Interview

Human Rights, Snowden, and How Not to Get Hacked

The U.S. ambassador to China speaks to Foreign Policy.

There was a time when a crackdown following an attack on Tiananmen Square, the symbolic heart of Beijing, would provoke a statement from the United States urging China to respect human rights. But Gary Locke is an ambassador of a different era. Now, increasingly complex economic ties, the fallout from whistleblower Edward Snowden's leaks, and the shift in the balance of power between the two nations means that Locke is increasingly expected to accommodate China, not criticize it.

A former commerce secretary and governor of the state of Washington, Locke's tenure has been a diplomatic juggling act, encompassing the May 2012 diplomatic standoff over the fate of blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng, the fall of Chinese politician Bo Xilai (precipitated by an aide's attempted defection to a U.S. consulate), and revelations that both the United States and China engage in widespread hacking.

On Oct. 31, three days after a car driven by a member of China's beleaguered Uighur minority group exploded on an avenue outside of Tiananmen Square, I sat down with the ambassador in the J.W. Marriott in downtown Washington, DC, for an interview. We discussed Edward Snowden's effect on the U.S.-China relationship, how to stay safe from hacking, and the very particular phrase he used to convey U.S. opinions on Chinese human rights violations. (The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.) His responses, below, are telling.

Foreign Policy: With the debt crisis in October, has China ever pushed you to push the United States to get its economic house in order?

Gary Locke: No, they know that we are getting our economic house in order. The Chinese government wants a strong and quick economic recovery in the United States because they know they benefit from more Americans working, having more money in their pockets and spending it in department stores -- because a large percentage of what Americans buy everyday is made in China.

FP: In October 2012, U.S. lawmakers said Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei poses a national security threat to the United States. Since the Snowden leaks, how have the Chinese reacted differently in discussions about Huawei?

GL: It really hasn't changed the tenor of our discussions about Huawei.

FP: This is one of the most polluted years in China in recent memory. Are there any plans to cut back on monitoring the pollution in Beijing?

GL: No, not at all. If there is one thing we are very, very proud of, which shows the power of American values and American environmentalism, it's the monitors for PM 2.5 [airborne particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers] on top of not just the U.S. embassy in Beijing, but now on all of our consulates throughout China.

I've been to so many parts of China, talking and meeting with Chinese people who don't know a single word of English other than "hello," "goodbye," and "PM 2.5." More people in China know the concept and phrase PM 2.5 than Americans.

FP: Do you presume that the information NSA leaker Edward J. Snowden carried with him in his laptops to Hong Kong has been compromised by the Chinese?

GL: I have no information. I wouldn't be able to comment on that at all.

FP: Is that the impression among the people you've spoken with?

GL: That issue has not come up in my discussions with Chinese government officials.

FP: In a recent New York Times interview, Snowden said his familiarity with China's intelligence abilities means there was a "zero percent" chance the Chinese have received any of his documents.

GL: I'm not aware of that interview, and I'm not in a position to comment on anything Mr. Snowden has said.

FP: Has he made your job more difficult?

GL: China is always a challenging environment, but I'm really proud of the great accomplishments we as an embassy and mission have been able to make.

FP: Has your phone or computer ever been hacked?

GL: Not that I know of. But I wouldn't know!

FP: Your predecessor as U.S. commerce secretary, Carlos M. Gutierrez, was reportedly hacked in 2008. What precautions do you and your staff take in China, or in other parts of the world, to protect your devices?

GL: When we were in the Commerce Department, anywhere we went, we had our phones, Blackberries, and equipment checked before we left the United States and had it checked as soon as we got back. As ambassador, we follow State Department procedures.

FP: You don't have stricter procedures in China, than, say France or South Korea?

GL: I think State Department procedures are tailored to different parts of the world. But I think most of the procedures are standard and good practices, wherever you go.

FP: Can you have a phone with you in a meeting with high-ranking Chinese officials? Is that allowed?

