Human Rights in China: The Whole Sad Story: Respect for Basic Human Rights Will Be a Bellwether for Continued Economic Development and Peaceful Foreign Policy, Writes Jacqueline A. Newmyer. the Outlook Appears Bleak

By Newmyer, Jacqueline A. | The American (Washington, DC), November-December 2007 | Go to article overview
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Human Rights in China: The Whole Sad Story: Respect for Basic Human Rights Will Be a Bellwether for Continued Economic Development and Peaceful Foreign Policy, Writes Jacqueline A. Newmyer. the Outlook Appears Bleak


Newmyer, Jacqueline A., The American (Washington, DC)


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"ULTIMATELY, CHINA WILL need to embrace some form of a more open and representative government if it is to fully achieve the political and economic benefits to which its people aspire," Donald Rumsfeld, then the secretary of defense, intoned in 2005. That line might just as easily have come from Nancy Pelosi, Lou Dobbs, or Gary Bauer. Washington Times and New York Times editorial writers alike urge the White House to protest Chinas curtailment of press freedoms. The rise of the People's Republic of China (PRC) has made strange bedfellows.

All of the critics are on to something: Evolution in Chinese respect for human rights will be a bellwether for continued economic development and peaceful foreign policy. It's true that, even without further liberalization, China could remain a source of cheap labor and even a market for Western retailers for years to come. And, so long as the domestic situation stays stable, an authoritarian China need be no more aggressive abroad than Singapore.

But the PRC's economy will not generate innovations that leave the world trailing enviously if the Chinese education system continues to make a priority of indoctrination and to reward loyalty over all else. Curiosity and ingenuity--which may pose a threat to the regime--are critical for cultivating minds capable of flaming new questions and solving them. Today's elites in the Communist Party of China (CPC) remember the role of student agitators in the Tiananmen demonstrations, and Chinese schools grade students on ideological purity and expect them to defer to authority figures. But Chinese officials have also proclaimed innovation to be a national priority, inviting prominent scientists, industry leaders, and management scholars from all over the world to lead seminars on generating new technologies and business processes.

One theme of these foreign visitors is the need for robust intellectual property protection to provide an incentive for innovation. Up to today, Chinese entrepreneurs, and intrepid foreigners seeking to do business or participate in joint ventures, have often lacked recourse to the law, with connections and corruption mostly dictating who wins and who loses in commercial disputes.

Perhaps most threatening to China's hopes for continued prosperity and stability are stories of crackdowns on activists who threaten the CPC's monopoly on power. A Human Rights Watch survey released in January noted that several "high-profile, politically motivated prosecutions of lawyers and journalists in 2006 put an end to any hopes that President Hu Jintao would be a progressive reformer." The survey concluded that progress toward an impartial legal system was still nonexistent, as censorship and restrictions on media in the PRC have increased. According to Amnesty International figures, China carried out more than six times as many executions as the United States on a per capita basis in 2005.

The view of CPC elites, however, is that human rights advocates are linked to Western capitals or organizations, and religious "rebels" may have ties to Central Asia, India, Korea, or the United States, depending on whether they are Muslim, Tibetan Buddhist, or Christian. Even the disaffection of low-wage laborers and victims of environmental degradation may be traced, whether disingenuously or not, to the presence of foreign corporations on the mainland. Beleaguered officials are more likely to perceive hostility from other states--and impute aggressive intentions to them. Chances of PRC military confrontations rise accordingly.

An economically developed China that does not conform to American standards of respect for individual liberty is becoming a popular alternative model for growth, as Rowan Callick shows in his article on page 36. In fact, some PRC officials complain that the West uses human rights as a club with which to beat developing states like China.

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