US blasts China’s human rights record

It looks like the progress in human rights in China, so loudly trumpeted a year ago, was just a lot of noise over nothing. The US today accused China of “backsliding” on the issue.

“Despite the progress in 2002 we’ve been disappointed to see the negative developments in 2003,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.

[….]

Mr Boucher said “backsliding” in this context consisted of a number of “troubling incidents” including the execution of a Tibetan activist without due process.

In January, activist Lobsang Dhondup, 28, was put to death following a series of bomb blasts in southwestern China, on what supporters say were politically motivated charges.

Mr Boucher also cited the “arrest of a number of democracy activists, the harsh sentences that were laid down for Internet essayists, labor protestors and a number of other things that constitute backsliding.”

Of all the sins committed by the Chinese government, contempt for human rights is the most unpardonable. I don’t understand how they can allow it to happen at the same time they are striving to be a world economic leader. They have so much going for them, with the 2008 Olympics, ascension to the WTO, a (seemingly) strong economy — why ruin it all by treating your citizens as though you’re still in the Dark Ages?

The answer lies in China’s history, where one finds a disdain for human life that goes back thousands of years and was epitomized by Mao’s indifference to the great famine (and every other atrocity he fomented, each of which was paid for with the blood of the people).

Many societies have episodes of brutality, even genocide, in their history. But today, we expect that only from backward, uneducated societies, not from a country pulling all the stops to be seen as the world’s leading economic engine and a model of improvement in every way. China has to wise up: if it wants international respect, it has to live up to international standards. They clearly haven’t gotten this yet, and in fact are now heading in the exact wrong direction.

Update: Maybe I need to clarify this, as some have misunderstood my point. Brutality is not unique to China, and it is probably safe to say all or certainly most societies have had their ample share of it. My point is that, unlike the countries that grew out of their long periods of brutal, repressive government, much of the old mentality remains in China, as manifested in the huge number of executions, the documented human rights abuses, the total inability of “the little man” to receive justice, the rampant corruption, and the violence that goes with it. The arrests and long prison terms of essay writers. Also the viewpoint that women are mere trinkets, which is still alive in much of the country today, as witnessed by the continuing infanticide of baby girls and the widespread selling of young girls by their own families into slavery and/or forced prostitution. Some of these things were way worse under the Nationalists than they are now (they used to simply shoot suspected Communists on the streets in front of everyone), and China has made strides in the right direction. But Mao’s attitude of the low value of a human life is legendary, and not dissimilar to that of rulers during the warlord days. As other nations in the 20th Century embraced what we call “modern-day civilization” and a greater respect for human life, China got stuck somewhere along the line. My simple point is that this attitude is grounded in a pattern of the way the “common mass of people” has been treated in China throughout much of its history. It isn’t new. Mao didn’t invent it. He just took it to shocking extremes (though less extreme than his contemporaries Hitler and Stalin). So I am not branding China as having a more brutal history than other countries — just as still being under the effect of the spirit and psyche of brutality long after many (most) other civilized nations have come to recognize the value and necessity of justice and equality. South Africa and Russia were able to end long-ingrained behaviours. Now it’s China’s turn, at least if they expect to win the respect they so crave.

The Discussion: 14 Comments

The answer lies in China’s history, where one finds a disdain for human life that goes back thousands of years and was epitomized by Mao’s indifference to the great famine (and every other atrocity he fomented, each of which was paid for with the blood of the people).

Oh puuulease Richard. I don’t even know where to start. Probably because you didn’t really document it very well. Which dynasty? Which period of history? Besides the idea of human rights is a relatively modern idea. Definition? How does that definition change when looking back over a period of thousands of years?

And about Mao. Agreed that there were human rights abuses. I personally think Mao is the 20th century’s worst leader, so I’m not arguing you on that. However, that period of time doesn’t compare to the stuff that’s going on now. Not even close. In fact, I think that Mao’s reign will eventually be remembered as a period of transition and that the PRC really began with Deng Xiaoping and his “xinhua” (“new China”).