GL: Yes.

FP: A phone that's on? Do State Department procedures allow you to have a phone that's on during a meeting with, say, China's foreign minister or a vice foreign minister?

GL: Well, let me just say that I exercise a lot of caution wherever I go when I have a cellphone, even in the United States.

FP: What's the U.S. position on the Oct. 28 attack just outside of Beijing's Tiananmen Square, which killed five people and wounded at least 42?

GL: We deplore any and all acts of terrorism. Our condolences go out to all the victims of that car crash, in which bystanders, tourists from other countries and from within China, and police officers were seriously injured.

FP: Was it an act of terrorism?

GL: Well, that's what the Chinese are saying. We have no independent information, but again the United States deplores any and all types of terrorism.

FP: How do you think this will affect tensions among the Han Chinese and Uighurs throughout the country? [Ed note: On Oct. 30, Beijing stated a man with a Uighur name drove the car, and arrested five other Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority who live mostly in the northwestern Chinese territory of Xinjiang, for planning "holy war." They have since identified the driver as a Uighur from Xinjiang.]

GL: I don't know what Chinese authorities plan to do, so I can't really speculate on that. We've long believed that the Chinese government should try to preserve the culture, the language, and the customs of different ethnic minority groups throughout China.

FP: Are the Chinese committing human rights violations in Xinjiang?

GL: Well, we've said all along that we believe that the Chinese government should try to be more respectful of the different cultures, religions, and languages within Xinjiang and elsewhere in China. China does have many other different ethnic minorities and...

FP: So you have no position on whether the Chinese are committing human rights violations in Xinjiang?

GL: We have said repeatedly that we believe the Chinese government should try to preserve the culture, the language, and the customs of the Uighur people in Xinjiang.

FP: But the question of human rights is not something you're willing to comment on? It's seems like there are two different things here. You can preserve the culture, the language, and the customs of the Uighur people and commit human rights violations, or not preserve them and not commit human rights violations. I'm wondering, what is the U.S. position on human rights issues in Xinjiang?

GL: We think there should be greater tolerance and respect for the religious practices and the cultural practices and the language of the Uighur people in Xinjiang.

FP: Beyond what you've said before, there's no additional position the U.S. government takes on, say, rounding up young Uighur men and holding them in extralegal detention?

GL: We have great concerns about many of the police practices throughout China, whether targeted towards minorities or Han Chinese.

FP: But no extra concerns about Uighurs?

GL: We have very deep concerns about the Uighur community in terms of less accommodation and less acceptance of the very distinct cultural aspects of the Uighur community. We believe there should be greater tolerance and embracing of different cultures, languages, and customs.

FP: Since February 2009, at least 122 Tibetans have reportedly self-immolated, many in protest of repressive policies in the western Chinese region of Tibet. How do you see the situation unfolding in Lhasa, the region's capital city?

GL: I was able to visit last June, and again we believe the Chinese government should embrace more the customs, the religions, and the culture of the Tibetan people. We believe they should have greater interaction with the Tibetan leaders in Tibet.

FP: Not the Dalai Lama?

GL: Our position is very clear on that. We don't support independence of Tibet, and we urge the Chinese government to meet with the representatives of the Dalai Lama. That's a long-standing position.

We believe that many tensions both in Xinjiang and in Tibet could be alleviated if the Chinese people engaged with the leaders of those communities and really try to address the issues that the Uighurs have with respect to the practicing of their religion, and promotion of language and culture.

FP: Would it be fair to say that your position is that, while there are tensions in Xinjiang and Tibet, and while you believe the Chinese government should embrace the culture, religion, and customs of Uighurs and Tibetans,  human rights violations do not play a part of that calculus?

GL: No, no, not at all. We're very concerned about the human rights conditions in China.

FP: In China, or in Xinjiang and Tibet?

GL: In all places in China, including Xinjiang and Tibet.

FP: Sure but human rights issues, in say, the [wealthy eastern province] Hebei are not...

