|| Pacific Rim Report No. 31, December
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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?
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.