Washington, 13 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Authoritarian governments quick to denounce any criticism as interference in their internal affairs are often the first to interfere far more directly -- and successfully -- in the internal affairs of democratic countries, a pattern that does not bode well for either international understanding or human rights.
The People's Republic of China last week provided a classic example of exactly this asymmetry. During a meeting in Beijing, President Jiang Zemin and Russian President Boris Yeltsin denounced American criticism of their records on human rights as totally unacceptable interference in their internal affairs -- even though that criticism has not been accompanied by the sanctions which might have made it effective.
But even as the Chinese leader denounced the U.S. for such criticism, the Chinese government was doing everything it could to pressure state and local governments in the United States to rescind proclamations they had made in support of a Chinese opposition group, implicitly and in some cases explicitly threatening to reduce or even end trade ties with firms in these localities.
Fearful of the economic consequences of that, the governor of the state of Maryland and the mayor of Seattle, Washington, rescinded the proclamations honoring Li Hongzhi, the exiled leader of the Falun Gong movement. And at least in the case of Maryland, local officials were assisted in doing that by the U.S. Department of State.
A spokesman for the state of Maryland send a letter to the Chinese embassy asking Beijing to "accept our humblest and most sincere apology" for the earlier proclamation and adding that "we meant to offense to you or to the people of the People's Republic of China." And the mayor of Seattle asked the Chinese to accept his "regrets" for what he had said, noting that he was unfamiliar with Falun Gong.
Not surprisingly, representatives of the Falun Gong and others concerned with human rights in China were outraged. A Falun Gong spokesman in New York described these actions as "unbelievable" and "kowtowing to Chinese pressure." And Congressman Tom Lantos (Democrat of California), a longtime champion of human rights, denounced the Maryland and Seattle decisions as "spineless acts."
Despite these and other criticism, China was delighted to claim victory. It published the apologies on its website and even quoted the Seattle mayor as saying that he was now "embarrassed by making such a careless proclamation." And it was certainly pleased by reports in the American media that the U.S. government had played a role in doing what China wanted.
But as damaging as this particular event was -- Congressman Chris Smith (Republican of New Jersey) described the Maryland and Seattle actions as "a green light to the Chinese government to carry on with torture and repression." -- the asymmetry it highlights between authoritarian and democratic governments has three broader consequences.
First, authoritarian governments are likely to continue to use threats as long as such threats work. Because officials in democratic governments are by definition more responsive to popular concerns -- including the consequences of a cutoff in trade with local industries -- that calculation is likely to prove correct much of the time, especially now when trade and its benefits often trump concerns about democracy and human rights.
Second, many democratic governments are likely to become ever less willing to criticize the activities of authoritarian ones lest such statements provoke the latter into acting against the economic interests of the former. Indeed, having backed down once because of pressures from authoritarian regimes, these governments are likely to find it easier not to take a tough position in the first place.
And third, the combination of the two is likely to contribute to a situation in which the deteriorating human rights situation in some authoritarian countries will ultimately lead either to domestic explosions, which the governments may find it impossible to contain and which democratic countries may find it impossible to ignore and thus decide to act.
But before things get to that point, many more people in authoritarian countries are likely to suffer. And many more people in democratic ones are likely to ask whether backing down in the face of pressures from dictatorships ultimately serves their interests and that of other people around the world.