Contrasting views

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 March, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 March, 2004, 12:00am

Last Wednesday, the US State Department released its annual report on human rights practices around the world - except for America itself. Five days later, China responded with its own report on the US. China's State Council said it was doing this 'to help the United States keep its human rights record'.

Actually, it would be useful if there was an impartial organisation that issued reports on different countries. The US, unfortunately, does not do so for itself, although non-governmental organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch do help fill the gap.

To be sure, many points in the Chinese report are valid and deserve to be made, such as the proliferation of guns in the country, the position of blacks and other minorities, and the gap between rich and poor. Because China does not set out to report on human rights around the world, but only in the US, such a report inevitably invites comparison between the two.

For example, when China talks about the rich-poor divide in the US, one naturally thinks of the situation in China, where the problem is also quite serious. Unfortunately, the Chinese report does not mention this. Such a discussion would have been illuminating, helping one understand how the situation in one country stacks up against that in the other.

Looking at the reports, it is clear that the two countries are talking past each other. The US report focuses on political and civil rights, while the Chinese report concentrates on economic and social problems. Even their categories are different. In this connection, it is interesting to note that while the US has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights but has signed and not ratified the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, with China it is the other way around.

The US report begins this way: 'The People's Republic of China is an authoritarian state in which, as directed by the constitution, the Chinese Communist Party is the paramount source of power.'

The equivalent sentence in the Chinese report says: 'The United States has long been a violent, crime-ridden society with a severe infringement of the people's rights by law enforcement departments and with a lack of guarantee for the life of people, their freedom and personal safety.' And while the US report talks about government actions that result in the reduction of human rights, China weighs heavily on such things as crime and violence not necessarily perpetrated by the government.

There are a few areas where comparisons can be made. For example, the Chinese report talks of the controversial Patriot Act, enacted in the wake of the September 11 attacks. It says that under the act, 'government departments are empowered to wiretap phone calls of citizens, trace their online records, read their private mails and e-mails. The FBI is even allowed to keep a watch on people's reading habits.'

Certainly, passage of such legislation has made it difficult for the US to assume the moral high ground in lecturing other people on human rights. But to help us better understand human rights in China, it would have been good if the report had told us whether such acts are illegal in China.

The Chinese report talks about mistreatment of immigrants in the US. However, it does not address the fact that the US is a country that people around the world want to go to live, while China is a country from which many of its citizens wish to emigrate.

The Chinese report rightly criticises the US for allowing juveniles to be executed. Of course, more people are executed in China every year than the rest of the world put together. But in China, minors are expressly exempt from the death sentence.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator