Tonight, President Joseph R. Biden of the United States is set to engage in a virtual meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, yet the specific agenda for their discussions remains unclear.
While the Biden administration has received recognition for addressing the Chinese government's crimes against humanity, particularly those targeting Uyghurs, through actions like imposing sanctions and offering a business advisory regarding Hong Kong, there are concerns about the administration's overall approach to human rights in its China policy.
Critics argue that the administration lacks clearly defined human rights goals and a strategic plan to achieve them. There appears to be no indication that the summit itself will be used as a platform to pressure China into releasing wrongfully detained individuals, such as Zhang Zhan, a citizen journalist detained for sharing information about the Covid crisis in Wuhan.
Moreover, there seems to be a lack of coordinated messaging within the administration, with President Biden emphasizing the importance of human rights in his China policy, while other senior officials like climate czar John Kerry suggest that human rights are not their primary concern, without facing any challenge or correction from the White House.
Perhaps the most concerning aspect is the absence of any concrete consequences for China despite the President and Secretary of State condemning Xi's human rights abuses. This approach may inadvertently convey to Xi that there will be no repercussions for ongoing human rights violations, and that these criticisms are merely rhetorical.
There is still an opportunity for the United States to address these concerns. President Biden could begin the summit by announcing a commitment to developing strategies for holding Chinese officials accountable for human rights crimes. This might involve launching new initiatives to ensure American companies thoroughly examine their supply chains for signs of forced labor and exclude Chinese firms complicit in repression from US markets, pension plans, or stock indexes. Furthermore, the administration could express its support for the Uyghur Forced Labor Policy Act.
Failure to go beyond raising human rights concerns with President Xi may result in missed opportunities for instigating change and deep disappointment for those enduring Chinese government abuses, ultimately emboldening their perpetrators.