China, the United States and the Politics of Human Rights

By Tim Robertson | 20 Nov 14

It’s become a matter of routine that every year the United States and China – from their respective positions of moral superiority – take part in a diplomatic tit-for-tat in which they each document the other’s human rights violations. In America, this takes the form of a State Department Country Report, which, incidentally, they issue for every nation. In China, the report’s published by the Information Office and runs in the state-owned Chinese and English-language newspapers.

Both are carefully researched, evidence-based documents that highlight the other’s shameful human rights record. However, the significance of these reports – a point lost on both America and China – is that they demonstrate just how heedless the world’s two leading powers are in confronting and dealing with humanitarian and human rights issues. This national, self-interested approach remains the single greatest impediment in resolving these crises and, rather than working together to remedy this, by persisting with this approach they only exacerbate the systemic problems.

The state-based global system means national governments prioritise their interests – whether they be economic, electoral, security, social or what have you – over the people’s.

It’s a fallacy – all too often believed in the West though – that these hypocritical US country reports (or most of the US’ humanitarian endeavours, for that matter) are inspired by a sense of altruism. They are, rather, another way the world’s superpower exercises its self-appointed role as the global policeman.

The idea that the US is in a position to pass judgment on the human rights record of all other nations and the implication – that it is above such criticism – is absurd.  That this premise is largely accepted throughout the West is emblematic of how entrenched the notion of American exceptionalism has become.

One only has to look at how the official rhetoric of the administration seeps into everyday usage: government’s palliate their crimes with the language they use – US drone strikes are “targeted killings” rather than extra-judicial assassinations – and exert their influence and control over the discourse.

Both the US’s and China’s reports may ostensibly seem to be inspired by their sense of humanitarianism. But even though both nations would credit theirs with this (while denying it of the other) in reality the primary function of the reports is propagandistic. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the reforms of Deng Xiaoping, the communist smear – complete with the spy-come-coup-master connotation – has lost much of its political effectiveness in mobilising popular support. Human rights has become a more important measure for distinguishing between “us” and “them” and – by extension – a key component of “winning hearts and minds.”

The United States – self-conscious of its decline – is eager to reaffirm its position as the unrivalled global superpower by demonising its closest – and soon-to-be wealthier – rival. China, on the other hand, wants to expose American hypocrisy and change the way people think about morality, values and principles, which, China argues, is inherently Western-centric.

Paradoxically, the more vigorously nations pursue human rights attacks on other nations the more damage it does to global humanitarian efforts. It reinforces the failures of action motivated by vested interests. Moreover, it prioritises responses based on a political imperative, rather than a needs basis.

“Economic interdependence is perhaps the strangest feature of this ongoing US-China human rights tit-for-tat”

One only has to open any newspaper in the world at any time to see evidence of this. Why, for example, are pages filled with the atrocities of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) but bereft of any mention of the Central African Republic or South Sudan or Myanmar? Or why is the US-led coalition so outraged by beheadings carried out by IS fighters, but not by Saudi Arabia? It’s because IS has become the political preoccupation of the United States.

America’s economic might affords it so much control over the global human rights discourse, just as China’s growing wealth protects it from any serious US campaign to address human rights abuses within its borders. The US will rebuke China’s treatment of its ethnic minorities or the absence of the rule of law, but their economies have become so dependent on one another that America would never consider imposing sanctions (not to mention an Iraq-style invasion).

This economic interdependence is perhaps the strangest feature of this ongoing US-China human rights tit-for-tat: their desire to preserve this relationship – to protect their respective economic interests – makes them complicit in human rights atrocities around the world.

Take Tibet as an example: the Americans have – since the Dalai Lama fled in 1959 – flirted with the idea of supporting their cause. The CIA went as far as providing funding and training for a paramilitary force during the Cold War, but ultimately abandoned the program in order to improve ties with the very rulers oppressing the Tibetan people.

There are countless other examples in which China and the US have a shared economic interest and, because of that, turn a blind eye to human rights abuses. Perhaps most significantly in recent years is the United States’ decision to ease their sanctions on Myanmar, despite the government’s continued brutalisation of the ethnic Muslim Rohingya minority.

Experts have suggested that this is a push by the Obama administration to move into China’s sphere of influence in a country that was once the richest in South East Asia. Wrecked by half a century of incompetent rule by the military junta, the recently opened Myanmar presents enormous investment opportunities for foreign firms. China, less averse to freezing out autocratic powers, has been taking advantage of for many years. Now the United States – eager not to miss out – has once again demonstrated its tendency to put profit before principle.

China, it should be said, makes far less claims for its own magnanimity. The Communist Party (CCP) has always made it clear that they view human rights as a domestic issue, which means they remain non-committal and uninvolved in the violations committed outside their borders. And to their own people – many of who suffer greatly under the CCP’s authoritarianism – they argue they should be able to do with them as they wish, free from criticism from other nations. This is certainly not a better or more effective way of combatting human rights abuses, although it does seem less hypocritical.

It’s beyond the scope of this article to attempt an accounting of the human rights abuses of the world’s two largest powers. Instead, I hope that when those in the West compare their records, armed with the knowledge that most Chinese people would say the US is a worse offender, they don’t simply dismiss this as a sign of the effectiveness of the Communist Party’s propaganda department. The first step in remedying the crimes of our own democratic governments must surely be acknowledging that we too are subject to the same – albeit more sophisticated – manipulation.

Tim Robertson (@timrobertson12) is an independent journalist and writer. He divides his time between Melbourne and Beijing.