The US and Chinese flags outside a hotel in Beijing. Photo: AFP
Asian Angle
by Martin Powers
Asian Angle
by Martin Powers

The West portrays itself as a defender of human rights, but does it still have a right to moral leadership?

  • The United States, Britain and European nations have a history of ‘weaponising’ human rights in foreign policy
  • Throughout late imperial history, China has rarely blamed other nations, their religion or race, for domestic problems
The term “ human rights” is properly a feature of the modern world, but people have been calling out cruelty for centuries. Who gets blamed for human tragedy reveals a lot about how a nation values human life.
Western nations, chief among them the United States, have long assumed the promotion of human rights as one of their natural duties, but in recent years some have questioned their qualifications for doing so.
Last Fall in the journal Foreign Affairs James Goldgeier and Bruce W. Jentleson itemised the failures of America’s “tarnished model”, taking note of that “internationally controversial war in Iraq” and a major financial crisis in 2008. Following a period of recovery under President Barack Obama, America then lurched “in a very different direction … by electing a racist reality TV host who blames American allies for the country’s ills”.
And that was before White Nationalists attempted to bring down the government by storming the Capitol on January 6.


China mocks the US as Beijing compares chaos at Capitol with Hong Kong protests

China mocks the US as Beijing compares chaos at Capitol with Hong Kong protests

Do these events signal a need for reform in America – affecting its moral leadership – or are they passing bumps in a stable liberal tradition?

Here is where the history of human rights in foreign policy might offer a useful perspective.

Take the 17th century, when England and Holland were competing over trade privileges for their corporations. This marks the moment when England first made extensive use of moral atrocities to shape public opinion.

At the time the common people of England were sick of war, but the crown needed them for battle, so prints were circulated showing Dutchmen committing what we would call human rights crimes, and what they called “atrocities”. The aim was to weaponise moral outrage for use against the Dutch.

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One print shows Dutch soldiers waterboarding an Englishman. The caption calls it “cruel and barbarous”, and most of us would agree, that is an egregious violation of human rights. Still, from a human rights perspective, the situation is more complex.

To ignore the crime might be seen as condoning it, but Dutch citizens likewise suffered at the hands of occupying British troops. Pinning the label “barbaric” onto the Dutch then, amounted to whitewashing English crimes.

The core message in many anti-Dutch prints was that the Dutch race, and the Dutch religion, were intrinsically evil. This was misleading at best. In many ways, Dutch society at the time was more liberal than England’s.


US declares China has committed genocide in its treatment of Uygurs in Xinjiang

US declares China has committed genocide in its treatment of Uygurs in Xinjiang

Historian Jonathan Israel notes that “Dutch social fluidity, religious pluralism, toleration, and relative freedom of the individual tended rather to fuel the antipathy to Dutch society …”

Why would religious toleration fuel British ire? Holland’s republic offered an alternative model to England’s aristocracy. Reports of China’s egalitarian civil service in fact, offered ammunition for Dutch opponents of social privilege. Both Holland’s Spinoza and China’s Confucius were seen as like-minded champions of religious toleration.

The English found all this terrifying. In response, some charged that Holland was secretly plotting universal dominion over Europe and had to be stopped. Holland’s mercantile success they claimed, was due to unfair trading practices.

Clearly the charges of cruelty, though true, were but a smokescreen for another human rights struggle where the roles of hero and villain might easily have been reversed.

Let’s call this the human rights paradox: it seems wrong to overlook crimes of cruelty yet, what if those acts were exploited to suppress other human rights like social equality and religious freedom? How do you weigh one against the other?

Back in 2013, the Cambridge philosopher Raymond Geuss unpacked the basic problem raised by human rights outrage: “ … what actually happens in the international regime of human rights even as it is defined by the United Nations is that the powerful countries use claims about rights to further their interests …

“So you don’t have a universal, much less a completely equitable, enforcement regime, but one that is just as subject to the vagaries of politics as anything else.”


Boris Johnson warns against ‘sinophobia’ amid rising tensions with China over human rights and 5G

Boris Johnson warns against ‘sinophobia’ amid rising tensions with China over human rights and 5G
Organisations like Human Rights Watch strive to apply a common standard, calling out the US as well as China, Israel, and any other nation that steps over the line of human decency.

But powerful nations can hardly claim to be third-party observers.

Not long ago, at the very moment Donald Trump was attempting to overturn the US elections, then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was lecturing authorities in Georgia on that same topic. His transparent duplicity got hammered in both the US and the British media.
Trump also used human rights to help justify his trade war with China, but that war inflicted crippling damage on American farmers and industrial workers. What about their rights?

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It would appear that the West has long employed a double standard, but at least the consciousness of human rights goes back several centuries.

That is true for China as well. In fact, from the 10th century onwards, the people of imperial China used literature, painting, prints, and peaceful demonstrations to expose injustice, but they rarely blamed other nations, their religion, or their race.

During the 11th century, as Europeans sought to punish Arabs for choosing the wrong faith, socially conscious Chinese worked to improve conditions in their own country. When unjust wars took innocent lives, or aid for flood victims fell short, the government typically took the blame.

Focusing on local problems, reformers helped to establish public orphanages, improve prison conditions, and institutionalise tax exemption and material aid for flood relief. Spreading the true religion wasn’t an issue; religious tolerance already was standard.


US State Secretary Mike Pompeo urges Vatican to reject China's human rights abuses

US State Secretary Mike Pompeo urges Vatican to reject China's human rights abuses

China today is very different from imperial times, but for long its stated policy has been non-interference in other nations’ domestic affairs, though that may change. You could call that Confucian, or you could call it Jeffersonian.

In his letter to Gideon Granger, Jefferson advised that Americans should “let our affairs be disentangled from those of all other nations, except as to commerce”. He was even wary of exporting democracy, except by good example.

Good examples are hard to come by these days. When Trump ignored the pleas of flood victims in Puerto Rico, he blamed them. This was consistent with a centuries old Christian tradition construing poverty as God’s punishment for sin and sloth. In other words, blame the victim.

Even now, the Republican Party is attempting to block a desperately needed coronavirus aid package, preferring to blame those out of work for their pandemic fate. Add to that strategy the politics of race and you have the English crown’s formula for the Anglo-Dutch wars: playing the race and religion cards.

The charm of that strategy is that it relieves the government of responsibility for any damage inflicted upon citizens. Under the Trump administration, more than 400,000 Americans needlessly lost their lives as the government spread disinformation and blocked distribution of needed supplies.

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Neither American citizens nor any Western nation has accused the US government of a human rights crime, yet it was both preventable and tragically wrong. Who is to blame?

Some would blame Trump personally, noting that America now has a president who is a decent man and a capable leader. That is true, but Goldgeier and Jentleson argued that the problem with America’s tarnished model goes deeper than the outcome of one election.

What if, for instance, the government had taken responsibility for those lives rather than blaming immigrants, or BLM, or China?

Regrettably, we still lack an equitable metric for comparing human rights tragedies, but what we know for sure is that who gets blamed speaks volumes about how a nation values human life.

Martin Powers is Professor Emeritus at the University of Michigan. He has written three books on the history of social justice in China. Two of these won the Levenson Prize for best book in pre-1900 Chinese Studies