As critics rightly scathed North Korea for masking human-rights atrocities with a red-clad female cheer squad during the Pyeongchang Olympics last month, another high-profile human-rights abuser at the games escaped such negative attention — as it usually does.
China’s human-rights offenses and tepid friendliness with North Korea are widely reported. Yet the country — a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council — is set to host the 2022 Winter Olympics. China evades much of the condemnation readily cast upon the more notorious Pyongyang regime.
Though ramping up rhetoric on North Korea (and announcing further sanctions against the regime at CPAC last week), the Trump administration has criticized China’s trade tactics and intellectual-property abuses but largely avoided discussion of its human-rights record.
Silence toward China’s human-rights record and increasingly oppressive regime is hypocritical. If our condemnation of North Korea truly stems from moral concerns and a desire for change, we should condemn China, too.
As the Olympics ended this weekend, China recommended abolishing the two-term limit for President Xi Jinping, moving to solidify a regime that Xi has built since coming to power in 2012, and particularly since announcing a “new era” for China last October. Viewed at first as a westernized hope for the communist country, Xi has made military and international infrastructure advances as he tries to expand China’s presence as a global power. Meanwhile, his citizens suffer as the government increases censorship, detains and tortures dissidents, and clamps down on religious groups.
Chinese authorities have shut down churches and imprisoned religious leaders. The Falun Gong presents an egregious example of China’s abuses: 933 members of the innocuous spiritual-exercise group were sentenced to as many as 12 years in prison between 2013 and 2016, Freedom House reported. The government has detained and tortured Falun Gong members, and substantial evidence exists that it harvests their organs as well.
Moreover, China doesn’t help North Korean citizens; it complained about a 2014 U.N. report that criticized North Korea’s human-rights record and tried to prevent U.N. Security Council sessions that intended to discuss the issue. A decade ago, China constructed a barbed-wire fence to keep North Korean refugees away and has detained and deported many of those who made it in.
Perhaps these actions aren’t surprising since China is also North Korea’s largest trading partner — and though it has increased sanctions under international pressure, its commitment to following through is dubious, a report from the Council on Foreign Relations noted.
Ignoring China, then, isn’t just philosophically or morally inconsistent with a harsh stance on North Korea — it’s practically inconsistent, too. If we’re serious about helping victims of the North Korean regime, we start by demanding better behavior from China.
One North Korean refugee, Hyeonseo Lee, defected to China as a 17-year-old. There, she faced a brief arrest and eventually fled the country, making her a refugee from what she thought would be a refuge.
“China should repeal its policy on repatriating defectors and distance itself from such a brutal regime,” Lee wrote in The New York Times in 2016. “This would send a positive message to the international community and a stern warning to North Korea that liberalization and other domestic reforms are needed to resolve the refugee crisis.”
Maybe we’re scared to condemn China because it’s our largest trading partner and lender — a nation that doesn’t threaten us with nuclear weapons but whose products are integral to our daily lives. Still, China’s persistent human rights abuses against its own citizens and its friendliness with Pyongyang contradict the United States’ efforts to condemn, and eventually end, North Korea’s oppressive regime.
There are more masks of good will and normalcy at international events like the Olympics than we’d like to admit. But let’s be consistent with our support for human rights and acknowledge the offenses of our trade partners.
Nicole Ault is a junior studying economics.