Saturday, 9 August 2008

Giving China a hard time

Seeing the world criticise China's disregard for human rights is edifying on the one hand, and irritating on the other. It's not that China doesn't deserve international condemnation. Rather, the thing that annoys me is how selectively international condemnation gets doled out.

Last I checked, the US's human rights record wasn't that flash. In Atlanta 1996 as in Bei Jing this year, the embarrassingly poor were swept off the streets for the aesthetic pleasure of tourists and TV audiences. Guantanamo, the death penalty, illegal invasions of other sovereign nations...I could go on, but I'm getting bored.

China's awful human rights practices are bound up with its rapid industrialisation within a globalising capitalist economy. 'Civilised' Western nations such as the US and Britain weren't all that nice to their own citizens during industrialisation; but because they did it a couple of hundred years ago, they don't feel much need to dwell on the exploitation of workers, slavery, colonialism and brutal military repression on which their wealth was built. It was in large part through these practices that today's superpowers gained the global preeminence that China aspires to.

I'm not saying that because the US, Britain and various European nations mistreated their own and other countries' citizens, China should now get its turn. But I do have some misgivings about the international criticism of the Chinese.

First of all, these criticisms can lapse into simple racism: we can be tempted to stop looking at the political and economic big picture, and instead think of the Chinese as strange, backward, savage people. Secondly, we can get caught up feeling righteous about how civilised 'we' are, and pay less attention to the human rights violations going on closer to home; eg, in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. Thirdly, we can forget about our own complicity in Chinese human rights abuses as participants in a global economy. We - myself included - wear clothing made by Chinese children. We ship our recycled plastics to China, where they give off toxic fumes during processing, shortening the lives of the women workers who process them. These children and women don't do such terrible jobs for fun. Desperate poverty and brutal repression make sure that the Chinese provide those cheap goods and services we Western consumers enjoy.

Good on those who are speaking out against Chinese human rights abuses - I hope they'll continue their important work. I hope they'll also encourage us to look in the mirror.


Carol said...

These are all good points. I was particularly disgusted at war criminal Bush sounding so righteous in his criticisms of China's poor human rights record.

China's such a big country and we only hear a little of what goes on there. I would be interested to hear more about the protests that occur within the country. The western press doesn't give them much coverage, but it seems to me to be a fairly regular occurrence. Like, there does seem like a bit of a struggle for various kinds of rights going on within China. I'd also like to hear more of women's struggles within China.

George said...

Indeed, in so many areas, criticism comes only when and how it suits.

Politicians and pundits who are quite happy to criticise China's destruction of Tibetan independence and culture are all to eager to stand by and ignore or applaud the same processes in their own countries (eg. Tuhoe, Lakota, to name just two indigenous peoples struggling against these forces). And so on.

I also liked Carol's point. So often we walk into a situation we know little or nothing about, and assume we know what problems people would most like fixed.

Hugh said...

China's awful human rights practices are bound up with its rapid industrialisation within a globalising capitalist economy.

True. But when China was intent on withdrawing from the globalising capitalist economy, its human rights practices were no better, in fact they were arguably worse, at least in scale.

Anna McM said...

An entirely fair point Hugh - I was wondering if you'd call me out on that one! I think that Chinese communism should also be looked at in in it's global political context, mind you.

Carol and George, I think you're right on the money about the lack of attention from the West to political struggle amongst the Chinese. Perhaps there is a bit too much haste to generalise our own (not very well realised) ideas of freedom and democratic political participation across the Chinese political landscape. It undercuts the capacity of the Chinese to speak with authority about their own political situation.

Hugh said...

You're right Anna that Chinese communism has to be seen in a global context, and that just because anti-capitalism in China resulted in such casualties in the pre-70s period, that doesn't mean it always will.

I would have less problem with those who vociferously flog China on the issue of human rights if they were half as critical as human rights in their own country. All things considered the situation is probably worse in China than it is in New Zealand, or even the USA, but that's not an excuse for complacency at home - particularly since our ability to affect change in our own surrounds is much greater than it is in China.