Human rights in the Chinese media

human rights

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It’s from the SCMP Facebook page.

While the South China Morning Post has always been among the most liberal of mainland Chinese news outlets, and is frequently at the vanguard of press freedom movements, it remains a newspaper in a country where newspapers are controlled by the state.

There’s a tendency in the West to see human rights as being a big issue in China. Whenever our politicians’ meet theirs, it’s the elephant in the room. We’ve sanctioned them and protested and had awkward diplomatic conversations about Falun Gong and – to be fair – the Chinese government does get offended when human rights are brought up in international settings, which seems to confirm the idea that they too feel that the subject is an important one and one about which they feel guilty.

However, when foreign politicians are criticising Chinese human rights, there are in fact two issues at stake:

1. Chinese human rights.

2. The public airing of Chinese human rights by foreign politicians.

In fact, it is less the subject itself that bothers the Chinese government, than the fact that people are talking about it in public, which from a Chinese point of view comes across not as a reasonable difference in opinion or an attempt to stand up for Western values, or even a bit of political positioning, but rather an unforgivably rude and clumsy attack on China’s ‘face’. (If human rights were discussed privately rather than publicly, they would be fine with that. They wouldn’t necessarily make any compromises, but they wouldn’t be offended either. On the other hand, it would deprive Western politicians of an opportunity to play to their home crowds, meaning that they have no incentive to do it.)

The contrasting attitudes towards human rights are not purely an elite phenomenon either.

In China – and in Asia more generally – human rights are seen by the majority of the public as something akin to a fridge that dispenses ice or underfloor heating: it’s something that’s nice to have, but it’s not going to be your first priority. Indeed, if you did a poll I suspect that most people, if given the choice, would choose the fridge over the human rights.

The public in China knows full-well that their country has a poor human rights record, but for the most part accepts the fact stoically in much the same way that they tolerate Beijing’s smog or the hellish Chun Yun travel conditions.

So, while from a Western point of view it seems strange to see a government-controlled newspaper, even on its English language Facebook site, printing frivolous cartoons joking about Chinese human rights, from a Chinese perspective it is nothing new.

These jokes have been doing the rounds for a while, even in the domestic press, but really began to crystalise around the ‘duo mao mao’ incident.

The incident – in which prison authorities blamed the death of an inmate on injuries sustained while playing hide and seek (duo mao mao) with his cellmates – triggered a wave of satirical cartoons, not just online but also in the traditional news media.

The most interesting aspect, however, was what happened next. The authorities did not respond with invitations for tea, internet censorship and whitewashing, as was (and to a great extent still is) normal. Instead, a PR team led by a former journalist named Wu Hao turned the situation around, agreeing with internet commentators that this was terrible and needed to be investigated thoroughly.

Big deal, you may well say, whenever something like this happens in the West politicians promise an enquiry and nothing ever comes of it. Which is a fair point, but there were important differences.

While all but the most terminally naive agree that these enquiries exist largely as an effort by politicians to sweep unpleasant episodes under the rug in such a way that they can appear to be actively concerned, the investigation – in the West, at least – nevertheless takes place in an atmosphere of confrontation, which is accepted – tacitly or explicitly – by both sides. Will the victims win? Will the politicians win? The issue is argued over by all sides until a more or less satisfactory compromise is reached for all concerned. They probably won’t be happy about it, but it will be something that they can live with.

It is unsurprising. Since Ancient Greece, Western constitutional theory and the politics that proceeds from it have been based on the search for a way to allow all of the conflicting parties in society to cancel each other out. Rule-bounded conflict aims to prevent any one group from becoming sufficienty dominant as to grow tyrannical.  In other words, Western politics works like an igloo: because each individual block is pushing towards the center, they in fact end up propping each other up, and the structure as a whole remains stable.

igloo politics

Wu Hao’s enquiry was not set up on a Western confrontation model. Instead, the premise was that the government would work together with the angry citizens to effectively reach a consensus on exactly whom – to pursue the arctic theme – should be thrown off the sledge to the wolves.

And, as with the Western case, this approach reflects the structure of Chinese politics as a whole. Rather than being an igloo, the system functions much more like a corporation. Each manager needs people beneath him in order to retain his status. While it is possible for a short time to keep them there by threats or violence, underlings who lack a voice will eventually vote with their feet, and leave to either find another manager’s fief to join, to attempt to start their own, or to make their way as best they can in the wilderness. For managers, then, the best way to retain their position is by finding out what those beneath them want, and making it their business to ensure that they get it. And, of course, the system has multiple layers: each manager is a man under authority, being simultaneously the head of his team and an underling in his own manager’s team. While his subordinates are negotiating with him for the things that they want, he is negotiating with his own superior for the things that he wants and the things that his subordinates want.

Org chart

Hence the regular articles published suggesting that the survival of the Chinese Communist Party depends on continued growth. This is perfectly true, but not because China is a teetering and corrupt banana republic with a hated authoritarian government, but because the social contract is based on citizens buying in to the system in return for the advantages that it provides. If those at the top can no longer provide sufficient rewards for participation, then the system will collapse. (Though, it’s worth noting, that the European ‘igloo’ system is far from indestructable too. Remove the wrong block and the whole edifice falls apart.)

So, to cut a long story short, in China human rights are not something to be fought over desperately by opposing factions, but rather something to be negotiated among people who have – by and large – already bought in to the current system, something which leads to a far greater willingness to compromise.


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