CHINA-U.S.: Clashing Views on Rights Sow Tension
By Victoria Pascual
WASHINGTON, Feb 23 — The United States must adjust its traditional concept of human rights and China has to improve the quality of its peoples' lives before the two powers can see eye to eye on what constitutes a human rights violation.
This inability to reach common ground on the issue, says Japanese professor Yasuaki Onuma, is the reason why Washington has often butted heads with Beijing over its advocacy of human rights.
"The U.S. equates human rights with civil and political rights, but to China, civil rights is only secondary to economic, social and cultural rights," he told a roundtable discussion here on 'Can We Avoid a Human Rights War between the U.S. and China', organised by the Japan-based Sasakawa Peace Foundation.
While the concept of human rights changes over time, Onuma said the United States stubbornly sticks to its narrow definition of human rights as a principle of political freedom.
As a matter of fact, it refuses to sign an international covenant calling for a comprehensive framework encompassing the political, economic and social obligations of governments to their people, he explained.
The landmark document, he added, has the support of many U.S. allies in western Europe and Japan. He said the United States should accept this development, and depart from its "arrogant" belief that its idea of human rights is "the best in the world."
"Many Americans believe their idea of human rights protection is the best in the world, and so they disseminate their notion to other nations," he said.
But James Feinerman, director of Asian law and policy studies at Georgetown University here, says the U.S. insistence on using civil and political rights to measure human rights protection stems from its own painful history in dealing with slavery.
"We focus on civil rights as part of our struggles in history, and we're still caught up in it in the same way that China is caught up in its own struggles that continue to dominate its political life," he said.
China, on the other hand, has made economic and social issues its guideposts to human rights, Onuma said. But while Beijing claims that subsistence is more important than civil rights, it has not adequately shown it has improved the economic lives of people in this country of more than 1 billion people, he added.
"China must demonstrate improvements in the conditions of the individual," and must do so in an objective manner rather than present vague projections of economic development," Onuma said.
But Feinerman added that Washington's refusal to ratify the convention on economic and social rights is not enough reason to slam the country's track record. "The U.S. certainly has done more in the area of human rights advocacy than some countries that ratified the convention," he said.
China, Feinerman said in disputing some of Onuma's observations, clearly ignored some basic principles of human rights.
He cited Beijing's use of the death penalty, and what he called its policy of repression toward Tibet. Last year, the Chinese government put 4,600 people to death -- more than the total number of people persecuted in countries which use capital punishment, he said.
The country's economic problem is a "growing timebomb as the gap between the haves and have-nots widens," Feinerman added.
China faces wrenching problems in its drive for economic liberalisation, especially the prospect of unrest caused by the layoff of workers in many state enterprises.
Farm liberalisation through the elimination of support for peasant farmers may likewise cause severe disruptions in that sector and aggravate the unrest that may be felt when state-controlled companies are shut down.
Using economic and cultural rights as the basis for human rights protection seems unrealistic because most of the time, according to Feinerman, huge foreign corporations dictate what labour conditions are in, say, a Nike factory.
Meantime, the Bush administration's policy toward China is being followed closely and should become evident in the coming months, said Catharin Dalpino, deputy director for the Brookings Institution's Centre for North-east Asian Policy Studies.
One of the most important things to watch out for is the new government's definition of human rights in foreign policy, she said.
Other developments that could have a bearing on how the U.S will regard China is a law on the continued sale of "defensive" arms to Taiwan, which Beijing considers renegade province, and any overtures recognising it as a sovereign state are considered an interference in internal affairs.
Dalpino said the Bush administration's definition of human rights, as it applies to China, is another evolving policy worth keeping an eye on. "Will Washington continue the Clinton policy of adopting alternatives to sanctions, a policy that was carried over by the way from the previous Bush administration?" she asked.
China's entry into the World Trade Organisation, she also said, is likely to cause some disappointment, especially when the Chinese realise that membership in the WTO does not bring instant economic relief to their country.
After years of arduous talks with major trading blocs like the European Union and the U.S., WTO membership is within reach for Beijing some time this year.
China believes that membership in the WTO will stimulate economic development, although the elimination of state support is expected to exacerbate the social and economic fissures the ruling communist Party must deal with amid the country's economic liberalisation. (IPS/2001)