Human rights in China

If there is one major moral issue which is just about impossible to get right, it is whether, how, and to what degree the West should speak out about Human Rights in China.

Chinese governments have a long history, which goes way back before the present communist regime, of treating all outsiders as "Foreign Devils." Unfortunately, all too many of their past experience of foreigners gave them justified reasons to be very cautious of outsiders, from the depredations of Ghengis Khan through the Opium Wars to the rape of Nanking.

The sad fact is that when China is criticised by outsiders, particularly by foreign governments (most particularly of countries like Britain which have some unfortunate history with China) the default response of successive Chinese regimes has not just been to dismiss the criticism as coming from enemies of China but to crack down on anyone who the foreigners are trying to help as traitors.

To Chinese eyes a government which failed to respond in a manner which looks tough would be in danger of losing face. And unless they happen to have a mentally handicapped British citizen in one of their prisons who has been accused of a serious offence, the dissidents themselves are usually the easiest people to kick so as to look tough.

Consequently, the wrong kind of criticism can be actively counter-productive - and there appeared to be a lethal demonstration of that point within the past year.

Equally, to refrain from making any attempt at all to protest against human rights violations is not going to resolve the problem or do much for our self-respect.

Which leaves Western governments with a very difficult balance to strike, in making the point to China that greater respect for human rights would be in their own country's interests without triggering the kind of negative reaction which is likely to include greater hardship for the very people we are trying to help.

I believe that David Cameron was right to raise the issue of human rights when he visited China today, and that he was also right to do so in tactful and carefully restrained terms. Raising the matter at all was a risk. But one he was right to take.


Tim said…
Ultimatum to China - political reform or we stop buying your goods.
Chris Whiteside said…
How would you react if someone told Britain to change our system in a way you did not already strongly support, and threatened to stop buying our goods otherwise?

I suspect the reaction of most people would consist of two words, and the second one would be "off!"
Tim said…
Britain purports to be a multiparty democracy. China is clearly a one party totalitarian dictatorship. It employs political prisoners to manufacture goods. People who dissent are thrown into prison. If you can't tell the difference between the 2 countries and the need and desire to force change in China then there is clearly a problem
Chris Whiteside said…
I understand the differences between ourselves and China only too well. One of them is that their history and culture predisposes them to respond to react to crude threats, whether economic of any other kind, even less favourably than we would.

And we wouldn't take kindly to that sort of message.

I'm not taking the Yasmin A-B line here, we should be encouraging the Chinese to move towards democracy and human rights. Let's just make sure we put over that message in a way which might have a chance of moving things in the right direction and is not likely to be actively counterproductive.

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