Your attempt to brand China in this way falls flat on its face. At least go into more detail to support your idea.

August 22, 2003 @ 7:17 am | Comment

Adam, I don’t have the resources or the time to give a history of China, and I don’t claim to be a China scholar. I do know that the many books I have read on modern-day China, almost across the board, point to a past in which life was very cheap. The nightmares of the police abuse that I’ve documented here in the past didn’t originate in a vacuum. Neither did the government mentality that it was acceptable to shoot nearly 3000 demonstrators just a few years ago in Tiananmen Square. Look back at the Chinese Nationalists in the early 1900s and you will find copious examples of the cheapness of human life and the willingness to shoot anyone suspected of any crime. Another example is Tsarist Russia at the turn-of-the-century, and that, too, stemmed from a long history of brutality and repression. If you do not believe China has such a history, there’s not much I can do about it. Many countries, maybe most, have such histories; man’s inhumanity to man is the oldest story on earth. But one important thing that distinguishes today’s modern civilized country from the uncivilized one is its fundamental recognition of human rights and the value of human life. For all its oil and technology, Iraq, for example, has been (and at the moment still is) an uncivilized country. China is an almost-civilized country, but not yet civilized enough, as any review of its human rights abuses testify. And it is a continuation of specific past practices, just as the NKVD in the old USSR were using the same practices as the secret police of the Tzars. This ingrained attitude that the human life wasn’t worth much so it was acceptable to torture and kill it — that is a mentality that goes way, way back, and is absolutely key to understanding why life for many in China today is what it is.

I am not pretending to know during which dynasty and at what moment this mentality germinated. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t been an important element in China’s history.

One last point — I never said what’s happening now compares in scale to what Mao did. But that same disrespect for human life, be it an Internet essayist or an Aids victim, was a part of the Mao psyche, just as it is part of the government’s psyche today.

August 22, 2003 @ 8:03 am | Comment

I personally think Mao is the 20th century’s worst leader

Sorry for the diversion, but I’ve always found Mao to be a fascinating topic. We talked about this before, Adam, but I guess it might depend on how you define ‘worst’. Cruel? yes. Despotic? certainly. What is his reputation in the eyes of the Chinese people? This question is not such an easy one to answer, and in the end they’ll have to be the judge.

August 22, 2003 @ 8:24 am | Comment

Tough question. I would say “among the worst,” together with everyone’s favorites, Hitler and Stalin.

At least Hitler had some sort of understandable vision (deranged though it was), and Stalin, too, is comprehensible; there were reasons for what he did, most of them depraved and self-serving, but at least he can be fathomed.

Mao is in a class by himself. It was as though he wondered what he could do to destroy the culture of a once great country and turn its people into automatons, zombified goons whose lives revolved around the Red Book. And after wondering, he went ahead and did it. Very well. Hitler and Stalin were consistent. Mao was utterly unpredictable and crazed, From the Great Leap Forward to the Cultural Revolution, his insanities pulverized the citizens and wiped out their ability to think. Millions died because of his careless inanities, his abrupt gyrations of thought (from let 100 flowers bloom to let’s imprison everyone who listened and let flowers bloom). The list is pretty endless. Still, if we measure it by lives lost, he’s certainly behind The Big Two — but also scarier, precisely because he is so inexplicable.

August 22, 2003 @ 8:52 am | Comment

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Back up, Richard. Let me get this straight. You think that Mao’s inconsistency (e.g. the Hundred Flowers campaign and its aftermath) is worse than being consistently in favor of, say, killing every Jew on the planet? Are you nuts?

The only possible scale on which Mao is more evil than Hitler or Stalin is pure body count. But I don’t think it’s fair to compare the 30 million figure that’s typically bandied about for the Great Leap Forward with something like the Holocaust. Deliberately killing 6 million people in concentration camps because of their religion is much more reprehensible than 30 million people inadvertantly dying from famine because a quarter of the population left the harvests to rot while they melted down their woks to make steel.

