On February 21, DPR’s Liz Brown sat down with Lawrence Liu, a former Staff Director of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, a bipartisan commission created by Congress to monitor human rights and rule of law developments in China. Liu, speaking at the Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill sponsored China Leadership Summit, discussed the role Congress plays in shaping U.S. policies towards China, particularly in human rights and trade. Mr. Liu is also a Fulbright Scholar and graduate of Brown University and Columbia Law School.
DPR: Describe the work you have done with the Congressional Executive Commission on China.
Liu: I was with [the Commission] for eight and half years [until January 2015]. I started in a counsel position monitoring freedom of expression in China. The mandate of the commission is to monitor human rights and rule of law in China. I researched Internet regulations and censorship of media, press, and journalists. After about five years Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio became a chair [of the Commission] and appointed me one of the staff directors, which basically manages the commission. It has two chairs—one from the Senate and one from the House—and I represented the Senate chair.
DPR: What are the most important issues that Congress has the ability to affect in the next few years? What will be the hot topic?
Liu: There will be a big debate on trade with China, specifically free trade agreements. The Obama Administration is looking to renew what’s called “trade promotion authority”, which would give the Administration a freer hand for entering into free trade agreements. They want to get the Trans-Pacific Partnership signed. The US is also currently negotiating a bilateral investment treaty with China. These are top priorities for the Administration and will face bipartisan resistance in Congress. The Administration will be looking for Republican support for free trade agreements. That will be a very big debate—whether or not these free trade agreements are good for our economy or if they will have a harmful impact and cost us more jobs. Some members of Congress will argue that these free trade agreements/negotiations are not transparent and that previous experience with NAFTA and the World Trade Organization with China cost us millions of jobs. The Obama administration will argue that we need these new agreements to encourage other countries to comply with higher standards [of trade]. They will add new protections and promises from these countries with the hope that a Trans-Pacific Partnership will be reached and that China will want to join and not be left out.
DPR: With C.Y. Leung calling for the Hong Kong population to “be more like sheep” in light of this year’s protest, how do you think this conflict will proceed? What are the next steps?
Liu: The US has a policy act that says [it’s in our] national interest to be concerned with human rights in Hong Kong. It’s a special international city. It has 1,400 US businesses and 60,000 Americans. There will be members of Congress wanting to show support for the people of Hong Kong and their democratic aspirations. I worked with Senator Brown to introduce a bill that would support the people of Hong Kong. From what I’ve heard from the US side, the main concern is that China is not fulfilling its promises completely, either to the letter or spirit of the law. That is deeply concerning because it calls into question how trustworthy China can be with other international agreements. It becomes a great concern. Is Hong Kong just further proof that China will make promises and not follow through?
DPR: What do you see as the most prominent challenge for those fighting for human rights in China?
Liu: The biggest issue [for human rights in China] is that under President Xi Jinping, [things have] not only shown no signs of improvement, but have actually gotten worse. There has been a crackdown on the Internet and even moderate human rights advocates. Overall, people are feeling a tightening across the board – religion, freedom of expression, the Internet, Tibet—…and really no sign that there is any rethinking of China’s harsh policies. One of the main policy recommendations [by the Commission] is taking specific concrete action with respect to Hong Kong, strengthening the U.S.-Hong Kong Policy Act. [We also recommended] looking at legislative options to address working conditions, prevent products that are made by forced labor/child labor from entering the US, and encouraging our government to remind China of its obligation to the issue of rule of law in trade. Also to speak out more forcefully for foreign journalists who have been harassed, as well as domestic journalists and human rights advocates. We have called for China to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
DPR: Can you describe your time working as a journalist and covering politics in Taiwan?
Liu: I wrote for an English newspaper but had to use Chinese on a daily basis to gather news. That’s the best way to learn a foreign language. I had a background in Chinese, but after that year I was fluent… If you didn’t speak it well you either couldn’t report the news or you become a part of the story. There is no better way to understand a society than by covering it and being on the front line of the stories of the day. I covered a major earthquake in September 1999 that shut down power on the island and killed about 3,000 people. I was able to interview victims, see scenes, and go through it with the people [firsthand]. Being a reporter, you have an incredible responsibility to tell those stories. In March [of 2000], I covered a historic presidential election in which there was the first-ever peaceful transfer of power from one party to the opposition. That was amazing to cover. For folks who want to learn about somewhere, go be a journalist for a year. There is no better way to learn about people.
DPR: For those who don’t know much about China, what opportunities does it offer for the US and Americans?
Liu: In the long run, China is the most important bilateral relationship [for the United States]. It is arguably now the largest economy and the one with which we have the largest trade deficit. They are a rising power and many people think that in a situation where there is a dominant power and a rising power, conflicts will arise. We need people in the younger generation to not only understand that dynamic but also to explore and get to know the Chinese people, so at the very least there are personal relations and there are human dimensions to the [situation].