When U.S. liberal media covers domestic political criticism of China, even when they’re discussing Republican warmongering, feet-stomping, and rhetorical jingoism, their trump card to explain why there's a kernel of truth in criticisms is always “the human rights abuses in China.”
You’d have to be a cold-hearted bitch not to care about human rights.
When Western liberals imagine human rights abuses in China, the conflict in Tibet, the "re-education" of Uyghurs, and issues with “individual freedom” come readily to mind, with vague reports of organ harvesting also floating around. But does the United States really care about human rights in China?
What are human rights? Canadian political scientist Jan Hancock defines them as the following twin principles:
According to the Australian political scientist Hun Joon Kim, the U.S. government has demonstrated a willingness to take a softer stance on China’s record on human rights (in exchange for economic cooperation), since at least the Clinton administration (though most argue Clinton's friendly policies were a continuation of free-trade Reagonomics and the first Bush administration).
Kim nevertheless locates an important turning point in U.S.-China relations in 1994, when Clinton backed away from comments he'd made a year earlier, and announced the United States should renew China's "most favored nation" status without any specific human rights requirements. Despite a 1992 campaign pledge to revoke MFN status (and attacks on the trail against George HW for "coddling" Chinese "tyrants" in the face of Tiananmen Square), Clinton argued human-rights conditions in China would improve only if the United States were able to economically "intensify and broaden its engagement with that nation." To Prof. Kim, this decision represented “a clear indicator of the primacy of economic considerations over human rights issues,” which would characterize the remainder of the Clinton administration.
During the George W. Bush years (at least until 2006), economic integration and cooperation defined the US-China relationship, as two basic facts dictated policy toward China:
In the early 2000s, as the United States was beating the war-drum on the Iraq Invasion, China (under the leadership of President Hu Jintao) crafted new policies regarding subsidies, regulations, investment, and the management of state enterprises, in the perfection of a policy later dubbed state-capitalism (also "China, Inc." or technocratic nationalism).
These changes included the formation of the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC), which, as law professor Mark Wu writes, operate "as other controlling shareholders do. It is happy to grant management operational autonomy so long as it delivers along the agreed-upon metric. The difference is that the metric is not pure profit, but rather the Chinese state’s interest, broadly defined.”
This dedication to the Chinese state's interest allowed SOEs (state-owned enterprises) to expand around the world as "economic diplomats," expanding into even politically-fraught developing markets. In effect, technocratic nationalism significantly aided the growth of state-owned enterprises (even as they continued to suffer from low-production efficiency). The number of Chinese SOEs in the Fortune Global 500 grew from fourteen in 2005 to seventy-five by 2017.
As China re-shaped the broadest contours of its economy, the United States' focus was elsewhere. As the War on Terror escalated, the Bush administration used the rhetoric of human rights to justify R2P, the Bush doctrine, and by extension, its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Before the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Bush said, "Enemies of freedom do not respect or value individual human rights. Their brutal attacks were an attack on these very rights. When our essential rights are attacked, they must and will be defended." And in the lead-up to the Iraqi invasion in 2003, Bush said, "We have no ambition in Iraq, except to remove a threat and restore control of that country to its own people."
But despite Bush's attempt to spin U.S. military involvement in the Middle East as a humanitarian project, the United States' international human-rights reputation was tarnished as a result of its widely-publicized war crimes.
All the while, Bush's tone on China was conciliatory. Asked by a Beijing reporter in 2005 about his attitude toward China, Bush said, “We have a complex relationship and it’s a really important relationship. I mean, China is a big, growing, strong country. And it’s very important for me to maintain a good working relationship with the leadership here.”
Human Rights Watch, concerned about Bush's track record of such "vague" statements, criticized the administration's "contradictory" attitude toward human rights abuses in China. The (multi-million dollar, oft-criticized) organization signed open letters to Secretary Rice in both 2007 and 2008, urging her to pressure China in the lead-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. But no such federal or diplomatic action was taken.
Any publicly critical statements made by the Bush Administration risked alienating the United States' increasingly important trading partner, and more fundamentally, any action or public statement would likely have been dismissed as hypocritical (as happened during the Obama Administration), as both the United States' credibility and perceived moral authority on human-rights evaporated through its engagements in the Middle East. In February 2008, the Democrat-chaired Senate Joint Economic Committee concluded, “The damage [from the Iraq War] to our international reputation at a time when the United States faces grave security challenges all over the world has also been severe.”
In fact, quantitative studies on vote counts from 2000-2010 in the "UN General Assembly reveals that Western nations [were] losing support for their positions on human rights. China, in contrast, has enjoyed a comparatively high voting coincidence during the last decade." While the United States and Western European powers saw their global reputations fall in demonstrable ways, China adopted a stance as the diplomatic champion of developing countries.
The Great Recession then again changed the global dynamic, hurting the United States' credibility (this time in terms of its economic rather than military competence), while raising China's status, whose response was called "paradigm-shifting," as it quickly recovered to emerge as the world's primary provider of much-needed liquidity. The new Obama administration was put in a perhaps unenviable position.
Secretary Clinton, in now infamous 2009 comments, began her tenure as the country's top diplomat by saying human rights abuses in China would be pressed so long as they didn't interfere with the countries' joint response to the "global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crises. [China and the United States] have to have a dialogue that leads to an understanding and cooperation on each of those."
But after an early series of disillusioning diplomatic missteps, President Obama took a much more public stance against China's human rights abuses (even as he "welcomed the rise of China"). On a state visit to the United States in 2011, President Jintao was pressed repeatedly about the country's human rights record. After first deferring on the questions, he said, "A lot has to be done in China in terms of human rights."
