from Candidates Answer CFR's Questions

The Presidential Candidates on China and Human Rights

July 30, 2019

Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

CFR invited the presidential candidates challenging President Trump in the 2020 election to articulate their positions on twelve critical foreign policy issues. Candidates’ answers are posted exactly as they are received. View all questions here.


How, if at all, should China’s treatment of the Uighurs and the situation in Hong Kong affect broader U.S. policy toward China?

Joe Biden

Joe Biden Former Vice President of the United States

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The United States should push back on China’s deepening authoritarianism, even as we seek to cooperate on issues where our interests are aligned. It is inspiring to see the brave people of Hong Kong demonstrating peacefully for the civil liberties and autonomy promised by Beijing. The world is watching; we should all stand in support of democratic principles and freedom.

The forced detention of over a million Uighur Muslims in western China is unconscionable. America should speak out against the internment camps in Xinjiang and hold to account the people and companies complicit in this appalling oppression, including through sanctions and applying the Magnitsky Act.

The challenge doesn’t stop at China’s borders. Freedom in the 21st century will be won and lost in cyberspace. The Free World should come together to compete with China’s efforts to proliferate its model of high-tech authoritarianism. The United States should lead in shaping the rules, norms, and institutions that will govern the use of new technologies, like Artificial Intelligence. Through diplomacy and development finance, we can work with democratic allies to provide countries with a digital alternative to China’s dystopian system of surveillance and censorship. These efforts could begin at the global Summit for Democracy that I will host my first year in office.

Most important is that we lead once again by the power of our example. America’s commitment to universal values sets us apart from China. I will reinvigorate and repair our democracy by eliminating the Trump administration’s Muslim ban, increasing our refugee admissions, and ending the indefensible practice of separating families at the border. That is how to project a model that others want to emulate, rather than following China’s authoritarian path.

Read all of Joe Biden’s responses.

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Cory Booker

Cory Booker Senator, New Jersey

Protecting human rights must be a central tenet of our foreign policy and that means protecting persecuted religious and ethnic minorities and preventing genocides. If I am president, whenever the United States meets with China, human rights will be a focus of the conversation.

I am deeply disturbed by the human rights abuses happening in China's Xinjiang region and support putting companies that build the detention camps there and their surveillance systems on the Commerce Department's Entity List, in addition to using the Global Magnitsky Act to sanction the people involved with the detention camps. 

I am also a co-sponsor of the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, which requires a series of reports on China’s treatment of the Uighars, including from the State Department and the Director of National Intelligence, that would be used to determine whether certain individuals meet the criteria for sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.

As president I will also insist that China honor the commitments it has made for the autonomy of Hong Kong, and will be a voice for the people of Hong Kong and their ability to organize and express their opinions.

Read all of Cory Booker’s responses.

Steve Bullock

Steve Bullock Governor of Montana

China’s oppression of the Uighurs including the detention of a massive number in internment camps is a gross violation of their human rights. A fundamental component of American foreign policy must be to promote human rights and democracy. That means having a president who has the moral authority to encourage our allies to share in the job of speaking up and hold China accountable for these human rights violations. We must speak out about any nation’s abuse of its minority populations or infringement upon the civil liberties of its citizens. The U.S.–China relationship is complex and touches security, trade, human rights and climate change. We need to confront China on both human rights and unfair trade practices, while at the same time pursuing our mutual interests on combatting climate change. A foreign policy that prioritizes working with our partners and allies will put pressure on China to improve its treatment of the Uighurs and ensure that it keeps its word to the people of Hong Kong.

Read all of Steve Bullock’s responses.

Pete Buttigieg

Pete Buttigieg Mayor of South Bend, Indiana

The Chinese Communist Party’s repressive treatment of the Uighurs and other minorities, and growing pressure on Hong Kong, are symptomatic of a broader, and intensifying, “systems” competition. Beijing seems committed to consolidating and legitimizing authoritarian capitalism as an alternative to the democratic capitalism embraced by the United States and its closest allies and partners. 

Where necessary and feasible, we should seek cooperation with Beijing, such as in addressing climate disruption, maintaining strategic stability, combatting terrorism, and managing conflict through international peacekeeping. But the United States must defend our fundamental values, core interests, and critical alliances, and accept that this will often entail friction with China.

For too long we have underestimated China’s ambitions, while overestimating our ability to shape them. We must instead focus on repairing our democracy and reinvesting in our economic and technological competitiveness; inoculating open societies from corrupt, coercive, or covert political interference; strengthening, rather than straining, our alliances in order to put collective pressure on China for unfair economic practices, human rights abuses, and intimidation of countries that stand up for their sovereignty; realigning defense and other national security investments to reflect China’s military modernization and full-spectrum statecraft; and reducing vulnerabilities from economic interdependence by disentangling the most sensitive sectors of our economies--in an orderly, not chaotic, fashion--and ensuring that American and allied resources and technologies do not underpin authoritarian oppression and surveillance. 

