Chinese Law Prof Blog

Editor: Donald C. Clarke
George Washington University Law School

Friday, June 6, 2014

Dumb arguments about human rights in China

China's Global Times, a newspaper known for its highly nationalist bent, commemorated June 4th by publishing an op-ed by a man named John Ross, currently a senior fellow at People's University's Chongyang Institute of Finance and a former advisor to former London mayor Ken Livingstone. I'm not going to reproduce the whole thing here - just click on the link to read it. I want to address some of the arguments Ross makes because I see them over and over, and they don't get better with repetition.

1. “China” has lifted X million people out of poverty. Since “China” here is way too vague to be a meaningful concept, what can this statement possibly mean? I take it it must mean something like “wise Party policies”. By all means let us give appropriate credit to those who revoked policies that imposed poverty on the people of China. But let’s also give credit to the people of China who built their own wealth. I didn’t see Deng Xiaoping or Xi Jinping down there at the construction site. Furthermore, by this logic we should also give full credit of course to Great Britain for bringing us the Industrial Revolution, and to the much-maligned US two-party system for sponsoring the postwar economic and political order that lifted large sections of the world out of poverty as well. Finally, this formulation completely avoids the question of whether things like political repression were a necessary part of those poverty-eradicating policies. 

2. By pointing out bad things about the US, or the hypocrisy of its foreign policy, one can successfully refute criticisms of China. The silliness of this position is obvious on its face. I don’t know why anyone with academic pretensions would use it. Why does everything have to revolve around the United States? It’s just one country. Can I revalidate the criticisms of China by showing that the countercriticisms of the US don’t apply to, say, Canada or Australia or Botswana? It’s all so silly.

3. Critics of China unreasonably demand that it adopt every trapping of Western democratic systems. “Consequently the attempt to reduce 'human rights' to a Western style political structure, as though having a 'parliamentary' system were the most important question facing human beings, is ridiculous.” What’s even more ridiculous is the straw man that this is what people who care about human rights are demanding. It’s much simpler, really: for example, give people accused of crimes a fair hearing, which means, among other things, not kidnapping witnesses and lawyers; don’t beat up people like Ni Yulan until they are crippled, and then imprison them without crutches so they have to drag themselves around in the shit on their cell floor; etc.

4. Each country has the right to choose its own form of government. Again, abstract words like “country” are just obfuscations here. The whole point is, who gets to speak and decide for “the country”? Does Ross mean “the citizens of each country”? If so, he must therefore be rejecting systems where citizens don’t get a choice. But then he seems to think absolute monarchy is OK if “the country” wants it, so apparently “the country” is something different from the people who live in it. I have never heard anyone say, “We must respect the choices this country has made” where it didn’t mean, “We must respect the choices the current configuration of political power has come up with”. The vapid language of respect for choice obscures critical distinctions about how that choice was made and whether it’s worth respecting – questions not susceptible to a single right answer, to be sure, but certainly questions that need to be asked.

Commentary | Permalink


The author didn't claim point 4 is a correct position, or that it invalidated criticism of China's human rights failings. He simply pointed out that China's position was different from the hypocritical position of the United States, which asserts a pro-human rights ideological position but actually supports awful regimes such as Saudi Arabia & Bahrain (he could have mentioned US human rights failings too, extrajudicial murder by drone, rendition of terror suspects, turning a blind eye to torture, mass surveillance of national populations, Guantanamo Bay.)

The world doesn't revolve around the US but given that the House of Representatives discussed China's human rights record it was fair to use the opportunity to note that the US uses the ideology of human rights as a foreign policy tool, & turns a blind eye to it's allies failures while focussing on the failures of non-compliant states.

I agree however that the US's failings don't invalidate criticism of China, & that there are questionable assumptions in the argument that China's lifting people out of poverty has some relationship to it's human rights record.

Posted by: James | Jun 7, 2014 7:05:19 PM

Haha. Don't let John Ross get you too agitated. He is so desperate for attention he will do anything. He has Zero academic credentials even in China, not exactly a bastion of leading higher education success and honesty.

He has been desperately trying to become a celebrity expert since he rolled into China a few years back. Total joke. Would like to see him in a live debate with anyone intelligent.

Posted by: Jaques | Jun 8, 2014 9:09:55 AM

China's argument is China is unique. China takes care of its people by giving them enough food and a shelter. Obviously China is oblivious of universal values of human rights created by international obligation. If China is unique, every country in the world can say the same. Why bother to have universally accepted standards, even though I must hasten to admit not every country honors those obligations, including USA.

Posted by: Frankie Fook-lun Leung | Jul 1, 2014 10:24:43 AM

You are basically saying - hopefully unintentionally - the people in Bangladesh, India or the Philippines are too lazy. If you claim the wealth of China comes from the people on the construction sites, you consequently say, the poverty of the other mentioned countries comes from the lack of diligent workers. The bottom 50% of the US population wasn't able to increase their wealth over the last 30 years. Is it also a lack of diligence on their behalf, or may it be related to government policies? When the Communist Party of China implements policies to "liberate the productive force of the proletariat", it doesn't mean proletarians don't have to work any more. It just means, that their children are much better off than they were themselves. That is the success of the Chinese Communist Party, of course combined with the strong support of a vast majority of the people of China, both workers and intellectuals.

Posted by: Harald Buchmann | Oct 5, 2015 3:25:38 AM

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