Dominant public opinion in western countries has held that the fierce anti-China protests surrounding the Olympic torch relay are deserved and potentially effective ways to improve China’s human rights situation. Political leaders have announced boycotts of the Olympic opening ceremonies. In my view, many of these protests have been unnecessarily inflammatory. Attempts to force political reforms in China through boycotts or superficial political interference, without acknowledging the complex social, cultural and historical context, are doomed to fail and are even counterproductive. They also fail to do justice to the changes that are already taking place or to the truly urgent challenges that China is facing.
Confrontation is counterproductive: Imagine for a moment the reverse situation – people in China go out on the streets and dispense anti-American, incendiary rhetoric in order to shame the U.S. into denouncing its treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Nobody believes that the American government or the American people would be swayed by such protests. No country takes public humiliation lying down, but especially given Chinese culture, in which saving face is paramount, the shaming strategy is peculiar. The reactions are predictable: the Chinese people will support the authorities, the government will dig its heels deeper into the sand and reforms will be further away than ever.
Political reform in China – a work in progress: The Chinese rightfully believe that freedom and greater rights can only be gained from within, and they are working on that. Foreigners who have lived in China for a long time are often surprised by how many diverse voices can be heard in domestic public discourse, many of them critical of the government. Despite official censorship, Chinese citizens have dared to express their frustrations in the media relatively openly. However, there is no better way than hostility from foreign countries to silence internal critics, as they will be forced to prioritize national unity.
Because progress on political reforms is slow but steady, it can easily be underestimated from the outside. Experiments in democracy have been ongoing at the village and township levels, where local socio-economic circumstances allow for it (including one site where my organization, the Rural China Education Foundation, is working). Moreover, since 2004, national laws have been passed that make it easier for citizens to hold the government accountable. Finally, Chinese students educated abroad who return to their homeland are building a new generation of leaders with a global attitude. China clearly has a long way to go, but the notion that western outsiders without any understanding of Chinese culture can instantly bring about change that many people within China have worked on for years is not only na’ve, but also disrespectful. It took Europe several centuries to become truly democratic, and it is absurd to expect China to do the same in a few years.
A broader context: In the past decades, China has also made huge progress on many other fronts. Three hundred million people were lifted out of poverty, illiteracy was all but eradicated and students from China are academically successful across the world. Demonizing China can easily create an atmosphere in which other countries refuse to draw lessons from the many things that do go well in China. Moreover, it distracts from the most pressing challenges in China, those related to large rural-urban inequality. Those issues – partly in the domains of migrant labor, environment, education and health care – are severe, affect hundreds of millions of Chinese people and have big repercussions for the rest of the world. They also have a direct causal link to democracy, because it is well-known that the latter can only flourish in the presence of a stable, well-educated middle class.
We should also keep in mind that American values are not always shared by people from other cultures. When I asked a Singaporean friend of mine what her dream job was, she said, “The notion of a dream job is very American. In Singapore, we believe that everyone has a role in society that fits him or her best, and we strive to fulfill that role.” Similarly, the American idea of human rights is centered on self-expression and self-actualization, but in China the interests of the collective count much more, and this is deeply rooted in China’s history and culture. Appreciating such cultural differences is necessary, but reducing complex issues to sound bites will do nothing to further that.
A case for learning and dialogue: A serious debate about political reforms should be separate from the Olympics and will require intellectual honesty, sensitivity and nuance. Many Chinese, both in China and abroad, are willing to engage in open-minded discussions about problems in their country (some are not, but that is no different from the U.S.). However, aggressive protests and uncritical media fuel hostility and hatred, instead of opening a door to increased mutual understanding. Moreover, an obsessive focus on human rights does not do justice to everything that China has achieved and has to offer. I invite the people of the U.S. and Europe to follow the voice of reason and not give in to emotional, simple-minded rhetoric on complex issues.
Wei Ji Ma is a Post-doctoral fellowin neuroscience. He is also thepresident and co-founder of theRural China Education Foundation.