By MARCO RUBIO AND CHRIS SMITH
Oct. 5, 2016 12:47 p.m. ET
The Congressional-Executive Commission on China was established 15 years ago when the U.S. Congress extended permanent normal trade relations to China, thereby opening the door for Beijing to enter the World Trade Organization. The expectation of proponents at the time was that increased trade and prosperity would make China a freer and more “responsible stakeholder” in the international system.
That transition has failed to materialize. As the commission’s latest annual report makes clear, under the leadership of President Xi Jinping China is becoming more repressive and dismissive of international norms.
Human-rights and rule-of-law conditions deteriorated again last year. This continuing trend has seen the Chinese Communist Party expand efforts to crush independent civil society, restrict peaceful expression, suppress religious freedom and curtail the activities of human-rights lawyers and labor activists.
China persists in implementing the world’s most sophisticated system of internet censorship and press restrictions. Despite the recent relaxation of the “one-child policy,” the state continues to limit the size of Chinese families and maintains a coercive population-control apparatus that drives a number of social and economic problems, including human trafficking.
Beijing has also become more brazen in exerting its extraterritorial reach in the past year, as evidenced by the shocking abductions of the Hong Kong booksellers at the end of 2015. This unprecedented meddling in Hong Kong affairs, in violation of the “One Country, Two Systems” policy, continues to be a cause for alarm.
So is the continued outrageous detention of American citizen and businesswoman Sandy Phan-Gillis. She has been separated from her family, often facing daily interrogations, mistreatment and the denial of legal counsel since March 2015.
President Xi’s tenure has been marked by greater consolidation of his own power—through forced ideological conformity and new laws that justify the worst types of rights violations in the name of national security. Rights defenders at the vanguard of pressing for basic liberties and access to justice are disappeared, tortured, denied access to legal counsel and increasingly forced to “confess” on television to crimes they did not commit.
There are untold numbers of prisoners of conscience. Imprisoned activists are routinely denied medical treatment, and family members of rights advocates are targeted with harassment. The commission maintains a political-prisoner database, presently home to more than 1,300 records. The men and women on this list are Christians, Falun Gong practitioners, Uighur Muslims, democracy and free-speech advocates, rights lawyers, civil-society leaders, and Tibetan Buddhists imprisoned for their allegiance to the Dalai Lama.
Party leaders and government officials continued to invoke nationalist rhetoric rejecting so-called Western values that the current leadership has labeled as “foreign” or “hostile.” With the passage in April 2016 of a widely criticized foreign nongovernmental organizations law, the government codified an approach to civil society that treats many innocents as security threats. The broad range of organizations covered, such as industry and trade associations, chambers of commerce, and development and rights-based entities, is likely to have a chilling effect on innovation, exchanges and cooperative projects.
Against this bleak backdrop it is tempting to be pessimistic about China’s future and the future of U.S.-China relations. However, constant repression hasn’t dimmed the Chinese people’s desire for freedom and reform.
We have seen a growing rights consciousness, and determination by Chinese citizens to call for government accountability, transparency and justice on issues such as food and drug safety, access to medical care, tainted vaccines, pollution, and official misconduct. China’s religious communities are growing despite persecution, and new human-rights lawyers replace detained and disappeared colleagues. Labor organizers continue to demand and strike for their rights, and young activists in Hong Kong are winning elective office on platforms demanding true democratic representation.
History has shown us that it is the Chinese people who will be the primary agents of change in their country. But the U.S. must stand with China’s reformers and dissidents, the champions of the rule of law and the voices of liberty. A freer and more democratic China is in the interest of the U.S., the international community and the Chinese people. Fifteen years from now, we hope the commission’s work is obsolete. That day has not yet come.
Mr. Rubio is a U.S. senator and Mr. Smith is a U.S. representative. They co-chair the Congressional-Executive Commission on China.