On June 4, 2009, I wrote a post bemoaning how the media always focuses on how China treats its citizens, but ignores far more brutal countries such as Egypt, Libya, and Yemen (among others). I entitled the post, “I’m Sorry, But US Hypocrisy On Human Rights Is Continuing Apace Under Obama. China Is Exhibit A” and in it, I bemoaned American naivete on these issues. Man did I call it. Here’s my post again, but with the portions highlighted that really make me look like I knew whereof I was speaking:

1. I love my country — the United States.

2. Of course I believe in human rights.

3. The US should strive to be a beacon on human rights.

4. When appropriate, and in ways that are appropriate, the US should encourage other countries to maintain human rights as well. Not in an idiotic Jimmy Carter sort of way, but in a sophisticated Henry Kissinger/Bill Clinton/Ronald Reagan sort of way.

5. I supported Hillary Clinton for president up until the very last minute.

But Hillary (and Barack), would you please get a damn clue on human rights, would you please stop embarrassing my country, would you please stop being such hypocrites, and would you please stop using human rights as a way to advance your popularity at home. I am referring to the US (on today of all days) blasting China for human rights violations that mostly took place 20 years ago. I say today of all days because today is the day that President Obama is making nice to Saudi Arabia while touting his next day speech in Egypt. I am not saying that Obama should not be engaging in diplomacy with those two countries, but they are about as far from paragons of human rights as one can get. As we lawyers like to say, let’s look at the evidence:

1. Saudi Arabia is a country which denies the most basic of human rights to more than half of its population. Women are second class citizens and non-Muslims and homosexuals are denied virtually any rights. Criminals are not just executed, they are beheaded after their execution. And does anyone seriously doubt that highly placed Saudi governmental figures funded 9/11 and continue to fund terrorism and extremism around the world?

2. President Mubarak is a bit more sophisticated than the Princes who control Saudi Arabia, which means only that he wears nice suits while imprisoning, torturing, or killing anyone who questions his authority or his health or his age or his autocratic lifetime rule or his passing on his “throne” to his son. This country too represses all its non-Muslims, having already driven most of them out and now working very hard to do the same with the rest. To the extent Egypt looks good, it is only because those striving to take over would probably be even worse.

If you are female, where would you rather be, Egypt/Saudi Arabia or China?

If you are a homosexual, where would you rather be, Egypt/Saudi Arabia or China?

If you are practice a religion other than Islam, where would you rather be, Egypt/Saudi Arabia or China?

If you are against the government in power, where would you rather be, Egypt/Saudi Arabia or China?

If you are going to be charged with a crime, where would you rather be, Egypt/Saudi Arabia or China?

If you are a journalist, where would you rather be, Egypt/Saudi Arabia or China?

We all know China is the answer to every single question set out above.

I am not condoning China but I do think that public denunciations of it are counterproductive in terms of effecting positive change there and I think they make us look downright stupid when we make no such denunciations of Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

I would prefer that we talk human rights with China in private, not in public. And if we are going to talk human rights a la Jimmy Carter, can we at least start the conversation with Iran, North Korea, Egypt, Syria, Libya, Sudan, Zimbabwe Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Somalia, or Iraq (yes Iraq, which though our “close ally” is really just your standard Middle East thugacracy). If we did that, the world might actually believe we are doing so because we care and not to gain political advantage at home.

Let’s get a human rights policy in place and stick with it, people. Near as I can tell, we still have none.

What do you think?

What I find so amazing about recent events in Libya is how the United States has rushed in to condemn Ghaddifi for doing what he has always done, which is to murder and brutalize his own people. I cannot help but view this as a case of the United States (and the world) not caring until they are embarrassed when the killings show up on CNN. I do not agree with those in the United States and elsewhere who are talking about putting American troops’ lives at risk to intervene in Libya’s civil war.

