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History's place in the human rights debate

January 24, 2001

China’s modern history and its cultural traditions are often evoked to justify the country’s current authoritarian system of government. But Jeffrey Wasserstrom argues that looking back into the past can also be useful in advocating for greater respect for rights and freedoms.




This essay’s main argument is simple: it is useful to accord history a central place in the ongoing debate on human rights in contemporary China.

This proposition may worry some readers. After all, when history is brought into the human rights debate, it has usually been done as part of an effort to deflect criticism away from the current regime. There have been many attempts by apologists and spokesmen for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to use historical references to undermine the contentions of foreign critics. Some of these authors have argued that horrible atrocities committed against Chinese people by Japan and Western powers between the first Opium War (1839-1842) and the end of World War II invalidate any criticism such states may have of China’s human rights record. Others have contended that China’s current record must be judged in light of the country’s Confucian historical tradition which stresses the collective good above individual rights. Faced with these two kinds of arguments about the past, many concerned about the human rights situation in China have thought it best to focus exclusively on the present. My claim is that this is a mistake. History can be brought into the human rights discourse as a way to put pressure on, as opposed to provide excuses for, the current regime. This approach, which I call the “a third way,” has already been used by dissidents within China, including the 1989 Tiananmen protesters.

What exactly do I have in mind when I speak of using history in “a third way”? I am thinking of the rhetorical value of taking, as a starting point for discussion, stories that the CCP has utilized to legitimize its rule. These historical tales are based on several inter-related ideas. First, the CCP is morally superior to all previous Chinese ruling groups. Second, the current leadership group is responsible for getting the Revolution back on track after the disasters of the Cultural Revolution era (1966-1976). Third, the movements that the Party sponsored and the ideas that guided it before 1949 were noble and good.

These claims, in turn, open up three potentially effective ways to discredit the current regime. First, one may point out specific ways that CCP policies are similar to or less just than those of ancien r□ime groups (emperors and warlords, foreign imperialists, the Nationalist Party of Chiang Kai-shek) that exerted power over the Chinese people before 1949. Second, an attention to history reveals that the current leadership has, at times, acted in ways reminiscent of the Gang of Four and other cliques during the Cultural Revolution. Third, one may highlight the ways in which the regime has ignored the ideals that motivated and the beliefs expressed by CCP activists of the 1920s-1940s.

Consider how the response to the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square might have been different if the above approach had been taken. When Chinese officials issued statements denouncing student protesters as trouble-makers influenced by foreign ideas, international leaders might have pointed out that this rhetoric was similarly used by the Nationalists in the 1940s to discredit CCP-supported protests against corruption. When students and workers in Beijing were killed by automatic weapon fire that June, the world might have compared these actions to those employed by foreign-led police forces in 1925 to quell anti-imperialist protests. We might also have reminded the Beijing regime, when its spokesmen said that force was sometimes needed to maintain stability, that the Warlords had said much the same thing when they used violence against unarmed protesters in 1926.

Jiang Zemin assumed power soon after the 1989 massacre, while workers and students like Han Dongfang and Wang Dan languished in prison merely because they had founded autonomous labor unions and independent student associations. Foreign critics could have looked back to China’s imperial era for comparisons. Some emperors, they could have noted, when seeking to start their reign on the right foot, had issued general pardons and universal amnesties. These emperors allowed criminals who had committed acts of violence to be set free. We could have pointed out that Jiang was not even willing to release a few prisoners of conscience.

In sum, foreign critics could have stressed in 1989 that, even though the CCP claimed to place a much higher value on the well-being of the Chinese people than any other group that had controlled part or all of China, you would never have known it from their actions. Many things the regime did mirrored acts of previous repressive regimes and leaders who insisted that order be maintained at all costs and who moved quickly to denigrate those who dared to speak out - deriding them as “traitors” to the nation and creators of dongluan (turmoil). In failing to free even a single prisoner upon assuming a position of high authority, Jiang had begun his period of rule in a far less benevolent fashion than had some heads of the supposedly more autocratic imperial dynasties of the past.

Had foreign critics said these sorts of things in 1989, they would have imitated the actions initiated by some of the Chinese protesters who risked their lives that year. The wall posters that students and others put up often drew parallels between the CCP and Chinese rulers of earlier times. Some likened levels of corruption in the 1980s to those experienced in the 1940s. Others said that the children of high officials enjoyed so many perks that it was as if China still had royal families. And one famous wall poster portrayed Deng Xiaoping as a modern-day Empress Dowager, nefariously exerting control from behind the scenes.

The reframing of outside criticism of the CCP described in this article also applies to the Tibet situation. American complaints about China’s policies in Tibet have often been presented as a religious freedom issue, provoking the usual rejoinder that Chinese behavior is judged by external and inappropriate criteria. But what if foreign critics focused, as Ian Buruma did in a recent New York Review of Books essay, on the image of the PRC as a new practitioner of imperialism? What if we invoked this word not in a general catch-all sense but as something linked to a specific set of practices of domination that were developed in Europe and then exported from there to Japan and other places in the late 1800s and 1900s? One of the core tenets of the CCP’s claim to legitimacy is, after all, the role its founders played in putting an end to imperialism in China. Noting in detail, as Buruma does, how much the current Chinese approach to Tibet resembles earlier European and Japanese approaches to various parts of Asia could, if handled properly, pack a considerable rhetorical punch.

Finally, let us look at the contemporary scene and examine how the discussion of three particular problems - the crackdown on the Falungong; the use of excessive force by Chinese police in major cities; and the unwillingness of the regime to hold free and open elections - could be reframed.

Foreign criticisms of the persecution of Falungong practitioners have, as with Tibet, often been framed as a religious freedom issue. It might be more effective, however, to focus on another aspect of the situation - the similarity between the drive to destroy this sect and discredit its leader, Li Hongzhi, and some of the campaigns carried out during the Cultural Revolution. The current leadership of the CCP has tried to distance itself as much as possible from the Cultural Revolution era. This makes it well worth pointing out that the anti-Falungong posters and comic books distributed in the past year look a great deal like more crudely rendered versions of comparable works produced between 1966 and 1976.

There have even been continuities in the themes between this recent propaganda of denigration and that produced by supporters of the Gang of Four, the most reviled of Cultural Revolution-era cliques. One example is that peaceful sit-ins by Falungong members are sometimes presented by the regime as part of a secretive grand conspiracy to overthrow the Communist Party. Allies of the Gang of Four similarly tried to discredit participants in the non-violent rallies held at Tiananmen Square in April of 1976 by people who had gathered to express their sorrow over the death of Zhou Enlai. The verdict on the April 5th Movement of 1976 (which was initially called a “counter-revolutionary riot” in the official press) was reversed after Deng came to power at the end of the 1970s. It is now officially labeled a “patriotic struggle.” This adds a powerful twist to likening the drive against Li and his followers to the efforts once made to disparage the April 5th heroes.

According to some reports, China’s mistreatment of migrants (or members of the “floating population”) has become very widespread. Comparisons to the era when many Chinese coastal cities were treaty ports that contained foreign-run districts may be most relevant here. The CCP criticizes the treaty-port system, in which local residents were divided into two basic groups in enclaves such as the International Settlement of Old Shanghai. There were Westerners and Japanese who enjoyed a host of special privileges, and then there were the Chinese who were treated at best like second-class citizens and at worst like beasts of burden. The current situation is obviously different, since nationality is not the main distinguishing factor between city inhabitants and rural migrants. Still, the fact remains that the most disadvantaged residents of Old Shanghai were recent immigrants from rural areas who were all too often treated as though they were less than fully human. Much the same thing could be said about migrants who are the most disadvantaged residents of New Shanghai in the year 2001. Calls for more humane policies toward migrants might be usefully framed as a call for the CCP to behave less like the imperialists of an earlier day.

Beijing has hesitated in allowing free elections on the pretext that the cultural level of the population is too low to make good use of the vote. The treaty-port era might also be a good point of reference in this situation. The CCP has long claimed that a major problem with enclaves of foreign privilege such as the International Settlement, was that control of governing institutions remained in the hands of a small group of people. What makes this particularly interesting here is that foreigners in these districts often claimed, as the CCP does now, that extending democracy would be a good thing but the time was just not right. Just as Beijing has been gingerly experimenting with village level elections and the like, the treaty-port authorities made some piecemeal moves toward allowing Chinese residents a voice in local governance in the 1910s and early 1920s. All these parallels are worth noting - as is the point that, when piecemeal moves toward democratization were made 80 years ago by the foreigners in control of the enclaves, Chinese revolutionaries quite properly denounced them as insufficiently bold.

Another point worth stressing in pushing for democratization might be that the Nationalist Party, which has long been denigrated as a less noble organization by the CCP, recently showed its willingness to hold free elections. The outcome of those elections, of course, has been a change in regime on Taiwan. Beijing should not necessarily fear suffering the same fate. Chiang Kai-shek’s defenders have often claimed that the only reason he was defeated by Mao Zedong was that the Communists received too much aid from the Soviet Union, while the Nationalists received too little from other powers. Partisans of the CCP have countered that the real deciding factor was the support of ordinary Chinese people, who had become disgusted with the Nationalists and decided that the best hope for China’s future lay in Communist rule. Historical propositions like these are always notoriously hard to test, but the current situation offers a rare opportunity for the CCP to prove its case. All it needs to do is spend a decade or so moving steadily toward the holding of free and open elections and see if deeply rooted popular support helps it avoid the fate of its erstwhile rivals, the Nationalists.

Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom teaches Chinese history at Indiana University, was a consultant for the film, “The Gate of Heavenly Peace,” and co-editor of Human Rights and Revolutions (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2000). This article is adapted from one in the Winter 2000-1 edition of World Policy Journal.