GL: We've noticed a greater crackdown on people who are speaking out about political issues, environmental issues.

FP: For an outside observer who has never been to China and is not familiar with the situation, from reading this interview, they would get the impression that the U.S. government view is that the human rights situation in China is the same in Beijing, as it is in [the northeastern province of] Jilin, as it is in Tibet and Xinjiang.

GL: Being able to practice your religion and maintain your culture is part of human rights, and to the extent that there is less tolerance for that in Xinjiang and Tibet, is part of human rights.

FP: Ok. I'll stop harping on that point. Let's go to a slightly easier topic: How confident do Chinese leaders appear to be in Kim Jong Un's leadership and the stability of North Korea?

GL: Our interactions with the Chinese government have indicated a common interest in preventing the North Koreans from developing a nuclear weapon.

FP: Since Japan's Sept. 2012 nationalization of the Senkakus, an island chain administered by Japan but claimed by China, tensions between the two nations have been high. How worried are you about war breaking out between China and Japan?

GL: The thing we are most concerned about is unintended incidences that can suddenly flare up and cause even greater instability, and unintended conflict. As Vice President Biden is fond of saying, his father told him that what's worse than an intended conflict is an unintended conflict.

FP: Do the Chinese believe the United States will honor its security arrangement with Japan if they attack the Senkakus?

GL: You'd have to ask them. I can't get into their minds. But our position has been made very clear by a host of U.S. government officials.

FP: What was your take on the trial of fallen Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai, which saw him sentenced to life in prison in Sept. 2013 for the charges of bribery, embezzlement, and abuse of power?

GL: Not at all unexpected. The courts are still controlled by the government. We were all expecting a firm and strong sentence. At the same time, we expected him to be able to mount a defense.

FP: There is a rumor floating around that former Premier Wen Jiabao is under suspicion, after an Oct. 2012 New York Times story that reported his family has controlled at least $2.7 billion in assets.

GL: I have no information about that.

FP: There have been reports in Western newspapers that the controversial former Chinese security czar Zhou Yongkang is under investigation. This would make him the highest-ranking official to fall in China in decades. Is he being investigated?

GL: I have really no idea. We have no information to that. We've seen reports that various people in [China National Petroleum Corporation], the oil and gas company that he used to be affiliated with, are under investigation. But that's all we know.

FP: It seems that the fate of Zhou is one of the most important stories potentially happening in China right now. I'm wondering if you could offer any insight on that?

GL: We have no information on that issue at all.

MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

Interview

Pain Relief

UNHCR’s representative to Lebanon talks to Foreign Policy about the worsening refugee crisis that threatens to stretch the country to a breaking point.

In June 2012, Lebanon had about 25,000 Syrian refugees. Today, that figure has multiplied by a factor of more than 30. The numbers, however, don't tell the whole story: Lebanon was already a haven for Palestinian refugees, and it is grappling with longstanding sectarian tensions and the consequences of a government collapse this spring. It hasn't opened new camps to accommodate the Syrians pouring over the border, and, in the absence of sufficient funding and upgrades to support the population influx, Lebanon's infrastructure is under extreme pressure. Resentment among local communities toward Syrian newcomers is also reportedly mounting.

The crisis has been described as "out of control." One of the key people seeking to bring some order to the situation, by working with the Lebanese government, a dozen U.N. agencies, and over 80 NGOs to track refugees and provide them with aid, is Ninette Kelley, the representative to Lebanon for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Foreign Policy sat down with Kelley this week while she was in Washington. She discussed the challenges of assisting a wildly dispersed population living in garages, sheds, and empty buildings; her frustration that international journalists seem more interested in covering Jordan's Zaatari camp than other aspects of the refugee crisis; and why Lebanon feels like it's been abandoned by the world.

Below is an edited transcript of the conversation.

FP: Today, how many Syrian refugees does UNHCR estimate are in Lebanon?