The world did not want American intervention a few months ago and the world should not want it now. If anyone is going to stop the now public killings in Libya, it should be the Arab League (has that group ever actually done anything?), if it so chooses. The United States should and must stay out. And if the United States has the impulse to assist groups opposing their own government, I suggest it start with Iran, because at this point it is not clear that the fighting in Libya is that between a dictator and democrats as opposed to one part of the country fighting with another over oil.  

  • How are you with picking playoff picks? 😉 Better yet, I think maybe we need to head to the track Dan.
    Couldn’t agree more that US politicos are quick to point fingers at China and virtually ignore the many many other countries. Also completely agree that the answer to your bolded questions is “China” across the span (with the exception of maybe that one about dissent — I think Chinese jails are probably pretty comparable).
    I think the reason for it is pretty easy to see though; in the scheme of things none of the “other team” players mentioned above are even close to the size in power/influence/economy as China. It doesn’t make sense to look too closely at what’s going on in Egypt or Libya as compared to China, as they are astronomically smaller players with less global influence.
    As you mentioned above, the question is whether or not US criticisms of China have any effect, which is tough to say without data to opposite — would there be more or less change for good if the US held virtually no criticisms towards China?
    I get what you’re saying about more positive change happening by discussing sensitive issues in private. This is the Chinese way, and certainly would earn favour and give less reason for anti-Western nationalism in China. But as dirty and divisive as it is, I can’t help but think that US (and the entire West, really) keeping China’s actions in sharp focus and forcing them to answer to an international community that extends past their borders does keep Zhongnanhai on their toes.

  • Robert H

    where would you rather be….
    Striking comparisons

  • JayZ from China P.R.

    the local citizen, whoever live in Egypt, Libya, and so on, what can they gain indeed in the Ja-overturn this government, that party, who care it!
    If you believe you can change your world, and you need to obey the present rules. If you hate these rules, you may leave the place you lived.
    i think it’ s the commen sense in China

  • Bravo! Such honest analysis, and not with hindsight. I believe the human rights hypocrisy is linked to the democracy mission. Regardless of the merits of democracy, I’m curious as to why it’s impose upon others to follow, often in words only. Furthermore, we all know democracy is far from perfect, yet anyone who dare to experiment alternatives, exercising the highly self-admired inventive spirit of Homo sapiens, would be demonised.
    Democracy is a vague term like “Christendom”, the “Islamic World”, or “the West”. Besides the banner, I fail to see much in common between the USA, Afghanistan, Iraq, Japan, India . . . and so on. In the end, I suspect it’s fantastic for some, at some point in time, and disastrous for others, under different circumstances. Any system, like its human inventors, would age, turn insufferable, then die one day.
    To forcefully convert recalcitrant skeptics for their own good is reminiscent of the colonial missionaries. Some cite more pragmatic motives such as security. But Nazi Germany was democratic, and Christian. So were the allies. History is full of similar examples.
    My conspiracy theory is that the money powers that rules the “West” behind the scene wants democracy pervaded. Human rights is just one of the moral facades. The righteous politicians and noble press are mere executives and marketing managers.
    When an undemocratic regime lost popular support, they risked revolt. China, often branded conservative, has been through a few dozen dynasties in just as many centuries, making it rather revolutionary by the objective measure of history. It has also “changed” more substantially than the US under Obama.
    On the other hand, in a matured democracy, the invisible power consolidates steadily over generations while politicians exchange soundbites over trivialities and lofty principles. In the end, whoever wins work for its interests. What are the options? An elected individual, sitting in his monumental office, is pitiful in front of the mega power that has penetrated money, the economy, education, mass media, military industry . . . everything. Unimaginable? The US government doesn’t even control its currency. Congress can’t audit the Fed Reserve. That makes everything else seem immaterial doesn’t it?
    In the real world, a politician with integrity won’t make it past the municipal level. Even if he did, and the capricious electorate are behind him according to yesterday’s poll, a fundamental change in a vastly complex system like the US takes consistency and painful compromises over many years, not four minus campaign time and endless politicking.
    A matured democracy is therefore a boisterous dead-end, very resistant to “change”. Fed up with the Democrats, vote Republican. No good? Do the opposite next time. Revolution is out of the question; the “emperor” is now the helpless masses. Stand up and be counted: One in a hundred million. “Change” becomes an empty slogan because of practical constraints. Slogans are nonetheless important to keep the majority loyal to the principle. Their unquestioning commitment makes Democracy a Belief, a replacement of the Church, rather than pragmatic expedient. Modern missionaries preach democracy and human rights in addition to faith, hope, and charity.
    If everyone plays the game according to these same rules, the invisible Emperor may dream about global influence, effectively ruling the world with fake money, on everlasting terms the way they do to the USA. Could this be a reason why they spread the Good News of Democracy, human rights, etc. with such uncanny fervour, often through the unwitting arms of the American people?

