Wasserstrom: Beyond Ping-Pong Diplomacy: China and Human Rights – WPJ


ARTICLE: Volume XVII, No 4, WINTER 2000/01

Beyond Ping-Pong Diplomacy: China and Human Rights
Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom

[Go to interactive discussion forum]

Everyone familiar with the long-term course of Sino-American relations knows how important table tennis matches were in laying the groundwork for the breakthroughs of the early 1970s associated with Richard Nixon’s historic visit to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). More recently, however, much less productive exchanges between representatives of China and the United States have routinely taken place, exchanges that resemble the back and forth of a frenetic game of Ping-Pong.

The serve (which typically comes right after a political crackdown in China makes the headlines) takes the form of an accusation by American officials that the regime in Beijing has no respect for freedom and democracy. The return is the rejoinder by Chinese spokesmen that foreigners should not judge China by their own standards, that they should respect China’s distinctive traditions and revolutionary values.

Washington counters that the standards it cites are universal ones spelled out in United Nations documents-including some that Beijing has officially endorsed. The Chinese response is to spin the discussion in a new direction by pointing out that America has human rights problems of its own. The U.S. side in turn insists that in specific areas, such as the protection of civil liberties, America is far superior to China. Beijing says that is all well and good, but since social and economic rights are also important, surely it is worrisome that a developed country like America should still have beggars and homeless people. And so on. As with a game of Ping-Pong, following the action can make the spectators dizzy-and the match often ends in a draw.

Is there another way that Americans concerned about the lack of political freedom in the PRC and the abysmal human rights record of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) -relating to everything from the conditions in Chinese prisons to the mistreatment of ethnic minorities in various frontier regions-might frame their objections? Is there anything that the new American president and his foreign policy team can do to ensure that future exchanges will be more productive than the back-and-forth volleys just described? How can the new administration do better than the Bush and Clinton administrations when it comes to arguing with China about human rights and democracy? I refer to these previous administrations as virtually interchangeable in this particular regard for a reason-because both alternated in much the same fashion between China boosting and China bashing.

When in the former mode, both administrations suggested that we should all simply sit back and wait for free markets to transform the PRC into a free society, that human rights concerns could be placed on the back burner while the market worked its magic. When in the latter mode, the tendency was for both George Bush and Bill Clinton to be drawn into the kind of frustrating exchanges described above. In neither mode were the results of either administration impressive. And if one is skeptical-as I am-about economic development alone leading ineluctably to freedom and democracy (it can sometimes lead to new human rights problems-witness Singapore), then it seems well worth thinking about how the next president might do things differently.

Taking a New Approach
The approach I outline here has evolved out of my work (as an editor and a contributor) on a recently published book, Human Rights and Revolutions.1 What I have in mind, though complex in its ramifications, actually involves nothing more dramatic than a shift in emphasis whenever attempting to bring pressure to bear on Beijing.

My advice, put bluntly, is to stop referring to vaguely defined universal standards (no matter how worthy) or making comparisons with the United States (no matter how seemingly apt). Instead, Washington’s criticisms of China should take as their starting point Beijing’s own claims about history and politics. The new president should abandon the language of one-upmanship and complaint (which often comes across as patronizing and smug) and adopt instead the language of shaming (which takes the Chinese government, as much as possible, at its own word).2

The best way to get the Chinese leadership to sit up and listen is to point out how its current policies resemble those of historic groups to which it claims to be superior. This includes the Chinese imperial ruling houses, and the warlords of the 1910s and 1920s. It also encompasses the Western and Japanese imperialists who encroached upon China’s sovereignty during the century following the Opium War (1839-42), a period during which Shanghai and other socalled treaty ports were divided into Chinese-run and foreign-controlled districts. In this category, too, is the Nationalist Party, which once governed all of China and until recently held power in Taiwan. And it includes the infamous Gang of Four (led by Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong’s wife) and the other cliques that the current regime holds responsible for the excesses of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).

