Image copyright of Tim Simpson
Baron Laudermilk - 06 December 2011
Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, desperately urged the United Nations to take immediate action to save the Syrian people from being “ruthlessly repressed” by the their government. Many human rights activists, governments, and the European Union agree with her idea that action must be taken now. Navi Pillay never clarifies what she means by intervention, but it is clear that she does not mean economic sanctions. The sanctions from the West and the Arab League that were implemented last week have not impeded Assad’s method of maintaining power by brutally cracking down on the protestors in the streets of cities across the country.
Simply looking at the pictures of the atrocities that have occurred in Syria, and those that are occurring every day, make the idea of intervention a legitimate one. Since March of this year, more than 4,000 people have been killed in military crackdowns on protestors, and an estimated 14,000 people have been detained. Reports have been seeping out of Syria stating that the Bashar al-Assad administration is severely violating human rights by raping women, torturing people, and by killing more than 307 children.
But despite the vast amount of evidence that has proved there is in fact an overwhelming number of human rights violations that have occurred in Syria since the protest began in January, and despite the unwavering support from the West to directly intervene in Syria, China (along with a few other members) voted against a resolution backed by the Arab League to condemn Syria’s human right violations. A Chinese envoy said, “It is our consistent view that constructive dialogue and cooperation are the right approaches to promote and protect human rights, whereas finger pointing and pressurizing give no solution to any issue.” Xinhua, the Chinese government’s mouthpiece, said “The Chinese representative stressed that [action] to promote and protect human rights should not in any case be taken by any country as pretext of intrusion over another's territorial integrity and sovereignty.” What the Chinese government wants to say is that there is no reason—ever—for a government to intervene in another country’s affairs.
Naturally most people would disagree with this. Many countries, including the United States, regret not intervening in Germany when it was committing genocide against the Jews in World War II. Many people, including scholars and human rights activists, wonder why nobody stepped in when Japan was slaughtering the northern Chinese during World War II. And many people still wonder why the West did not intervene in Rwanda when more than 800,000 people were murdered over a course of 100 days. Clearly, when a government or a group of people is killing an overwhelming number of other people, it is only morally right to intervene.
The question is: Why is China against military action in a nation that is clearly violating human rights? Why won’t China step up to the plate and demonstrate to the international community that it supports the United Nations in preventing the bloodbath that is occurring in Syria?
The Chinese government does not want foreign forces intervening in any nation for several reasons. First of all, China has a long history of being invaded by foreign nations and controlled from afar, by both Japan and the West. It is possible that China does not want to see the West tamper with other governments’ affairs, because if the West can intervene in smaller nations, it may, one day, intervene in Chinese affairs, as it did two hundred years ago. Also, China has a reputation for violating its own peoples’ human rights. If a nation is not being punished for atrocities that it is committing, but apparently sees other nations being punished for the same things it is doing, it becomes apparent that the domino effect may take place. China does not want Syria to establish an unwritten precedent for governments to intervene in nations who are committing human right violations. And, finally, the Chinese government does not want its people to see men and women across the world sacrifice their lives for civil rights and democracy. The peak of the Jasmine Revolution, when Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya saw their governments fall to young people demanding for their civil rights and democracy (supported by Western governments), made the Chinese government realize that one day this could happen to them. It forced the Chinese government to rethink what happened in Tiananmen Square in 1989, and compelled it to hide this information from its people in fear that they may use the Middle East’s spring to democracy as motivation to demand it in their own country. China does not want foreign ideas of democracy, civil rights, and the possible threat of a nation invading it.
I find it reasonable for China to be a little paranoid about seeing the United States and the rest of the West intervene in other nations’ affairs. China has a long history of being invaded by foreign nations. Around 1075, China’s next door neighbor, Vietnam, a country it had been doing trade with since its existence, invaded Song Dynasty China. The Manchurians, at that time barbarians according to the Chinese, invaded China in 1644. The French and British invaded China in 1856 to force them to liberalize their ports and to do trade with the West in the Opium Wars. And then Japan, a country that has historically had wars and territorial tensions with China, invaded China in 1895, 1931, and, the most famous time, during World War II. All these nations that had invaded China had attempted to force it to change the way it did business with other nations, or the way it operated in general. This long history of being forced to open up to foreign ideas has rightfully caused China to be more cautious when it sees nations intervening in other nations’ affairs.
