In Confronting China on Human Rights, Biden Can Learn from Reagan

Rasmus Sinding Søndergaard, The Danish Institute for International Studies, Copenhagen, Denmark.

                 As Joe Biden considers making human rights a central part of his China policy, he can learn from how Ronald Reagan successfully integrated human rights into his foreign policy towards the Soviet Union.

Human rights issues are poised to play a much larger role in U.S.-China relations after Joe Biden takes over from Donald Trump. Much like his predecessor, Biden has signaled his intentions to be tough on Beijing but with a much stronger emphasis on criticizing human rights abuses like those against the Uyghur Muslim minority in Xinjiang and democracy activists in Hong Kong. As Biden moves to confront China on human rights while also seeking cooperation on issues of mutual interests, he can learn from how Reagan succeeded in doing this in his Soviet policy. History suggests that striking the right balance between criticism and dialogue will be crucial and that a key benefit of speaking out against human rights abuses by an authoritarian rival might be domestic. 


Although Trump has taken a tough approach to China, especially since the onset of the US-China trade war in July 2018, he has been remarkably muted on China’s human rights record. This silence, of course, is in keeping with Trump’s general indifference to human rights violations among U.S. allies and adversaries alike. When the United States has spoken out against Chinese human rights abuses in the past four years, the initiative has originated from Congress. Trump only reluctantly signed bipartisan legislation sanctioning China over human rights violations against democracy activists in Hong Kong in November 2019 and the treatment of the Uyghurs in June 2020.[i]

Biden, by contrast, has clearly stated his intent to make human rights issues an important part of his China policy. Asked about his approach to China in December 2019, candidate Biden declared, “When I am president, human rights will be at the core of U.S. foreign policy.“[ii] In the spring of 2020, he wrote, “The most effective way to meet that challenge [of a rising China] is to build a united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviors and human rights violations, even as we seek to cooperate with Beijing on issues where our interests converge, such as climate change, nonproliferation, and global health security.”[iii] While campaign rhetoric and governing are two very different things, it appears certain that Biden will elevate the importance of human rights in U.S. dealings with China.

In the early 1980s, Ronald Reagan incorporated human rights into his foreign policy agenda of confronting the Soviet Union. Following congressional criticism for failing to prioritize human rights in foreign policy, the Reagan administration developed a conservative human rights policy shaped by anti-communism and a selective commitment to promoting democracy. [iv] Reagan developed an astute perception of how addressing Soviet human rights violations could be used to undermine the legitimacy of the Kremlin, build trust in U.S.-Soviet relations, and forge domestic consensus on foreign policy.

To be certain, China in the 2020s is not the Soviet Union in the 1980s and the United States of today is significantly different from the Reagan era. U.S.-China relations differ from U.S.-Soviet relations economically, militarily, ideologically, and technologically, making the frequently invoked Cold War analogy misplaced. The human rights issues in the two situations, however, are relatively similar as they both feature a powerful authoritarian regime repressing religious minorities and human rights activists. As such, it is worth exploring Reagan’s approach with an eye to the present.

In the 1980s, the key human rights issues in U.S.-Soviet diplomacy were the repression of human rights dissidents and religious minorities like Jews. Many Soviet Jews responded to the suppression by seeking to immigrate to Israel or the United States. Soviet authorities, however, rejected the vast majority of visa applications, fearing the damage that a mass migration movement would do the propaganda image of the Soviet Union as a socialist paradise. Aiding these Jews stuck in the Soviet Union became the focal point of extensive American activism inside and outside of government. No comparable movement to help Chinese minorities and dissidents exists today and Trump has responded to Chinese repression in Hong Kong by ending Hongkongers preferential immigration treatment.[v] The case of Soviet Jews in the 1980s suggests that this is a mistake and Biden should reverse this action.

In his dealings with his Soviet counterparts, Reagan balanced tough rhetoric with a willingness to engage in dialogue through quiet diplomacy. By the time he and Mikhail Gorbachev began their summits in 1985, human rights were an integral part of the administration’s four-part agenda for U.S.-Soviet relations along with arms control, regional conflicts, and bilateral relations. Reagan pursued an interconnected yet compartmentalized agenda, seeking to tie improvements on human rights issues with progress on other issues. Yet, he did not let disagreements on human rights obstruct dialogue and constructive relations. In the short term, human rights criticism created frictions in superpower relations. In the long term, however, eventual Soviet progress on human rights issues helped build mutual trust that eased progress on other issues.[vi] Whether a similar outcome is possible in present-day U.S.-China relations remains to be seen, but Chinese progress on human rights violations certainly holds the potential to build mutual trust. As Biden implements his proposed agenda of simultaneously confronting China on its human rights violations and seeking cooperation on areas of mutual interest, he should keep Reagan’s approach in mind.

Domestically, Reagan’s criticism of Soviet human rights violations helped him forge bipartisan support for his Soviet policy. During the 1980s, human rights concerns were the source of fierce partisan and ideological infighting over U.S. foreign policy towards allies like South Africa.[vii] In the case of the Soviet Union, however, human rights overlapped with national security interests and public opinion, allowing liberals and conservatives to find common ground. Situating human rights issues at the center of a U.S. foreign policy towards China holds the potential to secure bipartisan support for Biden’s foreign policy. The recent aforementioned congressional initiatives support this point.

These insights from U.S.-Soviet relations during the Reagan era should not be wholly unfamiliar to Biden given his experiences as a senator in the 1980s. In 1983, for instance, he raised the issue of Soviet Jewish emigration with Soviet officials when taking part in a congressional delegation to Moscow to discuss arms control.[viii]

Like Reagan with the Soviets, Biden will need to balance multiple concerns as he moves to raise human rights issues with the Chinese. If Biden is to have any chance of undermining Beijing’s legitimacy, he must first bring America’s own house in order by addressing racial discrimination and inequality. To overcome frictions and build mutual trust, Biden needs to balance criticism with an open dialogue and progress on areas of mutual interest. Finally, Biden should use human rights for building bipartisan domestic consensus for his China policy.

About the Author:

Rasmus Sinding Søndergaard is a Senior Researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies, specializing in U.S. foreign policy, human rights history, and democracy promotion. He is the author of Reagan, Congress, and Human Rights (Cambridge University Press, 2020) and several articles published in journals like International Politics, Diplomacy & Statecraft, and the Journal of Cold War Studies. For further information on his research, please see:

[i] “Trump Signs Hong Kong Democracy Legislation, Angering China”, The New York Times, November 27, 2019,, “Trump Signs Uyghur Human Rights Act Into Law”, The Diplomat, June 18, 2020,

[ii] “Questionnaire to Democratic Candidates; Joseph R. Biden Jr.”, The New York Times, December 2020,

[iii] Joseph R. Biden Jr., “Why America Must Lead Again: Rescuing U.S. Foreign Policy After Trump”, Foreign Affairs, March/April 2020,  

[iv] Rasmus Sinding Søndergaard, Reagan, Congress, and Human Rights: Contesting Morality in US Foreign Policy, (Cambridge University Press, 2020), p. 47-82.

[v] The White House, “The President’s Executive Order on Hong Kong Normalization”, July 14, 2020,

[vi] Søndergaard, Reagan, Congress, and Human Rights, p. 118-163.

[vii] Søndergaard, Reagan, Congress, and Human Rights, p. 164-214.

[viii] Søndergaard, Reagan, Congress, and Human Rights, p. 137.

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