As noted frequently in these pages, China has gradually become the most prominent bete noire of American empire. As such it has displaced Russia which had successfully reprised that role for at least the previous four years.
China’s new status has raised the question for many: Is it truly an adversary of the U.S. — or even an enemy? Or is China simply America’s latest very challenging competitor?
Recently, Pulitzer Prize- winning journalist, Glen Greenwald attempted to answer those questions. He moderated a highly informative 90-minute debate on China between Matt Stoller and Kishore Madhubani.
Madhubani, on the other hand, described China in more sanguine terms. Madhubani is a Singaporean academic and former President of UN Security Council (2001-2004). He also served as Singapore’s Permanent Representative to the U.N. (1984-’89, 1998-2004). He’s the author of Has China Won? The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy.
What follows is a quick-and-easy outline of the arguments presented first by Stoller and secondly by Madhubani. I conclude briefly with my own perspective that takes issue with both debaters. Each of them along with Glen Greenwald, erroneously accept without question the categorization of China as a violator of human rights. In reality, I argue, China is more a human rights champion than the United States itself.
Matt Stoller: China is Not Merely A Competitor
A. Though not exactly an enemy or adversary, China is a threatening bad actor. B. Witness China’s Growing Economic Power Globally: 1. In a very short time has transitioned from a severely underdeveloped country to the 2nd most powerful economy in the world. 2. It’s now the #1 trading partner of more than 100 countries. 3. It is a firm ally of the world’s economic elite from Wall Street to Brussels. 4. Its low wages and lack of worker protection have led U.S. and other international corporations to relocate American jobs to China. C. Witness China’s Repression: 1. It does not share West’s values of free speech, free press, freedom of religion, and democratic voting. 2. Since the 1980s China has been “hiding its power and biding its time,” but is now openly demonstrating its intention to export its oppression as shown in China’s: a) Increased military spending b) Building of a new centrally controlled internet architecture c) Export of sophisticated surveillance systems d) Undermining of international institutions such as the WHO e) Retribution against those who even mention its oppression of Muslim minorities or its coverup of the Coronavirus outbreak f) Treatment of Uyghurs in concentration camps g) Police violence vs. those seeking greater freedom in Hong Kong h) Long-standing military threats against Taiwan i) Building of artificial islands in the South China Sea beyond internationally recognized maritime borders j) Installation of military weapons there k) Bullying of Philippine fishing vessels l) Naval forays into the Indian Ocean ostensibly to combat piracy, but really to expand its capacity for military operations m) Buying up of newspapers serving the Chinese diaspora in order to eventually coerce and control its members too D. Witness the statements of Xi Jinping who has stated that: 1. Socialism with Chinese characteristics is “blazing a new trail” for other countries seeking to modernize, while preserving their own sovereignty. 2. China is seeking a future where it will “win the initiative and have the dominant position.” E. What to Do about the China Threat? 1. Re-appropriate the values we say we honor, viz. freedom of press, religion, speech, assembly 2. Break up the alliance between China and the international economic elite 3. Punish U.S. companies that offshore jobs 4. Diversify U.S. supply chains 5. Bring production back to the U.S. and to democratic countries 6. Work with China on collective problems such as climate change 7. Show by these reforms that our system is better than the Chinese alternative
Kishore Madhubani: China Is Neither Hostile nor A Bad Actor
A. In General 1. Competitors are not enemies. 2. One should not insult competitors or even adversaries. 3. There is no reason to regard China as a hostile country or as a threat to the United States. 4. China has 0% chance of conquering the United States which has 6000 nuclear weapons, while China has 300. The U.S. spends five times more on its military than China does. 5. The U.S. has 300 military bases throughout the world (some very close to China’s borders); China has no foreign bases and (unlike America) fights no wars outside its boundaries. 6. The post-WWII world order characterized by U.S. hegemony was highly artificial given the location and comparative size of the U.S. population. 7. China and India with their huge populations and ancient cultures are now assuming their normal, rightful places in the world. 8. Before WWII, both China and India had been prevented from adopting those positions chiefly by colonialism. 9. The Chinese government enjoys the support of the majority of its people. (Without that approval it would be impossible to control 1.4 billion people.) 10. In fact, 130 million Chinese leave China each year and then return home. There are no Chinese refugees. B. Chinese Ambitions: 1. Unlike the USSR under Khrushchev, China never boasts that its system will replace that of the U.S. or other countries. 2. Its leaders believe their system is good for China without claiming its aptitude for other contexts. 