Democracy and Human Rights: China and the West

By Xing, Li | Monthly Review, December 1996 | Go to article overview

Democracy and Human Rights: China and the West


Xing, Li, Monthly Review


The purpose of this article is to present theoretical and empirical arguments which try to transcend mainstream debates on democracy and human rights.

First, it argues that promotion of democracy and human rights has never been the main goal of foreign policy for the United States. Promotion of democracy and human rights is only a tool for global intervention in order to realize the U.S.-designed "new world order," just as anti-Communism was the tool during the cold-war period.

Second, it tries to develop the inherent contradiction between the concepts of democracy and human rights on the one hand and the existing capitalist world system on the other. The present world structure, which is divided into developed and underdeveloped, rich and poor, North and South, is itself the result of an undemocratic and nonhumanitarian process. The ongoing trend of world development characterized as global capitalism is not only driving off in a direction opposite to third-world democratization but is also beginning to challenge the existing democratic systems in the West as well.

Third, it explains the real problems in China-Western relations, especially Sino-U.S. relations, which have been clouded by the human rights issue. The deep-rooted problems in China-U.S. relations, I argue, are not democracy or human rights at all, but China's emerging power and its potential challenge to the unstable structure of U.S. hegemony within the international capitalist system.

From Protecting Dictatorship to Promoting Democracy

"We have 50 percent of the world's wealth but only 6.3 percent of its population. . . . In this situation we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment," noted George Kennan in 1949, the then-director of Policy Planning at the Department of the State, who was a leading architect of U.S. postwar foreign policy, especially the "containment" policy. "Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships that will allow us to maintain this position of disparity," he continued. "We should cease to talk about the raising of the living standards, human rights, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better."(1)

Kennan's candid statement is highly instructive on two counts according to the opinion of many scholars: First, it indicates that the strategic objective of U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War was not so much to battle a "communist threat" as to defend gross inequalities in the international world order and the tremendous privilege and power this global disparity of wealth brought for the United States. Second, Kennan's statement indicates that democracy abroad was not a major consideration for the United States in the formative years of the post Second World War order.

Since the United States emerged from the Second World War as a dominant political, economic, and military power in the international system, it played a significant part in contributing to world economic development in the postwar era. For economic and political reasons the United States committed itself to the revival of a liberal international economy, an international division of labor that benefits the rich states.

Later on, the political and security ties between the United States and its principal West European and Japanese allies provided the political framework within which the liberal world market economy could operate with relative ease. Consequently, U.S. leadership and the alliance framework created a secure and stable basis for the development of global and economic relations. U.S. initiatives in the area of trade led to successive rounds of tariff liberalization. The U.S. dollar served as the basis of the international monetary system, while its foreign aid, direct investment, and technology facilitated the rapid development of advanced and of some less-developed nations. …

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