The human rights discourse and China

Last week was 六四 in 中国/China - June 4, the day the government massacred protesters around 天安门广场/Tian'anmen Square in 1989. I happened to be meeting with a friend of mine on the anniversary, a grad student at 北大/Beijing University, China's most prestigious university whose students were extremely active in the 1989 protest movement. I asked him what he thought about 6/4. He didn't even realize that it was the anniversary of the massacre.

The Tian'anmen massacre is understood very differently in China than in the USA. Americans see it as very black and white: the protesters were heroes fighting for democracy, the government was a villain crushing the people's hopes. Chinese people, on the other hand, tend to either accept the government line - that the protests were destabilizing and threatened chaos if nothing was done - or have some sympathy for the protesters' ideals and goals but nevertheless criticize them for being too reckless.

Even more striking is the contrast between appraisals of 6/4's place in history. For Americans, the Tian'anmen massacre is the defining event of the last 25 years of Chinese history. The strongest and most enduring American perception of China - of a country with common human rights violations and few freedoms - stems directly from 6/4. Chinese people disagree. For most, 6/4 isn't even worth commemorating. The discourse on human rights in China is seen as largely a foreign imposition used against the country by foreign powers that want to prevent China's rise to greatness. This isn't to say that Chinese people aren't worried about or critical of the violation of certain freedoms, but grouping all these issues under the rubric of "human rights" is rarely heard.

You might assume that this is because the climate of repression prevents people from saying openly what they feel, but the "climate of repression" in China is far overblown in American minds. Holding a protest or distributing essays might get you in trouble, but people have no qualms expressing themselves in private. Even writing critical essays on the web is tolerated to a certain extent, as related in a recent New York Times Magazine piece.

What people are worried about, and often very angry about, is not the rights of dissident intellectuals but the far bigger social problems of growing inequality and economic insecurity. The right to organize, the right to a stable job, the right to education, the right to health care - these issues are constantly being debated in China, even tho simply raising them is an implicit critique of government policy. Yet many, perhaps most, Americans wouldn't even consider these to be human rights. Recognizing both the latitude to criticize the government (within limits) that does exist in China, and the nature of that criticism as being primarily economic, makes the typical formulation of American writers - that the Chinese government allows economic freedom but not political freedom - seem like nonsense.

Other human rights violations, far more severe than those affecting intellectuals, are mostly ignored in both the West and in China. Two key ones are government-supported Han colonization of ethnic minorities' lands and all its accompanying repressions and the rights of prisoners. Many Americans have a vague idea that China is oppressing Tibet, but remain ignorant of the equally severe repression in Xinjiang directed especially against Uighurs. Han Chinese, far from seeing this as a human rights problem, harbor deep stereotypes against "dangerous" ethnic minorities, especially the Uighur, and see Han/Communist Party colonization as liberation. In this regard they're not so different from other imperialist peoples, including Americans, who rarely question the imbalance of power between themselves and their objects of domination.

At all levels of the criminal justice system, too, there are major violations of rights that go far beyond the unjust arrest of people for exercising their right to free speech. False arrest, torture, false testimony and forced confessions by the police, mistreatment of prisoners, execution - the list of rights violations in the Chinese justice system goes on and on. Americans hear about these when they affect dissidents, or sometimes professionals or Falun Gong members, but these groups make up a small percentage of the people suffering in Chinese prisons.

I'm not trying to excuse Chinese people for ignoring abuses against socially marginal groups or dissidents, but I do think the human rights criticisms of China coming out of the United States are imbalanced and in many ways distort the actual experience of Chinese people. As human rights is increasingly used as a rhetorical club by those favoring a new cold war with China, now seems like a good time to reevaluate what the human rights situation in China really is and what Americans can realistically do about it.


Anonymous said...


how can you put, "...the climate of repression prevents people from
saying openly what they feel"
next to, "...the 'climate of repression' in China is far
overblown in American minds"??

--ma meiping

Jake said...

because i think americans often assume that if chinese people don't talk about things in the same way they do, it's because of the repressive state. but i'm saying that the state isn't particularly repressive when it comes to a lot of things, since political critiques that don't fundamentally challenge state policies or call for organizing are generally allowed, and people feel free to speak in private. at the very least i wouldn't expect people to explicitly argue against the american human rights critique, which i've run into several times.