Should We Sanction China Too? | Opinion

The State Department's recently released annual human rights report once again condemned China's abuses. It reiterates that the Chinese government is committing genocide against the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang and subjecting them to forced labor, forced sterilization and arbitrary imprisonment. Meanwhile, Beijing is leveraging its economic heft to build up its military so as to challenge America's position in the world and potentially invade Taiwan, on which our crucial semiconductor supply chain depends.

Lawmakers from both parties have backed the Biden administration's threat to impose sanctions on China if it bolsters Russia's military. But Beijing is a greater threat to our security and economy than Moscow could ever be—and has committed a long series of human rights abuses. So why has the U.S. barely used sanctions against China, especially compared to its actions vis-à-vis Russia due to its invasion of Ukraine?

It's not that we haven't tried to slow the flow of American money and technology to China. It's just that we haven't tried very hard. From tariffs, to preventing Chinese companies from acquiring American hi-tech firms, to the growing list of sanctioned Chinese companies, little has succeeded at changing the basic calculus of American corporations. Even if the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which became law in December, increases the cost of doing business with China, it is unlikely to deter it.

American financial firms and venture capitalists continue to pour money into the country. Leading hi-tech companies continue to transfer key technologies, including to the country's military-industrial complex.

We need a different approach—and one not-too-distant era from our past may provide a roadmap.

During the Cold War, although trade with the Soviet Union was far more limited than it is with China today, it still became important to the communist authorities. Trade grew steadily from 1969 to 1974 and was projected to continue growing after the signing of the 1972 Soviet-American trade agreement. But in 1974, it stagnated.

This was due to a provision in the Trade Act of 1974 known as the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which made trade and any government investment guarantees and loans to non-market economies (the communist bloc) reliant on the freedom of emigration and other human rights. Jackson-Vanik also applied to China until it joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, producing a heated debate every year over whether the president should waive its conditions.

Chinese President Xi Jinping buttons his jacket
Chinese President Xi Jinping buttons his jacket at a ceremony. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Jackson-Vanik's impact went beyond trade: It was part of a broader movement to make human rights a much more prominent element in the relationship between the Soviet Union and the West. This movement worked to gradually win over elites and populations in the Soviet Union, eventually dissolving belief in the regime as differences in the systems became more apparent.

The amendment achieved such a broad impact because the rights it targeted were easy to understand, both in the U.S. and abroad. This amplified the amendment's message, making it clear to people everywhere what America stood for.

A similar act could have the potential to be a game-changer when it comes to China today. In this case, legislating a tariff based on an annual and highly independent public assessment of China's human rights record in a few specified areas would not only dramatically change the incentives companies face but would also generate global publicity of the abuses of the Chinese party-state.

The rights selected would have to be so foundational that they are instantly understood across cultures—such as respect for the rule of law, freedom of religion and conscience, due process and a fair trial and protections against discrimination based on ethnicity or religion. After all, reputational damage only works if everyone sees the behavior in question as wrong.

While our deep entanglement with China's economy makes broad sanctions hard to implement, trade can still be a useful "stick" to punish and ideally change behavior—if used wisely. Conditioning trade on human rights could convey to people worldwide, including within China, the benefits of a society that upholds these rights, compared to one that does not. A trade amendment like Jackson-Vanik would significantly constrain Chinese growth, reducing funding for the Chinese military and forcing Chinese exporters to reckon with how the Chinese Communist Party's behavior affects their own interests. Hopefully, such pressure would spark change from within—just as it did during the Cold War.

Seth D. Kaplan, a professorial lecturer in the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University, is the author of Human Rights in Thick and Thin Societies. He previously lived in China for seven years.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.