NK: Over 800,000.... We're registering between 11,000 and 15,000 every single week. It's a lot of people in a tiny country.

FP: The government has opted against opening new refugee camps. So where are most of the refugees?

NK: They're all over the country. When they first started to arrive, they settled in the north, and they gradually spread.... There are some 300,000 in the Bekaa [Valley], which is a large area in the east. There are around the same number, or slightly less, in the north, and around 90,000 in the south and in the Beirut area.... There is not a single area in Lebanon that is not touched by the Syrian refugee presence, and, in some communities, there are more refugees than there are Lebanese.

FP: What challenges has the government not opening camps presented to UNHCR?

NK: Certainly with the crisis, it was better to have people in communities rather than in camps. Camps are very easy to put up but very difficult to take down. People don't like being in camps.... It's much easier to distribute aid [in camps], but it comes with other risks

Around December of last year, we said, "This is not sustainable over the long term, and you [the government] need to think of a mix of shelter solutions, including some settlements, some camp-like settlements with up to 10,000 persons." We mapped areas in the country where that could be done, but the government still has not given its permission. That's very difficult because it means we don't have adequate shelter for people, and they are living in terrible circumstances.

FP: You're describing what sound like compromise solutions, where there are not camps, exactly, but concentrations of people that make it easier to deliver aid.

NK: What we're saying is you need a mixture of shelter options. You need cash-for-rent so people can rent apartments. You need to finish unfinished buildings so people can reside there....  But, for those people who still have not found adequate shelter, you need a place for them to go. We call it a transit center, but, in fact, it's a camp of manageable size, so it doesn't threaten any local communities, where we can put the necessary infrastructure in quickly and make sure that people are safe and secure.

FP: The government has also placed restrictions on the sort of shelters that can be constructed. What are the restrictions, and what is the rationale behind them?

NK: They [Lebanese authorities] don't like tents, but they don't want anything that looks like a permanent structure. The rationale is that they have had Palestinian refugees now for so many decades, they believe that anything that looks permanent will be permanent. They have this instinctive reaction against that.

FP: Obviously, interventions take a lot of money. What are your needs?

NK: In the middle of last year, we came up with an international appeal of $1.6 billion. A little over 30 percent is funded, when you include what the government also asked for. We're having great difficulty meeting the very basic needs of refugees in terms of shelter, health care, and education, but also in helping hosting communities that are really suffering because of the presence of refugee communities. There are pressures that come to bear on water and sanitation networks, on the loss of wages, on increased demand for limited health care services. The humanitarian appeal is not nearly adequately funded for us to be able to do our job appropriately. This is most disappointing to the Lebanese. They feel they have been abandoned by the international community.

FP: In what ways do you think more assistance for refugees could also be economically beneficial, socially beneficial for Lebanon?

NK: Many refugees are living in areas that are the most socially and economically depressed within the country. They were like that before the crisis, and they weren't getting the right services. So if we do interventions to help the school system, to help the primary health care system, if we improve water and waste management, if we can take vacant building and improve them, then that can all be to the benefit of the Lebanese as well. That is really our rallying cry right now in the world: Please come forward and help this tiny country with this disproportionate burden.

FP: You mentioned before we began the interview that you think Jordan gets more international attention because it has a very large camp and that makes for better optics.

NK: That's what journalists tell me: It's much easier to go to a camp and see what going on there. I've had many journalists come to Lebanon and say, "It's just not easy for us because we have to travel distances to tell the whole story."

FP: Lebanon has its own ongoing political crisis, and there have been reports that the presence of refugees is inflaming tensions with Hezbollah. What impact do you think refugee crisis might have on Lebanon's overall stability? 

NK: With all of the refugees, there are Lebanese who feel under threat, and there are different confessional groups who say, "We are becoming a much smaller minority in our country." That creates great anxiety and a great risk to stability. But I can't say that we've seen a spike in terms of outright confrontation between groups in the last two years. The rhetoric has always been relatively [charged], but the stability that has been maintained is amazing. I can't think of a single situation in living memory when a country as small has taken in so many without more political instability than we're seeing.

