No surprise, China has become a recurring feature in US presidential debates as of late. And no surprise, each candidate is attempting to top the other in demonstrated ability and willingness to “get tough on China.” But so far as I can tell, Hillary Clinton is the first candidate claiming that she has a track record of getting tough with China.
According to the New York Times Politics Blog, on Tuesday Clinton delivered a speech in which she claimed this:
I went to Beijing in 1995 and stood up to the Chinese government on human rights, women’s rights.
That’s an awfully strong claim. Is there anything backing it up?
Depends on how you look at it.
Here’s the deal: in September 1995 the UN convened the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. It was a massive event: 5000 attendees representing 189 governments and 2100 NGOs. However, there was also tension: China prohibited leaders from several Chinese NGOs from attending the event (NGOs involved in matters that might embarrass China). On September 5, 1995, Hillary Clinton, then first lady of the United States, stepped to the Conference podium [the full text of the speech can be found here]. Most of the speech is an overview of the struggle for women’s rights, and successes met. Two-thirds of the way into the text Clinton finally addresses China directly:
I believe that, on the eve of a new millennium, it is time to break our silence. It is time for us to say here in Bejing, and the world to hear, that it is no longer acceptable to discuss women’s rights as separate from human rights.
Clinton then segues into a list of human rights violations – including forced abortions and female infanticide – that lead into a specific and lengthy denunciation of Beijing’s restrictions on Chinese conference attendance:
If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, it is that human rights are women’s rights — and women’s rights are human rights. Let us not forget that among those rights are the right to speak freely — and the right to be heard.
Women must enjoy the right to participate fully in the social and political lives of their countries if we want freedom and democracy to thrive and endure.
It is indefensible that many women in nongovernmental organizations who wished to participate in this conference have not been able to attend — or have been prohibited from fully taking part.
Let me be clear. Freedom means the right of people to assemble, organize and debate openly. It means respecting the views of those who may disagree with the views of their governments. It means not taking citizens away from their loved ones and jailing they, mistreating them, or denying them their freedom or dignity because of the peaceful expression of their ideas and opinions.
So, is Clinton correct in characterizing this speech as “standing up” to Beijing in 1995? On one hand, I really don’t think so. It was, after all, a speech at a UN organized event. Presumably (and I don’t know this for sure), the Chinese audience for the speech didn’t extend beyond the conference hall (that is, no print, radio, or television coverage). As the wife of the President of the United States at a UN-organized event, Clinton had no reason to fear any consequences – in China – for this statement. And, in fact, one can argue that she reaped significant political benefits (in the US, at least) for her statement – just as she is doing now. Put another way – politically, in 1995, could Hillary Clinton have gone to Beijing without saying something critical of the Chinese government? Even today, it’s expected that US Presidents visiting China say or do something that expresses disapproval of the regime. It’s a ritual.
On the other hand, she did bother to go to Beijing and say it – when the most politically expedient move would have been to condemn the Conference from the safe confines of the White House. And that’s no small thing.
[UPDATE: Transpacifica's detailed post on this topic includes an excerpt from a September 6, 1995 New York Times report on Clinton's speech. Quoting Transpacifica on the speech:
Indeed, the remarks may have been carefully calibrated to make headlines without being especially disturbing to U.S.–China relations, which at the time were strained because of a visit to the U.S. by then President of Taiwan Lee Teng-hui.
Put in this context, I think the case against Clinton "standing up" is getting stronger.]