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A New China Syndrome

In recent months Hollywood liberals and Washington neo-cons have formed an unsung and unholy alliance against China, and especially the upcoming Beijing Olympic Games. These groups have tried to shame China into using its economic leverage to condemn the violence and human rights abuses in Darfur, and into ending its brutal crackdown in Tibet. From Hollywood to D.C. and well beyond, many say that China should not be given the honor of hosting the Olympics until Beijing improves its human rights record.

China has so far rejected any accusations of wrongdoing and instead assumed the role of victim, digging in its heels on both fronts: Beijing, which buys oil and in return sells guns and other weapons to Darfur—a region rife with genocide—claims that the U.S. also supports countries with poor human rights records, including Saudi Arabia and Israel. On Tibet, it’s a similar story. China’s state news agency, Xinhua, has published editorials claiming the Tibetan groups are “terrorist organizations” that falsely inflated the death toll of the March 2008 protests. The vast majority of Chinese people consider Tibet to be an inalienable part of China and believe there are no humanitarian violations taking place. According to an editorial that ran in an early April edition of the China Daily, Tibet is part of the “Chinese family” and the Chinese government freed Tibet from feudalism and serfdom. The official sentiment in Beijing is that the outside world is unfairly harassing China and ruining the supposedly apolitical and festive spirit of the Olympics.

Like it or not, China views the human rights discourse as Western hypocrisy—as an ideological weapon in a geo-strategic struggle that pits a declining U.S. against a rising China. One does not have to agree with brutal Chinese policy in Tibet or Darfur to see that the Chinese have a point. Given the growing scandal surrounding the Beijing Games, it is worth looking at the history of human rights discourse and its application to China by the West.

Members of the U.S. Congress and Washington’s conservative elites have been hurling insults at Beijing and attempting to influence Chinese domestic policy for decades. Beginning with the anti-Communist hardliners of the 1950s, a policy of regime change in China has floated in minority circles in Washington. In the early years of the George W. Bush administration, Donald Rumsfeld suggested to Bush that China, above all other threats, be regarded as America’s principal foe. (What about Osama bin Laden, one might ask!) According to the Department of Defense’s Quadrennial Defense Review, released just after 9/11, “the possibility exists that a military competitor with a formidable resource base will emerge in the [East Asian] region.” The unstated competitor was, of course, China.

Recently, new ranks have been added to the China-bashers. Hollywood liberals have started using China as their whipping boy: Mia Farrow has taken to calling the August games the “Genocide Olympics.” Steven Spielberg has withdrawn from his role as an artistic adviser for the event, citing political reasons. Liberal organizations like Save Darfur and Free Tibet have used celebrity power to draw attention to China’s actions. Even while the U.S. increases its economic reliance on China, more and more people are raising concerns about China’s authoritarian regime.

But, this type of pressure has not had the desired effect. The diplomacy of shaming China has not worked in the past, does not work now, and will continue to be a failed mission for the United States. And there are several historical, philosophical, political, and economic reasons why this type of diplomacy doesn’t work well in China.

First, the Chinese Communist Party (or CCP) pursues a foreign policy of nonintervention and thus resents external pressure on its domestic affairs. Beginning with the humiliation of the Treaty Port system and China’s defeat by European powers in the Opium War of the 1840s, China’s foreign policy has had at its center an unwavering commitment to anti-imperialism. The historic association with submission to external pressure runs deep and profound, even today. The flip-side of all this is that China is a fierce advocate of national sovereignty and the right to self-determination. Beijing stresses equality, mutual non-aggression, and peaceful coexistence for all states, rich or poor, large or small, old or new, semi-autonomous or not. Because the CCP considers Tibet part of China, the issue of the region’s separatism is considered to be a problem for the CCP alone to handle, and foreign support of Tibetan separatists is thus seen as a violation of Chinese sovereignty.
Second, when Western activists talk about human rights in Tibet, it is not clear what the term would mean in the Chinese context. Current conceptions of human rights were by no means derived universally and with global participation. The concept of legal human rights originates with the teachings of the Western philosopher John Locke. But Lockean theory has no role in Chinese history. According to Columbia University political scientist Andrew Nathan, Chinese official jurisprudence “stresses the priority of social and economic rights over civil and political rights, and of national rights of self-determination and development over the rights of individual citizens within countries.” The fact that the international declaration of human rights makes no mention of Chinese traditions (either from Confucianism or Daoism) leads many Chinese to believe it is a foreign construct and for that reason object to its application in China.

