Comparing notes on Human Rights

Written by Julen Madariaga on April 12th, 2011

So there we go again. It is this time of the year when the USA State Department publishes its annual human rights report including China as a major offender, and China promptly responds with its own report exclusively dedicated to the US.

This show is déjà vu, but if you are interested you can see some thoughtful analysis of the question in the latest China Hearsay post. I completely agree with that post, including some historical comparison with the Jim Crow laws that some might find far-fetched (more further-fetched comparisons available below)

Even more interesting to me is the reaction of the American/European public to these kind of announcements. As Stan points out, typically it is outrage or even amusement: “the balls!”  Implicit in this tone and attitude is the rock-solid certitude that the USA and its allies indeed respect human rights more than China.

Whether it is in politics, science or any other field, intelligent people don’t have blind certitudes. This attitude of smug self-evidence is, in itself, a symptom that we should worry. Such strong convictions normally belong to fanatics, or else are the fruit of lazy (and carefully manipulated) minds. I think we have a bit of both here.

First of all, here is my answer to Stan’s analysis of USA vs. China human rights question:

I agree.

There is however another angle that makes a stronger argument for China, that is foreign policy. I am surprised they didn’t use it this time, and they stuck to the fair play of domestic vs. domestic comparison.

It is obvious that China cannot “win” on the domestic rights comparison today. Even in China most educated people realize this, but they rationalize it and accept it as a temporary situation while China is developing, which will slowly improve over the years (a not unreasonable position, IMO).

But back to the foreign policy argument. Although it is not always stated so clearly, I understand it goes like this: Since human rights apply equally to all humans, and an Iraqi life is as valuable as an American or Chinese life, then the thousands of innocent people killed in a reckless, self interested and illegal intervention, which was consciously based on lies, are morally no different from the victims of Mao Zedong’s policies (Mao’s absolute numbers are larger, but that’s because he was dealing with a much larger population).

And in any case, even if you consider only 10% of the victims of American foreign policy are innocent, the trampling of human rights is still orders of magnitude larger than the 100 odd dissidents that are soft-repressed in China, most of them getting away with a few months detention or house arrest.

I am an old reader of this blog and this is not an attempt at trolling or sparking controversy. I just sincerely wonder how Americans rationalize this — I find myself considering this problem more and more often since I live in China, and it’s very hard to get a sound moral standpoint. I have no issue with people criticizing China’s abuses, just like many of us criticized the Iraq war. What I find completely amazing is that millions of Westerners seem genuinely convinced that their governments are somehow less evil or more just than the Chinese one. Any answers?

In the meantime, I have come up with some partial answers here, and you are welcome to add more below.

I am afraid that if our attitude looks like that of intolerant fanatics, it is because we ARE intolerant fanatics. It is a quirk of the Western character that has marked us for many centuries, the need to have our strong faith and genuinely believe that every mean is justified to defend it. Christianity, Islam, Communism, Capitalism, Democracy, you name it, in every time and place we had some holy idea we had to impose on others.

This is how we manage to digest so easily the terrible injustice caused by our regimes, by invoking Democracy, the purifying faith. Everything is justified, because we voted for it, even if the victims of the war never had a say. The CCP has learned to mimic this absurd justification, and similarly calls itself democratic, as the votes of a few (the Central Committee) decides for the whole. In sum, our democracies have the same legitimacy in Foreign Policy as the CCP has in China — only they are infinitely more cruel, and tougher at repressing Freedom of Speech.

When it comes to something as essential as Human Rights, we really need to stop being so frivolous. We should draw a clear line between defending Democracy, a mere political opinion subject to discussion, and standing for Human Rights, a matter of dignity and survival. With the usual shallowness of the Western media, we have turned the whole thing into a carnival, enforcing the notion that only we hold the Truth, and giving a thousand reasons for the Chinese public to believe our protests are hypocritical and self-interested.

