Human Rights, Hypocrisy, and the Beijing Olympics

The entire world is once again being treated to the wondrous spectacle of human potential and achievement at the 2022 Winter Olympic games in Beijing, China.

At the same time, American viewers are being mistreated by an accompanying display of jingoism, hypocrisy, and bias in the coverage of the games by its mainstream media (MSM).

They continually remind audiences that China is an “authoritarian regime” that disrespects human rights up to and including genocidal policies against Uyghur Muslims in China’s northwest. In taking that position, the media typically omit any critical reflection on U.S. human rights shortcomings that in many cases surpass any of those the media attributes to China.

In what follows, let me briefly address that duplicity. I’ll begin by summarizing China’s approach to human rights contrasted with that of the United States. Secondly, I’ll particularize those distinctions by comparing China’s approach to its “Muslim problem” with the way the U.S. deals with its own corresponding dilemma. I’ll finish by drawing some hopefully salutary conclusions.

Human Rights

To begin with, the media’s allusions to “human rights” violations by communists implicitly assume that respect for human rights is an all or nothing matter. In their constant critique of China’s system, the MSM even imply that (in contrast to China) human rights are universally recognized and respected within the national contexts the media spokespersons represent.

Nothing however could be further from the truth.

In fact, few (if any) nations on earth (socialist, capitalist, or any aspiring to communism) respect all human rights as elaborated in the U.N. Declaration. Instead, socialist systems like China’s respect some human rights on the U.N. list, while disrespecting others. The same holds true for the United States. It too respects some human rights, while disrespecting others, even to the extent of denying their validity. (For instance, the U.S. has refused to sign off on a whole host of treaties implementing human rights protocols accepted by most other countries in the world.)

The United States’ refusal is based on the fact that its system of political economy prioritizes human rights differently from that of countries like China.

More specifically, China, like other countries trying to implement socialism, prioritizes material rights to life, food, shelter, clothing, health care, education, dignified work, childcare, and comfortable retirement. All of those are recognized as rights by the U.N. Declaration.

Respect for the right to life is reflected in China’s unprecedented achievement of virtually eliminating extreme poverty within its borders. Since 1981, China has lifted nearly 1 billion people out of such conditions. At the end of last year, President Xi announced that the final cohort of 100 million mostly rural poor had been raised above extreme poverty levels. Such achievement in such a brief time represents a unique historical achievement in the field of human rights.

Additionally, the right to health is a human right enshrined in the UN declaration of human rights. In response, China’s universal health care system leads the world in minimizing its number of deaths due to COVID-19.

At the same time, the United States (alone in the developed world) has no universal health care system. With only 25% of China’s population, the U.S. leads the world in COVID deaths. Of course the U.S. record could be painted as an extreme violation of the UN’s recognition of health care as a human right.  

That violation goes unnoticed in the United States, because with its economy based on neoliberal “free enterprise,” its list of prioritized human rights does not begin with the right to life, health, food, shelter, clothing, and dignified work. Instead, it starts with the right to private property and to have contracts respected along with freedom of speech, press, assembly, voting and religion.

That is, for the United States, the right to private property is paramount. If that right is threatened, all others (including voting and religion) will be suspended — as shown by our government’s support of authoritarian regimes throughout the world.

Capitalist theoreticians regard rights such as to food, shelter, and clothing as “aspirational” and neither genuine nor enforceable. Hence, our country has refused to sign off on the human rights protocols mentioned earlier.

By way of contrast, under socialism, the rights prioritized by U.S. capitalists are far down their list. In fact, rights such as private property and religious expression (in the light of European weaponization of religion in the service of colonialism) are often seen as inimical to the rights that socialism seeks to guarantee.

Policies towards Muslims

This brings us to the subject of human rights violations. They represent a point of convergence between China’s system and our own.  

Sadly, both systems are comparatively unrestrained in their oppressive policies supporting the human rights they prioritize. This leads both to transgress the UN Declaration’s prohibition of torture and unfair detainment as well as the right to a free trial and to democracy.

Both forms of transgression (theirs and ours) are illustrated in the way the two systems deal with shared problems around Muslim dissidents, rebels, and terrorism.

China deals with those problems especially in its northwestern Xinjiang province by confining Uyghur Muslims to what they describe asl “re-education centers.” There, according to U.S. media, Muslims are said to be interned in desperate conditions. They’re forced to take propagandistic classes about the error of their ways. They’re also allegedly mistreated in manners, by the way, that would be familiar to blacks and Hispanics interned in the U.S. prison system and in the concentration camps at our southern border.

Apart from the general fact that the U.S. imprisons a greater percentage of its population than China, and that it maintains those just-mentioned concentration camps for refugees and asylum seekers, Americans deal with their Muslim problems by imprisoning them in detention centers such as Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay and in “black sites” throughout the world. In extraterritorial locations like those, our government has unilaterally decided that human rights (even such as habeas corpus) enshrined in the western tradition since the Magna Carta, simply do not apply.

But detention centers are not the central element of U.S. strategies for dealing with Muslim dissidents and rebels. Killing them is. Since 9/11 2001, the U.S. has bombed and droned in many Muslim countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Ethiopia. In Iraq alone, by some estimates, “America” has caused more than one million Muslim deaths. In contrast, Chinese apologists are quick to point out that the last time China bombed any foreign country was 40 years ago.

Conclusion

Thankfully, the 2021 Olympics in Beijing are providing us with a window onto China, its socio-economic system, culture, and values particularly as they impact human rights. Great effort however is required to see all that through the haze of the MSM’s anti-Chinese bias.

Those who make that effort can draw some perhaps salutary conclusions that include the following:  

  • (As if we needed reminding) the western MSM is biased and propagandistic.
  • It is particularly unbalanced in its approach to questions of human rights in China.
  • No nation observes all human rights.
  • Arguably, as a country emerging from Third World status, China’s prioritization of poverty elimination, education, housing, and health care makes more sense than adopting the preferences of the United States and Europe.
  • More China’s prioritization would be welcome even in the United States which (alone among industrialized nations) refuses to recognize universal health care as a human right. (In other words, it violates that right.)
  • China’s health care precautions are helping Americans see the life-saving effects and other benefits of a centralized and coordinated universal health care system.
  • In the process, thoughtful Americans might be moved to reconsider the meaning of the phrase “pro-life.” Discounting any connections with abortion, “pro-life” in China entails adoption of aggressive measures to eliminate poverty and to keep the number of deaths due to COVID as close to zero as possible.
  • Its achievements in doing so are remarkable to say the least. 
  • Somehow re-education of Muslim dissidents seems preferable to killing them.
  • The same might be said for the display of China’s human rights priorities. That is, the right to food, shelter, clothing, health care, and dignified retirement might be more important than those to private property and respect for contracts.

Postscript

For years I worked for a Latin American studies program in Costa Rica. It served evangelical students from the U.S. doing their term abroad in San Jose. Each semester we took them to Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Cuba.

Before going to Cuba, the topic of “human rights always came up.” I’d ask the students to define the term. Eventually, they’d get to an understanding that a human right is what’s due a person simply in virtue of being human.

I’d them ask them to share what they considered the most important human right. Many said “the right to life” – and they weren’t talking about abortion.  

I’d then ask about rights to what’s necessary to sustain human life. They’d agree that the right to life implies those to food, potable water, shelter, education, and decent clothing.

Never once did my students (conservative, liberal, or libertarian) say that the most important human right was that of owning property or of having contracts honored.

Hmm.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

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