A colorful tradition has developed in U.S.-China relations in recent years, where each spring the State Department releases reports on the human rights records of 190 countries during the previous year, and Beijing responds by releasing its own report on human rights in the United States.
On Friday, the State Department began this process with the roll out of its annual human rights reports. The report on China was typical fare ; it said human rights violations were increasing in China, but failed to specify what it was using as the baseline to make this judgment (certainly Maoist China had a worse human rights record than Xi’s China). The specific charges leveled against China were almost entirely what one would expect to see from a U.S. report on human rights in China.
In this sense, China’s report on human rights in the U.S. is far more interesting. One doesn’t normally think about what kinds of human rights issues might concern Beijing. The latest report features concerns that range from more or less justified to downright comical.
One of the more justifiable (if opportunist) concerns China has is gun violence in the United States. The report speaks at length about gun ownership and violence in America, and the refusal of the U.S. to take action against it. Some of the more notable quotes from that section include :
Americans are the most heavily armed people in the world per capita.
…In population-adjusted terms, civilians in some parts of the U.S. are more likely to become the victim of a firearms-related murder than their counterparts in war-torn regions like Iraq or Afghanistan.
…the violent crime rate went up 17 percent in 2011. Firearms-related violent crimes posed as one of the most serious threats to the lives and personal security of the U.S. citizens.
Of course, it’s arguable whether this is a human rights issue or not, especially given Americans support private gun ownership by overwhelming margins. Still, the report notes that the U.S. government has failed to pass legislation to reduce gun violence, a charge that seems justified in light recent events.
Many of the charges in the report were even more interesting, however, at least when one considers the accuser. These included :
The U.S. government continues to step up surveillance of ordinary Americans, restricting and reducing the free sphere of the American society to a considerable extent, and seriously violating the freedom of citizens.
The U.S. election is like money wars, with trends of the country’s policies deeply influenced by political donations.
The U.S. journalist community is worried about the continued toughening up of legislation on mass media. It is frequent that journalists in the U.S. lose their jobs because of "politically incorrect" opinions.
American citizens have never really enjoyed common and equal suffrage.
A huge number of people are homeless in the U.S.
Ethnic minorities do not enjoy equal political, economic and social rights.
Ethnic Americans’ rights to vote are limited…. Racial discrimination is rampant in the field of law enforcement and justice.
Religious discrimination is rapidly on the rise.
Apartheid in fact still exists in the American society.
Many of these are justifiable in their own right and indeed are issues many Americans regularly raise themselves. Still, it seems odd that the PRC is concerned about them, given how it handles the same issues in its own country. This of course might have been China’s point, since it argues that the U.S. is a hypocrite for issuing reports on the human rights situation in other countries, but not one on the U.S. itself.
One subtle difference between the U.S. and Chinese reports is actually rather telling. Specifically, whereas the U.S. human rights reports focus on mainly political and social issues, China’s report on the United States focuses heavily on economic issues. For instance, the evidence China cites about ethnic discrimination in America points to minorities’ inferior economic opportunities in society. When criticizing China’s treatment of its ethnic populations, the U.S. report focuses on the level of surveillance and lack of civil and political rights that these groups enjoy.
In the one sense, this may just reflect the fact that each country is more vulnerable to charges of discrimination made on political or economic rights than the other. Still, it seems to me to point to a larger difference on how the Western world in general, but the United States in particular, views human rights, compared to the rest of the world conceives of them.
Specifically, the U.S. and the West seem to put political rights above all else, as seen from, among other things, the emphasis Washington placed on holding elections in Afghanistan and Iraq when it first invaded those countries. By contrast, it has placed far less importance on ensuring effective governance and economic opportunities for Afghans and Iraqis. The same is true with how it often views North Korean refugees as fleeing the country to pursue freedom in South Korea, when usually the refugees themselves report just wanting greater economic opportunities in China or elsewhere.
This is not to say that people worldwide don’t seek political freedoms as well ; it just suggests people place economic security before political freedom if forced to choose.