Analysis: Will the diplomatic boycott of the Olympics push China on human rights? What history tells us

Lighting the Olympic torch. Winter Olympics at Beijing 2022. Photo: Reuters

The Winter Olympics began Friday in Beijing, and the event has brought China’s human rights practices back into the public spotlight. Several countries, the United States among them, have announced that their governments will boycott the games to signal their disapproval of recent Chinese actions, especially how the country has treated its Uyghur minority.

This is not the first time other countries have decried China’s treatment of its own population. In fact, 30 years ago, the United States was horrified by China’s human rights abuses during and after student-led protests at Tiananmen Square. American outrage spurred hotly contested debates over whether to impose economic sanctions during both the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations. The latter went furthest, threatening to impose severe sanctions on China unless it improved its treatment of human rights.

But in the end the threat rang hollow, and the reason for that matters today.

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Many say Clinton, whose presidential campaign famously, and irreverently, made clear its top political priority – “It’s the economy, stupid!” – was unwilling to cross American business leaders seeking to safeguard their commercial interests in China. But in fact, history shows us that the administration ran up against a different constraint: fear of the collateral damage such sanctions might cause to other East Asian economies and to America’s alliances in the region. Today, when China’s relations with its neighbors are already strained, U.S. efforts to punish China for its human rights practices may be more enduring, as Washington finds a confrontation with Beijing poses less of a threat to U.S. relations with other partners in the Asia.

After Tiananmen Square, the Democratic-led Congress regularly proposed sanctions on China. But President Bush promptly vetoed those bills that passed, arguing that preserving the stability of the U.S.-China relationship was more important than taking a stand on human rights.

Staff members pose in front of Olympics Rings outside the National Stadium, also known as the Bird’s Nest, ahead of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, in Beijing, China February 3, 2022. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

But when Clinton upset Bush in the 1992 presidential election, giving Democrats unified control of government, economic sanctions on China became a real possibility. During his presidential campaign, Clinton had famously lambasted Bush for propping up “‘the butchers of Beijing.'”

Then, in his first months in office, Clinton took action, issuing an executive order in May 1993 that demanded China demonstrate “overall, significant progress” in five areas: adhering to the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, releasing political prisoners, allowing international organizations to monitor prison conditions, respecting Tibet’s local identity and tolerating international media. China had to demonstrate meaningful changes within one year or risk losing its Most Favored Nation (MFN) trade status with the United States.

Over the next year, the Sino-American relationship stumbled along from crisis to crisis, and in the end the U.S. State Department failed to convince Beijing to make meaningful changes in its human rights behavior to safeguard the trade relationship. By spring 1994, it was apparent that the Clinton administration was not going to win enough concessions to clearly claim success.

So what to do?

The administration had four options. First, it could revoke China’s MFN status outright. Second, it could refuse to allow select Chinese companies to trade with the United States on MFN terms. Third, it could renew China’s MFN status, but impose further conditions. And fourth, it could abandon the conditions altogether, renew MFN and start over.

None of the options were attractive.

Revoking China’s MFN status would undercut a cooperative U.S.-China relationship, and the administration worried that a conflict with Beijing would strain U.S. alliances with Japan and South Korea. Japan had been one of the first U.S. allies to call for a restoration of relations between the West and Beijing after Tiananmen Square, and served as a close partner of Bush’s as he worked to stabilize relations with China.

Sanctions could also reverberate negatively in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Both were closely integrated with the mainland economy by the early 1990s and were facing uncertain political futures. In its earliest months, the Clinton administration started to review U.S. policy toward Taiwan due to recent changes in the trilateral relationship among Beijing, Taipei and Washington, but the effort stalled. Hong Kong was still a British colony, but the clock was ticking on its reversion to China in 1999, and observers were concerned about the prospects for Hong Kong’s liberal governance once the handover took place.

The State and Commerce departments explored the possibility of sanctioning a targeted list of Chinese firms, particularly those with ties to the Chinese military. But they found parsing out those links too difficult. Finally, new conditions on China’s MFN status would lack credibility.

The only option left, therefore, was reversal.

In May 1994, Clinton announced he was abandoning the MFN conditions. Unable to convince China to make concessions on human rights, the administration was also unwilling to make good on its threat to revoke China’s MFN status, or even impose targeted sanctions. The political and economic geography of East Asia made such moves unfeasible. Other East Asian economies, and America’s alliances, would take too large a hit.

Most of the American press coverage of the announcement echoed a handful of themes: that the policy had been politically naive from the start; that the administration had finally realized it was not worth sacrificing concrete commercial interests for the sake of human rights; that engagement with China was always more productive than confrontation. But observers in the media missed the central issue: The Clinton administration had not run aground on U.S. domestic politics. It had run aground on East Asian regional politics.

The Clinton administration’s derailed attempt to punish China for its human rights abuses demonstrates that a confrontational U.S. policy toward China requires the cooperation of its allies and partners. In the early 1990s, Washington’s freedom to challenge Beijing was constrained by its other relationships in East Asia.

Today, the regional dynamics have shifted and China’s relations with its neighbors are strained. The United States may have less to lose in terms of its standing in the region should it saber rattle. That calculus might make Washington more willing to confront Beijing.

China has tightened its grip on Hong Kong’s governance, and the United States has severed its special trade relationship with the city in response. Tensions between Beijing and Taipei are dangerously high. Amid those heightened tensions, Japan has been remarkably outspoken about Taiwan’s security, and it recently signed a historic military cooperation agreement with Australia, which has also been confrontational with China in recent years. And India has largely aligned itself opposite China through its participation in the Quad, a recently revitalized dialogue among the United States, Japan, Australia and India that has focused in recent months on counterbalancing China.

As we consider the future of the U.S. effort to punish China for its treatment of the Uyghurs, and the future of the U.S.-China relationship more broadly, keep an eye on China’s neighbors in the Asia-Pacific. Where they go, expect Washington to follow.

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Meghan Herwig is a PhD candidate in History and the Brian Layton Blades Jefferson fellow at the University of Virginia, broadly interested in global political economy and US foreign relations. Her dissertation examines the global turn toward an open trading system in the late-1980s and early-1990s.

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