People protest against Asian hate crimes in San Jose, California, the U.S., on April 25 (XINHUA)
As U.S. President Joe Biden and his Secretary of State Anthony Blinken attempt to rebrand post-Donald Trump America through new policies and narratives at home and abroad, the topic of "human rights" has become, once again, a focal point of Washington's propaganda. China should welcome this discussion and join it robustly.
A dark history
From what pedestal does the U.S. preach and point? Which president in American history had clean hands? Which president did not preside over a nation with systemic abuse of its own people, especially the poor, women and minorities? Which have avoided war and aggression?
The U.S. came into being through genocide against Native Americans, shady deals with despots that more than doubled the nation's size, aggressive wars against Mexico and Spain, and invasions and suppressions as the U.S. went global at the end of the 19th century, reaching further from its shores, including into the Pacific, with violent takeovers of the Philippines and a number of strategically located islands that fueled increasing instability in Asia, stimulating in no small part Japan's aggressive responses.
It is part of the U.S. political imaginary to forget the past, largely, with each new administration, to remember only in a cursory way the mistakes that others made without fully taking responsibility for them. This allows the U.S. to perpetually renew itself, to turn the pages of history without ever actually reading or understanding what has been done, how one page leads to another, and how so many of the pages say largely the same things.
For example, Trump excoriated his predecessors, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, for their crimes in international affairs, from the former's invasion of Iraq under false pretenses (which included bald-faced lies with fake "intelligence" to the UN Security Council that directly sparked ongoing human rights travesties throughout the Middle East), to the latter's continued drone wars and disastrous meddling in Libya, Syria, Ukraine and beyond.
Then Trump proceeded to write his own place in history. He doubled down on the U.S. prison in Guantanamo, a site of torture, and not only promoted people previously involved with Bush's torture policies, but explicitly promoted torture and said the U.S. should have done worse.
He also ordered the assassination via drone of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, who was then visiting Iraq, killing several Iraqi leaders in the same attack. While he justified it as preventing violence, there are credible accounts of him admitting privately that he did it to appease conservatives in the Senate who were then considering his fate in his first impeachment trial. The trial, it should be recalled, centered on whether his own meddling in Ukraine was self-serving and not merely for the national good.
A UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions concluded in a report to the UN Human Rights Council that Trump's action was exceptionally inappropriate and likely a war crime.
But this was not the only disturbing thing done by Trump. One must also recall his heavy hand against Latin American migrants, including separating parents and children; his anti-Muslim travel restrictions; his dog-whistle tactics that tacitly encouraged white supremacists and fueled racial injustice against African Americans; his racist rants and trade war against China that prompted an incredible wave of anti-Asian violence in the U.S. and beyond; and his complete mishandling of the COVID-19 epidemic that left more than half a million Americans dead, with millions more diminished by the illness and its social and economic effects—the costs of which are still beyond anyone's capacity to compute.
And while it might seem gratuitous, one might add that Trump's crimes against humanity included quitting the Paris Agreement and convincing many Americans that climate change is not a real problem, at the very least not one for which they have any responsibility, despite the fact that the U.S. has by far the highest emissions per capita in the world.
One also can point to Trump abandoning the World Health Organization in the middle of the pandemic, undermining the global capacity to deal with the disease, as well as his decision to advance unilateral sanctions against Iran and others, contrary to international agreements and law, and to refuse to relax them for humanitarian reasons during the worst days of the outbreak, leading to even more misery and death.
Even if Biden has not yet committed any comparably great sins in this particular iteration of his public life (though he was part of gross actions during the Obama years and his long tenure in the Senate), he continues the tradition of turning the page while also continuing American hegemony and interventionism.
In his first 100 days, he ordered airstrikes in Syria, meddled in Ukraine to the point of provoking a new war, continued Trump's anti-China actions by undermining the one-China policy globally, pushed a "China containment" strategy for the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, between Australia, India, Japan and the U.S., continued Trump's anti-China trade policies, and accused China of "genocide" in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region—despite the State Department's own research team concluding that no genocide had taken place.
Positive and negative rights
I wrote in a previous issue of this magazine that China's accomplishment of "raising hundreds of millions out of poverty and eradicating extreme poverty altogether has not been achieved by any other political system or country in human history, and arguably demonstrates an unequalled contribution to human rights." I believe this is a basic truth, made even more remarkable by the fact that China did so without the benefits of imperial exploitation or hegemony, and that these accomplishments make many in the West deeply uncomfortable, driving their attacks on China's human rights record, hoping to distract us from their own transgressions, past and present.
Generally, human rights are conceptualized in two distinct ways, positive and negative. Positive rights empower the state to work against systemic and historic injustices. While this can benefit many people and produce a type of social progress nationally, it can also lead to conflicts with those who benefited from those injustices as well as those who wish to separate themselves from the nation and its development.
Admittedly, it can also lead to government overreach as the comparable limits on private and individual rights are sometimes unfairly steamrolled by overly aggressive and sometimes unjust local authorities. This problem is not unique to China. Rather, it is a common concern everywhere.
Negative rights, by contrast, limit the state and instead promote individual rights and those of civil society. While there are in fact tremendous benefits associated with this approach, one might also argue that negative rights find their expression in making private property rights sacrosanct, and this in fact perpetuates inequality and limits true democracy.
In many respects, the U.S. considers itself a champion of negative rights, and conversely, China considers itself a champion of positive rights. To some extent, it might be said both countries could learn from each other and make greater contributions to human rights at home and abroad.
However, China has already implemented in the course of its development a great number of critical lessons drawn from its own experience and what it learned from others. In addition to creating real security and welfare for its citizens, it has made significant advances in the battle against corruption, promoted the rule of law, and largely limited its international conflicts to those directly related to border security and sovereignty issues and reciprocating to conflicts instigated by others. In short, China has achieved many advances for both positive and negative rights in both its domestic and foreign affairs.
By contrast, we have not seen the same type of progress from America. The wreckage of the Trump years attests to this, as does the continuation of the Trump cult in American politics and its potential resurgence in the coming years. This suggests that American history has not yet turned the page, but is still chasing its tail.
And while Biden has made some important corrections with respect to some of the worst aspects of Trump's policies, he remains complicit in others. This insight is not lost on many in the world, including America's allies. It also likely explains why most in the world, according to a recent international poll, conducted by Latana in partnership with the Alliance of Democracies, view the U.S. as the greatest threat to global democracy, and by extension, peace and development. BR
The author is professor of politics at the East China Normal University in Shanghai
Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar
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