The China Desk
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Media, Human Rights, and Waco
Originally posted at Chinese Community Forum (CCF)
March 5, 1997
Response to Da-jiang Liu
I regret that Mr. Liu felt I was having a facile joke at his expense. I see in retrospect how it might have come across that way, but that was not my intention. My purpose was quite serious -- to illustrate the lack of symmetry in the way the US Federal government routinely preaches human rights to the governments of other countries. It habitually drags other countries' domestic transgressions into international trade negotiations, but never seems to notice that hardly any other government presumes to relate to the US government the same way.
Do Helmut Kohl and Jacques Chirac condition trade with America on redress of BATF and FBI violations of human rights at Ruby Ridge and Waco? Some insist that international trade must be linked to human rights. My response: Should Kohl and Chirac prohibit Daimler Benz from exporting Mercedes to eagerly awaiting American car buyers, or Coca-Cola from serving thirsty Frenchmen until Waco and Ruby Ridge are resolved to German and French government satisfaction? Should they demand that American law enforcement agents be called onto the carpet to answer to them? How would Americans react if they did? Would we conclude Europeans were empathizing with our plight and thank them for it, or would we bristle at them as sanctimonious busy bodies?
Premier Li Peng and General Chi Haotien brutalizing Chinese civilians within China is a domestic Chinese issue. President Bill Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno authorizing the legalized murder of American citizens at Ruby Ridge and Waco is a domestic American issue. For foreigners to presume that Americans can't resolve homegrown abuses of governmental power without foreign intervention insults the American public. For Americans to assume that foreigners can't do the same within their own countries insults foreigners. The role reversal gimmick was merely an attempt to illustrate that point.
To a champion of laissez-faire and minimal government America is not the Federal juggernaut in Washington DC. America is Boeing, Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Motorola, and Proctor & Gamble, ad infinitum, all of whose shareholders' have the right to trade with the Chinese people. As a former Republican president once quipped "The business of America is business." Therefore when the US Federal government (or the PRC Central government) tramples on the rights of American and Chinese citizens to engage in free trade, that is an intolerable human rights violation.
Capitalism and communism are economic systems first, political systems second. Communism's "human rights violations" were violations of economic rights before anything else. Maoism's violation of Chinese peasants' economic rights during the Great Leap Forward alone resulted in the death by starvation of 30 million Chinese. Capitalism's virtue is its defense of people's economic rights. "Human rights champions" who demean economic liberalization as "meaningless" without political liberalization should try living without economic rights. They know nothing about the millions who were reduced to eating grass and bark before dying agonizing deaths.
Today's Federal leviathan has no more moral claim to be a defender of human rights abroad than it does at home. To cast it in the role of a global knight errant is to fall into the trap of worshipping the state as a higher entity than individual human beings. Ironically it is falling prey to the same statism which handed China to Mao. Paradoxically the wise government of the early Founding Fathers, imbued with incomparably greater moral virtue than modern American administrations, never presumed to preach human rights to the rest of the world. Is it too much of a stretch to suggest that those who walk the walk, don't need to talk the talk?
The Federal government which Thomas Jefferson deemed a necessary evil hasn't become any more necessary but it is a hell of a lot more evil. It has metastasized into the cancer of Big Government which former president Ronald Reagan tried valiantly but vainly to get off the backs of Americans. No longer content with infringing the rights of Americans by plundering one third of their hard-earned wealth every April 15th, it now wants to infringe the economic rights of the rest of the world. Canada, Mexico, and the European Union with Helms-Burton. China with Most Favored Nation -- as if refraining from violating the rights of Americans and Chinese to engage in free trade constituted a favor.
I am indeed frustrated with the intellectual mainstream's selective moral conscience. But since when is it narrow minded to expect that moral standards applied to others be applied with equal force to oneself? There is a word for moral/ethical consistency: integrity. And there is a word for its opposite: hypocrisy. Frustrated? You bet!
Response to Chengming Yang
Mr. Yang assumes that others share his low opinion of the parishioners of the Branch Davidian Church, therefore to compare them to the pro-democracy hunger strikers at Tiananmen Square demeans the latter. But many Americans, myself included, do not feel the Davidians did anything wrong, certainly nothing that warranted being starved, gassed and burned to death for. Since I don't feel the Davidians were wrong or evil, I feel the comparison is favorable to both the Tiananmen protestors and to the Davidians.
But even if Mr. Yang feels the Davidians weren't on the same moral plane as the Tiananmen protestors, the question is still irrelevant. The issue doesn't hinge on the moral stature of the victims. The point is that when push comes to shove the US Federal government isn't much more just than the Beijing government is toward its own citizens. FBI Director Louis Freeh had as little patience and respect for American citizens who defied them as General Chi Haotien had for the pro-democracy activists who were asserting their constitutional rights in Tiananmen Square.
The Davidians were merely exercising their Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms, a right guaranteed by the US Constitution, a right the Chinese people ought to enjoy. Chinese civilians, armed to the teeth like the civilian militia in the United States with AK-47s imported, ironically from PRC munitions maker Norinco, could hardly be abused by their own government with the impunity they have been. Personally I find it curious that many of the same US elected officials who advocate gun prohibition are among the loudest voices denouncing the PRC.
Furthermore, those "human rights" advocates in the US who demonize China as "aggressively expansionist" as an pretext to contain it are using the same public relations spin control as the Federal authorities who carefully demonized and thus marginalized the Davidians as "fanatical cultists" so they could get away with gassing and incinerating them without raising too loud a hue and cry from mainstream America.
Those genuinely distressed about human rights abuses must not be naive about the cynical motivations involved and blindly assume that everyone who criticizes the Beijing regime's brutality does so out of solicitude for the fate of ordinary Chinese citizens. I wish it were not so, but far too many people in this world have highly suspect motives for ostensibly noble behavior.