Open season again

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 April, 2008, 12:00am

Who would have thought that, all of a sudden, China would find itself back on the rogue-nation list? Just when the world seemed to have edged away from judging it purely on human rights grounds, it is open season once again on the country. Gone are the gushing phrases describing China as the next economic superpower. In their place is a new 'bash Beijing' industry spawned by the Tibet uprising which has lent legitimacy to anyone who wants to take a swing.

And the swings have been coming hard and fast in the past weeks - from the worn rhetoric about human rights and the knee in the groin by the Paris City Council which made the Dalai Lama an honorary citizen, to the cheap shot by CNN commentator Jack Cafferty who called the Chinese 'goons and thugs'.

Western leaders even widened this grandstanding by taking a swing at China's arms sales, thereby putting themselves on thin ice. An indignant United States took issue with Beijing's boatload of weapons to Zimbabwe, while a morally incensed European Parliament condemned its arms sales to 'oppressive' African regimes.

How are we to react to all this? Do we choose sides as US President George W. Bush once forced us to with his 'you're either with us or with the terrorists' outburst following the attacks of September 11, 2001? Can we choose China without being on the wrong side of morality, or will we be labelled Beijing's apologists by critics with a blinkered world view?

That view is grounded on the insistence that all things moral flow from western democracies which are free to move the goalposts to suit their circumstances.

It was once wrong to detain suspects indefinitely without trial but we now have Guantanamo Bay. It was once wrong to torture suspects, but we now have top US officials writing rules on how to torture. Free expression was once a cherished value, but you now risk being thrown in a British jail for wearing a T-shirt supporting Osama bin Laden.

It was fine to arm Iraq's Saddam Hussein to the teeth for him to invade Iran and gas Iranians to death, but he suddenly became a monstrous dictator when he invaded oil-rich western ally Kuwait.

Those who point out these moving of goalposts get the smarmy retort that two wrongs don't make a right. That's shorthand for saying you must only condemn the side that the self-appointed dictators of morality want you to condemn. In other words, it is reprehensible for China to sell arms to 'oppressive' African regimes, but you must not at the same time point out that the US, Britain and France actually compete to sell far more sophisticated weapons to 'oppressive' Middle East regimes.

Two wrongs indeed do not make a right, but that doesn't mean we should not highlight both wrongs, compare them, and demand that they both be righted at the same speed. If the European parliament finds it repulsive for China to sell weapons to Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe, then it must register equal abhorrence over US and European arms shipments to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Insisting on this equal treatment does not make one a China shoeshiner, for it doesn't in any way suggest that Beijing is right to sell arms to African dictators.

Likewise, it doesn't make you a human rights opponent for pointing out that Tibetans were far from peaceful in their uprising, or that the violent attacks on the Olympic torch were downright disgraceful. For, if it does, then it's like saying the tens of thousands of overseas Chinese who came out to support the tortuous relay of the Olympic torch were, in Cafferty's words, goons and thugs who care little for human rights.

No, those who point out the double standards we have been seeing lately are not goons and thugs. They are simply saying that morality is a two-way street and it is about time that those who see it as their duty to impose it on others practise it themselves, too.

Michael Chugani is a columnist and broadcaster