But, regardless of China’s extensive history of seeing imperialism first-hand, China should start acting as a world power. Or in the words of Fareed Zakaria, “Beijing needs to recognize that it has become a world power, that its every move is now deeply analyzed, and that it is expected to play by the rules - indeed, it is expected to help maintain the rules.” With great power comes great responsibility. The Chinese government becomes irritated when the West wants to step into its affairs, such as the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. But the United States and other Western nations feel that they must step into China’s affairs because although it is economically and militarily a global power, it is not acting like one.
Beijing uses its history to justify to the world that nations should not intervene in other nations’ domestic affairs. But Beijing should use its history to accept that foreign intervention is necessary when a government is brutally killing its own people. When the Japanese were controlling Manchuria, they treated the Chinese as second-rate citizens and, during the war, brutally killed them and raped their women. The history China uses to justify to itself that foreign intervention can cause imperialism can also be turned around to support intervention when a nation is being dominated, regardless if it is committed by domestic or foreign forces.
My second point: it is hard to criticize someone for something when you are doing the same thing. China has a reputation for violating its people’s rights. In fact, what Syria is doing now—preventing the people from overthrowing the government and possibly installing a democracy— China did in 1989 during the Tiananmen Square Massacre. The Chinese government has made progress since it massacred young, peaceful protestors in 1989, but it still has a long way to go before the Chinese people have civil rights that are protected by the rule of law. The Freedom House “Map of Freedom 2010” ranked China’s political rights and civil liberties very low compared to Western nations. The overview of the report highlights the Chinese government’s major human rights issues:
The Chinese government continued in 2009 to demonstrate high levels of insecurity and intolerance regarding citizens’ political activism and demands for human rights protection. Aiming to suppress protests during politically sensitive anniversaries during the year, including the 60-year mark of the Communist Party’s rise to power, the authorities resorted to lockdowns on major cities and new restrictions on the internet. The government also engaged in a renewed campaign against democracy activists, human rights lawyers, and religious or ethnic minorities, which included sentencing dozens to long prison terms following unfair trials. Repressive measures were intensified in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, especially after ethnic violence erupted there in July. Nevertheless, many citizens defied government hostility and asserted their rights to free expression and association.
So it appears that China is not in the position to censure other governments’ foreign rights violations when it are also committing serious crimes against its own people. But China needs to make efforts to prove to the international community that it is capable and willing to become a leader of the world. It has made steps in accomplishing this. Democracy is being experimented with in many villages, people are virtually allowed to say and do what they want as long as they do not threaten the government, and the government has published many official papers stating it will further protect human rights. The world has seen this and has applauded China in its efforts to incrementally improve its protections of its people’s rights. But if China would have wanted to show the world that it truly supports the rights of people from all over the world, it would have supported that resolution and even offered economic and military resources to aid the United Nations. Clearly China has no intentions, as of now, to fully support the rights of its own people and people abroad.
Seeing dictatorships toppled by the demand of civil liberates and democracy is a scary thing for the Communist Party. Earlier this year, when the Jasmine Revolution was catching the attention of the world, the Chinese government swiftly censured the word “Egypt” and the phrase “Jasmine Revolution” from its search engines to ensure that the Arab Spring did not spread to China.
Despite the Chinese government’s well-coordinated and premeditated information chokehold on the Arab Spring, traces of the movement leaked into the minds of young Chinese students across the Middle Kingdom. In February of 2011, there were signs that some Chinese people were going to protest in Beijing and cities across China demanding democracy and civil rights. The Chinese government took action the way it typically does when it feels threatened by protestors. It filled the streets of Beijing and other large cities, where there were rumors of planned protest, with police officers who were cradling guns and bats. There were not any protests that day, and none in the near future directly related to the Arab Spring, but the fact that the Chinese government deployed an overwhelming force to quash any protesters demonstrates the government’s paranoia and its unwavering will to maintain its hold on society and politics, regardless of the cost.
The Chinese government has astonished the world with its economic progress since the late 1970s. It has pulled over half a billion people out of poverty, it has build megacities that maintain fine public transportation systems, and it has given the average person the chance to become wealthy. But that is it. The Chinese Communist Party will allow the Chinese people to seek wealth, but nobody is allowed to challenge the party, nobody. As long as the Communist Party maintains the idea of holding its power at all cost, it will manipulate its history to justify its actions, and use its military to crush domestic opposition. It surprised the world that even when China had the opportunity to give a hand to the struggling Syrians against its relentless government, it decided not to. But that is not surprising. Everything the Communist Party does, from voting in the United Nations on critical issues regarding the livelihood of humanity, to buying natural resources from South America, are for one reason: Maintaining the Party’s Power. As long as the Communist Party desires to uphold its power and deny civil rights and liberties to its own people, the people around the world who desperately need their civil rights protected will not see a helping hand from the Chinese government.