China Strikes Back at US Rights Record, and Why It’s Not Funny

April 12, 2011

Every year, the US State Department puts out a report on how various countries treat their own people, and China usually doesn’t come off too well. In response, Beijing puts out its own report that documents the US record. China’s point: the US should shut up because it is being hypocritical.

The Western reaction to the China report ranges from outrage to amusement. “Hey, that’s funny, China is actually accusing us of abusing people’s rights. Those guys got balls saying that.”

Yes, hilarious. Except it isn’t really funny.

On this blog, I often write about trade protectionism and hypocrisy. I like to point out instances where the United States engages in protectionism and then turns around and criticizes other countries, like China, of doing the same thing.

I do this not because, as some of my readers have accused me of doing, I believe that the levels of protectionism are equivalent. The point is not who is the biggest bad guy but what is an effective trade strategy. If your goal as a nation is to reduce global trade barriers, then engaging in hypocritical behavior is counterproductive.

Another way to frame the issue is with respect to moral authority. If you’re a nation like the US that purports to be a staunch free trader, and you wish to persuade other nations to “follow your lead” on the issue, then you have to act like a leader. At the risk of being sanctimonious (when did that ever stop me before?), leaders lead by example, not by criticism and empty statements about “American exeptionalism.”

When it comes to free trade, the US has less moral authority to criticize others when it engages in trade protectionism. This is one of the problems I have with folks who argue for additional trade barriers — you can’t do this on the one hand, and on the other continue bashing China about its industrial policy and expect to get results. It’s an ineffective negotiation technique.

So it’s not a question of equivalency, it’s about being in the strongest position of moral authority to persuade others to adopt your ideals or policies.

And this is not just a trade issue, of course. Here’s an extreme example:

Imagine you are an American legislator in the Jim Crow South during the 1930s.1 You meet a visiting government official from Germany and criticize him for the Nazi regime’s Nuremberg Laws. The German official hits back on Jim Crow, telling you that you’re in no position to criticize.

Moral equivalency? Most Americans would say of course not, that as bad as the Jim Crow laws were, they were in no way comparable to what was going on in 1930s, and certainly 1940s, Nazi Germany. (FYI, some actually have made that argument, but that’s way outside of the scope of this blog.)

But moral equivalency isn’t the point. The issue is that the German official was in the position of using the US rights record, in the form of Jim Crow, against the US as a way of blunting American criticism. At the time, the argument was more like “You guys have your own racial problems, so stop complaining about us. At least we are trying to solve ours. You Americans don’t seem to be making much progress.” That kind of “progress” of course was not something the US particularly wanted.

No moral equivalency, but enough hypocrisy to blunt American criticism and therefore weaken its arguments. To put it another way, wouldn’t US objections have been even stronger without the presence of Jim Crow? That seems rather obvious.

If you didn’t like that example, then you probably won’t agree that the US has the same problem today. Sure, the State Department can issue a report condemning China’s actions, and probably the vast majority of details in the report are indeed troubling.

And yes, one might argue that whatever domestic problems the US has in this area are in no way comparable to the situation in China. That’s why many respond to the China report on the US rights record with amusement.

It’s also difficult comparing these abuses, since we often can’t even agree on terms. Here are a few of the items from the China report. What do these statistics actually say about US policy that is worthy of condemnation? Do the numbers indicate ongoing rights abuses?

  • A total of 44 million Americans found themselves in poverty in 2009, four million more than that of 2008. The share of residents in poverty climbed to 14.3 percent in 2009, the highest level recorded since 1994.
  • 14.7 percent of U.S. households were food insecure in 2009, an increase of almost 30 percent since 2006.
  • The number of Americans without health insurance increased from 46.3 million in 2008 to 50.7 million in 2009, the ninth consecutive annual rise, which accounted for 16.7 percent of the total U.S. population.
  • More than 6,600 travelers had been subject to electronic device searches between October 1, 2008 and June 2, 2010, nearly half of them American citizens.

Americans talk about freedom of the press and locking up dissidents. China talks about the poverty rate, violent crime and health insurance. Apples and oranges.

Even so, there are some overlaps. Constitutional lawyer and blogger Glenn Greenwald, among many others, has been documenting some of the more troubling actions of the US government post-9/11 with respect to surveillance, illegal detentions, etc. These criticisms cannot be easily dismissed, and they lend themselves very easily to charges of hypocrisy.

Consider the recent crackdown in China of dissidents. A CNN article put the overall policy in context:

“It seems aimed at intimidating both those who have already been taken into custody and those who might worry about being next on the list.”

Chinese call this tactic “killing the chicken to scare the monkey” — a traditional practice of persecuting “scapegoats” to nip dissent in the bud.

Here’s a portion of a Greenwald post on the US case of Bradley Manning, who is accused of supplying Wikileaks with classified documents, and the Obama Administration’s record when it comes to whistleblowers:

“Manning’s conditions were being used ‘as a warning to future whistleblowers’.” Indeed, Manning’s treatment lacks even a pretense of justification; it — just like the Obama administration’s unprecedented war on whistle-blowers — is clearly meant to threaten and intimidate future individuals of conscience who, like Manning, might consider exposing government deceit, corruption and illegality[.]

Superficial similarity between the US case and what is going on in China? Perhaps, or maybe just a difference of degree. Either way, it’s a clear example of US policy undermining its moral authority and weakening the recent criticisms of the State Department.

So the China report on the US rights record is not amusing in its effrontery; it’s very existence is troubling.

What’s my point, that the US should simply shut up? Not at all. I’ll try to stay consistent with my stance on trade policy, which is not that the US should drop objections to trade protectionism, but rather it should take great pains not to engage in such behaviors itself.

If the US really wants China to change its behavior, it should combine criticism with an unassailable domestic and international record with respect to illegal detentions, assassinations, surveillance and other abuses.2 Unfortunately, even President Obama, a constitutional scholar in his own right, has already signed off on many of these abuses. In doing so, the US government has undermined its own moral authority and all but invited that report issued by China.

[Ironic note: Just a warning, but if you wish to comment on this post and use certain terminology, I may have to censor/edit. Otherwise I risk a keyword block of this post.]

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  1. “Jim Crow” refers to a series of laws in several US states that institutionalized racial discrimination.[]
  2. I’d also love to see the US deal with poverty, health care, and its criminal justice system, but I’m not holding my breath. Not enough Americans see these as moral issues.[]

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