Consider how the American response to the Tiananmen Square demonstrations for political openness and against government corruption that took place in April and May 1989-and to the brutal crackdown by the Chinese authorities that included the June 4th Massacre in central Beijing-might have been different if Washington had taken this approach.

When Chinese officials issued statements denouncing the protesters as troublemakers influenced by foreign ideas, President Bush might have pointed out that this sounded very much like the rhetoric Chiang Kai-shek had used in the 1940s to discredit Communist Party protests against Nationalist Party corruption. When hundreds and perhaps thousands of students and workers in Beijing and Chengdu were killed by automatic weapons fire that June, Washington might have compared this to the actions taken by foreign-run police forces to quell anti-imperialist protests in 1925. President Bush might also have reminded the Beijing regime, when it said that force was sometimes needed to maintain stability, that the warlords had said much the same thing when they resorted to violence against unarmed protesters in 1926.

Moreover, when Jiang Zemin, China’s current leader, became secretary general of the CCP soon after the massacres of 1989, while workers like Han Dongfang and educated youths like Wang Dan languished in prison because they had founded autonomous labor unions or independent student associations, the administration could have harked back to China’s imperial era. Some Chinese emperors, when seeking to start their reign on the right foot, had issued general pardons and universal amnesties. These amnesties allowed even criminals who had committed acts of violence to be set free, while Jiang, Washington might have noted, was unwilling to release even a few prisoners of conscience.3

In sum, Washington could have stressed that even though the Chinese Communist Party claimed to place a much higher value on the well-being of the Chinese people than any other group that had ever controlled part or all of China, one would never have known it from its actions. Many things the regime did at the time mirrored steps taken by previous repressive regimes, whose leaders had insisted that order be maintained at all costs and denigrated those who dared to speak out-deriding them as traitors to the nation and creators of dongluan (turmoil). Washington might have stressed that in failing to free a single prisoner upon assuming a position of high authority, Jiang Zemin had begun his period of rule in a far less benevolent fashion than had some heads of the supposedly much more autocratic imperial dynasties of the distant past.

Had President Bush said such things in 1989, moreover, he would have been paying Chinese dissidents the highest form of flattery-by imitating them. The wall posters that students and members of other social groups put up in 1989 often drew parallels between the ruling Communist Party and Chinese rulers of earlier times. Some posters likened the level of corruption in the 1980s to that experienced in the 1940s. Others said that the children of high officials enjoyed so many perks that it was as if China still had royal families. One famous wall poster portrayed Deng Xiaoping (who had formally retired from his various official posts, yet continued to be the most powerful man in China) as a modern-day Dowager Empress nefariously exerting control from behind the scenes.4

Another example of how the sort of reframing I have been describing could work relates to Tibet. American complaints about China’s repressive moves there-the destruction of Buddhist temples, the imprisonment of fervent supporters of the Dalai Lama, and so on-have often been presented as a defense of religious freedom, provoking the usual rejoinder that Chinese behavior is being judged by external and inappropriate criteria. But what if we focused, as the writer Ian Buruma did in a recent essay, on the image of the PRC as a new practitioner of imperialism? What if we invoked this word, not in a general catchall sense, but as something linked to the imperial practices of the Europeans and the Japanese?

One of the core tenets of the Chinese Communist Party’s claim to legitimacy is, after all, the role its founders played in putting an end to imperialism in China. Noting in detail, as Buruma does, how much the current Chinese approach to Tibet resembles earlier European and Japanese approaches to Asia could, if handled properly, pack a considerable rhetorical punch. And there are plenty of details to note. There are, for example, parallels to be drawn in the realm of cultural policy, since Beijing’s efforts to root out “superstition” in Tibet and other frontier areas (such as heavily Muslim Xinjiang) often seem merely a Communist updating of the “civilizing” programs of European colonial officers and missionaries. When it comes to bringing in settlers of a different ethnicity and extracting natural resources for use by the metropole, meanwhile, the CCP’s approach to Tibet is reminiscent of the Japanese treatment of Manchuria during the 1930s and 1940s.5

