U.S. lawyers in China say last week’s turmoil in Charlottesville and President Donald Trump’s subsequent refusal to condemn racism and hatred is making their work in China and their efforts to promote the rule of law more difficult.
“Trump’s defiance and moral ambiguity, to put it nicely, is not only embarrassing but makes it difficult for lawyers on the ground in China that are proud to talk about the durability of American values, institutions, and commitment to the rule of law,” said James Zimmerman, managing partner of Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton’s Beijing office.
On the same day that Trump described those attending the rally in Charlottesville as “fine people” from “both sides,” the U.S. State Department released its annual International Religious Freedom Report for 2016—a document that labeled China a “country of particular concern” over policies that restrict religious practice of Uighur Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists.
The next day, the Chinese state media fought back. In addition to invoking the usual defense that the accusations were groundless and that the Chinese Constitution protected religious freedom, the Chinese newspapers told Washington to mind its own business in the aftermath of Charlottesville.
“While still reeling from the death and violence seen at a white-nationalist rally in the city of Charlottesville, the United States should take a minute to reflect on its own human rights situation before pointing accusing fingers at China,” state-run Xinhua News Agency wrote in a commentary.
“Despite its self-proclaimed role as the world’s human rights champion, the fact is the world’s sole superpower is far from becoming a respected role model in this regard,” Xinhua wrote.
Robert Precht, founder and president of the Hong Kong-based public interest law organization Justice Lab, said that Trump had dealt a “body blow” to the human rights movement in China.
“The only thing the U.S. has in the debate over human rights is our moral high ground—the idea that we believe in human rights for all, and that we are just as hard on ourselves as we are on abusers abroad,” said Precht, who previously ran the China operations for the Global Network for Public Interest Law, an international organization matching law firms and pro bono projects.
But Trump’s insistent nationalism and his most recent remarks equating Nazi hate groups with those who oppose them, Precht said, created the impression that the U.S. government is amoral and—just as bad—hypocritical.
Indeed, a strongly worded editorial published by the People’s Daily under the headline ” U.S. is not a human rights paradise, nor the world’s moral leader, ” chastised the United States. “ Rather than place America on top of all other nations as the world’s moral authority and undermine other countries’ efforts and hard-won achievements, the U.S. government should focus more on making America ‘great again,’ and less on making other countries more like America,” the People’s Daily wrote.
Sheppard Mullin’s Zimmerman said that U.S. lawyers in China have been taking a stand against intolerance and repression, and promoting the benefits of judicial independence, pluralism, and separation of powers. “But the Chinese … view Trump as clear proof that American democracy is in decline and thus lawyers in China are in no position to question China’s legal system,” he said.
Precht, who last year called for international law firms to give more moral support to detained Chinese human rights lawyers, said that in the absence of any principled leadership coming from the Trump administration, U.S. lawyers have a special duty to speak up in the face of human rights abuses.
“They need to press businesses and universities with operations in China to make public statements supporting human rights, even if it may jeopardize their relationship with the Chinese government,” he said. “Only when the role models of U.S. society embrace human rights is there any hope of dispelling the impression of rank hypocrisy coming from the American government.”