02 December 2014

The global cycle of hypocrisy

Take a look at this editorial on the Ferguson case from the Xinhua news agency, a mouthpiece for the Chinese government. While the writer notes some interesting inconsistencies in Officer Wilson's descriptions of his fatal encounter with Michael Brown, the main point of the commentary is to offer the grand jury "acquittal" of Wilson as proof of American hypocrisy on the subject of human rights. For the writer, the mere fact of mass protest appears to prove that the grand jury miscarried justice in a way typical of the nation as a whole. The whole Ferguson affair belies America's "propensity to blame others for being undemocratic" and "reveals the hypocrisy of the country touting itself as a human rights defender and judge" 

If the point of the editorial is that nobody's perfect, or "judge not lest ye be judged," well and good. But for nations to accuse each other of hypocrisy is to wield a double-edged sword. Inevitably it will be asked what right China has to judge the state of democracy in any other nation, or to judge the hypocrisy of anyone else's attitude toward human rights. A hostile reader will likely argue that China's violations of democracy and human rights are systematic to an extent that makes their exploitation of the Ferguson incident look pathetic and cynical. Even on the subject of race or ethnic relations, it could be said that the oppressors of the Uyghurs, the Tibetans, etc., have no business passing judgment on race relations elsewhere.  Many Americans who have criticized conditions in Ferguson would deny that those disqualify them from criticizing other country's oppressive practices. 

Just the same, Ferguson no doubt embarrasses many Americans just as their parents and grandparents may have been embarrassed whenever any Soviet apologist of yore answered arguments against the Gulag with "What about the blacks?" At such moments there's a temptation to think of injustice in "authoritarian" countries as an apple and injustice in America as an orange, and to observe that the orange may be bruised but the apple is rotten. I suspect that the Chinese wouldn't reject an apple-and-orange argument as long as people keep their opinions about the apple to themselves. Their whole point, as I understand it, is that China has a different culture and philosophy of government to which American or western claims of human rights are largely irrelevant -- that ideas about the proper relationship between citizen and state are shaped by culture, as understood in both nationalist and Marxist terms, and not defined absolutely or universally by philosophical assertions. In western eyes this is a rationale for totalitarianism, but the Chinese presumably deny that their way of doing things makes individuals into slaves or makes the Communist Party a government of gangsters.Comparing themselves with an America defined by Ferguson, they might concede that others will disapprove of the way China deals with political dissidents, but they more likely expect others to concede that China at least deals with its people equitably, without reference to race or other forms of minority identity. Uyghurs, Tibetans and various Christians may dispute that point, but the Han majority will assert it just the same. To them, and perhaps to all citizens of China, it might be more offensive to see an entire race reduced to second-class status, as they see African Americans, than to go without guarantees of absolute safety for political dissidents. All of this begs the question whether Chinese criticism of American race relations can only go so far as "you have no business judging us" or whether it is inevitably itself a judgment, a argument for Chinese superiority. This was an easier call when China was more overtly advancing Marxism as a universal system of values, back in the day of Chairman Mao. Now, when China is more likely to assert, both more modestly and more stridently, their right to a particularly Chinese way of doing things, it might be argued that they have less business than ever judging other countries' ways while Americans, still imagining theirs to be universal values, can argue that inequality comes inevitably with the freedom that itself is the sine qua non of human well being. The challenge for any culture is to confront the evils inherent in its own values while arguing for universal values that transcend any particular culture. If humanity is to survive as a species individuals everywhere should have the courage to criticize governments anywhere, including at home, in the name of humanity rather than mere national interest. If the Chinese are wrong to claim that Ferguson leaves Americans no right to criticize China, it's also wrong to claim that China -- standing in for the specter of authoritarianism that has always haunted us -- leaves Americans no need to criticize Ferguson.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Or perhaps he was following the case wherein the prosecutor acted more like a defense attorney for the accused, rather than a district attorney trying to get a conviction. According to their state law, a judge has a right to decide the da did not act in the best interest of the state and is allowed to call for a new grand jury. Hopefully this will happen now that the cop is an ex-cop.