Saturday, September 2, 1995

U.S., China and Human Rights

The early part of Farewell My Concubine, co-winner of the top prize at the 1993 Cannes International Film Festival, depicted the lives of young boy apprentices in a Peking Opera troupe. The troupe master's method for exacting discipline and dedication was frequent caning and otherwise harsh treatment without any apparent interpersonal affection. Since I am no movie critic and this was incidental to the main story line, why am I bringing this up? Because I believe this segment of the film serves to illustrate the difference between the Westerner's and the Chinese attitude about human rights.

I do not know if training for the opera troupe in Beijing is still as brutal as it was in the 1920's. I suspect not. Then again today's aficionados of Peking operas will claim that the skill level has gone down, perhaps because training is no longer so rigorous. Certainly no western schools would countenance use of corporal punishment to exact diligence. On the other hand, Chinese would consider western training methodology as too lenient to obtain the dedication needed to truly excel.

Who's right, who's wrong? That would depend on from whose perspective. A bigger question is whether it is appropriate for either the West or the East to evaluate the other relying on one's own value system as the template. In the case of the United States, it is to impose its value on China. I am too westernized, --having spent the last 80% of my life in the United States, to be a competent apologist or defender of the Chinese values and way of life. I do question whether it is appropriate for the U.S. to take on an almost vehement role on insisting that China come to terms with human rights in a manner acceptable to Americans.

When it comes to human rights, no society is without flaws, not even the U.S. For example, no other country and culture in the world share America's love for the handgun, even though it is the most frequent instrument of random and intentional violence. Cult caused massacres, police brutality, increasing number of homeless people, inequities of the justice system towards the poor and the minority, random homicide by gun wielding teenagers, and death by drug overdose are among the ills of the American society that are obvious to the rest of the world. So far, no other nation has deigned to tell the U.S. how to resolve these abuses of human rights!

When the U.S. does actively interfere or attempt to interfere with other nations' abuses of human rights, its record of success has been dismal. Not with Bosnia, Somalia, Iraq or Haiti. While universal condemnation could justify taking actions in these aforementioned regions, this is not the case with China. Germany, Japan, Russia, not to mention all other Asia Pacific nations recognize China as a dynamic growing economy where its people is prospering. No other country is taking as hard a line as the U.S. Given the reality of the world, why would the U.S. jeopardize world stability by insisting that China hew to certain U.S. specified practices as related to human rights?

I cannot offer any rational explanations only some wildly irrational speculations on the U.S. position on China. The first that comes to mind is the need for an adversary. Having an outside enemy has been a many-decade mind set. I hope it will not become a compulsion for the U.S. to make up a replacement for the paper bear that was USSR. Surely, it must be possible for America to finally enjoy the peace dividend and look for constructive ways to build the economy and create more high paying jobs--one of these avenues being to enhance trade with China.

A less generous explanation of the American attitude is to attribute it to presumptuous arrogance. Others might call it naive idealism. No matter. Americans frequently forget or perhaps never realize that the Chinese civilization led the world in technological developments for thousands of years. It was a civilization that introduced meritocracy as the basis for the selection of government officials. When the imperial ruler was wise and benevolent, the population prospered. When the ruler was despotic, the people became oppressed and sooner or later they rose up to rid themselves of such rulers. The cycle repeated periodically every two hundred years or so. The Chinese rarely saw the need to conquer others to prosper. Instead, nearby states flocked to China to learn and adopt their philosophy and science.

Today, most of the Asian countries still owe their way of life more to the Chinese culture than to the West. Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan have been cited as the model states of miraculous economic growth. None would be considered model democracies. Philippines is perhaps most like the U.S. in their government system (and in their love for the handgun) but the standard of living there has tumbled from one of the highest to one of the lowest in Asia. By simply becoming an ostensibly democratic state has not solved Russia's economic woes and the cosmetic appearance does not include any apparent improvement in human rights either. On the other hand, it is possible to see a direct correlation between improvement in human conditions with economic growth in such places as China, South Korea and Taiwan.

Even Hongkong, where the laws and practices are perhaps more western than even the West, most the citizens there care more about making money than whatever efforts their London appointed governor might be negotiating on their behalf with Beijing. Governor Patton had been trying to get "more freedom" guarantees from Beijing for 1997, when China resumes sovereignty over Hongkong. The Hongkong stock market became a sensitive barometer of how the negotiations were proceeding. More citizens were upset with the governor for disrupting the upward march of the stock market than concern for the perceived benefits of concessions to be wrestled from Beijing. Patton has now assumed more of a lame duck posture abiding for the time to go home.

Last year, the U.S. Congress was said to have 270 some signatories insisting on tying China's MFN to improvements in human rights. I would venture to guess that most of these honorable men and women have not been to China, at least not recently, and certainly do not understand China and its place in the world nor appreciate the damage their views are inflicting on American economic interests. They are being led by a handful who are making political capital out of China's real and perceived problems with human rights. Their interest, I submit, is less driven by any altruistic concern for the welfare of the Chinese people than by the opportunity to grandstand for the benefit of voter attention in their home district. I think its time for the Americans to marshal their resources toward cooperation for mutual benefit rather than mutual disruption via confrontation.

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