Human Rights and the U.S.-China Relationship

63 Pages Posted: 3 Sep 2016 Last revised: 26 May 2017

See all articles by Margaret K. Lewis

Margaret K. Lewis

Seton Hall University - School of Law

Date Written: May 26, 2017


The recent change in presidents presents an opportune time to reflect on the role of human rights when formulating U.S.-China policy. The Obama Administration ended at a delicate time when the U.S. government both recognized grave concerns regarding human rights violations in the People’s Republic of China and acknowledged the tremendous importance of the U.S.-China relationship in areas ranging from nuclear non-proliferation to transnational crime. In March 2016, the United States and eleven other countries issued a rare joint statement expressing their concern over China’s “deteriorating human rights record” and calling on China “to uphold its laws and its international commitments.” The National Security Advisor subsequently affirmed, “There is no more consequential bilateral relationship than the U.S.-China relationship . . . .”

This Article argues that a principled and pragmatic approach to human rights requires the United State to articulate an integrated, executive-branch-wide plan for how human rights will be raised in various contexts. It unpacks how human rights are intertwined with issues in the U.S.-China relationship and sets forth a framework for analyzing the role of human rights in different contexts. The Article further demonstrates how law enforcement cooperation provides a concrete example of a key issue on the bilateral agenda with as yet underemphasized human rights implications. It has the potential both to cultivate engagement by China in human rights discussions and, even if greater engagement is not forthcoming, to bolster the United States’ credibility as holding true to its moral compass.

Keywords: China, Human Rights, Criminal Law, Transnational Law Enforcement

JEL Classification: K14, K33

Suggested Citation

Lewis, Margaret K., Human Rights and the U.S.-China Relationship (May 26, 2017). 49 Geo. Wash. Int'l L. Rev. 471 (2017), Available at SSRN:

Margaret K. Lewis (Contact Author)

Seton Hall University - School of Law ( email )

One Newark Center
Newark, NJ 07102-5210
United States

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