Of Human Rights and Wrongs: China and the United States

  • Robert Weil
Keywords: History, Imperialism, Inequality


The March visit of Secretary of State Warren Christopher to Beijing, calling on the Chinese government to improve its human rights record under the threat of denying it renewal of Most Favored Nation trade status, ended in fiasco. It should hardly have come as a surprise. After a semester teaching at a university and a month travelling in China, the attitudes and conditions I observed make clear why the U.S. human rights policy toward that nation was virtually certain to be rejected. Conversations with Chinese, most of whom were students, showed that the effort of the U.S. government to act as the enforcer of universal standards in their country is meeting not only with official rejection, but with very strong popular opposition. An understanding of this reaction requires altering the perspective from which the issue is commonly approached in the United States, and questioning the very definition of human rights that prevails here. To do so reveals that the United States has as much to learn from the Chinese in this area, as vice versa. These "lessons" for the United States in regard to human rights are similar to the ones being voiced across Asia, from Japan to Singapore. But in China, they also draw on the experience of decades of socialist revolution.