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A Real Foreign Policy Debate Should Talk Trade and Human Rights | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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A Real Foreign Policy Debate Should Talk Trade and Human Rights

If tonight’s third and final debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney follows pattern, it will not be the foreign policy debate that has been advertised. Rather, it will be a narrowly defined discussion of national security, with lots of the usual cheapshots, unsubstantiated charges and style-over-substance positioning.

The absence of Green Party nominee Jill Stein and Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson, both of whom have met the reasonable threshold of gaining enough state ballot lines to be elected president, will reduce the likelihood of a serious discussion on fundamental issues.

But it should not take a third-party candidate to raise concerns about how failed international trade policies have led to the offshoring of millions of US jobs. The issue is ripe at the moment, as Romney’s old firm is preparing to shutter a high-tech auto sensor plant in Freeport, Illinois, in order to ship the plant’s equipment to China.

Obama could raise the issue; and those of us who have followed the broad fight for fair trade rather than free trade, and the narrow fight on behalf of the workers at Freeport’s Sensata plant, certainly hope he will.

Of course, the political and media elites who make it their business to keep debates from getting interesting, or meaningful, would object. They don’t like it when foreign policy discussion turn to trade issues, and they especially don’t like it when the focus turns to the way in which bad trade policies harm American workers and communities.

They even claim that critics of current trade policies are abandoning their internationalism and engaging in “China bashing.”

What the elite proponents of free trade don’t get is that the critics of our current trading relations with China are the real defenders of oppressed Chinese and Tibetan citizens. And of union organizers in Colombia and small farmers in Korea and exploited child laborers in Africa.

Trade policy is about economics. But it is also about human rights—and whether countries that claim to support freedom and fairness really do.

When the United States approved Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China in 2000—at the behest of Democrats in the Clinton White House and Republicans in the leadership of the Congress—the move dramatically reduced the ability of US officials to pressure China with regard to the maltreatment of its own citizens and the brutal suppression of Tibet.

According to Human Rights Watch:

Against a backdrop of rapid socio-economic change and modernization, China continues to be an authoritarian one-party state that imposes sharp curbs on freedom of expression, association, and religion; openly rejects judicial independence and press freedom; and arbitrarily restricts and suppresses human rights defenders and organizations, often through extra-judicial measures.

The government also censors the internet; maintains highly repressive policies in ethnic minority areas such as Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia; systematically condones—with rare exceptions—abuses of power in the name of “social stability” ; and rejects domestic and international scrutiny of its human rights record as attempts to destabilize and impose “Western values” on the country. The security apparatus—hostile to liberalization and legal reform—seems to have steadily increased its power since the 2008 Beijing Olympics. China’s “social stability maintenance” expenses (for rigid control of the population) are now larger than its defense budget.

It is even worse in Tibet, which China invaded and occupied more than sixty years ago.

According to Human Rights Watch, Tibet is currently experiencing a “Human Rights Crisis.” Since 2008, the circumstance has been steadily worsening, as basic rights have been denied and Tibetans have experiencing violent crackdowns, forced relocations and an aggressive assault on religion.

The circumstance is so dire that dozens of Tibetans have protested the brutality of the Chinese occupation by setting themselves on fire in the streets of Tibetan cities.

“The many years of restricting Tibetans’ fundamental rights have led to acts of desperation that have escalated a crisis that shows no sign of abating,” says Sophie Richardson, who serves as China director for Human Rights Watch.

Richardson argues that “the response of governments to the Chinese government’s renewed crackdown in Tibet is hardly commensurate to the scope and scale of the crisis. Concerned governments should set aside fears of irking Beijing and press China to respect Tibetans’ basic rights.”

US free-trade policies have failed America workers, to be sure. But they have failed international human rights even more surely.

The candidates should not be allowed to get through tonight’s debate without devoting significant time to a real debate about how bungled trade policies encourage outsourcing and, yes, about how those same bad trade policies undermine the cause of human rights.

Check out more of John Nichols's trade policy coverage with "Obama Outsources Romney." And be sure to join Nation writers for live fact-checking and commentary during tonight's foreign policy debate. RSVP to a live chat here

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