In conclusion:  I sincerely hope that China will continue to criticize more consistently America and other countries — hopefully with studies of better quality than this one. Western Foreign Policy clearly lacks checks and balances, our media has failed to play its role, and China is the only hope to balance this out.

Here is to hoping the CCP get their act together and stop their paranoid repression of Freedom of Speech. Then China might earn enough credibility to play its role in the World. It is urgently needed.

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Comments so far ↓

  1. Apr

    Wishful thinking. The reality is neither America or China gives a damn about human rights. This is nothing more than a round of diplomatic tit-for-tat.

    [Reply to this comment]

  2. Apr

    Amen to xian, Though I disagree on Julen’s socio-historic perspective: “he need to have our strong faith and genuinely believe that every mean is justified to impose it on others. Christianity, Islam, Communism, Capitalism, Democracy, you name it, in every time and place we had some holy idea we had to impose on others.” It’s one reading, although there are many others, that see western history of thought in what I believe is a much more balanced light. True there have been many intents to impose ideas… as there have been of contradicting that imposition. Something that curiously enough did not happen in eastern thinking. 2000 years of Confucianism and variations on it. Whan we talk about monopoly of ideas, westerners are losers… Gosh! a new philosophical paradigm every 100 years… Amazing! We should have harmonized those guys long ago…

    [Reply to this comment]

  3. Apr
    Julen Madariaga

    “It’s one reading, although there are many others, that see western history of thought in what I believe is a much more balanced light.”

    Surely I didn’t mean to summarize the whole Western thought with this phrase! I am just noting one particular “quirk” or trait of character, which is quite obvious if we look at Western history. There are many other aspects of the Western thought that are admirable, and have brought remarkable achievements.

    [Reply to this comment]

  4. Apr

    Many European do respect China’s social strategy given their present circumstances- especially those of us in the private sector. Because we actually work and have less time to express opinions and views, the minority public sector ‘human rights’ folks get their views promoted more loudly than their numbers warrant.

    [Reply to this comment]

  5. Apr
    Joyce Lau

    If you’re waiting for China to provide “checks and balances,” we’re all in big trouble. Have you taken a look at the Chinese judicial system? There’s no comparison with any democracy with elections, public access to government, etc.

    And there’s no comparison in the quality and intent of these different reports.

    However misguided, the U.S. does do serious human rights research and work, and has for generations all over the world. It has seriously followed cases of abuses in China and elsewhere.

    I don’t think Beijing really cares about, say, poor kids in American slums. The Chinese report reads like a shoddily compiled list of complaints. It’s fine if they criticize, but they could have made a tiny effort to make it good.

    Plus, what’s wrong with poking fun or mocking authorities? People all over the world mock and criticize government, both at home and overseas. Hong Kongers openly do so, both of the local and national governments. And we’re technically Chinese.

    The timing of this Chinese report IS pretty ironic, given its timing during a huge crackdown.

    Even people who like and are interested in China don’t think that it respects human rights as much as most developed nations.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Julen Madariaga Reply:

    @Joyce Lau, I admit there is some serious wishful thinking in my post, as someone else pointed above: China is nowhere near providing a credible balance to the Western media.

    On the other hand, you seem to trust American politicians way too much. I don’t know if Beijing leaders care about poor kids in the slums, probably some do and some don’t - just like Americans. In both cases their job description is to look for the interest of their own country, and that’s mainly what they do in these reports — admittedly the Americans do it better.

    Anyway, the main problem with your comment is the last paragraph, I don’t see how it makes sense. There is NO DOUBT whatsoever that the trampling of Human Rights by the USA and allies in the last 10 years is orders or magnitude worse than China’s. The 30 odd people now under arrest in China are a joke compared with the thousands murdered, tortured and imprisoned for years without evidence by the US.

    This is the reason why I don’t like the “mocking”. Not for the mocking itself, which is fine and healthy, but for the sense of superiority that often (not always) can be felt in the Western mocking party.

    [Reply to this comment]

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