As the world’s most influential voices gathered in New York to ring in the 70th anniversary of the United Nations General Assembly gathering this past September, a rather unlikely candidate took center stage. Democratic hopeful Hillary Clinton sent a tweet that created something of a media maelstrom, shaming Chinese President Xi Jinping in the wake of his lofty speech on the state of women’s rights. Xi had taken the opportunity to emphasize that this occasion marked the 20th anniversary of the World Conference on Women held in Beijing, and promised to renew China’s commitment to “improve women’s capacity for their participation in political and economic activities.” Hillary fired back, calling his claims “shameless” in the wake of Beijing’s arrest of five peaceful feminist activists in March.
Naturally, not everyone took kindly to Clinton’s candid words. The state-sanctioned Chinese daily, Global Times, replied to the tweet with a sharp rebuke, casting her as a Trump-style “rabble rouser.” The Time’s editorial chided her Internet manners: “it is a pity that even the former first lady has thrown away her decency and reputation only to gain a leg up in the election.” A Weibo user in China chimed in with a suggestion for the presidential candidate: “speak after you’ve controlled your husband.”
There is more significance to this exchange than blatant sexism. At this juncture in the election, Hillary Clinton is the presumptive Democratic nominee for President. But would a President Hillary Clinton take Beijing to task for their human rights abuses in such a bombastic fashion? Clinton’s lengthy track record in public office clearly contradicts such a notion.
The media attention surrounding this tweet certainly accomplished something for the Clinton campaign. It reminded America of the moment Clinton became a prominent political figure as First Lady, appearing at the Beijing conference in 1995 and coining the now-famous phrase “women’s rights are human rights.” During this iconic speech, Clinton won the hearts and minds of women across the world and positioned herself as a staunch defender of gender equality and human rights. It is precisely this passion and courage that Hillary is desperate for voters to remember when they head to the polls in the Democratic primaries. But how does this square with Clinton’s conflicting reputation for political opportunism and detached pragmatism?
It is these competing identities that Clinton is attempting to consolidate. While voters struggle to place Hillary as a moderate or a progressive, she has fought to defend her credentials on the left. In fact, her whole campaign has been geared towards projecting the image of an empathetic and principled liberal. She has stressed her role as a “fighter” and a “champion” above all else, emphasizing her earlier activism above her work as a senator or as Secretary of State. Clinton’s most recent campaign video, aptly titled “Fighter”, is a compilation of Hillary’s most progressive activism and social work: her time at the Children’s Defense Fund, her speech in Beijing and her failed healthcare reforms as First Lady.
Secretary Clinton’s human rights record is perhaps less compelling material for a video montage. Despite the progressive position of her recent tweet, her relationship with China put these liberal ideals on the backburner. Her administration’s approach was based on Obama’s doctrine of “Pivot to Asia,” building strategic relationships in spite of how these regimes were treating their own people. Immediately establishing a pragmatist’s position, Clinton stated with regard to Beijing’s poor record that, “[her] pressing on those (human rights) issues can’t interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crisis.” This rhetoric hardly mirrors the tone of the 2016 campaign, but the contradictions become more problematic.
Clinton’s prized foreign policy objective during her time as Secretary, her diplomatic work with Myanmar, has come under harsh scrutiny. Her administration was responsible for relaxing the sanctions against Burma, hoping to foster economic and military engagement with what some have termed “one of the most repressive on earth.” While Clinton celebrated bringing Burma into the international fold, depicting it as a ‘crowning achievement’ of her tenure, this engagement has helped paved the way for further human rights abuses. These choices seem particularly unethical and ill conceived as the nation descends into greater sectarian violence and ethnic persecution. The government has backpedaled on its previous commitment to recognize the Rohingya minority, who are now been denied citizenship unless they voluntarily renounce their cultural identity. While the Clinton administration enthusiastically and swiftly lifted sanctions, allowing the powers that be to enjoy the benefits of economic liberation, this can hardly be classed as a victory when it effectively undermined the Burmese government’s incentive for democratic reform.
Clinton was additionally responsible for the use of a national security waiver to provide aid to Egypt in the tumultuous years following the revolution. This aid waived the congressional stipulation that Egypt was “implementing policies to protect freedom of expression, association and religion and due process of law” before receiving American dollars, provoking Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to harshly criticize the decision. Citing a desire to “advance the interests we share,” the Clinton administration allowed for over $1.5 billion to be funneled into the government amid NGO crackdowns and systematic legal abuses.
How can the self-described “fighter” defend an increasingly splotchy record human rights record? Are candid tweets and leftist campaign rhetoric enough to obscure Secretary Clinton’s cooperation with despotic regimes? Perhaps voters can accept Clinton’s response to this apparent contradiction during last week’s debate, “I’m a progressive who likes to get things done.”
Hillary’s campaign has desperately attempted to remind voters of who she was before she rose to political stardom: an idealistic and outspoken Wesleyan graduate, a principled and determined advocate for children’s rights, a groundbreaking First Lady who refused to back down. The question remains: is this depiction appropriate when placing Clinton in a presidential context? Her existing foreign policy record is probably the clearest indicator of what America could expect from President Clinton in action.
Clinton’s team may have a markedly harder time selling her tenure as Secretary of State as a human rights victory. Luckily for Hillary, only 22 per cent of American voters rank foreign policy as a pressing matter in this year presidential election. Besides a constituency of eager Republicans, it may be fair to say that most voters are not very interested in taking her to task for her record overseas.