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.


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.


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.


“You Lose; You Lose; You Lose; You Lose, and then You Win”: The Difference between Knowledge and Wisdom (Sunday Homily)


Readings for Trinity Sunday: Prv. 8: 22-31; Ps. 8: 4-9; Rom. 5: 1-5; Jn. 16: 12-15.

As I was preparing this week’s homily, I thought I would focus on a piece of good news for people of faith. For me, that would be a change of pace, because the pages of our newspapers are daily filled with such bad news. At last, I thought, there was something good to report – and related to this morning’s liturgy of the word and its surprisingly indigenous and tribal themes about Wisdom, the Great Spirit and their manifestations in God’s creation. Unfortunately my piece of good news did not stand up to history’s harshness to indigenous people and to the rest of us who are not rich and powerful.

I’m referring to the recent conviction of Guatemala’s ex-president, Rios Montt on charges of genocide. As a frequent visitor to Guatemala along with my students, I’ve followed closely efforts by Guatemala’s Mayan population to bring Montt to justice.

General Efrain Rios Montt was the U.S.-supported dictator who took power by a coup d’état in 1982. On May 10th (just a couple of weeks ago) he was held responsible for the deaths of more than 1700 Guatemalan Mayans in a 40 year-long war that killed more than 200,000 “Indians,” and disappeared more than 30,000 others.

It was the first time a modern head of state has been convicted of genocide in his own country. The octogenarian president, who had been trained at Washington’s Kennedy School, was a vocal born-again Christian, and supported by President Reagan and the Washington establishment was sentenced to more than 80 years in prison.

Montt’s conviction represented a huge victory for Guatemalan priests, religious, catechists who served Guatemala’s poor. Thousands of them had been butchered by the brutal Guatemalan military. It was a victory for peasants, workers, union leaders, social workers, teachers, students and others without public power. They had been working on this case for more than two decades despite threats and violence coming from the Guatemalan oligarchy and the U.S.-trained military that supports it. Above all, Montt’s conviction was a victory for Guatemalan Mayans whose various tribes compose 70% of the country’s population.

I was going to say that the Montt conviction showed that the Forces of Life and Justice coupled with hard work and dedication of ordinary people can achieve miracles even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. I intended to point out how the patient indigenous understanding of the unity of all creation, the long arc of history, and the Great Spirit’s powerful Wisdom finally received improbable confirmation.

But then last Tuesday, Guatemala’s Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s decision on a technicality. As a result, the 86 year old genocide is (at least for the moment) a free man.

The reversal raises the question about the direction of history, who’s really in charge, and what forces (good or evil) will ultimately triumph. An answer to that question, I think, is implied in today’s readings, which, as I said reflect a peculiarly indigenous, tribal point of view about the direction of history and its Sovereign.

That shouldn’t surprise us because the Jewish Testament is a tribal document, isn’t it? Jesus himself was a tribal person – not a product of bourgeois society like us. Once again, according to tribal beliefs the world over, the earth and its history ultimately belong to God. The planet has been given as gift to earthly creatures and to humans as a trust. If it “belongs” to anyone, it belongs to ordinary people – to the poor and not to those whose only claim to ownership resides in their bank accounts.

Today’s liturgy of the word celebrates that viewpoint in terms of the Wisdom of Jesus and his Holy Spirit. In effect, the readings tell us not to worry whether good or evil will triumph in history. From time’s beginning that issue has already been settled, because in the long run God’s Wisdom is in charge not only of human history, but of the entire cosmos. Far from asking us to worry, God’s Wisdom requires us to know one thing only – what every tribal person knows.

You see, wisdom is different from knowledge. Knowledge is the intellectual grasp of data and so-called “reality.” The knowledgeable person knows many things. And that knowledge often tells us that the world is hopeless; the cards are stacked against ordinary people – like the Mayans of Guatemala – and their thirst for justice and hope. The powerful have insured the maintenance of the status quo, for instance by retaining power to annul unfavorable court rulings.

The tribal wise people on the other hand need to know one thing only. In theological terms, they know (and act on the knowledge) that the Lord is present in every human being and in all of the earth and that in the big scheme of things, God’s Wisdom will triumph. Hinduism’s Shveshvatara Upanishad puts it this way: “Know that the Lord is enshrined in your heart always. Indeed there is nothing more to know in life. Meditate and realize the presence of God in all the universe.”

The first reading from the Book of Proverbs seconds that insight from the Upanishads. Proverbs portrays Wisdom as God’s guiding principle for the creation of the entire universe. Wisdom is embedded in the very laws of creation. The author pictures it as playing before God as the Creator pours God’s Self into the earth, its oceans, skies, and mountains – and into the human race.

Today’s responsorial psalm also agrees. It praises wise human beings. In God’s creative order, they are almost angels. They are crowned with honor and glory, the psalmist says; they rule the earth. This is because they realize (as the Mayan indigenous of Guatemala do) that they are sisters and brothers with the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and with the creatures of the deep.

In the Beatitudes, Jesus said something similar; he saw the wise as “gentle” (meek); he promised that they would have the earth for their possession. They are princesses and princes, kings and queens in disguise whatever their earthly social status and wherever they find themselves.

Finally, the Gospel reading from John concurs with the understanding of the wise which sees them as single-minded – as knowing only that one necessary thing (God’s presence in each and every creature). John says that the wise who (like Jesus) know that one thing, ultimately receive everything from God, the origin of all things good and wise. So John has Jesus again tell his friends not to worry about anything – not even about remembering the many things he might tell them.

Instead, they should rely on God’s Spirit of Truth who will remind them of the one thing necessary. That Spirit will remind them that Jesus, the Gentle and Incomparable One embodied conscious awareness of God’s presence in everything. Consequently (like all the gentle) he has been given everything that belongs to God. “Everything that the Father has is mine,” says the crucified and apparently defeated one.

Living in accord with Jesus’ spirit of conscious unity with God brings peace even in the face of ostensible failure. That’s what Paul says in today’s second reading. Even though we might be otherwise afflicted, those very afflictions will strengthen our character, Paul writes. The love which Jesus’ Spirit pours into our hearts will produce great hope when those around us are mired in and depressed by their despair.

Can you imagine the despair of the Mayans during the genocide – and now by the reversal of the Montt decision? Can you imagine their temptations to discouragement before the overwhelming odds they face in pursuing God’s justice against the brutal killers of their relatives and friends?

The message of today’s readings: Don’t be discouraged. Instead be mindful of God’s Wisdom. It is present in your heart and in the very fabric of the cosmos. Despite appearances to the contrary, and despite the best-laid plans of the powerful, the Forces of Life and Justice will prevail in the end.

Or as the great community and labor organizer, Mother Jones said “You lose; you lose; you lose; you lose, and then you win.”

That final, improbable victory of God’s wisdom and justice is what’s promised in our readings today.