Tuesday, March 13, 2007

A Bush in the China shop

Guardian Comment is free piece, full text.

The United States and China have issued competing human rights reports. Which one is actually worse?
Ian Williams

The US State Department annual human rights report came out last week and, to counter it, so did the annual Chinese report on the USA.

At first glance it looks like a mudslinging session between the pot and the kettle, but under the circumstances, the US State Department does a surprisingly objective job - its reports on Israel and the Occupied Territories, for example, are unparalleled in official Washington discourse. Sadly however, like those on several other expedient allies, these reports are rarely cited in White House policy formation. Human Rights are what we hector enemies about.

We shouldn't be too surprised at that. Former British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook
is often misquoted as calling for an "ethical foreign policy". What he actually said was that foreign policy should have an "ethical dimension". That is not just slippery expediency. For example, all of us non-herrenvolk should be glad that Churchill and Roosevelt did not, from any over-refined sense of ethics, scorn alliance with Stalin in 1941.

The problem with Washington is its preachiness - do as we say, not as we do - as epitomized by Newt Gingrich's sermons on Clinton's semen even as he was breaching several of the Commandments himself. As Mark Twain said, from the early days of the Republic, Americans have been proud of liberty and democracy - and prepared to dunk anyone who disagrees in horse trough. They either bridle at criticism or ignore it.

The reason for Chinese sensitivity is obvious. They have much to be sensitive about. Nowadays, their cover is the pseudo-principle of national sovereignty, which, to them, means "'tain't no ones business what I do". Their report urges the U.S. government "to acknowledge its own human rights problems and stop interfering in other countries' internal affairs under the pretext of human rights".

There is of course some truth in this, and the substance of the report is a useful corrective to American Panglossianism. As Rabbie Burns said:

Oh wad some power the giftie gie us
To see oursel's as others see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us,
And foolish notion.

For example, the damning Chinese counter survey of American societal development on everything from health care to prisoners' rights points out that the United States is alone - or, rather, with Lesotho, Liberia, Swaziland and Papua New Guinea - in not having paid maternity leave. Of course, no one will ever look good defending the US's abysmal lack of labour protection, but one cannot help thinking that if there were one country less qualified than the US to lecture the world on prisoner's rights, it is China.

(Though, interestingly, the Chinese report does not take the US to task for its continued barbaric use of capital punishment.)

Perhaps the most amusing jibe is the reports quotation of the NY Times in saying that the USA "has the worst record in the 'free world' when it comes to stripping convicted felons of the right to vote. In contrast, most European countries hold that right so dear that they bring ballot boxes into prisons". And in China, that right is of course, so dear that Chinese who ask for it pay with an immediate trip to prison. For all the manifold failures of the US, Americans can complain about their government's behaviour without getting a bullet in the back of neck.

In this pot and kettle game, there is no doubt that China's record is far grubbier, even if it is legitimate to hold the Bush administration to the same standards it measures others by. It would just better if Beijing, the defender of Uzbekistan, Burma, Sudan and so many other regimes kept a tactful silence and let someone else better qualified do the critique.

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