Worldview Commentary No. 257 on Chicago Public Radio, 91.5 FM WBEZ

“Dueling Human Rights Reports: China and the United States”

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The United States and China this month celebrated their annual ritual of issuing public reports on each other’s human rights performance. Once again, their mutual critiques read like ships passing in the night: each country stresses issues where it looks good and the other looks bad. Once again, in denouncing each other’s human rights shortcomings, they are both mostly right.

The US report on China is part of the State Department’s annual report on human rights in over 190 countries, begun in the Carter Administration and mandated by Congress. Relying heavily on public sources, including credible human rights organizations, the State Department couches its critiques in dry, diplomatic language, exuding an air of dispassionate objectivity.

The Chinese demonstrate that they can play the same game. Their report’s tone and style mimic the State Department. Their report is, if anything, even more packed with statistics. They rely entirely on credible, public record sources: on federal agencies like the Justice Department and Census Bureau, on academic studies at universities like Chicago and Michigan, on human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and UN human rights monitors, and on such major media as the New York Times, Los Angles Times and Chicago Tribune.

The difference – aside from the differing vulnerabilities of the two major powers – is that the Chinese disavow the whole game. Objecting that the State Department reports on every country in the world except one – the United States – the Chinese condemn the US for a “double standard” and for presuming to “lord it over” other countries on human rights. It would be better, they argue, to drop the “name and shame” strategy which, they say, interferes in other countries’ “internal affairs.”

The Chinese are right to mock our double standards in reporting on everyone’s human rights purity except our own. But they are wrong to denounce us for interfering in their internal affairs. Fundamental human rights are universal and guaranteed by international law. Human rights everywhere are everyone’s business.

In that light Washington and Beijing should each welcome the human rights reports issued by the other.

Washington’s critiques of China are, of course, well known to Americans. China is an authoritarian state, controlled by the Communist Party, where citizens have no right to change their government. China’s human rights record in 2006 remained “poor, and in certain areas deteriorated,” including repression of journalists, writers, activists and defense lawyers. Press controls, including censorship of the internet, were tightened. Freedoms of assembly, religion and travel are tightly restricted. Capital punishment is often carried out on the day of conviction. China has a “coercive” birth limitation policy. Forced repatriation of North Korean refugees continued to be a “grave problem.”

China’s critique of the US focuses on some areas also covered in US human rights reports: police brutality, intrusions on privacy in the name of national security, racial discrimination, failure to guarantee the rights of women, children and other vulnerable groups, and prison abuse – including “the world’s largest number of prisoners.”

But China also blasts the US on subjects not even covered by US human rights reporting:

• “Rampant” violent crime. This is fueled in part by the “largest number of privately owned guns in the world.”
• A mode of democracy in which money talks. Candidates for Congress in 2004 who raised less than $1 million had “almost no chance of winning,” according to a study by a US think tank.
• A lack of proper guarantees for economic, social and cultural rights in the “richest country in the world.” For example, one in eight Americans – and one in five American children under the age of six – live in poverty. The US Department of Agriculture reports that 35 million Americans do not have enough money or other resources to buy food. Some 47 million Americans lack health insurance. The unemployment rate for blacks is more than twice that of whites.
• A militaristic foreign policy. The war in Iraq has caused at least 655,000 Iraqi deaths, according to a Johns Hopkins University study published last October, and the US has a “flagrant record” of violating the Geneva Conventions.

Granted, China’s human rights critiques of the US are hypocritical and intended for propaganda purposes. Still, they are based on credible studies and statistics, and mostly reflect human rights standards recognized internationally, but ignored or incompletely covered by US reporting. They deserve serious debate as human rights issues in this country.

So keep it up, China. Please continue, as you would say, interfering in our internal affairs. So long as the State Department fails to report on human rights in the US, we need you. So long as US human rights reports overlook key issues, we need you. So long as human rights here are everyone’s legitimate concern, we need you.

And by the same token, we hope you won’t mind if we keep reporting on you, too. So long as human rights in China are everyone’s concern, you need us, too.


Doug Cassel’s commentaries are generally broadcast Wednesdays during the noon hour of the Worldview program on Chicago Public Radio, 91.5 FM, and rebroadcast at 9 PM in the evening. Views expressed are personal views of the author and not necessarily those of Notre Dame Law School, the Center for Civil and Human Rights or Chicago Public Radio.