3. They just want China to be strong with its own population prospering in an external environment conducive to that end. C. What about Repression in Hong Kong? 1. It’s true that Chinese citizens do not have the same rights to free speech as Americans. 2. But they have more such freedom than previously. 3. Remember, that during 150 years of British colonialism, there was no democracy or freedom of speech in Hong Kong. 4. Chinese authorities are especially sensitive about Hong Kong because it’s a symbol of British oppression and of its having forced China to accept opium commerce centered there in 1842. D. What about Oppression of the Uyghurs? 1. Remember that the Muslim world is going through a major transformation – struggling to modernize and reinterpret relations between religion and politics. 2. Remember too that when the western countries came together in the UN to condemn the treatment of Muslims in China, not a single Muslim country supported the resolution, while a large number of those countries supported China. 3. Instead, Muslim countries agreed that the U.S. should: a) Stop bombing Islamic countries (President Obama dropped 26,000 bombs on seven Muslim countries in one year). b) Try to help the Chinese deradicalize and modernize the Uyghurs in China. E. What about Chinese threats to American labor? 1.It’s true that China’s low wages, lack of labor protections, and absence of labor rights is attractive to American producers. 2.However, it is a mistake to blame China for the loss of jobs. 3.After all, China did not force U.S. manufacturers to move. 4.China joined the WTO at the invitation of the United States. 5.We must also remember that the relatively recent and sudden introduction of 200 million new workers into the system of globalized capitalism is only the latest expression of the “creative destruction” endemic to and celebrated by that system. 6.Sweden and Germany saw the creative destruction coming. To prepare for it, they invested heavily in the retraining of their workforces to equip them for participation in the new economy. The U.S. did not. F. What the U.S. should do: 1.Distinguish between defending America’s primacy and defending the American people; the two are quite different. 2.Stop fighting wars in the Middle East and focus on the welfare of its own people. 3.Remember that it is no paragon of respect for human rights. For instance, it is the 1st modern country to reintroduce torture. 4.Keep in mind the figure “Six billion” – i.e. of the number of people who live outside both the United States & China. They’re much more sophisticated, well-informed, and nuanced in their understandings than previously. They don’t buy the American good guys/bad guys dichotomy.
My overall response to the Greenwald interview is one of deep appreciation. It brought together two very articulate, well-prepared, and authoritative proponents of comprehensive arguments most often advanced about the nature of China’s participation in the global community.
At the same time, I found myself disappointed that both Greenwald and Madhubani accepted right-wing framing of the position that China is a violator of human rights in contrast to westerners’ valuing free speech along with freedom of religion, press, assembly and the right to vote.
Certainly, there is no question about China’s repression in the areas of speech, religion, and press. But that does not deprive it of any possibility of claiming to be a champion of human rights.
The fact is that the UN Declaration of Human Rights as well as its other official statements present the world with a long list of such entitlements ranging from the ones just mentioned to the rights to jobs, food, shelter, clothing, health care, to children’s rights.
Another fact is that no country in the world honors all human rights. Instead, all of them (according to whether they fancy themselves “capitalist” or “socialist”) prioritize human rights.
Capitalists accord first place to having commercial and legal contracts honored. They then list freedoms of speech, religion, press and the right to vote as their other preferences. However, if trade contracts are under threat, capitalists quickly dispense with all those other rights – as is demonstrated by their support of repressive regimes such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Brazil and the Philippines.
As for the rights to food, shelter, and clothing (as enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights) the United States has never recognized any of them as such (having refused to sign the enacting protocols). According to all U.S. administrations such “rights” are merely “aspirations.”
Priorities in socialist countries such as China and Cuba are different. For them the rights to food, shelter, clothing, education, health care, and jobs hold primacy of place. Freedom of press, speech, and religion, as well as voting rights are dispensable as long as those preferred rights remain under siege.
I only wish Greenwald and Madhubani had made those distinctions. It would have helped the audience understand that indeed China does not respect human rights, while the United States does.
But (even more importantly for purposes of critical thinking in this country) listeners would also have understood that China indeed respects human rights while the United States does not.
It is therefore unseemly for westerners to beat China with the human rights club. Too bad that Greenwald and Madhubani didn’t recognize that impropriety.