Approaching China With Culturally-Sensitive Activism

Framing the Chinese Human Rights Debate

Tuesday’s edition of The Tech brought the Chinese human rights debate to MIT. Opposite of Perez-Franco’s searing cartoon criticism of China’s policies towards Tibet and Sudan were the impassioned defenses of Liang and Guo, two graduate students from the PRC.

As tensions between human rights activists and Chinese nationalists escalate, both sides are guilty of fundamentally misunderstanding the other. Most Chinese citizens understand the current Olympic protests as another page in a national narrative of western imperialistic designs and targeted humiliation. According to this view, the west has adopted a deliberate strategy to maintain the western-dominated global status-quo, necessarily at the expense of rising China. When a NATO bomb hit the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the 1999 Kosovo campaign, the Chinese public erupted in accusations that the “accident” had been planned by the U.S. The Olympic protests are viewed in a similar light: the west, arrogant and divisive, is seizing on the Beijing Olympics to smash an egg in the face of China’s recent economic and diplomatic successes. This cultural lens often comes off as indoctrinated paranoia to those in the west, but having not lived a history of Opium Wars, Great Games, and extraterritorial laws ourselves, we should be slow to dismiss.

Chinese nationalists are right that criticism of Chinese human rights abuses comes with a degree of hypocrisy. We often forget that the stable liberal democracies from which we lambaste China are themselves founded on centuries of ethnic cleansing and ruthless political murders (not to mention that a small prison in Guantanamo, Cuba continues to undermine Americans’ moral authority). While offering our understanding that China is a developing country economically, we refuse to admit that liberal values might also be a luxury of development, if not entirely culturally dependent.

However, it is too progressive to accept China’s humans rights abuses as developmentally or culturally justifiable. We are the culmination of our histories, in the privileged position to learn from and to the greatest extent, correct, the mistakes of our national pasts while not having to bear direct responsibility. It is from this position that activists can pressure the Chinese government to respect the human rights of Darfurians, Tibetans, and Uyghurs. Simply because atrocities plagued our own coming-of-age does not mean that many more people must suffer in China’s.

And this, to me, is China’s real test of greatness. At the core of China’s policies in Tibet and Xinjiang is its fear of potential separatism. Curtailing its human rights abuses introduces risk that Tibetans and Uyghurs will react to nearly sixty years of humiliating and assimilationist policies. If China, despite these risks, can protect the cultural integrity and dignity of segments of its own population, it will be a nation deserving of respect and greatness. China’s economic success, while impressive, has come through time-tested capitalistic reform. Sacrificing great profit by cutting Sudanese arms sales or granting genuine autonomy to enshrine Tibetan and Uyghur culture — now that’s revolutionary.

Human rights activists are bound by the conviction that certain human freedoms are borderless. When mobilized effectively, they can become a political influence that saves lives. Nonetheless, western activists could benefit greatly from better understanding the target of their criticism. China’s trajectory is exciting and, rightfully, a source of profound pride. Boycotting the Olympics would do little but humiliate China’s people and build antagonism that will prevent meaningful dialog in the future. Activists must condemn China’s abuses in their strongest language, but stop short of defining the nation in those terms. Chinese nationalists, for their part, must be willing to admit that western activism is not a united front aiming to humiliate them, but a call to compassion for the people made miserable under the Chinese government’s policies.

Cannon is a member of the Class of 2008.