FP: Let's talk about winter. This will not be the first winter Syrian refugees have spent in Lebanon, but it may be the harshest. What steps is UNHCR taking to prepare?

NK: Winter is something that you expect and you know about, so our shelter strategy and our distribution for non-food items necessary for winter starts at the beginning of every planning year. We have been working on a priority basis making sure that the most vulnerable shelter situations are sealed off from the elements, whether that's tented settlements or rented garages, unfinished buildings, animal sheds. Then, in November, we start to distribute fuel and thermal blankets. But people continue to come and continue to settle, and keeping track of them is a challenge.

FP: Already, many refugee children are missing critical years of schooling. What sort of assistance for education have you been able to provide the government of Lebanon?

NK: Right at the outset, they said Syrian children can come to Lebanese schools. This year, we have 280,000 [school-age] Syrian children, almost equal to the entire number in the Lebanese public system, so the government said, "We think we can accommodate 100,000: 30,000 in regular classes and, if UNHCR and other partners come in, we can put in a second shift [in the school day] and accommodate another 70,000." That's enormous. But it depends on funding, and it also tells us that nearly 200,000 children won't have that opportunity. It's not that the government isn't willing, it's just that the capacity has been reached. So now we have to work at finding other informal education options and plan for the longer term, because these kids are spread all across the country in all kinds of precarious circumstances and they need to be able to have some kind of educational support.

FP: What would informal options look like?

NK: It could be setting up mobile schools, which UNICEF has started for informal tented settlements. It's also trying now to map out the skill sets of the refugees themselves [including teachers], to give them materials so they're able to teach the children. It's going to be a really new area for us, and the numbers are staggering, so we need all the help we can get.

FP: Children have particular needs, and there are other groups within refugee communities that fall into similar, special categories-for instance, LGBT individuals and women. What is UNHCR doing to support needs beyond the immediate, emergency ones, like food and shelter?

NK: We try to ensure a diversity perspective is in all our interventions, so that you're also looking to the needs of children, women, the disabled, the elderly... street children, young people at risk of forced marriage. Our teams in the field are well-capacitated to identify them and refer them to appropriate services.... Can I say we are 100 percent successful? Absolutely not, and it's one of the biggest challenges when you're dealing with an emergency.

FP: In a similar vein, are there particular health concerns in Lebanon at the top of your list of what to pay attention to? There have been recent reports of polio spreading in Syria.

NK: You always worry about the spread of disease. When people leave their home country and their vaccinations have been interrupted, you worry about them not being immunized and being conduits to the hosting community. We do a number of things. First off, UNICEF has a vaccination center in all of our registration centers.... On polio, UNICEF, the WHO [World Health Organization], and government of Lebanon will be vaccinating everyone under age 5 throughout the country, regardless of nationality. In addition, we have health referral networks where we're trying to ensure primary health care.... But the health care needs are astronomical. Lebanon is primarily a privatized health system, our scarce dollars are stretched very thin, and there are many cases that we are unable to treat. We try to treat all infectious disease, and, on secondary health care, we prioritize life-saving efforts. But those people who have a hip needing reconstructive surgery, or a baby that needs a cataract operation to be able to see, or someone who has a cleft palate, those are off the table. For those individuals, those are great disabilities they carry for the rest of their lives, but we just don't have the money to pay.

FP: Look ahead, where do you see Lebanon in five or 10 years, in terms of the refugee situation?

NK: I cannot imagine a good scenario absent a good political solution in Syria. I think that has to be the focus of everybody because the consequences of that not happening are so incredibly dire that the world should not be sitting around accepting them. Short of that, if the situation continues as it is now, Syria will continue to be completely devastated, refugees will continue to flee, the stability of the surrounding countries will be challenged, and what we're seeing in Syria could really expand to the rest of the region, to the detriment of global stability.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images