Human Rights: The US & China Trade Reports

On June 25, 2015 the US State Department released its annual report on human rights around the world and on June 26 the Information Office of the State Council (China), as always, released its own report, entitled, “Human Rights Record of the United States in 2014.”

Both reports are inevitably critical. And given the U.S.’s recent record in race relations, police shootings, clandestine data gathering, and racially-motivated mass murders, one has to wonder why the U.S. government would set itself up for such political criticism. The prudent course, it seems to me, would have been to simply state, ‘We have work to do.’

But it didn’t. And it was easy to visualize the devilish grin on the face of the Chinese authors as they shot with abandon at the side of the proverbial barn that was the recent record on human rights in America.

There was a time when this – one assumes material – taxpayer expense seemed, if not productive, at least logical. The U.S., in many ways, stood on some pretty high moral ground, and in the wake of guys like Stalin and Hitler, foreign human rights clearly had a direct link to America’s peace and prosperity.

Wars between countries, however, have become relatively rare. Wars are now fought on ideology and ideologists have never cared much for what other ideologists think about the morality of their ideology. Why waste taxpayer money?

Momentum, however, is the most powerful force on Earth. Those who have been paid to write these reports have every reason to see them continue. And certainly no politician wants to risk being on the wrong side of human rights activism, even if there is some hypocrisy involved.

So they get written.

As you read both reports, two over-arching themes emerge that are a result of fundamentally different worldviews. The first is the socialist emphasis on outcome versus the strict literalism of opportunity that is at the heart of the American political and social systems. The second is an extension of the first – collectivism versus individualism.

Much of the American critique, of course, focuses on China’s political processes and the treatment of those who speak out against them. And, in theory, the Americans build a case that will resonate with members of Congress and the political elite.

The Chinese, on the other hand, essentially quote Yogi Berra, who once noted, “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.” The Chinese report quite astutely notes that, “Money is a deciding factor in American politics, and US citizens’ political rights were not properly protected.” Despite the highest level of midterm election spending in history, the report goes on, voter turnout was at its lowest level since WWII and there is no shortage of scholars to quote on the fact that ordinary Americans increasingly feel that their supposedly democratic government no longer reflects their interests.

While the U.S. points an accusatory finger at political censorship and the detention of dissidents, the Chinese report notes that the UN itself, in 2014, “…slammed the US for violating the rights of ethnic minorities, indigenous people, immigrants and other minority groups. It criticized the fact that racial and ethnic minorities continued to be disproportionately arrested, incarcerated and subject to harsher sentences.” It’s an irrefutable point, in the end, and even President Obama, in reference to the racial atrocities that occurred in South Carolina recently, acknowledges that the US has made an indefensible lack of progress in racial relations.

And guns, of course, make their way into the conversation. The Chinese report, as you would expect, notes the shooting of Michael Brown and other cases of the police’s (which to the Chinese are part and parcel of the state) use of deadly force against minority citizens.   But in a country where only the military has weapons, and I have yet to see a single firearm on sale or in the hands of a lower level policeman or ordinary citizen, the Chinese report notes, “…the use of firearms in the US was behind 69 percent of murders, while for robberies the figure was 40 percent, and for aggravated assaults, 21.6 percent.” (It cites CNN for the statistics.)

Mao Zedong, to his credit, correctly noted that, “Women hold up half of the sky,” so the rights of women have long been a source of national pride to the Chinese. This year’s report noted that in the US, “Each year, 2.1 million American women on average were assaulted by men. Three females were murdered by their partner each day, and four females died each day as a result of abuse. In the US military, reports of female soldiers getting harassed were on the rise, and more faced repercussions for reporting assaults.”

This year the Chinese could also point to interrogation techniques employed by the CIA, including ‘rectal rehydration’, the PRISM data mining program unveiled by Edward Snowden, the interception of phone conversations by 35 foreign leaders, and the stealing of encrypted information from foreign governments.

Then there were the drone attacks that killed both militants and civilians, according to the report, and the execution of Ramiro Hernandez Llanas, a Mexican citizen, without giving him access to consular assistance, claim the authors, a violation of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations.

In short, plenty of legitimate accusations to go around. In the end the real difference between the two reports is one of perspective. American ideology is decidedly individualistic and absolute: the right to vote, the right to free speech, the right to bear arms, etc. China’s ideology, on the other hand, is influenced far more by the collectivism of its historical agrarian culture.

The rights of the group versus the rights of the individual. In fairness, of course, Westerners believe that protecting the rights of the individual ultimately secures the best possible outcome for the group. And the Chinese are decidedly ‘hands-off’ when it comes to personal rights that don’t interfere with the effective functioning of the state.

Once again, it all comes down to balance. The Chinese are correct, I think, in stating that the right to development is one of the most important rights of all, a right the US has been reluctant to codify due, one assumes, to its potential for abuse. Prosperity without basic intellectual and personal freedoms, on the other hand, would be a decidedly hollow achievement.

I think Abraham Maslow, who gave us the Human Hierarchy of Needs, ultimately said it best. Maslow noted that everything else is irrelevant until you have food in your stomach, water to drink, and a relatively safe place to lay your head. The ultimate need of all humanity, however, is the need for self-actualization, the truly personal goal of realizing one’s full potential in life.

Human are largely defined by your worldview.  China and the US come at the issue from opposite directions.  Can either really stand in judgment of the other?
Human rights are largely defined by your worldview. China and the US come at the issue from opposite directions. Can either really stand in judgment of the other?

View the author’s literary work written under the pen name of Avam Hale. Both books are available at Amazon and most major online retailers in both electronic and print formats.

Copyright © 2015 Glassmaker in China

Notice:  The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.  They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.