The fact that it is very difficult--maybe impossible--to know how the Chinese populace at large feels about politics leaves those of us on the outside in a difficult position when it comes to human rights, particularly the question of human rights and the Olympics. Clearly, the general Chinese population contains nationalists who would rather that we mind our own business; and clearly there are others who would welcome American protests against their government. Which view commands the most sympathy from the population as a whole? It is difficult to know, and the answer is undoubtedly complex. Either way--whether we speak out or remain silent--we risk finding ourselves on the wrong side of Chinese public opinion. But Steve is so fixated on the risks of protesting the Chinese government's outrageous behavior that he ignores the possibility there are risks associated with not protesting that behavior--particularly at a moment (the run-up to the Olympics) when there is a reasonable expectation that liberal democracies will protest. If we send our athletes to the Olympics but do not as a society find some way to formally register our displeasure with Chinese abuses--if President Bush honors the Chinese government by going to the Games but does nothing to suggest revulsion at Beijing's worsening human rights record--we risk (no, we are) sending a terrible message not only to the dissidents and intellectuals, but also to any resident of China who harbors hopes of someday enjoying political or religious or reproductive freedom. That message? The world honors the men who suppress you. And it has forgotten your plight. Steve does not seem to see a risk in demoralizing Chinese liberals; I do. One thing we have often heard from dissidents in authoritarian societies is that it is important for them to know that they are not forgotten--that the world has not given up on either them or their aspirations to one day live in freedom. Not for nothing did Yelena Bonner, wife of the Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, tell a gathering of Americans in 1986, "Please, do not forget us." Don't we at least owe critics of the Chinese government the same thing we gave to Sakharov and other Soviet dissidents: affirmation that we are rooting for them? And an assurance that when they say, "Please, do not forget us," we are listening?
My next problem with Steve's argument comes when he asserts that the U.S. government is in no position to lecture China on human rights because of Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and Guantánamo. He says that "our government's own hand in the promulgation of abuse ... makes any gesture toward China even more hollow than it would otherwise be." I don't know if this is a normative point (it is wrong for us to lecture others given our own record) or a practical one (it is ineffective for us to lecture others given our own record); Steve doesn't say. If it's a normative point, then it's a ridiculous one. Let me be clear: I deplore the Bush administration, and I deplore the way it has treated detainees. But the list of characteristics that distinguish America (a fundamentally liberal polity, albeit one with serious imperfections) from China (a fundamentally illiberal polity) is too long to even contemplate. (And, by the way, comparing China's crackdown in Tibet to the DC police's handling of World Bank protesters--as Steve does--is a strained analogy, to put it mildly.)
If, on the other hand, Steve is making a strategic point, he is on stronger ground--but I still disagree. Yes, Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo have seriously hurt our ability to campaign for human rights by damaging our international credibility; and yes, contra the neocons, international credibility matters. But what is the correct response? The first response is to elect a liberal president who can restore our good name in the world--and I hope we do that. But should the second response really be to shut up about human rights until we get our own house in order? Of course not. I am not suggesting that President Bush lecture the Chinese people about how superior we are to them; I'm not suggesting that he say, "I am boycotting the opening ceremonies of the Olympics to protest Chinese human rights abuses, and please, allow my people to teach you about liberalism, for we are experts." Besides, the Chinese don't need to be taught about freedom or human rights by us. They have plenty of courageous countrymen fighting for exactly those things. But our elected leaders ought to be publicly endorsing those people--not turning their backs on them at a moment when they are expecting our support. Abu Ghraib has made it more difficult for American leaders to do this, but that doesn't mean they are excused from the task of trying, or that it simply can't be done.