Reframing the Discussion
Let us turn to the contemporary scene and see how discussion of three particular problems could be reframed. First, there is the official campaign by the Chinese government to discredit Li Hongzhi, the charismatic leader of the Falun Gong meditation and self-realization group who is now in New York, and intimidate his followers within China, many of whom have been arrested during the last 18 months. This campaign has been motivated by the CCP’s distrust of all organizations it cannot control and its awareness that, prior to the twentieth century, popular sects that combined elements of faith healing and spiritual devotion, as this one does, sometimes contributed to the fall of unpopular dynasties.

Second, there is the frequent use of excessive force by Chinese police in major cities when dealing with the “floating population,” migrant workers from the countryside, for whom an arrest for vagrancy or lack of a residency permit is all too often accompanied by a beating-an example of a human rights abuse that has been exacerbated, rather than eased, by economic development.

Third, there is the unwillingness of Beijing to hold free and open elections.

The Drive to Destroy Falun Gong
American criticisms of the Chinese government’s moves against Li and his followers have often been framed in terms of freedom of religion. This makes a certain amount of sense: Falun Gong is a synchretic belief system that draws upon a mixture of Chinese and non-Chinese religious traditions, and Li claims that those who follow certain practices (breathing and meditating in prescribed ways) will benefit spiritually as well as physically. It might be more effective, however, to focus on another aspect of the situation-the similarity between the drive to destroy this sect and discredit its leader, and some of the campaigns carried out during the Cultural Revolution.

The current leadership in Beijing has tried to distance itself as much as possible from the era of the Cultural Revolution. This makes it worth pointing out that the anti-Falun Gong posters and comic books distributed in the past year or so look like more crudely rendered versions of comparable works produced between 1966 and 1976. For example, whereas the Gang of Four often derided its enemies as “turtles” (playing upon the symbolic association in Chinese culture of turtles with cuckolds and immoral behavior), Li Hongzhi is similarly dehumanized, appearing as an ape-like figure in official propaganda. Moreover, it was commonplace during the Cultural Revolution to mock opponents of the regime by portraying them as being too closely linked to Western ideas or participants in an international conspiracy against China. These days, Beijing tries to discredit Li by pointing out that he lives in the United States. In the government’s propaganda campaign, Li’s committed disciples inside China (who may number in the tens or hundreds of thousands) are presented as part of a wicked global syndicate; the millions more casual practitioners of Falun Gong, meanwhile, are treated as dupes of a distant charlatan.

Beijing also represents the peaceful sit-ins staged by Falun Gong members since 1999 as the first phase of a movement designed to overthrow the Communist Party. What makes this of interest is that allies of the Gang of Four tried in exactly the same way to discredit participants in the nonviolent rallies held at Tiananmen Square in April 1976 by people who had gathered to express their sorrow over the death of Zhou Enlai and to suggest, by inference, that those then in power, including the Gang of Four, were far less virtuous. The verdict on the April 5th Movement of 1976 (which was initially called a “counterrevolutionary riot” in the official press) was reversed after Deng Xiaoping came to power at the end of the 1970s (so that now it is officially labeled a patriotic struggle). Reminding Beijing of this would only add to the sting of comparing the drive against Li’s followers to the efforts once made to disparage the “heroes” of April 5.

The Mistreatment of Migrants
As for the mistreatment of China’s floating population by the authorities, which according to some reports has become widespread, comparisons to the treaty-port system (1843-1943), when many of China’s coastal cities included foreign-run districts, may be most relevant. A persistent Chinese Communist Party criticism of the treaty-port system is that in enclaves such as Old Shanghai’s International Settlement (which was governed for most of the period by a municipal council dominated by representatives of the local British and American business communities) local residents were divided up into two basic groups. There were the Westerners and the Japanese who enjoyed a host of special privileges, and then there were the Chinese, who were treated at best like second-class citizens, at worst like beasts of burden.