As a matter of fact, Mao did have have a vision of China. It was that of a China that wasn’t divided by warlords, wasn’t humiliated by imperialist powers, and became prosperous through collectivization. How was Hitler’s rather similar vision (but without the collectivization) understandable but Mao’s isn’t?

August 22, 2003 @ 11:28 am | Comment

Please, tell me where I ever, EVER compared Mao’s inconsistency to the holocaust. Never. In fact I was quite clear to say he stands behind Stalin and Hitler in terms of evil. And I mentioned the 100 flowers only as an example of his inconsistent logic. I was saying that wher Mao wins the prize is in inconsistency, and that Hitler and Stalin are easier to understand because at least there was a “logic” with which historians can make sense of their repellent actions. Please, do not put words in my mouth. If you think I ever made anything even close to that comparison, please cut & paste it for all to see. Such a statement is outrageous. But then, Maoists say the darndest things. 🙂

August 22, 2003 @ 1:08 pm | Comment

Followup:
Wayne: “How was Hitler’s rather similar vision (but without the collectivization) understandable but Mao’s isn’t?”

Hitler was always crystal clear about his vision, which consisted of three main foundations which never altered to the day he died:
— The Germans required more living space (Lebensraum)
— The Jews must be eliminated from German soil
— The “November criminals” who, he believed, caused Germany to surrender in WWI must be punished/destroyed (they were, he said, all Jews and Communists) and German honor restored.

These form the basis for virtually all of his speeches and actions. He never suddenly changed his mind and reversed course the way Mao did. After saying the Jews must be eliminated, he never went in the opposite direction and punished those who went after the Jews. If you read Michael Burleigh or Ian Kershaw’s relatively recent books, you will see just how psychotically faithful Hitler was to this vision.

Then we come to Mao who, on the other hand, encouraged his people, pleaded with them to share their feelings and post them on the walls. Then, he arrested and imprisoned them for doing so. He one day declared The Great Leap Forward (another total insanity and the cause of the great famine that killed millions), then one day he scrapped it. “Oh, I changed my mind.” And on and on. I know some people only want to think lovely thoughts about Mao, as I once did. But I am sorry, he was not a lovely man.

Final final point on this:
Wayne says above, and I quote:
“The only possible scale on which Mao is more evil than Hitler or Stalin is pure body count. But I don’t think it’s fair to compare the 30 million figure that’s typically bandied about for the Great Leap Forward with something like the Holocaust. ”

I want everyone to note the construction of this sentence and its implications. Now think about the Holocaust deniers who claim a figure of 6 million Jews is “always bandied about,” with their meaning clear — they are implying it is a false number, a lie; “bandied about” trivializes and denies the historical event. IOW, Wayne, true to form, is subtly using language to imply that 30 million were not starved to death in the great famine — no, because Mao was a cool dude and he wouldn’t have done such nasty stuff.

For anyone wondering about my past conversations with Mao Mao Wayne, please go here, and you will see why I have so little patience with him. I am flattered he hangs out here, and I hope he learns from this. I am keeping my fingers crossed.

Sorry — usually I am such a sweet guy! But revisionism and fawning over mass murderers kind of gets on my nerves. Know what I mean?

August 22, 2003 @ 1:20 pm | Comment

For anyone to argue that Mao was ‘inconsistent’ in his manner of rule is to betray a fundamental misunderstanding of traditional Chinese culture and history. Mao was nothing if not consistent and rational (considering his objectives). True, he did not practice modern statesmanship, but the China of his time was not a modern state, and neither were its main actors. Mao possessed an incredible grasp of the subtleties involved in traditional court intrigue. Of all CCP first generation leaders Mao had the most profound understanding of China history, bordering on an encyclopedic knowledge, particularly early dynastic histories (pre-Yuan). He put the strategies he gleaned from those histories into practice from the moment he attained control of the CCP, to keep both foes and allies off balance, though he liked to couch them in terms of Marxist theory in an attempt to make his methods sound more ‘modern’. But there was nothing modern or Marxist about Mao’s brand of governance—his was an imperial worldview formed from a lifetime of immersion into his dynastic histories and novels. There is nothing ‘inconsistent’ about Mao’s Anti-rightist campaign just as there was nothing inconsistent with Deng’s Democracy Wall purges or the Tiananmen Incident; Deng in fact was the chief architect of the 1950s anti-Rightist purge, when he was Mao’s protégé.

