American businesses should stand up to China's human rights abuses

The stronger China’s economy grows, the more the world depends on Chinese trade and the worse the human rights abuses become.

President is cracking down on dissent and diversity harder than at any time since the Cultural Revolution, according to a wide range of activists and experts. From the streets of Hong Kong to the mountains of Tibet to the deserts of Xinjiang, the Chinese Communist Party is demanding unquestioning conformity and obedience.

Once upon a time, the United States stood for personal liberty, freedom and democracy, not just within our borders but around the globe. The question facing the nation today is how to keep that commitment when the world’s second-largest economy is one of the worst human rights offenders.

TOMLINSON’S TAKE: Trump’s trade policy failed American workers, taxed consumers

There are no easy answers for businesses reliant on inexpensive Chinese manufacturing, consumers addicted to cheap products and a federal government worried about trade deficits. But beyond the commercial concerns, there are moral considerations.

Xi and his Communist Party deny citizens fundamental rights, capriciously jail people and are actively trying to wipe out entire cultures in a country of 1.4 billion people, more than four times the U.S. population.

The government has been trying to wipe out the Tibetan identity by flooding the country with ethnic Han Chinese for decades. Xi refuses to recognize the Dalai Lama as the Tibetan spiritual leader, and his government has handpicked the exiled monk’s compliant religious successor.

For all of us who protested Tibetan autonomy in the 1980s, let this column be a gentle reminder that we failed. The obliteration of the Tibetan identity is progressing almost unimpeded.

More than 150 Tibetans have self-immolated since 2009 to protest the cultural genocide, according to the activist group International Campaign for Tibet. The watchdog group Freedom House ranked Tibet as the third-least free place on earth.

For evidence of American impotence, consider the crackdown on pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong. The Communist Party has authorized Xi and his security services to rewrite the former British colony’s basic law and end the limited democracy Hong Kongers enjoyed.

Police have rounded up dozens of pro-democracy activists and independent journalists. Key leaders Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam, pleaded guilty to inciting protests, and a kangaroo court sentenced them to between seven and 13 months in prison.

The worst abuses, though, are taking place in Xinjiang against Muslims, a group that’s suffered discrimination within these borders. Americans have been slow to stand up for the Uighur’s religious freedom, which has emboldened Chinese officials to imprison more than a million of them.

As part of their re-education, Chinese officials force Uighurs to work in fields and factories producing raw and finished materials, sometimes for foreign companies.

The Congressional-Executive Commission on China, a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers, listed almost a dozen American companies

As a fan of Nike shoes, the report and Nike’s denial place me in an awkward spot. I’ve witnessed forced labor in the Democratic Republic of Congo and slave-like conditions in Sudan. Workers live in constant fear, routinely abused and denied access to the outside world. Their birthplace is their only crime.

Turning corporate executives into scapegoats, though, is too easy. Remember that 30 years ago, private sector expansion in China was expected to promote consumerism and, therefore, capitalism and democracy.

Xi and his allies, though, turned that around. They’ve used global trade to empower their authoritarian regime. Xi recently completed the world’s largest free-trade deal, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, leaving out the United States.

TOMLINSON’S TAKE: Stop selling out to China’s oppressive government, defend liberty

President Donald Trump’s rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership cleared the way for China to substitute an alternative that makes no demands for better labor laws, greater environmental protections or expanded democracy. The U.S. is left in the cold.

President-elect will need to strike a balance between defending human rights and preserving the global economy. The State Department recently recommended rebuilding Western alliances to create a united front in demanding political reforms in China, according to a copy obtained by the Axios news outlet.

“The United States’ overarching aim should be to secure freedom,” the paper declared.

American businesses and consumers can and should make a difference in their purchasing decisions.

We don’t need a war with China, but we cannot stand by while the Communist Party spreads authoritarianism. We know how that ends up.

Tomlinson writes commentary about business, economics and policy.

twitter.com/cltomlinson

chris.tomlinson@chron.com

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