Monday, January 15

Great leaps in China's civil rights movement

Today is Martin Luther King Day in America. I'm celebrating the life and legacy of Martin Luther King by highlighting two stories on China's progress on the civil rights front. Cynics will say that China's seeming turnaround on Darfur is due to arm-twisting. But those live in freedom are in the slog era of foreign relations, where patience and persistence are the most effective tools.

I'll tell you why it's so hard for Americans in particular to have patience for this kind of work: because it's in the American gene code to place a very high value on individual effort. So no matter how many times we have it explained to us, we have a hard time imagining what it's like not to believe in the vast power of individual effort.

The good news is that humans are a quick study, once we get in the swing of something. That's why Jeane J. Kirkpatrick was way off the mark, when she wrote in 1979:
In the relatively few places where they exist, democratic governments have come into being slowly, after extended prior experience with more limited forms of participation during which leaders have reluctantly grown accustomed to tolerating dissent and opposition, opponents have accepted the notion that they may defeat but not destroy incumbents, and people have become aware of government's effects on their lives and of their own possible effects on government. Decades, if not centuries, are normally required for people to acquire the necessary disciplines and habits.(1)
A few years after those words were written the Soviet Union dissolved and democracies sprang up among peoples who could barely the imagine the concept.

Kirkpatrick overlooked the power of human nature and individual effort. So keep talking; hear? Think of an hourglass you're filling with a tiny pinch of sand grains each time you talk. One day, just a pinch will finally fill up the glass. The talk doesn't have to be couched in the words of politics or social justice. A story about your personal struggle or the struggle of a relative or ancestor can be that final bridge to understanding.

For decades Chinese leaders have fallen back on the violent upheavals in America caused by our civil rights movement, when they argue for their authoritarian government. So if you're of a polemical bent, you can point out to Chinese acquaintances and colleagues that the civil rights protests of black Americans did not balkanize America just because this country is a democracy. So if China's leaders live in fear of a balkanization -- well then, get busy and democratize.

Most importantly, Jeane Kirkpatrick overlooked that time is a highly subjective phenomenon. When love and dedication are coupled with the human will, a century's needed efforts may collapse into months or even the wink of an eye.

Enough chitchat. Now it's time to celebrate progress in the human rights struggle. Americans, take special note in the following story of the Chinese emphasis on dignity and saving face, which do not have a high place in the modern American lexicon. Note also the concern about how China is perceived on the world stage. Now, during the runup to the 2008 Olympics in China, is the best time to redouble actions supporting China's civil rights efforts:
Public Shaming of Prostitutes Misfires in China: Traditional Discipline Draws Angry Outcry
By Edward Cody, Washington Post Foreign Service
December 9, 2006
BEIJING, Dec. 8 -- To local officials combating Shenzhen's reputation as a den of vice, it seemed like a good idea, the perfect way to dissuade provincial girls from turning to prostitution in the big city and frighten away the men who patronize their brothels. So after raiding the karaoke bars, saunas and barbershops where prostitutes often ply their trade, police officers in the southern Chinese boomtown paraded about 100 women and their alleged johns in the street, using loudspeakers to read out their names and the misdeeds they were accused of committing. News photographers snapped away while thousands of residents lined up to take in the show.

The spectacle, which took place Nov. 29 in the Shenzhen district of Futian, was in many ways unremarkable for a nation in which wrongdoers have long been subject to public humiliation. In particular, it recalled the Great Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and '70s, when Chinese accused of being intellectuals or reactionaries were routinely paraded in front of jeering crowds that found entertainment in ridiculing them, insulting them and sometimes beating them.

But times have changed, the Futian Public Security Bureau discovered. Instead of being praised for cracking down on vice, the Futian police came under a hail of criticism for violating the right to privacy of those who were paraded about in public.The swift outcry, in newspaper interviews and on the Internet, provided a dramatic illustration of the distance this vast country has traveled since the Cultural Revolution, when many people embraced such tactics and even those who opposed them were afraid to speak up for fear of retribution.

The reaction helped explain why U.S. and other Western complaints about human rights restrictions in China are sometimes ignored here. Although Chinese and foreign activists can point to many remaining abuses, particularly by police forces such as Futian's, many Chinese view the human rights situation as such an improvement over times past that they would rather emphasize how far they have come than how far they have to go.

