This journalist clearly believes they do not.
Let’s stop jacking the Chinese around. We do not care a whit now — nor have we ever cared — about their human rights or any other aspect of their lives as long as they satiate our unbridled appetites. To pretend otherwise is to deny centuries of exploitative history in which the West drugged the Middle Kingdom and plundered it for its resources and cheap labor while obliterating any sign of popular resistance to our imperial sway.
From the Opium Wars to the contemplation of using nuclear weapons to bomb China back to the Stone Age because of our differences with it over Korea and Vietnam, the response of the West has been one of brute intimidation. Never have we been willing to acknowledge that China, for all of its immense contradictions, upheavals, sufferings and errant ways, represents the most complex and impressive example of national history.
Instead we intrude upon China in fitful moments of pique or treat it as a plaything. Who owns China? That was the question that marked the first period of U.S. involvement, when we joined other Western imperialists in carving up China into economic zones. And then came the bitter argument in the U.S. in the late 1940s and the ’50s about “Who lost China?” Now Americans find themselves preoccupied with how best to exploit China’s amazing economic prowess while feigning interest in the well-being of its people.
My problem with the article is the use of the word “We,” as if this lack of interest in human rights in China is monolithic and universal. Is it not possible that many of us care about human rights violations in China? Who is the “We” that doesn’t “care a whit” about the subject? Who are these “Americans” who feel this way? Are they to a large degree strawmen?
I would probably agree that most of the government and the oligarchy of multinational companies don’t care much if at all. But there are many sincere people in the West who do truly care. They are probably the same people who care about human rights in other countries, the kind of people who were appalled at the treatment by the US military of prisoners in Abu Ghraib and who spoke out against atrocities committed in the name of the “war on terror.” Most Western journalists I know in China care deeply about the plight of dissidents in China. I know I do, just as I care about the repression of women in Saudi Arabia, or the arrest and torture and murder of innocents in Syria.
How cynical can we get? Even more so.
Ever since the Republican Richard Nixon went to Beijing to suck up to Mao Zedong, every American president has acknowledged the power of China’s rulers to sweep aside the human rights concerns of foreigners as mere political theater for the folks back home. What a great spin it is to pretend that we are the champions of universal human rights as we tweet about our great concern for the Chinese people on the very mobile devices that their exploited labor created.
I am not so convinced China’s greatest human rights abuses are directed at its labor force, as the author contends. Most Chinese laborers are thirsty for the work and eager to work overtime. Of course there is exploitation and abuse. There is in any developing country, and in China it sometimes amounts to slave labor, at least in some instances. But many if not most migrant workers in China would much rather keep the jobs they have than move back to what they left.
There is nothing wrong or hypocritical about caring for human rights in China, for caring about Chen Guangcheng and Liu Xiaobo and the thousands of other activists/dissidents who had the temerity to challenge the status quo. I feel the same, as I said, for victims of US repression and have spoken out against it many times (go back and read my posts from 2004 criticizing the Bush administration). Read Philip Pan’s Out of Mao’s Shadow, a book of incredible compassion for the Chinese who stood up for human rights in China at a terrifying cost to their own lives. Does he, too, not care a whit about human rights in China?
He also pulls out the old chestnut of how “the US does it, too.”
The fact that Chen Guangcheng was targeted by Chinese authorities because of his opposition to his nation’s oppressive population control policies added the United States’ “pro-life” lobby to the army of morally subjective China watchers. Now if we can get the pro-lifers to care about the human rights of fetuses after birth, the condition of the millions of severely exploited Chinese workers who float U.S. consumption and our national debt just might stand a chance of improvement.
Morally subjective China watchers. Those who speak out are hypocrites because America, too, has a spotty record. I and most others I know are aware of and disgusted by this spotty record. But that doesn’t neutralize what goes on in China.
There’s a lot of truth to this article when it says the government and multinationals care more about their economic ties with China than with human rights. Very true. But many, many Westerners care deeply about human rights in China, as they care about it elsewhere. As they care about it in America as well. They are not all hypocrites and cynics. Scheer seems to dismiss them with a wave of his hand. I found this a deeply irritating and one-sided article.
And let me just add, a few minutes after posting this, that there is a lot of faux outrage and even more ignorance when it comes to the subject of human rights in China. Most Americans have no deep understanding of the actual story of Chen or Liu and see them in black and white, as good versus evil. There’s always more to it than that. These men may not be angels and some of those repressed by the government may not have been saints. But the illegal house arrests, beatings, solitary confinement and harassment are real. And yes, I know we are holding Bradley Manning in solitary confinement, and I find his treatment despicable, too. But at least it is common knowledge told countless times in the media and we can all speak out about it without fearing a 2am knock on the door.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.