We have an unfortunate tendency in the West to demonize our opponents, and that is what many do to Mao; but to do so is to seriously underestimate him. Mao was not insane, or crazy, except ‘crazy like a fox’. Mao accomplished what no one of his generation or any before him in recent decades could do:

1) He ended 100 years of humiliation and unfair treaties—eliminated the foreign concessions.
2) In Korea China fought the most powerful country on earth to a draw—the first time China had EVER held its own militarily against a modern Western power. The effect of this on the psyche of the Chinese people cannot be overemphasized.
3) He unified the nation under a central government after decades of warlord strife, incompetent and corrupt KMT rule, foreign subjugation and civil war.
4) Mao kept his promise of land reform to the hundreds of millions of landless peasants (though he broke this a few short years later).
5) He successfully played the two extant superpowers of the time against each other to China’s benefit.

As I said, I find Mao a fascinating figure, though obviously a despot, and if anyone’s interested we could discuss more about how things might have been different under the KMT or if the US had not stubbornly backed CKS up until 1947.

Secondly I have to take issue with Richard’s unjustified ad hominem remarks concerning Wayne. “Mao Mao Wayne”? Come on, are you still in the third grade? I’ve been reading Wayne’s blog since February and to accuse him of being a Maoist is absurd, particularly in light of your recent post in which you disparage Ann Coulter’s tactics; yet in your shrill attack on Wayne you employ the same Coulterian modus operandi. If you can’t accept people disagreeing with what you write perhaps the ‘comments function’ is not for you. Otherwise you should just come out and admit that you are not interested in a constructive exchange of ideas, unless of course, respondents agree with every word you say. If that is the case you have more in common with Coulter and Mao than you might care to admit.

Our China blog community is a small one, and I’ve gained a lot of insights from my participation within it. I think there is room enough for differences of opinion without needless hostility and antagonism. It’s bad enough that the concept of civil discourse is pretty much dead in the US public arena.

Thanks for bearing with the long post.

August 23, 2003 @ 1:12 am | Comment

I wrote a long post but then lost it somehow. This is what I said:

Mao was in a class by himself because he created disaster all around him but never did anything to lose power. Being a dictator for life, his very existence brought disaster, and nothing could be done to remove him. Throughout he remained in this sort of “happy middle.” At least with the other leaders we got rid of them.

Regarding Prince Roy’s list of Mao accomplishments. Most of them were accomplished in the first year or so of his reign, and the others look like nothing compared to bringing the country to collapse.

August 23, 2003 @ 2:36 am | Comment

Please, tell me where I ever, EVER compared Mao’s inconsistency to the holocaust.

Sure, it’s when you wrote:

At least Hitler had some sort of understandable vision (deranged though it was)….there were reasons for what he did, most of them depraved and self-serving, but at least he can be fathomed…

The way I interpret that comment, especially the “at least” part at the beginning, is you think that Hitler’s unwavering vision of a world where every Jew was cleansed from the Earth by the Nazis is somehow less evil and more justifiable than Mao’s vision because Hitler’s vision was consistent.

My main thrust was that Hitler intended for all of those Jews to die. In the Great Leap Forward, Mao did not intend for all those people to die from famine. Mao’s intention with the Great Leap Forward was to make China the world’s richest and most prosperous country through collectivization. By that time, Mao had become so ruthless, that his underlings were too scared to tell him how unreasonable his quotas were. As we all know, the GLF was a disaster, but it was an unintentional disaster. And that’s why I think that Hitler will always be in an evil league of his own, while Mao will always be more of a Stalin-esque guy i.e. merely maniacal and power-hungry.

