A few weeks ago, the US State Department released its 2011 China Human Rights Report. It is a part of an annual series of country reports on human rights practices that includes almost 200 countries and regions worldwide. As always, the release of this report was quickly followed by the issuing of the Chinese State Council’s US Human Rights Record (2011). The Chinese report rebuts the US’ reproach by “uncovering” human rights problems within the US. Like the years before it, this Chinese report has nothing new and it serves only as an annual parody of China’s own human rights conditions.
The Chinese report employs typical rhetoric: The US has no right to criticize human rights in other countries. The Chinese report states that the US’ profile on China’s internal rights situation illustrates the arrogance of the US, given its own human rights problems. Meanwhile, the Chinese report seems to think it has a much more noble mission: The effort to reveal to the whole world the true human rights record of the US and to compel the US into genuine self-examination.
The Chinese report seems to suggest that a country should not point fingers at others until it is flawless itself. This is a strange statement from a country that aspires to be a major player in the international community. Even worse, this spirit is detrimental to global human rights causes. As an emerging power, China should not always question the motives of its critics. Instead, China should focus more on whether the criticisms are fair and whether it has lived up to its professed commitment to human rights.
The refutation that the US ignores its own human rights problems is built on air. The US reports do not, and should not, include the US itself, for it would involve a conflict of interest and would violate the principle of impartiality. In fact, many US-based non-governmental organizations, such as Human Rights Watch, have been conducting assessments of the US’ human rights record themselves. That the US reports encompass its closest allies — such as the UK, Australia and Canada — proves that China would be flattering itself to think the US reports are conspiring against it.
The Chinese report is meant to expose the human rights problems in the US to the world, but ironically, the report is available only in Chinese. How much of a global audience can it really reach then?
Nevertheless, all the facts and statistics contained in the Chinese report are from media that are accessible to the public in the US. In other words, the Chinese report simply repeats and reaffirms the facts that are already known to ordinary US citizens.
More ironically, the Chinese government dismisses the US report as being groundless, but it does not allow Chinese to read the report and make up their own minds.
When speaking about human rights, the Chinese government appears to have a peculiar understanding of the concept. The Chinese report itself defines human rights in six ways: 1) life, property and human security; 2) civil rights and political rights; 3) economic, societal and cultural rights; 4) racial discrimination; 5) women’s rights and the rights of children; and 6) violations of human rights in other countries. Among the six listed topics, only items 2, 4 and 5 conform to a common understanding of human rights. The Chinese report uses the phrase “human rights” so loosely that any social problems in the US become human rights problems.
Some of the criticisms contained within the Chinese report are very problematic. For instance, the Occupy movement is depicted as an event that reveals the US’ serious economic, social and political problems. However, if the discussion is limited to human rights issues, it has to be conceded that such protests would not even be allowed in China, where freedom of assembly is inadequately protected.
The Chinese report even brings up the freedom of the press by stating that there is no law protecting news sources in the US. However, this criticism is substantially weakened when the First Amendment of the US Constitution is taken into consideration. The Chinese report invokes the resignation of reporter Helen Thomas over her controversial remarks about Israel. This is not a particularly strong criticism either, because Thomas’ comments — that the Israelis should leave the Palestinian region and become stateless people once again — arguably contains messages of hate, and in the US, it is common practice for journalists to apologize and even resign after such remarks.
The Chinese report accurately points out that women are disadvantaged both in the US legislature and in the country’s job market. However, it is unfair to criticize the US government for these problems. The discriminatory institutions have already been eliminated and today, if a woman wants to run for Congress, nobody can stop her from doing so. It is totally up to the voters whether to vote for a woman candidate in an election. Similarly, it is at the discretion of an employer whether to hire a particular female employee, and gender equality remains more of a cultural issue than a simple political problem.
If the Chinese report is read while keeping modern-day China in mind, it would be fair to say that China is in a much deeper crisis than the US on all levels, except perhaps around the issue of race.
There is nothing wrong about China criticizing the human rights record of the US. However, the criticism will not stick until China can show that it really is committed to improving human rights within its own borders. Until then, it will remain nothing but a political parody.
Joseph Zhou is a doctoral student and a teaching assistant in political science at the University of Iowa.