  • Thanks, Dan, for listing those choices. Our abuse of the term “human rights” has debased it and politicized it, thus disserving the millions of people who suffer under ghastly regimes of all stripes. You might add to your list of questions: “If you were an ethnic minority…?”

  • Aaron

    Kudos Dan again for evenhandedness.
    To Ryan, Re Chinese jails.
    For one, I think Dan was talking about the criminal justice system in general.
    I don’t know if you have been in a Chinese prison vs. a Middle Eastern country’s prison vs. a Japanese prison vs. a Filippino prison. (For visits, not necessarily for serving criminal sentences).
    But they are all pretty bad. Most Americans are given exceptional treatments in these systems.
    One example:
    One of my ex-colleague is a naturalized US Citizen born in Turkey. The man used to be extremly loud and rude.
    Once when he was in Philippines, he got totally drunk out of his mind. He started to insult the locals and picking fights at a bar. The local cops, didn’t realize he’s a US citizen, took him out back and gave him a beating. And ONLY took him to a hospital after they found his US passport.
    (Not that he could identify any of the cops after he woke up the next day.)

    Points are,
    (1) For now, as US citizens, enjoy the exceptional treatments, and announce your citizenship when abroad, (to avoid visits to the unpleasant jails. Unless you really want the FULL experience).
    (2) Regardless of where you think you are, or how good their prisons might be, avoid insulting the locals. (Insulting the locals is never a good idea. The locals might reserve the FULL experience of hospitalities of their prison systems for you).
    (3) Lastly, again more generally, AVOID the FULL experience of foreign prison systems!

    If I had to pick one for experience, I recommend the HongKong Prisons. No joke, exceptionally clean and guards are very nice, plenty of experiences dealing with expats from various foreign nations, and a legal system very similar to the British system. (Completely contrary to some of the depictions in some of the movies).
    I visited HK’s Stanley Prison (Maximum Security), and was thoroughly surprised by how little security is in the prison. (It’s more like a minimum security prison of US, but its immates are all serious offenders).

  • @Aaron: Kudos — information I hope I never need, but not bad advice to stick in the back pocket. 😉

  • Elemental

    Even though anyone who keeps up with what is happening in the world knows what you are saying here is true, it takes guts for you to come out and say it when China is still America’s favorite whipping boy.

  • Saudi Arabia is key part of US geopolitical strategy for the region:

  • Well said!
    What is that old saying, which applies to many actions of the US government? “Do what I say; not what I do.”
    I agree that the US should not send troops to Libya. We shouldn’t be in Iraq either. However, we are so what can we do now that we are in the thick of it?
    In fact, the US should pull back and keep only those foreign military bases that have defensive potential and stop invading other countries unless there is a clear and present danger to America. However, on second thought, that might not be a good idea because it seems when needed, a president can manufacture evidence to go to war. President Johnson did it with the Tonkin Gulf Incident, which led to the Vietnam War and G. W. Bush did it with WMD leading to the second US invasion of Iraq and the Middle East mess we have been mired in ever since.