I want everyone to note the construction of this sentence and its implications. Now think about the Holocaust deniers who claim a figure of 6 million Jews is “always bandied about,” with their meaning clear — they are implying it is a false number, a lie; “bandied about” trivializes and denies the historical event. IOW, Wayne, true to form, is subtly using language to imply that 30 million were not starved to death in the great famine — no, because Mao was a cool dude and he wouldn’t have done such nasty stuff.

The reason why I said “bandied about” is not because I’m a Great Leap Forward/Cultural Revolution-denier. It’s because, simply put, we have no reliable statistics from either of those two periods. Both the GLF and the Cultural Revolution were chaotic periods, to say the least, so it’s hard to come up with anything but the roughest estimates for how many people died.

Oh, and I challenge you to find where I said I think that “Mao is a cool dude.” My contention has always been that Mao did some twisted, fucked-up things, but that you have to take it within the larger context of Chinese history and the limitations that being a poor undeveloped country with no tradition of liberalism, democracy, or capitalism places on the choices a leader can make. If Mao weren’t as ruthless as he was, then whoever would have ruled China (either Chiang Kai-shek or any of the other CCP members whom Mao was able to kick to the side on his rise to power) would have been just as ruthless. If they weren’t as ruthless, than my guess is that even more people would have died in the continued internal warfare. I don’t think we could say the same about Hitler and Germany.

Secondly I have to take issue with Richard’s unjustified ad hominem remarks concerning Wayne. “Mao Mao Wayne”? Come on, are you still in the third grade? I’ve been reading Wayne’s blog since February and to accuse him of being a Maoist is absurd, particularly in light of your recent post in which you disparage Ann Coulter’s tactics; yet in your shrill attack on Wayne you employ the same Coulterian modus operandi.

Thank you, Prince Roy.

August 23, 2003 @ 3:14 am | Comment

a lot of Chinese have said that if Mao had died in 1955 he’d be remembered as the greatest Chinese who ever lived. There’s a good deal of truth to that. It’s true his greatest accomplishments ended at the conclusion of the Korean War, but again that’s not quite the complete picture:

1) In the late 1950s-early 1960s Mao somewhat successfully challenged Kruschev for the leadership of third world revolutionary states–not much in practical terms, but a big deal for ideological legitimacy.

2) China became a nuclear power by 1964 without having to submit to USSR demands that it provide the Soviet navy access to Chinese warm water ports and the Soviet military land bases in Manchuria and Xinjiang.

3) China repaid all its foreign debt, even that accrued under KMT rule. It did this even in the face of a US led economic-cultural blockage from the conclusion of the Korean War until themid 1970s.

4) China protected its southern frontier through the successful assistance to the North Vietnamese, first against France, then against the US.

5) reapprochment with the US–probably Mao’s biggest achievement, and one which occured during a time of crisis–leftist cliques vehemently objected leading to an attempted coup d’ etat by Lin Biao. We should discuss this more. Personally I think they totally played Kissinger for a chump, but the Chinese are famously expert at stroking the egos of their adversaries.

So yeah, maybe these don’t rank up there with his early accomplishments and pale in comparison to his mishaps, but in order to understand why China is like it is we need to analyze the complete picture.

As I said, the Chinese people will have to come to grips with Mao’s legacy, warts and all. I look forward to the day when Chinese society will be able to freely discuss this period of Chinese history, which I find to be its most fascinating.

August 23, 2003 @ 3:19 am | Comment

Will there ever be an end to this? I’ll do my best to summarize and move on.

Prince, I’m glad you gave that big list of Mao’s wonderful accomplishments. It reminds me, as I said once before. of those who want to praise Stalin for “pulling Russia up from its bootstraps,” even though the cost was dear — a terror-police state. a battered and paranoid populace, the gulag, and mass murder on a scale that surpasses even that of his colleague in Germany. But he moved Soviet industry forward. I don’t buy it; there is no rule that says progress can be made only at the expense of lost liberties, mass executions, starvation and institutionalized terror. If you won’t see Mao as a very serious net minus for China, there is little I can do to change your mind. But please do not make claims that my understanding of China is flawed because I see it differently than you do.