The power of an international human rights regime has been sustained by Western-dominated international institutions such as the United Nations, and by international non-governmental organizations including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. These organizations are responsible for the largest share of the research and publishing of information on China’s human rights record. Other organizations such as the Human Rights First, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Office of Tibet in New York, Tibet Information Network in Germany, and the International Campaign for Tibet in Washington, D.C., are also Western-based organizations which are fiercely critical of China. From China’s perspective, proponents of human rights have gone beyond their mandate to protect individuals and instead are serving components of a larger agenda of the Western liberal elite to destabilize the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). For example, the Chinese Foreign Ministry was quoted saying that the US Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, had “ulterior motives”—i.e., to undermine the CCP—after she drafted a proposal to ask the Chinese government to end the crackdown in Tibet this spring.

The reality is that individuals and political groups in Washington that advocate an anti-China strategic agenda share a goal with those who advocate a humanitarian agenda. Both groups want increased surveillance of, and US involvement in, China’s domestic affairs. Both groups have stated that they hope to prop up a domestic dissenting faction in China and that they would like to embolden that faction to disrupt the power balance within the government. Both groups have an interest in inciting domestic popular uprisings. Summed up, both human rights activists and proponents of what is known as the China Threat Theory hold as their stated interest is the goal of threatening the legitimacy of the government. From China’s point of view, a concession made to the human rights activists is a concession made to those who want to dismantle the seat of power in Beijing.

Chinese leaders have made it clear that compliance with human rights norms is not as important as achieving economic growth and thereby improving the quality of life for ordinary Chinese people. Indeed, many young people—who are riding on the backs of a booming economy—have the government to thank for their fast-growing material wealth and buying power. This is making it increasingly unlikely that human rights groups will find allies among China’s youth. A Chinese student on a recently-aired Boston Public Radio show said that in China, “there is a different definition of human rights. I think for most Chinese—they are concerned with economic development and a better life and improvement in their living.” Another student added, “We have power. We have what we want…From the development of the country, we [can] benefit a lot.”
Although there is on-going evidence of humanitarian violations in Tibet, and perhaps even a “cultural genocide” as the Dalai Lama has stated, there are also real signs of economic improvement there. Tibet’s GDP growth in 2007 was reported as a record 13.8 percent. As long as this is true, Beijing will continue to emphasize the benefits and improvements of economic indicators that measure “quality of life” in Tibet and use that as evidence to prove that other freedoms—such as cultural, religious or legal rights—are less important.

Instead of compliance, the CCP response to shame has hardened. Tibet is not any closer to independence because of the protests in London, Paris, and San Francisco featured in the international media. These events simply provide an opportunity for the Chinese government to wave Tibet’s positive economic indicators in the world’s face. At the same time, there has been an increase in police presence in Tibet. According to researchers Thomas Risse and Kathryn Sikkink, countries that are singled out and charged with abusive practices often find quick fixes, which the authors call “tactical concessions” and “cosmetic gestures.” For example, China in the past has made cosmetic gestures in order to access material benefits. In 1990 and 1991, when China was angling for Most Favored Nation trade status from the U.S., it released 881 political prisoners associated with the Tiananmen Square incident of 1989. To this day, the Chinese people are still without the tools necessary for political participation and the country is no closer to any sort of political reform. Indeed, what we have seen so far is that foreign protests lead to more crackdowns.

What Deng Xiaoping did for Chinese commerce (“If it makes money, it’s good for China”) Chinese president Hu Jintao now needs to do for human rights (i.e., If people are treated humanely, it’s good for Chinese sovereignty). Should China, on its own, adopt human rights values, Westerners would no longer be able to “shame” it. By granting rights to its own people, China could leverage itself politically in the international community. Thus, if America’s Hollywood liberal elite and their neocon “allies” were to present the human rights argument in a different light—as an opportunity for China to grow and strengthen itself—perhaps they could gain more traction.


Lucia Green-Weiskel

Lucia Green-Weiskel is a project officer at the Innovation Center for Energy and Transportation, an NGO based in Beijing.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2008

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