"This shows that the public has a stronger sense of human rights and privacy protection," said Kang Xiaoguang, a sociologist with the Rural Development Institute at the People's University of China.

"Twenty years ago, this kind of parade would have been greeted with unanimous applause," he said. "But now it gets more criticism than support because more people realize their rights should be protected. And of course, they have more channels to voice their criticism, like the Internet."

An outraged Shanghai lawyer, Yao Jianguo, started the uproar over Shenzhen's tactics last Friday with an open letter to the National People's Congress, the Chinese legislature. In it, he charged that the Shenzhen parade was illegal under current laws and likely to have a "baneful influence" on the Chinese people and the country's reputation abroad.

"These people were just alleged criminals," Yao complained. "It was not yet determined that they had violated the law. The police publicly humiliated them, which violates the legal process. This brutal form of punishment has long been abandoned by our society with the development of civilization and a legal system."

The All-China Women's Federation also voiced a complaint, deeming the parade an insult to the image of Chinese women, news media reported.

"The public parade damages the criminal suspects' self-esteem," a spokeswoman said. "With the development of human civilization, such barbaric punishment has no place in modern society."

[...] many Chinese citizens thought the police went too far this time. Over the past week, they have spoken out -- with relative anonymity -- on the Internet. A few upheld the tactic as effective dissuasion and noted that the prisoners wore surgical masks to shield their identities. But most agreed with Yao.

"Even while carrying out the law, police should well respect human rights," one commentator said. "Is there any article in Chinese law saying that police can parade people in front of the public? If there isn't, then who empowered you to do that?"

Another upset writer accused the Futian police of going back to the bad old days. "Public exposure? That was the kind of thing that happened during the Cultural Revolution," he said. "Those who made prostitutes parade in the street lost face just as much as those who were put on parade."

Focusing on the law, another contributor noted that prostitution is usually considered a violation of the social order and is punished by administrative detention rather than a criminal conviction and formal prison time.

"These are legal citizens, enjoying dignity endowed by the constitution," the writer said, "so it is unlawful for the police to parade them in front of the public."
Now for the Darfur story:
China Given Credit for Darfur Role: U.S. Official Cites New Willingness to Wield Influence in Sudan
By Edward Cody, Washington Post Foreign Service
January 13, 2007
BEIJING, Jan. 12 -- The U.S. special envoy to Sudan said Friday that China has pushed the Sudanese government recently to help resolve the bloody Darfur conflict and ease the plight of the region's nearly 3 million refugees.

The Chinese intervention marked a shift from past policy under which Beijing seemed reluctant to use its influence in Sudan, according to the envoy, Andrew S. Natsios. "I think they're engaging much more aggressively," Natsios said at a news briefing after four days of talks here with Chinese officials.

President Hu Jintao announced during a Chinese-African summit conference last November that he had urged the Sudanese president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, to work with U.N. and other envoys to end the fighting, Natsios recalled.

In addition, he said, China's U.N. ambassador, Wang Guangya, was critical to securing Sudan's participation in a recent international accord aimed at replacing a flagging African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur with a larger U.N. contingent.

The Bush administration has long urged China to put more pressure on the Sudanese government, citing large-scale Chinese oil purchases, investment and weapons sales as tools that could be used to persuade Bashir to cooperate more fully with U.N. attempts to broker a peace accord.

China, however, has viewed Sudan mainly as an important source of petroleum, a key element in Chinese foreign policy as the booming economy here creates a growing thirst for energy imports.
Human rights activists will point in answer to China's unusual use of their veto this weekend to help block the US-led resolution condemning Burma's human rights record. Yet it's to be kept in mind that China saw the venue for the resolution -- the UN Security Council -- as the big sticking point.

The argument is that the resolution should have been brought before the UN Human Rights Council -- that lame and corrupt commission -- because Burma does not pose a security threat to other nations. The argument is not quite true, considering Burma's proximity to India and the Burmese refugees in India.

In any case, putting the resolution before the security council was a resounding slap at the ineffectiveness of the human rights council -- a good move on the part of the US. That China dodged the issue does not change their position in Africa, which will increasingly come under fire from the African Union if China does not step up to the plate on Darfur. More than any other nation, China has influence with Sudan's government.

1) Dictatorships and Double Standards, Commentary Magazine, November 1979.

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