Human rights, boycotts and nationalism

My following article appears in the Amnesty International Australia’s Uncensor campaign about human rights in China:

With only 100 days until the Beijing Games, human rights activists are continuing to pressure the Chinese regime and authorities may be starting to feel the pressure, writes Antony Loewenstein.

After months of criticism of its human rights record, a conference in Beijing in late April attempted to challenge the Western perception. Luo Haocai, director of the China Society for Human Rights, said that, “China believes human rights like other rights are not ”˜absolute’ and the rights enjoyed should conform to obligations fulfilled”.

After 30 years of rapid growth, he said, the Chinese people enjoyed religious freedom, political and social rights. Wang Chen, director of the Information Office at the State Council, agreed. “China is a developing country with a population of 1.3 billion and China’s human rights development still faces many problems and difficulties.” It’s a view unlikely to be shared by many in the West.

The Beijing Olympics continue to be a rallying cry for human rights activists. Advocacy group Dream for Darfur is now targeting corporate sponsors of the Games, including Coca Cola and McDonalds. BHP Billiton is accused of not speaking out on the ongoing genocide in Darfur. BHP was one of only eight companies to receive an “F” grade for its “moral failings” over Sudan.

Even the Germany Foreign Ministry, in a confidential report leaked to Spiegel, found “significant” failings over human rights, including excessive use of the death penalty, holding dissidents for no apparent reason, censoring the media and an inability to handle criticism. Torture was rampant.

None of these concerns seem to concern most Western companies, however. At a recent China International Exhibition of Police Equipment, countless multinationals displayed goods specifically designed to repress Chinese citizens. The New York Times questioned whether the export of such items might have breached a law passed in Congress after the 1989 Tiananmen Square killings. Like for many internet companies, China is a booming market, seemingly difficult to resist.

There are growing signs, however, that some companies are learning from past mistakes. Yahoo, after launching a Human Rights Funds last year to provide legal and humanitarian assistance for political dissidents, appears to be at least trying to mitigate its previous collusion with the Chinese regime. Yahoo boss Jerry Yang said last week: “I think that I’m a big believer in the American values (but) as we operate around the world, we don’t walk around having a very heavy-handed American point of view.”

Google’s recent announcement of an expanded Chinese workforce is cause for concern, however as was Yahoo’s recent involvement in a “One World, One Web” conference in Beijing.

The Chinese people themselves remain defiant and hurt by the international criticism of their government’s human rights record (though there is some dissent online). Chinese students in the US are battling what they see as biased media coverage and in China itself citizens recently said they trusted state media more than Western outlets to accurately report the Olympic torch relay.

CNN remains in the firing line and Chinese hackers are operating with tacit government support to disable foreign websites.

With 100 days until the beginning of the Beijing Games, now is the time to increase pressure on the weak spots of the Chinese regime (though a recent report suggests the US government is currently trying to scuttle a human rights lawsuit against a senior Chinese leader fearing a chill in trade relations).

Perhaps China watcher John Pomfret, writing in the Washington Post, gets it right. He argues that although the current protests in China are against the foreign media and Tibet, it wouldn’t take much to switch anger towards the Communist Party. In other words, Chinese nationalism is a constantly evolving entity.

Many Chinese are critical of their government; they simply have nowhere to vent their frustrations. This doesn’t mean they want to embrace Western-style capitalism.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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