During that same 2011 conference, President Obama broke with Bush's practice of deflection and said, "The United States speaks up for these freedoms and the dignity of every human being, not only because it's part of who we are as Americans, but we do so because we believe that by upholding these universal rights, all nations, including China, will ultimately be more prosperous and successful."
The situation became more complicated in 2013, however, after Xi Xinping assumed China's presidency. Human rights advocates were vocal in their criticism of Xi, noting his administration's swift and systematic imprisonment of political dissidents, journalists, and religious activists. Human Rights Watch said China remained an "authoritarian state" in its 2015 report, claiming Xi had “unleashed an extraordinary assault on basic human rights and their defenders with a ferocity unseen in recent years.”
During a joint press conference with President Xi in September 2015, President Obama re-asserted his public support for human rights; he said, "I again affirmed America’s unwavering support for the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all people, including freedom of assembly and expression, freedom of the press and freedom of religion."
In response, China asserted several core arguments in response to Western criticism. The first was that it had long played a role in shaping global discourse around human rights. The “three generations of human rights” theory breaks the development of human rights discourses into three movements: the first generation involved civil and political rights; the second was constituted by international economic and social rights; and the third were collective rights.
In this framework, China and the Soviet Union were the primary contributors to the second generation of human rights, and China, in advocating for decolonized and developing countries, played a major role in the adoption of the third generation, such as self-determination and economic development.
In his historical analysis of human rights, Hun Joon Kim agreed with this claim, arguing that rather than being a “being a Western construct imposed by Western powers on less powerful states,” human rights were instead a “global construct with input from both Western and non-Western countries such as China.”
Citing the work of Kathryn Sikkink and Eric Helleiner, Prof. Kim argued human right discourses (rather than being a one-way attack tool by Western countries against Asian, African, and Latin American countries) had been constructed with the input of the Soviet Union, Latin America, and China. Nevertheless, some scholars, such as political theorist Micheline Ishay, argue, "Human rights rhetoric often masks other motives," like political interests. Additionally, realists assert international norms (including human rights), are nothing more than epiphenomena; Prof. John Mearsheimer writes norms only "reflect state calculations of self-interest based primarily on the international distribution of power."
Acknowledging Western countries' tendency to weaponize human rights discourse, China has posited an alternative definition of human rights. While Western definitions (like President Obama's 2011 statement) claim human rights are universal, China's second core argument against Western criticism has been an assertion that human rights could only be appropriately approached from a pluralistic perspective, accounting for culture, religion, and history. The Beijing Declaration of 2017 claimed, “Human rights entitlement must be adapted to national circumstances.”
And as China articulated this standard of cultural relativism for human rights, it simultaneously responded to Western criticism in the Obama-era with its final core argument, an assertion of the basic hypocrisy of the United States. China criticized the US' failure to ratify either the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights or the treaty resulting from the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (it is the only country in the world which failed to do so).
Going further, China issued direct condemnations of the United States' domestic human rights record. Lambasting the US' alleged refusal "to hold up a mirror to look at itself," China continued to issue its Human Rights Record of the United States report. In its 2014 issue, it argued, "The U.S., a self-proclaimed human rights defender, saw no improvements in its existent human rights issues, but reported numerous new problems."
In addition to a series of major criticisms regarding the U.S.' military's international use of torture, China noted three key areas of human rights violations within the United States:
China's basic stance on this line of argument could be summed up by a quote from research fellow Ji Hong, who said to People's Daily: "America does not hold the moral high ground to tutor or judge others, in that itself is also plagued by major human rights issues."
The United States largely ignored these reports, and since 2017, went no further than simply declaring itself the "greatest Country in the world."
Meanwhile, international policy experts broadly agree that the United States is a declining power. For most (but not all) political theorists, the question is less about if China will surpass the U.S. and more when it will pass it. American political scientist Andrew Kydd has identified two particularly dangerous phases during a hegemonic power transition period: the changing power phase and the consolidation phase. In each phase, there is a high likelihood of conflict. During the changing power phase (which is where we probably are currently), the dominant power declines and the emerging power rises. Citing Dale C. Copeland, James D. Fearon, and Robert Powell, Professor Kydd notes, "The main danger is that the declining power will launch a preventive war to block the rise of the challenger."
And while it's maybe not likely that there will be a significant escalation between the U.S. and China over human rights (considering the serious geopolitical concerns regarding the South China Sea or the politico-economic consequences of their deteriorating diplomatic and trade relations), I guess my major question while thinking about human rights was just how we got to the point where the phrase "but the human rights abuses in China" came to carry so much rhetorical weight.
The answer is clearly complicated, but I'm sure part of it is because the debate over human rights between the U.S. and China has been such a long and contentious one, and part of it is because in the United States, it's pretty much only been presented as a one-sided debate. While Chinese human rights abuses are treated like crimes against humanity, human rights abuses in the US are either downplayed as civil rights issues, policy failings, or partisan disagreement, or just summarily dismissed as an overreaction, the work of "a few bad apples," or the fault of the victims.
Now I think my central question is how a person who cares about human rights abuses committed in and by both states might critique each without serving as an agent in political buffoonery or war-mongering?
Beijing announced less than a week ago that national security legislation would effectively end Hong Kong's autonomy, and the pictures of military interactions with protestors in the past week have looked surprisingly reminiscent of police engagement with protestors in the United States. Seeing them side by side, it's hard to not to see parallels. So what to do?
If I say I condemn human rights abuses regardless of where they occur, isn't that just a regurgitation of Western universalist human rights? If I say human rights are just a political tool used by major powers to politically bludgeon one another, doesn't that take the focus away from the people who say they're being abused? If I say China and the United States are powerful states who've both committed rights abuses, is that creating a false equivalency, or is it just true?