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Reframing the Debate on Human Rights in China

by Jeffery N. Wasserstrom on Sep 26, 2000

Jeffery N. Wasserstrom

         The U.S. Senate debate on establishing Permanent Normal Trade
Relations with the People's Republic of China and Chinese leader Jiang
Zemin's recent visit to New York triggered a new rendition of a familiar
United States-China two-step. Pundits and politicians once again denounced
the Beijing regime's abysmal human rights record. Jiang and other Chinese
Communist Party officials countered that Americans are too fond of imposing
their own standards when evaluating the political situations in other

         There is a way out of this monotonous dance, and American leaders
should seize it: Remind Chinese officials that they were once dissidents
who dared to speak truth to power.

         Chinese leaders do have a point when they insist that U.S.
criticism of human rights in China is often framed in a patronizing
fashion. But awareness of this should not stop concerned Americans from
pushing for human rights and democracy there. It should just encourage us
to refrain from condescendingly comparing China to the United States.

         Here's my alternative: Forget comparisons between the PRC and
other lands, and focus solely on ways China's leaders are failing to meet
their own standards and live up to their own ideals.

         Jiang Zemin's pride in having taken part in protests of the 1940s
that helped bring down Chiang Kai-shek's corrupt authoritarian regime
provides American leaders with an opening. They should use it to push for
Beijing to admit that the government made a horrible mistake in June 1989
when troops killed large numbers of students and workers who had taken to
the streets to demonstrate against authoritarianism and corruption in high

         American leaders should stress how much Jiang's generation of
students had in common with the protesters of 1989. In the 1940s, as in
1989, dissidents accused officials of caring more about protecting their
positions of power than protecting the nation. In the 1940s, as in 1989, a
one-party regime used talk of outside conspiracies and threats to stability
to explain away repression. In the 1940s, as in 1989, students described
themselves as patriots fighting to ensure that the renquan (human rights)
of all Chinese were respected.

         This rhetorical approach cannot be dismissed as judging China by
"Western" standards. How can it be when it focuses not on our values but on
the Chinese Communist Party's? How can it be when it stresses similarities
between the current regime's behavior and that of the despised Nationalist
Party of Chiang Kai-shek? How can it be when it merely reminds Jiang of the
things that his generation once thought worth dying for?

         The Beijing regime's efforts to discredit the Falun Gong sect
should be reframed in the same fashion. When Americans criticize Beijing's
attacks on this sect, they typically present it is an issue of religious
freedom. This plays well in Peoria but not so well in Pudong.

         There is a better way than simple condemnation for Americans to
make the case for tolerance to Chinese audiences: by stressing how much the
official measures now being used against Falun Gong members resemble the
ones that the Nationalists employed in the 1940s against recent converts to
communism — a group that included Jiang Zemin.

         Turning to democracy, Jiang is right that Americans often
presumptuously act as though the only way to improve a political system is
to make it more like ours. But this does not mean that we should desist
from calling for more openness in China.

         After all, didn't students of the 1940s demand that Chiang
Kai-shek be more willing to listen to dissenting voices? In their youth,
didn't people such as Jiang chide the Nationalists for harassing the
leaders of opposition parties?

         There are parallels between Chinese social problems of the 1940s
and of the current era to emphasize as well. Then, as now, many complained
that the regime made it too hard for laborers to unionize and fight for
better working conditions. Then, as now, many worried about the lack of a
safety net to protect the most vulnerable members of Chinese society.

         Jiang's generation was once galvanized to action by concerns such
as these. Now that they are in power and have a chance to help remedy them,
perhaps they need to be reminded of what they thought in their younger years.

         In sum, we can and should continue to call for change in China but
there is no need to leave ourselves open when doing so to the accusation of
imposing external standards. There is nothing patronizing about accusing a
country's leaders of failing to live up to the ideals they once embraced.

         This is the way that American leaders concerned about human rights
and democracy in the PRC, but tired of the U.S.-China two-step, should
frame  their comments to Jiang Zemin and other Chinese officials.

Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom is a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, a writer for the History News Service and the author of "China's Brave New World -- And Other Tales for Global Times" (2007).