The current situation is obviously different, since a mixture of regional identity and peasant origin, as opposed to nationality per se, is the main marker of difference involved.Still, the fact remains that the most disadvantaged residents of Old Shanghai were recent immigrants from rural areas who were all too often treated as though they were less than fully human. Much the same thing could be said about the most disadvantaged residents of Shanghai today, the members of its large floating population, which now must be counted in the millions. In demanding more humane treatment of these migrants, it might once again be salutary to call on the Chinese authorities to behave less like the imperialists of an earlier day.

The Denial of Free Elections
Finally, when it comes to Beijing’s reluctance to allow free elections-when it says, among other things, that the Chinese people are not culturally developed enough to make good use of the vote-the treaty-port era might also be a good point of reference. A major problem with the enclaves of foreign privilege, the Communist Party has long claimed, was that control of governing institutions remained in the hands of a small group of people. The foreigners in these districts often claimed, as the regime in Beijing does now, that extending democracy would be a good thing, but that the time was not right. Just as Beijing has been experimenting, though very gingerly, with village-level elections, the treaty-port authorities made some piecemeal moves toward allowing Chinese residents a voice in local governance in the 1910s and early 1920s. These parallels are worth noting -as is the point that when these tentative moves toward democratization were made 80 years ago by the foreigners in control of the enclaves, Chinese revolutionaries denounced them, quite properly, as insufficiently bold.6

Chiang Kai-shek’s defenders have often claimed that the only reason he was defeated by Mao Zedong was because of the aid the Communists received from the Soviet Union, that the Nationalists would have won if they had received sufficient help from the United States and other powers. The Communist leadership has countered that the true deciding factor was the support of ordinary Chinese people, who had become disgusted with the Nationalists and decided that the best hope for China’s future lay in Communist rule. Historical propositions like these are always notoriously hard to test, but the current situation offers a rare opportunity for the Chinese Communist Party to prove its case. It need only spend a decade or so moving steadily toward holding free and open elections to see if it commands the deeply rooted popular support it claims-and that will help it avoid the fate of its erstwhile rivals in Taiwan.

The Fate of the Chinese People
There are obviously limits to what any American president can do to alter developments within China. The fate of the Chinese people remains essentially in their own hands-where it has always been. However, Washington can make a better case with Beijing than heretofore about the values Americans hold dear. The new president can do this, moreover, without being patronizing. All that is required is knowing something about the ideals that the Chinese Communist Party subscribes to and calling on China’s leaders to live up to them.l

This article was made possible by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.


1. For more details on many of the issues raised here, see Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, “The Chinese Revolution and Contemporary Paradoxes,” in Human Rights and Revolutions, ed. Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, Lynn Hunt, and Marilyn B. Young (Lanham, Md: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000), pp. 19á40.

2. Another useful strategy, which might also help mitigate the problems described above and give valuable experience in discussing and assessing conditions to the Chinese participants in the experiment, would be to encourage the exchange of human rights delegations between the United States and China. Analysis of how such an updating of the Helsinki Accords system of mutual certification might work in practice would take us too far from the theme of this essay to be attempted here.

3. On Chinese traditions of amnesty, see Brian E. McKnight, The Quality of Mercy: Amnesties and Traditional Chinese Justice (Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 1981).

4. See, for example, Han Minzhu, ed., Cries for Democracy: Writings and Speeches from the 1989 Chinese Democracy Movement (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), pp. 53, 71, 164, 336, and passim.

5. Ian Buruma, “Tibet Disenchanted,” New York Review of Books, July 20, 2000.

6. For more on treaty-port era comparisons, see Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, “Where Did the Chinese Government Learn Its Authoritarian Ways?” Chronicle of Higher Education, August 4, 2000, p. B8.

[Go to interactive discussion forum]


Related posts

The world is a complex place. Let our global network of journalists and experts help you make sense it.

Subscribe below for local perspectives and global insights: