Copyright 1988-2005
USF Center
for the Pacific Rim
The Occasional Paper Series of the USF Center for the Pacific Rim ::
Pacific Rim Report No. 31, December 2003
Right and Wrong Ways to Question Human Rights Universalism
by Edward Friedman

Edward Friedman delivered this paper as the Keynote Address at a one-day international conference on "Human Rights in the Pacific Rim: Imagining a New Critical Discourse" on April 4, 2003. The conference was cosponsored by the University of San Francisco Center for the Pacific Rim and Its Ricci Institute, the John Paul II Peace Institute in Taibei, Taiwan, and the USF Center for Global Law and Justice.

Friedman is the Hawkins Chair Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and is known at home and abroad as an expert on China. His numerous publications include National Identity and Democratic Prospects in Socialist China (1995); What If China Doesn't Democratize? Implications for War and Peace (with Barrett L. McCormick, 2000); and, most recently, "A Comparative Politics of Democratization in China," in Journal of Contemporary China (2003).

Professor Friedman received his M.A. in East Asian Studies (1961) and his Ph.D. in political science (1968) from Harvard University. His teaching and research interests include democratization, human rights, Chinese politics, international political economy, evolution, and the comparative study of transitions in Leninist states.

We gratefully acknowledge The Kiriyama Chair for Pacific Rim Studies at the USF Center for the Pacific Rim and support from the John Paul II Peace Institute in Taibei, Taiwan that has made possible the publication of this issue of Pacific Rim Report.

This is the most difficult academic assignment that I have ever accepted. I have written and re-written and yet again re-written this paper. It is not that I am ignorant of the topic. I teach a course on human rights. I have been contemplating, researching, and writing about the East-West dialogue on human rights for almost forty years.

In terms of 'how to and how not to argue about human rights', I believe I know the correct answers. You do not argue about human rights in cultural terms except to rebut those who wrongly claim that one or another culture peculiarly is incapable of welcoming and supporting human rights.

Yet, the cultural conversation between Asia and Europe is all too often a dialogue of the deaf. I first discovered this decades ago when I was an undergraduate in college being introduced to Max Weber's famous essay on The Protestant Ethic and the Rise of Capitalism. Weber opined that market-oriented rationality was a cultural consequence of Europe's Protestant Reformation and therefore could find no resonance in Confucian/Buddhist/ Daoist China. Actually, for over a millennia, into the fifteenth century, China in particular and Asia in general had been the world's leader in money, banking, technological innovation, manufacturing production, and world trade. One reason that a backward Europe (long handicapped by its hard soil left behind by the ice ages that made the ground too tough for plowing deeply until the age of iron and steel) could at long last begin to rise out of its primitiveness was that it was open to learning from Asia's best practices.

In Muslim West Asia, this Asian influence--for example, Arabic numerals--is imagined as Arabic, although the digits actually originated in India. In China, it is imagined as Chinese. Europeans emphasize European origins. Each community stresses its own contribution. What is obvious is that Europeans, Arabs, and Chinese alike, indeed, all of us, are parochial. In love with ourselves, it is not easy to clearly see the other.

Borrowing from alien others, therefore, is a problem. Even the introduction of Arabic numerals, (including the zero, which also came from India), was slowed for a century in Italy because of an irrational affection for Roman numerals. (You should try doing modern math and science with primitive tools such as Roman numerals and see how far you get.) A self-wounding self-love impeded learning when openness to borrowing from the advances of others is the key mechanism of continuing human progress.

The heart of the difficulty in openness to learning from others was and is that parochialism, experienced in the age of the modern nation state as a beloved uniqueness of our own nation, leads people to map the world in ways easily taken advantage of by home-grown chauvinists who insist that the outsider is a benighted, corrupting, and polluting influence. So it was in the days of Roman numerals, and so it still was in the days of Max Weber and his uniquely blessed Protestants. And sadly, so it largely remains today. Progress, including moral progress, is not easy anywhere, any time.

And yet post-Mao China, in its drive to catch up with the advanced as swiftly as possible, is unbelievably open to the world. That fantastic openness, reversing the moral blindness which began when Ming Emperors began killing court astronomers who learned from Jesuits about astronomy, has sparked China's extraordinarily rapid economic growth.

However, ruling groups in authoritarian systems generally still claim that democracy and human rights are alien. This is not a matter unique to China. So it was for opponents of constitutional liberties in England in the seventeenth century (scapegoating the Dutch), in France in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (blaming the English), and in Germany in the first half of the twentieth century (blaming the French and the English). Human rights and democracy were found alien to English, French, and German peoples. In short, the argument rejecting human rights as culturally alien does not pit an imaginary East against an imaginary West. Instead, it pits authoritarians against democrats. In arguing about human rights, one is not arguing for any peculiar national culture or civilization. One is saying only that each and all can be better; that moral progress is possible, East or West.

In embracing so-called Asian values in order to resist further democratization, Malaysia's leader and also Singapore's simply did in the 1980s as their European authoritarian predecessors did earlier in singing the same dirge for freedom and human rights, burying these values as alien. But Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi, South Korea's Kim Dae Jong, and Taiwan's Lee Teng-hui all have insisted and proved in political practice that democracy and human rights are at least as compatible with Confucianism and Buddhism as they are with Christianity. Broad popular support by Asian peoples for a humane politics tells us loudly, strongly and persuasively that it is absurd--nonsense on stilts--to believe that Asian cultures are incompatible with and inhospitable to democracy. In fact, since the end of World War II, far more Asians have enjoyed the blessings of democracy than have Europeans and Americans combined. Indeed, including Indonesia's fledgling democracy, three of the four most populous democracies on our planet--India, Japan and Indonesia--are all in Asia.

Furthermore, if you agree, as I and most other students of democratization do, with Joseph Schumpeter's standard minimalist understanding of democracy in which the USA was a democracy even while it enslaved and oppressed African-Americans, excluded Asians, discriminated against Catholic immigrants, and slaughtered indigenous Americans, then flawed democracies, even very flawed democracies, are still democracies. No political system is goodness or justice. In that understanding, countries such as Nigeria, Turkey, Iran, and Bangladesh as well as Indonesia, homes to most of the Muslims in the contemporary world, also live in democracies. Yet the popular discourse in America imagines Islam in terms of the Sunni Arab authoritarian regimes of the Middle East even though more Muslims live nearer to rice paddies than to deserts. To get a feel for how cultural approaches to human rights get everything wrong, after one includes the 140 million Muslims living in India and the three percent of Europe's people who are Muslim, it is an indisputable fact that the great majority of Muslims on planet earth live in democratic polities. The notion that any particular civilizational ethos permanently precludes human liberty is palpably untrue; that is, not merely theoretically incoherent, but actually disproved by living political practice.

To argue knowledgeably about human rights one must first free oneself from pervasive cultural prejudices. In the misleading East-West binary, cultural blinders lead to an astigmatism in which you see, or imagine that you see, a cultural clash between an individualistic, human rights-embracing Christian democratic West and a collectivistic, authoritarian East of Confucians and Muslims. But if one but takes a look at the basic facts sketched above, one learns that the notion of an East-West clash of democrats and authoritarians is sillier even than holding on to Roman numerals and rejecting Arabic numerals, since Asian peoples and Muslims in fact enjoy the blessings of democracy in huge numbers.

Actually, there is probably far more narrow and individualistic selfishness in China today than in the West. That's what social surveys find. Yet the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) insists that the supposedly individualistic values of the liberal Western world would erode China's alleged caring collectivism in which parents nurture children and filial children reciprocally support elderly parents. Putting aside how much filial piety in the past was more norm than practice, today, with physical mobility for schooling and work and with one-child families seeking higher standards of living wherever available, Chinese are clearly very individualistic. While there is a reactionary, fascist-like nostalgia for some imaginary good old days when children supposedly were filial, it is obvious that the alleged opposition in China between a good collectivist East and a bad individualist West is actually a mystifying gloss on a stagnant Mao era economy (a backward and unsustainable equality of leveling people down, a world where poor families were precluded by feudal-like rulers from leaving land they could not own) with a very different post-Mao reform era of dynamic (and polarizing) growth with mobility. The same mystifying nostalgia served fascist movements in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s.

The opposition of individual versus collective is little more than a tactic of authoritarian ruling groups which claim that the state that privileges their arbitrary and unaccountable power is acting morally and that the subordinated should shut up and obey. That is, state collectivism is the ideological mask of unaccountable individuals, a war of a few against the collective whole.

Protecting each person from arbitrary powerholders, therefore, is not a matter of selfishness. It is liberation from oppression. This is palpable in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which guarantees rights to "Everyone" and insists that "No one" should be denied these rights. The term "individual" does not even appear. Rights, in protecting the entire community, are ways to prevent selfish aggrandizement by some small set of individuals acting against the national collectivity and its subsets of groups - religious, ethnic, racial, language, gender, region, etc. In protecting all persons from some few powerful individuals, rights in no way privilege individuals against the collectivity.

A genuine empathetic caring for and giving to others, an approach which would criticize narrow selfishness, is possible in the long run only in a vibrant civil society permitting self-organization and popular mobilization and leading to charitable work and efforts toward social justice for women, minorities, migrants, etc. Such sharing and caring, which sustains human rights work at home and abroad, is barred by China's one party dictatorship that dreads popular mobilization from below, fearing that the people acting collectively would topple the privileged and unaccountable monopoly on power of the individuals who control China's Communist Party.

In short, the struggle over human rights between authoritarians and their adversaries is not clarified by contrasting a supposedly collectivist East with an individualistic West. The Chinese Communist Party does not protect the collective rights of Chinese union members, pensioners, or religionists. In fact, when one considers the rise of the environmental movement in the so-called West and its successes on an array of issues from recycling to automobile emissions and tobacco use, it would seem that it is the Chinese, living in an arbitrary, authoritarian state, who act regardless of the public interest. Individualistic, narrowly selfish Chinese act as if they have a right to smoke anywhere and dump garbage everywhere, including dropping waste out of train windows. Life in a dictatorship where a privileged ruling stratum of individuals grabs the most and best of everything, heedless of others, sadly, tacitly socializes the Chinese people to an extreme individualistic selfishness of grabbing and taking such that people often feel that the social order is fragile and threatened. Authoritarianism does not often foster caring for the public weal.

The ordered liberty of a democratic society of free association, in contrast, engenders numerous collective projects aimed at advancing the collective good, whether the democracy is in Asia or in Europe. Democracies like Taiwan and the Philippines are home to a vibrant array of service-oriented NGOs. Therefore, it is appalling that supposedly informed and intelligent analysts still argue, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that Confucianism, as a supposed obstacle to individualism, prevents Chinese from being democratic. Do these self-blinded analysts not even notice that South Korea, a home to serious Confucians in contrast to China's more liberal Confucianism, has long been democratic? Even Confucian Japan is democratic. So is Taiwan. And so would Hong Kong be if CCP rulers in Beijing had not prevented it in the 1990s. I suspect that Singapore, too, will democratize soon after its senior, paramount leader has moved on. Confucianism is no more an obstacle to democracy than is Christianity, which worships God Almighty and has long imagined political rulers here on earth as made to follow God's example, that is, also to be almighty and not democratic. All peoples initially democratize their political system despite a non-democratic culture. This is true both in the East and in the West, both for Confucians and for Christians.

There is only one reason, and only one, why China today does not enjoy democracy. It is that China's breakthrough to democracy in 1989 was blocked, as did not happen in the Soviet bloc countries. The great 1989 democracy movement in China actually was broader and deeper than any similar movement in Europe was, with the exception of Poland. But in China's case, a unique political factor was decisive in negating the popular democratic thrust. Power in the CCP was still held by members of the original generation of charismatic revolutionaries. And paramount leader Deng Xiaoping and his cohort were dead set against democracy and had the strength and legitimacy to impose their will, thereby denying China's popular democratic movement its just demands. The Chinese people have been struggling against authoritarian individual rulers and sacrificing for democracy since the 1898 constitutionalism movement, opposing the Dowager Empress, Yuan Shikai, Chiang Kaishek, and most recently, the Leninist party tyranny of the CCP. The barrier to building a democracy is not Confucian culture, nor any other culture.

Obviously, one does not debate human rights by invoking cultural particulars. In order to see Asia accurately, one must first remove glasses whose lenses have been shaped and distorted by ethnocentric prejudices. The one universal is parochialism. All of us are socialized to uncritical, prejudiced notions about reality, wrongly imagining our unexamined biases as the source of 20/20 vision, as the only true perspective on truth and justice. These distorting tendencies reach their maximum in the work of Harvard University's famous conservative realist, Samuel Huntington, who actually argued in his smash hit book, The Third Wave, that it was the spread of Western Christianity that permitted the democratization in the late 1980s of Eastern nations: the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan. A South Korean graduate student of mine was outraged by Huntington's notion that Koreans were increasingly Christian when, to her, Koreans, in a polytheist way, could be Christian, Buddhist, and Confucian at the same time, a fact that monotheists often miss.

In fact, a number of Korean analysts have argued that the three Mediterranean monotheisms, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (to many Confucians and Buddhists, Islam, coming from near the Mediterranean, is Western), all serve jealous gods who, in contrast to polytheistic Asia, have a difficult time accepting real pluralism. The West is intolerant, close-minded, and monistic. Marxist-Leninism and fascism are both anti-individualistic, anti-democratic, western creations. Democracy therefore is easier to achieve in the East because of, among other things, the West's endless religious strife--wars of Catholic against Protestant, struggles among sects of Protestants, battles of Jews versus Muslims, wars of Shia Muslims versus Sunni Muslims. Deeply divided societies, which abound in the intolerant West, are the most difficult to democratize.

As much as it may be fun to throw Huntington's prejudices back at him--to reverse them and argue that it is western culture which actually is deeply anti-democratic--in fact, all peoples, including Europeans and Asians, have horrific histories full of religious and other persecutions. Self-love leads all people to fixate on the mote in the stranger's eye and ignore the beam in their own. Parochial Koreans, like parochial Americans, treat their own culture's horrors as exceptions, anomalies, and outliers, while imagining the horrors of others as central facts.

We should, however, welcome the critical Asian perspective on the West which corrects for Eurocentric astigmatism. We should treat such critical correctives as spurs to live up to our proclaimed ideals. America is a better place because it was embarrassed by criticism of American apartheid from abroad in the 1960s. Usually the beneficiaries of victimization blame the victim for their plight. It would be a great advance if Chinese could instead acknowledge how selfish prospering Chinese are in blaming the poor in China for their plight, and how self-servingly prejudiced they are in treating poor Henan people as morally flawed. Chinese behavior is far from caringly collectivistic. And Americans are not actually the great individualists they mythologize themselves as being. In business, politics, or sports, the first American adage actually is that there is no "I" in "t-e-a-m."

Silly CCP apologetics compel us to grapple with the tactic of contrasting Asia's alleged privileging of collective rights against a so-called 'West' and its supposed embrace of individualism. In this argument individualism is understood not as empowerment or self-fulfillment or the moral progress of a self-disciplined soul, which is the Greco-Christian tradition, but as an acid corroding societal bonds and leading to anarchy and chaos. Yet Hitler's Nazis and other central European fascists in the inter-war period argued, as Chinese authoritarians have, that they were saving their culture (Germany) by embracing their national racial collectivity as ethically superior to an inhuman, Anglo-Saxon embrace of individual rights. Actually, after World War I, the European-dominated League of Nations consciously supported the collective rights of minorities in East Europe over individual rights. In fact, it is hard to imagine democracy without collective rights for religions, communities, unions, and other groups. Seeing that rights apply to everyone, a supposed universalization of individualism, is actually a way of preventing ruling groups from excluding collectivities, for it is groups (rather than individuals) that get included or excluded. In the West, Collectivist categorization was at times opposed to human rights for women, blacks, Catholics, Jews, dissenting Protestants, Chinese, and Japanese immigrants, illiterates, indigenous people, handicapped, non-owners of property, non-payers of taxes, people under the age of twenty-one, bastards whose births were not registered in a church, felons, people with psychological problems, and others.

The notion that the people of the West or Europe or the English are uniquely blessed with democratic cultures so they can live in freedom through self-government is a logic intended to demean other peoples, even European peoples. All cultures can support the best or the worst. Among the English, Locke could advance toleration (although not to Catholics) while Cromwell slaughtered Irish Catholics. Seeing one's own culture as uniquely ethical can be a tactic for sustaining evil elsewhere. In Dark Continent: Europe's Twentieth Century (1998) Mark Mazower notes that during the era of pervasive European fascism,

"Condescending English politicians like Churchill or Austen Chamberlain who doubted whether the parliamentary tradition was for export at all, congratulated the (fascist) Italians on having liberated themselves from a form of government (liberal democracy) to which they had clearly been unsuited."

Speaking of Spain, The Times of London noted that "the system of parliamentary Government which suits Great Britain suits few other countries besides." That is, democracy supposedly was premised on a culture of Anglo-Saxon Protestantism as existed only in the United Kingdom and its offspring. It was not for all Europeans. It surely was not for the Catholic West. Culturalist categories served British imperial ends. To truly stand with the forces of democracy and human rights in fact means standing against the cultural prejudice which insists on the uniqueness and centrality of some unique people, the error of treating the 'Anglo-Saxon world' as uniquely the home of the liberal.

In short, to discuss human rights in useful ways, one should have nothing to do with an alleged binary pitting of the good against the bad; individualism against collectivism; Europe against Asia; the Anglo-Saxon West against all the rest. That is not how to debate human rights. The cultural approach is all politics and prejudice.

The difficult question is, what is the correct way to argue against a simple-minded human rights universalism? First, it is important to recognize how very political the issue is and, second, to appreciate that all nations, including America, have blood on their hands--lots of blood. No nation is without sin. We are all guilty. All our nations have been responsible for gross violations of human rights. You can't just cast stones at others and say that they are the sinners when those others are fixated on matters such as racist atrocities in your own country.

But, and this is the difficult problem that has been perplexing me, what are the practical consequences of knowing how to and how not to argue about human rights? Not much, I fear. Not much. The amorality of foreign policy decisions, and their hypocrisy and double standards is palpable to people in other nations who, parochially, seek ways to hide their own inhuman practices.

What really matters are deeds, not words; what counts is behavior, not arguments. Let me try to clarify and complicate this simple idea, my one and only point: that behavior matters in promoting human rights, an arena of international relations where all actors have blood on their hands and very political agendas in their minds. I will explore this issue first by calling to your attention the critique made since 1993 by China's communist government of American government action on behalf of human rights in China.

The CCP invariably illustrates both my points but does so not to advance human rights, but rather to discredit the idea of human rights, to silence it and stop moral progress. The CCP claims that America's goal in calling attention to such things as innocent Chinese rotting in Chinese prisons--whether Catholic priests, democracy advocates, Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns, or Uighur Muslims--is not to enable religion to flourish or democracy to win for Chinese people the joys of freedom (including a lack of fear for expressing one's views). No. The real American purpose is, the CCP claims, to undermine stability in China so that Chinese society will fracture and suffer chaos such that the Chinese people will be stymied in their rise and in their return to glory and dignity and international stature. National dignity, therefore, must trump divisive individual rights. Politically conscious Chinese actually believe such nonsense.

Since, in fact, it is the still unreformed, ever more corrupt, arbitrary, and unaccountable CCP which threatens the Chinese people with this decline into chaos, I will not comment further on the palpably self-serving and wrong-headed claim of the CCP. And yet I think the CCP is telling the truth in insisting that America has political purposes. What are they? Surely, not to promote human rights in China. The US Government is, in fact, not very active on behalf of human rights in China. Nor is the EU or anyone else for that matter. China, since 1993, has defeated the international human rights movement.

President George W. Bush's priority foreign policy purpose is to win what he calls a war on terrorism. This is not a war on the criminals and mass murderers of 9-11. This war on terror has taken the American military first into Afghanistan, and then Iraq. Next may be North Korea, on China's doorstep. At least, China had to worry about that prospect in 2003.

Personally, once the 2003 war to end Saddam's rule began, I prayed for the speediest American victory in Iraq with the fewest deaths on all sides and an end to the hideously cruel government of Saddam Hussein, to be replaced, I hoped, by a constitutional democracy. But if developments in Afghanistan are any indication, then building this democracy will not be easy. It is especially difficult to build a democracy in the wake of the fall of a brutally discriminatory, minority community dictatorship because the newly empowered majority group imagines justice in ways that do not readily facilitate conciliation with the minority just toppled from power. Also, the American attention span and its willingness to spend money in foreign aid for many, many years is not strong. I would not wager on America staying the course to win the peace. This is where American politics comes in. And the situation is not pretty. The US Congress and American people do not generously fund foreigners for a prolonged period if no continuing security interest is felt to be at play. Security interests have priority.

In pursuit of the war on terrorism, Washington has accepted Beijing's claim that China is threatened by a so-called East Turkestan Independence Movement (ETIM). In so doing, Washington has given Beijing a green light to repress Uighur Muslims by calling them all ETIM terrorists.

In making the war on terror America's over-riding political purpose and security imperative, human rights consequently, are brushed aside, much as during the Cold War when opposition to Soviet Russian communism by cruel anti-Communist tyrants on the Pacific Rim--in South Korea or Taiwan--was enough to win them the backing of the US Government.

Politics trumped human rights. It still does. That is how it is. In like manner, one preens over one's alleged moral virtue when not confronted by impossible situations. It was very easy for Americans not confronted by terrorists to condemn torture; to denounce what the French did in Algeria; what the English did in Northern Ireland; what the Spanish do because of the Basque ETA. But after 9/11, feeling that terrorism threatened America, the US Government acted as did those countries just mentioned. According to human rights groups the US Government resorts to torture at Guantanamo Bay. It is not so popular or easy in America today to criticize the torturers, with torture suddenly seen as saving lives, forcing criminals to tell where the ticking bombs are so that they do not explode, and so that instead lives are saved. You can't understand the politics of others if you do not know what it is like to stand in their shoes and feel the shoe pinch just the way they feel it pinch.

The Chinese Communist Party in its critique of American human rights views is right: there is a politics to human rights and to the violation of human rights. The CCP's politics is to defend its privileged power position. It dresses that narrow self-interest in a legitimating language that will hold the allegiance of the Chinese people--a claim that human rights are a barrier to China's return to national glory.

The politics that are worrisome are the politics of the world's leading powers--of a China or an America. For human rights to have credibility, a great power must constrain its own power (narrow self-interest) and act on an agenda of human rights (enlightened self-interest). But power does not like to be constrained. It resists constraints. The Bush Administration refuses to be a party to the International Criminal Court which has the power to try war criminals even as the US Government declares that Saddam Hussein and his henchmen will be tried as war criminals. Hypocrisy? Self-interest? Ordinary politics!

When the great power insists on being free to ignore the rules of human rights and to use its power as it sees fit to advance its purposes--and, in my opinion, a world without the Saddam Hussein regime is a better world--then what the world of skeptics sees is hypocrisy and double standards: a case of mere politics. The cause of promoting internationally recognized human rights surely is not advanced by politics as usual. Few will follow such a leader. When a great power acts on narrow self-interests, then its hegemony, which provided public goods, is replaced by pure power: imperium.

I invite you to think back to the twentieth century and remember how human rights actually became an integral part of international politics. The democracies were not natural leaders. At the end of World War I at the peace conference at Versailles, Japan's and Haiti's effort to outlaw racism was defeated by the Western democracies led by the racial segregationist Woodrow Wilson.

Later, with segregationist America still incapable of providing moral leadership and with delegates to the UN conference to draft a human rights charter including Islamists who insisted on protecting a world denying rights to women, the only voice that offered a general ethical discourse that was acceptable to all parties was that of the Chinese, P. C. Chang. His Confucianism (the Mencian version) informs Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The language is not that of English Lockeian individualism. Article 1 reads, "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood."

At the end of World War II, which was experienced as a war against fascism and racism, the governments of the United Nations did agree to a Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948. But it had no enforcement power. The British and French did not want colonialism challenged. The US Senate was controlled by southern racists. They were not going to agree to a covenant which challenged Jim Crow segregation and racial discrimination. Stalin's Soviet bloc surely wasn't going to welcome challenges to its murderous tyrannies. In fact, the Genocide Convention, because of the politics of the Soviet bloc, does not recognize as genocide the mass murder of political targets such as those that occurred in Soviet Russia, the PRC, North Korea, Cambodia, Afghanistan, and Ethiopia under communist party rule.

How could there be much human rights progress in the Cold War era when both superpowers opposed it? The Helsinki Accords which were put into effect in 1977 and bound the Soviet bloc to enforceable human rights standards, were opposed by Henry Kissinger and accepted by Brezhnev only to get economic benefits, with the expectation that Helsinki movement groups working for human rights would be crushed, which they were.

Until Jimmy Carter became president of the United States in 1977 and supported human rights in Argentina, opposed apartheid in South Africa, and moved toward a recognition of the rights of both Palestinians and Israelis, the US Government was experienced in much of the world as the major obstacle to human rights progress. If the West was led by America, then the new human rights West, in the minds of those suffering from a lack of human rights, was the world created by the success of the American civil rights movement in the 1960s and US defeat in the intervention in Vietnam. Because of these two events America could both be proud of its own human rights achievements and also not worry about international constraints on its power since after Vietnam, America pulled back from overextending its power and considered ways of ending the Cold War.

It does not speak well for the future of the human rights movement that America today, in the case of its legitimization of the CCP's repression of Uighur Muslims in China, its questionable practices towards people held in Guantanamo Cuba, and its opposition to the International Criminal Court is not an embodiment of human rights norms and will not permit its power to be constrained by universal human rights norms as it pursues its war against terrorism.

Military superpower America thereby makes human rights avoidance easier for China, which is the rising power in Asia. China uses its growing power to try to silence democratic Japan's very, very small plaints on the PRC's gross human rights violations. The CCP insists that democratic Japan today, due to imperial Japan's depredations in China during World War II in the Showa era regime of Emperor Hirohito, has no moral right to speak out on inhumanity in China. It indeed is true that Hirohito's military in China carried out ten times more human medical experiments unto cruel death in China than did the Nazis in Europe. Of course, a sixty year-old Japanese in 2005 would not even have been alive when those horrors transpired.

I do not see any moral logic in the CCP enforcing silence on democratic Japan at present regarding ongoing inhumanities suffered by the Chinese people under CCP rule. How does silence now compensate for yesterday's inhumanities? Do two wrongs make a right? The politics of the CCP, obscuring its own human rights abuses to pretty itself by silencing others, is all too transparent.

Yet it is true, as I said at the outset, that we all have blood on our hands. Indeed, it is crucial that each people recognize the blood it has let flow; that each people act to cleanse itself: Americans in America, Japanese in Japan, and Chinese in China. Human rights and civil rights groups have much work to do at home. In democracies victims demand restitution, amelioration, and fundamental charge. They function to make the citizens of their democracies aware of the blood shed by their own democracies.

But Chinese are absolutely unaware of how much blood is on their hands. They are not taught how the Ming invaded Vietnam and slaughtered seven million. They are not taught how the Qing carried out genocide against the Zunghar Mongols and murdered millions of Muslims and stole their land. They are not taught about racist purges against Manchus following the 1911 republican revolution. And Mongols and Muslims cannot protest and try to change consciousness in authoritarian China.

Living in a dictatorship, Chinese are taught that they are the victim of the United States and Japan and Taiwan (yes, the victim of little, powerless Taiwan). In China, people cannot hear that the CCP supported all the most monstrous governments in the region--Kim II Song's extreme Stalinists in North Korea, Pol Pot's genocidal Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and U Nu's savage military in Burma. Chinese therefore end up actually seeing themselves uniquely as victims, never as executioners.

The CCP silences Chinese who try to call attention to the blood on the hands of the CCP. Xu Liangying was placed under house arrest for trying to memorialize the hundreds of thousands of innocent victims of Mao's so-called anti-rightist movement. Pa Chin was silenced when he sought to create a museum to remember the many, many millions of victims of Mao's so-called Cultural Revolution. And in 2001 on the eightieth anniversary of the founding of the CCP, Mao's Great Leap was commemorated as a glorious success, totally concealing the over thirty million poor peasant innocents who died because of Mao's insanities. The CCP's role in the spread of AIDS or SARS or in not protecting workers who die in preventable labor accidents is not reported.

The CCP's anti-human rights politics and the PRC's incapacity to recognize that its hands are drenched in blood matters so much because China is a rapidly rising major power. Its anti-human rights influence is ever more important. The CCP does not want to see democracy prosper, especially among Asian neighbors such as Cambodia, Burma, or North Korea. The injuries from China's opposition to human rights progress includes a diminution of Chinese national dignity and an inability to help people of Chinese ancestry. The Government of China cannot speak out on behalf of people of Chinese descent discriminated against in Malaysia or brutally raped in Indonesia at the end of the twentieth century. People who believe that Chinese blood flows in their veins suffer because the PRC has no human rights credibility.

Given President Bush's war on terrorism, which the CCP feared in 2003 had North Korea's Kim Jung Il next on its target list, the CCP had to debate whether it would be better off keeping in power the Stalinist government of North Korea, which lives luxuriously in palaces while millions of Koreans starve to death, or whether Chinese would be better off if North Koreans joined with South Korea to enjoy the blessings of freedom and prosperity. Putting international relations considerations aside, surely Koreans would be far better off if the Kim family tyranny was gone. But can the CCP even hear the cry of pain from North Korea?

How then does one argue about human rights? Surely not by a false pitting of a bad East against a good West, thereby forgetting the great contributions to democracy and human rights in the East (the Japanese against racism at Versailles, the Chinese P. C. Chang in drafting the UDHR) and ignoring the human rights abominations in the West. I have tried to highlight what is usually omitted by those who foolishly argue about the East versus the West, that is, about cultural contestation within each society and the amorality and immorality of international politics.

So how then does one argue about human rights when one understands that so much is narrow, selfish politics and that we all have gobs and gobs of blood on our hands? By deeds, not words. Behavior has to change. If the peoples of the Pacific Rim are to enjoy the full blessings of human rights, America must change its priorities and its politics, and China must democratize. These are tasks for the peoples of America and China. All nation-states in the Pacific Rim have a huge stake in the outcome. All can help. All should help. Mexico, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan--all can help. It is significant that the smaller and weaker countries of Europe were the ones that promoted the Helsinki rights process against both Kissinger and Brezhnev and thereby contributed to the crumbling of the communist dictatorships in East and Central Europe. The people contributing to this conference also are helping. But words matter most when they help to change behavior. Deeds are decisive. Change is needed if human rights are again to progress. This is so especially for America and China. Deeds. That is how to argue about human rights East and West.

If approaches to human rights from parochial cultural perspectives which distort human rights by seeing them through a prejudiced relativist lens are not the way to argue about human rights, nonetheless, abjuring cultural relativism does not mean embracing an all-too-easy human rights universalism in which some states--democracies--are good and other states--authoritarian regimes--are bad. You all know about American human rights abuses such as police brutality, arbitrary action by the INS to immigrants or cover-ups of sexual abuse, or institutionalized discrimination in jobs, bank lending, and promotions in America. In any existing true democracy there should be, and usually are, a plentitude of organizations that work day and night against abusers of human rights at home, within the democracy, trying to make the country live up to its promise.

Sadly, in authoritarian regimes, aside from lap dogs and apologists, one will not find the unaccountable rulers legitimating human rights, civil rights, minority rights, labor rights, religious freedom or groups that try to hold arbitrary powerholders accountable. I would take seriously the PRC's annual reports on American human rights abuses, reports which have been issued since 1993 by the CCP regime, reports that summarize information available openly in the American media. There indeed is blood on American hands; there is blood on all our hands. The massive perpetrators of human rights abuses use crimes by democracies to legitimate their own crimes as imperatives of realpolitik, or raison d'etat. And since the abuses and hypocrisy of the great powers is manifest to all others, human rights progress, far more than is generally believed rests on the shoulders of smaller and weaker nations, as with the vital promotion of the Helsinki human rights movement from 1977 in furthering the implosion of Soviet bloc tyrannies.

As Professors Hsieh and Ryden point out in their article [presented at this conference], Taiwan, along with Australia and New Zealand - and, I would add, India and Japan - have been global leaders among democracies in the political institutionalization of the rights of indigenous peoples. Human rights progress, as well as progress of human civilization, is not about an advanced so-called West educating a backward East, but rather about openness to learning from the best that humankind has to offer, East or West or wherever.

In fact, as in the early Cold War era, the United States in the post Cold War era seems rather backward on a host of human rights criteria, from abolishing the death penalty to saving the biosphere to popularizing human rights education. Few Americans celebrate December 10, Human Rights Day, the day the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was agreed to. Their education fails them.

Worse yet, given policy choices by the George W. Bush administration, from legitimating the illegitimate notion of preventive war to turning its back on the International Criminal Court, the US Government has ever less moral standing in the international community when America issues proclamations on behalf of international human rights, for example, on behalf of the victims of Saddam Hussein's tyranny in Iraq or Kim Jong-Il's in North Korea, who indeed suffered terribly.

This leads many in Northeast Asia (in Korea and Japan) to find, as mentioned earlier, that the West (that is, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) is imbued with hard obstacles to human rights due to its rigid monotheism, while the East, a land of polytheism where one can be morally coherent while embracing mixtures of Buddhism, Confucianism, Shintoism, Daoism, and Christianity, is friendlier to tolerance and mutual respect. This may be a myth, like the notion of an inherently democratic West, but it is not necessarily a myth worth disputing.

This Northeast Asian story of an Eastern affinity to human rights is not a bad myth. It highlights important things. The West in fact has often been a laggard in and an obstacle to human rights. It would be a wonderful contribution if Asian peoples, seeing themselves as naturally on the side of pluralism and toleration, took more of the lead in the human rights arena.

The CCP myth that Chinese have suffered from democracy and that Mao's Cultural Revolution vigilantism was democracy is a bad myth and a narrative meant to keep people oppressed. Yet the CCP rulers of China are not wrong to say that US Government criticisms of China's human rights record are politically motivated and hypocritical because the democracies actually are massive violators of human rights.

The beginning of wisdom on human rights promoted by nation-states is to understand that politics plays a major role in who or what is targeted. China got a free pass from America on rights violations where it was allied with the US against Brezhnev's militarism during the Cold War. The Uighur Muslims of China, lacking a leader of international stature comparable to the Nobel Prize-winning Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama, do not get the backing on human rights issues that the Tibetans get. Politics hurts Uighur victims of Chinese repression.

In addition, as this article has shown, all nation states have much blood on their hands. There are no pure innocents in the amoral world of state power. I was reminded of this way back in the 1980s when I worked for the Foreign Affairs Committee in the US House of Representatives. I went down to Central America to limit human rights abuses, among other reasons. I visited political prisoners, hoping that by publicizing their existence, to make it less likely that regimes of torturers and death squads would kill these political prisoners. The poster given to me by the Bishop of San Salvador in gratitude for this work still, almost 20 years later, continues to hang over my desk. The Bishop was my hero because he put his life on the line daily on behalf of human rights and human dignity. The Maryknolls I met in the hills of Guatemala gave their lives for the rights and dignity of Mayan villagers. The supposedly weak can contribute mightily to preserving basic human rights.

When I met in El Salvador with death squad leaders, they invariably told me that America had no right to speak against their abuses of human rights because America had no moral standing. The US was the world's leading violator of human rights. By this, the death squad leader did not mean, as I might have meant, that Washington supported apartheid in South Africa, blocked a two state solution between Israelis and Palestinians, and backed cruel military tyrannies all over Latin America. What the death squad leaders identified as America's great crimes instead were Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I agree that the atomic bombings of those urban centers in Asia, indiscriminately killing many tens of thousands of non-combatants, fits the definition of a war crime--a massive violation of the most basic human rights. And yet, in Asian countries conquered by Hirohito's imperial military, almost no one sees Hiroshima and Nagasaki as other than life-saving blessings. Asian peoples conquered by Showa era Imperial Japan were dying at the rate of 75,000 a month. Assuming that the bombs only reduced the war by five months leads one to conclude that the bombs saved Asian lives. A Japanese fixation on their compatriots who died hideous deaths because of nuclear weapons obscures Showa era Japanese militarist savagery all over Asia. Self-blame for Hiroshima and Nagasaki in America obscures the need for a political calculus, a choice of lesser evils. We all should work and pray to ensure that nuclear weapons are never used again; to see that the innocent dead, victims of a massive American war crime, were sacrificed to a greater good of saving lives otherwise endangered by their own government's militaristic aggression and gross violations of human rights.

Chinese and others in Asia, however, go bonkers when Japanese preen and parade as war victims, as if World War II began with Japanese victimization at Hiroshima. Chinese know that many innocent Chinese (11,000,000 or so) were lost because of Japanese inhumanity. But Chinese today deploy their indisputable, monumental, historical suffering any time Japanese stand with those who criticize the hideous human rights reality in China under the rule of the CCP. Again, Chinese criticism of massive abuses of human rights facilitates and legitimates yet more abuses.

To me, rendering Japanese silent about today's Chinese victims of CCP human rights abuses only compounds the crimes of the era of Japan's hideous Nanjing Massacre. Japanese should speak out for Tibetans and Uighurs and Catholics and Protestants and democracy proponents who today rot and suffer and die in Chinese prisons.

So should Americans, especially Americans who are active at home against human rights victims in their own country. As long as we acknowledge the blood on our hands and try to stem the continuing flow, and as long as we care about universal human rights at home and abroad, then surely it would be wrong to ignore suffering humanity in North Korea or in Burma or in any other Asian tyranny.

Even in democracies, because their leaders exercise a monopoly over the forces of legitimate state violence, governments are criminals and hypocrites; they (we?) all act in terms of double-standards. The beginning of wisdom in trying to make progress on human rights is to recognize that while we, too, are guilty, even the guilty have a right to work to advance the cause of basic human rights, but not based on a moral self-righteousness declaring that I am good and you are evil. We are all guilty.

It is important that people in democracies see themselves as guilty and not as innocent victims. Chinese, too. I want Chinese to face up to their complicity in the northern aggression that launched the Korean War and cost China some 900,000 or so casualties. I want to see Chinese face up to the incalculable inhumanity of the Mao era when far more innocent deaths were caused than were caused by the truly cruel Showa era imperial military dispatched by the Emperor Hirohito into China. Such comparisons are not intended to excuse one or the other. The goal is to advance our common humanity.

I want Chinese to face up to the blood on their hands not because I want them to wallow in guilt. I want them rather to feel that they have the right to condemn, as they otherwise could not do, the Indonesian authorities in 1998 for facilitating human rights outrages, and the mass gang rape of young Indonesian women of Chinese ancestry. I want China to have the right to insist that Cambodia try the perpetrators of the Pol Pot genocide, which included urban Chinese, and not be on the side of blocking the cause of justice in Asia. I want Chinese to be empowered to condemn North Korean inhumanity which includes punishing Koreans who "defile" the race by marrying Chinese. I want China to be seen as and to act as a leader in matters of human rights.

In short, it is only by recognizing how much blood your nation has on its hands that you can hope to begin to wash it clean. The way to argue for human rights is with deeds, not words. One has to work to see that one's own nation lives up to the ideals of the UDHR. If it does not, all others will see its preachings as empty words--as self-serving politics with no ethical content. This is a problem for the George W. Bush administration and its proclaimed ideals.

The President is from the state which is the American leader in capital punishment. When he and America dismiss the cry of the smaller and weaker who are promoting human rights progress, then we are all diminished. To behave as the Bush administration does is to lose the argument over human rights. American behavior costs America its credibility on human rights.

I am aware that abuses are far, far, far worse in China. But one of the many reasons they are worse is that President Bush is seen in China as giving them carte blanche to brutally repress politicized Muslims in China's Turkestan language regions. Chinese celebrate this American green light for massive Chinese violations of human rights as proof that America does not treat China based on a hypocritical double standard, rather it legitimizes China that does what President Bush insists America has the right to do also.

My topic in this keynote address was how and how not to argue about human rights. It was easy to argue how not to argue. But in facing up to the difficulties in how one should argue for human rights, in facing up to selfish politics, double standards and the blood on the hands of all states, especially the hands of great powers, I end by crying for the cause of human rights. It is in trouble.

Human rights is in trouble first, I fear, because of the Bush Administration. In the name of protecting innocent lives, it denies poor people the condom contraceptives that might actually save the lives of many who will die from AIDS. It has aligned itself in so doing with some of the world's worst violators of human rights. It has allowed the arbitrary, corrupt, and cruel Communist Party dictatorship in China thereby to have a popular base among the Chinese people through opposing the Bush administration's palpable inhumanity on population policy.

For many years, I have been a member of Amnesty International, then Human Rights Watch, and various Chinese human rights groups. I believe in this cause. But my voice is silenced or cancelled by the deeds of my government. Therefore, I cannot tell others how to argue for human rights. Forgive me. For me to have any credibility in arguing for human rights, I have to first prove my bone fides by my work at home in America for that cause which my President has abominated. Not having done enough of that, I must be silent and admit failure. I cannot tell others how to argue for human rights.

Human rights promotion is not a task for the self-righteous who are not concerned by the blood on their own hands. There are tragic consequences that result from not facing up to the blood on one's hands and not only in America. I am impressed by long-suffering people in Taiwan who know they share the guilt for the long history of Taiwanese mistreatment of Taiwan's indigenous Austronesian peoples. There has been so much more suffering under the CCP in the PRC. Yet the Chinese people feel that they are innocent victims. I fear that this extraordinary level of self-righteous ignorance backed by rising economic and military might can lead to enormous future suffering for the people of China and of Asia. That is why I believe it is crucial to raise human rights consciousness and activism in the Pacific Rim.

Coming from America, a country which slaughtered 300,000 Filipinos at the turn of the twentieth century and which backed the Indonesian regime as it perpetrated mass murder in East Timor, I know that we Americans have much innocent Asian blood on our hands. America should do better. It must, for all our sakes. But so can and must China.

It is important to know China's major contribution to the UDHR. It is important to remember a China which opposed apartheid in South Africa when the American government did not. I am not overly upset by the ignorant and crude way the Chinese lent their voice to the struggle against Jim Crow in America. I am happy that they opposed evil in the United States.

And I know that, in the same way, every Chinese religious believer and every Chinese peaceful promoter of democracy and human rights who is rotting in a Chinese prison does not want to see good people anywhere who support their human rights cause silenced by the CCP. They want and need support, whatever the policies of the American government at the present time.

The way to argue for human rights is to insist that China has been, can be, and will most certainly one day be a leader in human rights. It is a very Chinese cause. I look forward, with great confidence, to the day when the Chinese people assume their rightful place as an international champion of human rights. I look forward to the day when Chinese deeds are in the forefront of the international human rights movement and when Chinese make manifest in living reality the humane behavior that is the best argument for human rights and that is the fulfillment of the great humane promise of the best in Chinese history and culture.


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