

[5] Shambaugh, Facing Reality, p. 64.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Program on International Policy Attitudes, "Human Rights", "Americans and the World" website (

[8] See ibid.

[9] “Editor’s Note”, Foreign Affairs, January / February 2001.

[10] U.S. Department of State, “Background Note: China”.

[11] "Human Rights. Historical Development", Encyclopedia Britannica Online (

[12] "Modern History Sourcebook: Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan, Chaps 13-14, 1651" (

[13] John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 271.

[14] Kevin L. Cope, John Locke revisited, ed. Joseph Bartolomeo, (New York, Twayne Publishers, 1999), p. 98.

[15] See Richard Ashcraft, "Locke's political philosophy", The Cambridge Companion to Locke, ed. Vere Chappell, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 227ff.

[16] Wolfgang Kersting, "Politics, freedom, and order: Kant's political philosophy", The Cambridge Companion to Kant, ed. Paul Guyer, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 343.

[17] Immanuel Kant, "The Metaphysics of Morals", cited from Kersting, Kant's political philosophy, p. 344.

[18] See Kersting, Kant's political philosophy

Excerpt out of 28 pages


The Role of Human Rights in Contemporary U.S. Foreign Policy towards China
Ripon College  (Department of Politics and Government)
Senior Seminar
1,0 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
539 KB
Senior Thesis
Role, Human, Rights, Contemporary, Foreign, Policy, China, Senior, Seminar
Quote paper
Britta Meys (Author), 2002, The Role of Human Rights in Contemporary U.S. Foreign Policy towards China, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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