About “Ann Coulter tactics” when dealing with Mao Mao: I always back up my claims with specific quotes and examples, without tri-dots. If the shoe fits, he has to wear it. Ann Coulter makes extreme blanket statement of total untruth and “documentation” that can be instantly disproved. Just because i take a strong opinion on this doesn’t mean I use AC tactics. I back up my claims and am prepared to prove them.

Mao Mao, let’s look at the way you argue. Here is a quote, in which you challenge my integrity:

Oh, and I challenge you to find where I said I think that “Mao is a cool dude.” Now, this is clever. Of course I can’t find such a quote — because I never made any such allegation that you ever said such a thing!. Here is what I really said:

Wayne, true to form, is subtly using language to imply that 30 million were not starved to death in the great famine — no, because Mao was a cool dude and he wouldn’t have done such nasty stuff.

To say that I am “quoting you,” as in a word-for-word quote, is laughable. If I thought you had actually said such a thing, I’d have used quote marks. I was making a point about the way you often appear to think, with just a hint of sarcasm.

You completely and painfully misinterpret my point about Hitler and Stalin. Let’s look at the actual words:

At least Hitler had some sort of understandable vision (deranged though it was), and Stalin, too, is comprehensible; there were reasons for what he did, most of them depraved and self-serving, but at least he can be fathomed. .

How you conclude that these words mean I believe Mao’s inconsistency is worse than the Holocaust is looney. The point is a simple one: Every action Hitler took was consistent with his worldview and is fathomable. Same with Stalin. Understandable does not mean “good” or “excusable.” It in no ways implies empathy. It means that at least we know their reasoning. I understand Bin Laden’s reasoning in attacking the WTC. I understand the reasoning of a suicide bomber in Israel. I do not sympathize with them and would like such scum to die slowly and painfully. But I know what they are about. Mao differs; he was unpredictable. Not worse or better. More unpredictable and inconsistent, and therefore dangerous in a unique way. Period. Full stop.

Arguing with you is always like battering one’s head against a wall. You pull things out of context, come up with howlers (remember how you said I have to be considered “a Hong Kong blog” and compared me and Conrad to Birchers??). And you, more than Prince, seem to feel an unabashed admiration, even love for Mao. That’s okay; I can’t control whom you select as your mentor. But if you post about it here, expect to encounter some resistance.

About your use of “bandied about.” This is a perfect example of how you use language in subtle ways to get your meme transmitted. The meme in this case is that 30 million peasants did not die of starvation. Now, you can respond, All I said was that the statistics aren’t available! But that is not reflected in your language. By saying, “bandied about,” you instantly convey that you believe the number is irresponsible and erroneous, whether you realize it or not. A more rational debater would say, The 30 million number has never been verified; it could be greater, it could be lesser; we don’t know. Bandied about implies that it is being used irresponsibly. And it tells volumes about how you feel about Mao, and how you want to defend him in any way you can at every turn, even if you have to do a bit of history revision along the way.

I am all for the exchange of ideas. I really appreciate Adam’s feedback, which can be very critical of me but also thoughtful and specific. Sometimes I appreciate Prince’s, though he seems intent on looking mainly at the rosy side of Mao’s tyranny.

It’s when I come across a line like this that I get pissed and go into high gear, because it shows debate has disintegrated into misrepresentations and mis-quoting:

Let me get this straight. You think that Mao’s inconsistency (e.g. the Hundred Flowers campaign and its aftermath) is worse than being consistently in favor of, say, killing every Jew on the planet? Are you nuts?

Of course I never said anything at all like that. Being a Jew and having lost a lot of family in the Holocaust, the idea that I might for an instant think like this is absurd. But this is the sort of shit I have to put up with. (I have never deleted a comment yet, but this one almost moved me to make an exception.)

That’s my say. If you want to keep arguing, fine. But I think we all know where the other stands.

August 23, 2003 @ 5:44 am | Comment

Rich, you gotta chill, man! Can’t you see? These kids are english teachers. They know zip. Why do you even bother responding?

August 24, 2003 @ 7:19 am | Comment

Enough.

August 24, 2003 @ 2:39 pm | Comment

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