Read all of Pete Buttigieg’s responses.

John Delaney

John Delaney Former Representative, Maryland

It is critical that United States foreign policy be based on a solid foundation of moral principles; that foundation is what has always distinguished the U.S. on the world stage. Within that context, we must place a high priority on defending human rights of all people globally and when confronted with human rights abuses by countries with whom we have relations, we must make the resolution of those abuses an important part of our engagement with that country. There should be no exception to this bedrock foundational policy, not in China, not anywhere and the well documented abuses by the Chinese government that are occurring with respect to the Uighurs demand a U.S. and global response. My administration would work closely with appropriate United Nations agencies – and the U.S. Congress - to investigate human rights abuses which have been committed against the Uighur people. I would place this issue front and center in diplomatic discussions with the Chinese government and would urge them to accord human rights protections to all peoples under their domain. With regard to Hong Kong, while I respect the Chinese government's right to govern within its borders, I will voice strong support for Hong Kong's right to autonomy awarded to the city by its status as a special administration region. Hong Kong's ability to manage its own affairs is important to U.S. policy since thousands of U.S. businesses operate out of Hong Kong because of the economic and political protections.

Read all of John Delaney’s responses.

Kamala Harris

Kamala Harris Senator, California

China’s abysmal human rights record must feature prominently in our policy toward the country. We can’t ignore China’s mass detention of more than a million Uighur Muslims in “reeducation camps” in the Xinjiang region, or its widespread abuse of surveillance for political and religious repression. We can’t ignore Beijing’s failure to respect the rights and autonomy of Hong Kong’s people and the Hong Kong government’s excessive use of force against peaceful protestors. President Trump has consistently turned a blind eye to these abuses in hopes of earning a ‘win’ in his trade war, all to no avail.
Under my administration, we will cooperate with China on global issues like climate change, but we won’t allow human rights abuses to go unchecked. The United States must reclaim our own moral authority and work with like-minded nations to stand up forcefully for human rights in China and around the world.

Read all of Kamala Harris's responses.

Beto O’Rourke

Beto O’Rourke Former Representative, Texas

To address complex global challenges—climate change chief among them—we need smart, principled engagement with China. But we don’t do ourselves, or our relationship with China, any favors by not being forthright about our core values. Chinese oppression of the Uighur minority is a human rights disaster, and the United States should not only be condemning their detention and surveillance, but should be leading an international effort to pressure China to relent. Likewise, the people of Hong Kong should have no doubt about where we, as Americans, stand in their struggle to preserve democracy against increasing efforts by the Chinese government to undermine it. 

These issues are not—and should not be seen as—separate from other strategic interests we pursue in the broader relationship with China. Our values are assets, not liabilities, in the global competitive environment. Indeed, we are more likely to achieve our other objectives with China when China upholds its human rights obligations, including its promises to respect Hong Kong’s independence. 

Navigating the wide range of trade, security, climate, and human rights interests we have with China requires skillful and patient diplomacy, something that is sorely lacking in the current administration. Like all nations, China will act in a way that it believes is consistent with its interests. As President, I will seek to engage China around mutual interests, like climate change, where our countries should be cooperating to build the global green economy.   

Read all of Beto O'Rourke responses.

Tim Ryan Representative, Ohio

China’s continued terrible treatment of ethnic Uighurs and their slow, methodical campaign of vilification of Hong Kong protesters should be seen as continued attacks on the concepts of multiculturalism and the rule of law. Throughout my career I have been sounding the alarm about an ascendant China that isn’t committed to democracy, international norms and now, after two decades of the greatest transfer of wealth in the history of the world, seems intent on flexing its muscle politically and militarily. As President, I would increase our human rights pressure on China, especially in these two areas.

Read all of Tim Ryan’s responses.

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders Senator, Vermont

China is engaged in a program of mass internment and cultural genocide against the Uighur people. It has also been steadily eroding liberal democracy in Hong Kong. Unfortunately, the United States has limited options when it comes to pressuring Beijing to change its policies. But that does not mean that we should, as the Trump administration has done, abandon our role in promoting human rights, whether at the United Nations or as part of our ongoing trade negotiations with China. My administration will work with allies to strengthen global human rights standards and make every effort to let Beijing know that its behavior is damaging its international standing and undermining relations with the United States.

Read all of Bernie Sanders’s responses.

Joe Sestak

Joe Sestak Former Representative, Pennsylvania

Human rights in China should absolutely play a role in broader U.S. policy toward China. When we look the other way on fundamental issues of human rights, we are also responsible. I want to restore U.S. leadership within a rules-based liberal world order that collectively holds nations accountable for their illiberal behavior, whether in foreign or domestic spheres. Importantly, we must not do this alone. Rather, we must regain our leadership of the values-based world order from which we have retreated. Our absence has permitted China, Russia and emerging autocrats to act with impunity, with no concerns about consequences. In fact, it has even encouraged former allies and friends to provide support for China’s illiberal behavior. For example, Greece ceded its political voice to China — vetoing a European Union condemnation of China’s human-rights record — in exchange for Chinese investment in the port of Piraeus.

Collectively, we must find points of leverage in order to convince China to improve their treatment of Uighurs, Tibetans, and other minority groups, to ensure the autonomy of Hong Kong, and to continue to protect democracy in Taiwan, among other issues. At the same time, we must improve our own human rights record — such as our treatment of migrants and refugees at the border, and our support for the war in Yemen — so that we have credibility to take on other countries for their human rights record. Ultimately, we need to restore our standing in the world and renew our commitment to multilateral action and the international institutions we built in the 20th century to establish and enforce global human rights standards. 

Read all of Joe Sestak’s responses.

Marianne Williamson

Marianne Williamson Author

China is aggressively engaging in theft, practicing commercial espionage, and ignoring intellectual-property rights as well as trampling on human rights and democracy in their drive to dominate global markets. The US must maintain a strong position regarding China with regard to economics, politics, and human rights. 

China’s treatment of the Uighurs and of Hong Kong reflect their aggressive drive for domination and their disdain for human rights and democracy. The United States needs to stand up for human rights and call out the gross violations of human rights committed by China. It’s a good thing that this week Secretary Pompeo denounced China’s treatment of the Uighurs. We should also be speaking out against the authoritarian push for greater control in Hong Kong where thousands of people are demonstrating for their democratic rights.  

Additionally, the US has the power to prevent China from buying strategically important companies, which we have done through the Committee on Foreign Investment in the US (CFIUS). We should exercise this power more vigorously as we defend our economic interests and human rights for all. 

Read all of Marianne Williamson’s responses.

Andrew Yang

Andrew Yang Entrepreneur

The treatment of the Uighurs in China is unacceptable, and we need to be a part of the chorus of voices across the world calling the situation out for what it is. It’s also troubling to see China take a more aggressive stance throughout the region, whether towards Hong Kong, Taiwan, or in the South China Sea.

China obviously has great ambition, and their system of government is becoming increasingly authoritarian as they develop more technologies that allow them to monitor and control their population. It’s important that we work with our allies to combat the spread of this authoritarian capitalism, and provide a model for democratic capitalism.

By providing a model and engaging in international work to help developing nations, we can show the world a better way to engage in governing their nations. We should help developing nations to liberalize, and work with them to diversify their economies. Trade and exporting US technologies to these countries can help us build alliances throughout the world as more countries modernize and liberalize.

We need to make sure China isn’t stealing our IP or exporting their authoritarianism to other countries, and we must ensure that we have reliable access to rare earth metals. But the current trade war is just hurting both sides. An ascendant China isn’t a direct threat to the United States, as long as we are strong at home and project that confidence to developing nations, to show them a superior path to the one China is offering.

Read all of Andrew Yang’s responses.


Kirsten Gillibrand

Kirsten Gillibrand Senator, New York Withdrawn

I am deeply troubled by the alarming reports of widespread human rights abuses against Uyghurs and other Muslim Chinese citizens. I have called on U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to update U.S. export controls on American technology to ensure that neither China nor other repressive regimes can use American technology to commit human rights violations. I have further supported targeted sanctions against those responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture and other abuses of human rights, and have cosponsored the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2019. America must pursue a variety of goals in the bilateral relationship with China, including holding them accountable for currency cheating, unfair trade practices, and cyber theft of American technology and Americans’ data. But history has taught us that we never ultimately advance our interests when we ignore human rights abuses. I believe we can support human rights in the context of addressing our country’s vital national security and economic interests.

Read all of Kirsten Gillibrand’s responses.

Seth Moulton

Seth Moulton Representative, Massachusetts Withdrawn

Human rights must be a key focus of our foreign policy, both with China and around the world. The United States should publicly condemn China’s human rights abuses and continually raise them at the highest levels in diplomatic dialogue. We should also pursue targeted sanctions on entities and individuals who are involved in repression, and make clear that we support Hong Kong’s autonomy. On China policy writ large, we need to take on China but do so in a smart way. That means working towards a trade deal that helps Americans and American workers; building a cyber wall to keep our intellectual property safe in the face of Chinese aggression; and establishing a Pacific version of NATO to counter the growing security threat China poses to the region.

Read all of Seth Moulton’s responses.

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