‘New’ China, Old Repression

That’s the headline of a new WaPo opinion piece by James Mann, senior writer-in-residence at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and former China correspondent for the LA Times. Mann starts by questioning Chirac’s pitch to the EU that China has “transformed” and that the EU should therefore lift the arms embargo it imposed ater the Tiananmen Square massacre.

The problem is that in fundamental ways relating to human rights and political repression, China today is not much different than it was a decade ago. Yes, China has been brought into the international community, if we define that phrase exclusively in terms of economics. But ordinarily the international community is not defined solely by membership in the World Trade Organization.

To illustrate this point, let’s take an example: China’s unwillingness to grant the International Committee of the Red Cross access to its prisons.

China has never allowed the ICRC (which is an excellent example of the international community) to visit its prisons. One stumbling block has been that the Red Cross insists on the right to interview prisoners privately and with its own interpreters.

Mann then provides an enlightening history of China’s duplicity on this issue, hinting again and again, first to Clinton and then to Bush, that it was about to cooperate, and then breaking its word failing to do so. This duplicity has now been going on for ten years.

There are certainly changes in China that are real, Mann says; Chinese citizens are free to dress up as they choose and to say what they want to, at least in private, and often even in public, “so long as they remain completely unorganized and unchallenging to the regime.”

But when it comes to tolerance of any political opposition, or to human rights standards as generally defined by the international community, China is essentially the same as it was a decade ago. The regime has never expressed the slightest remorse for using weaponry against its own people.

Chirac is right about one thing — something has changed over the past decade. But it’s not China. Rather, the rest of the world has become far more tolerant of the same Chinese political repression that it condemned in the early 1990s. A lifting of the EU arms embargo would be one more big step in this tawdry policy of accepting repression.

That’s a real shocking conclusion. Have we actually become more tolerant of repression? I want to say no. I think instead that we have allowed the good news about China’s economy to push the human rights issue out of our line of vision. It’s something we simply don’t want to see, so we minimize it, come up with excuses for it and brush it aside.

I did it, too. I’ll never forget how thrilled I was when I heard Beijing was selected for the 2008 Olympics. I didn’t want to think about random arrests and torture and repression. But that was when I believed there was real change in the air. I’ve since become (in case anyone here didn’t know) disillusioned and, alas, even somewhat cynical about their supposed reforms.

The Discussion: 2 Comments

China’s repression and abuse of human rights is increasingly a non-issue in the corridors of power in the world today. The international community doesn’t particularly want to hear about it, as it gets in the way of their making money – and, as always, the Chinese government allows precious little information about what goes on in its heartland (other than the “good” news) to filter out to the world.

I always amazes me that Western governments can talk of “freedom”, “human rights” and “democracy” in the same breath as ignoring China’s abysmal record in all three categories. At least the Chinese government doesn’t claim to offer these commodities to its people – it at least cannot be accused of hypocrisy. But we in the West stand accused of exactly that when we fail to raise even a peep against the Chinese government’s repressive activities.

January 23, 2005 @ 7:02 am | Comment

Great comment, and you have a great blog. Thanks.

January 23, 2005 @ 8:33 am | Comment

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