Whose Human-Rights Record is Worse? The U.S. or China?

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It’s a spring ritual. Each year, the U.S. publishes its report on China’s human-rights record the previous year—and then China presents its findings on America’s own performance in the same realm. Both countries, as might be expected, find plenty wrong with each other. Indeed, instead of highlighting the actual human-rights abuses in each country, the annual rite often ends up devolving into a he-said, she-said argument between Washington and Beijing. Americans leave the debate convinced that China truly is a repressive, authoritarian place, while Chinese nod their heads at evidence that America is really a violent, racist nation.

Amid an ongoing crackdown on Chinese dissidents, activists, artists, bloggers, lawyers and seemingly pretty much everyone else who dares to criticize the Communist Party, the U.S. State Department’s report highlighted the Chinese government’s use in 2010 of “extralegal measures, including enforced disappearance, ‘soft detention,’ and strict house arrest, including house arrest of family members, to prevent the public voicing of independent opinions.” Continuing repression in restive ethnic regions like Tibet and Xinjiang were noted, as were incidences of forced labor and torture. All in all, the report concluded that:

As in previous years, citizens did not have the right to change their government. Principal human rights problems during the year included: extrajudicial killings, including executions without due process; enforced disappearance and incommunicado detention, including prolonged illegal detentions at unofficial holding facilities known as “black jails”; torture and coerced confessions of prisoners; detention and harassment of journalists, writers, dissidents, petitioners, and others who sought to peacefully exercise their rights under the law; a lack of due process in judicial proceedings, political control of courts and judges; closed trials; the use of administrative detention; restrictions on freedoms to assemble, practice religion, and travel; failure to protect refugees and asylum-seekers; pressure on other countries to forcibly return citizens to China; intense scrutiny of, and restrictions on, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs); discrimination against women, minorities, and persons with disabilities; a coercive birth limitation policy, which in some cases resulted in forced abortion or forced sterilization; trafficking in persons; prohibitions on independent unions and a lack of protection for workers’ right to strike; and the use of forced labor, including prison labor. Corruption remained endemic.

But the Chinese struck back with their findings on the state of America, the 11th time they’ve prepared such a document. “The United States turned a blind eye to its own terrible human rights situation,” said the Beijing report, singling out the high incidence of gun crime in America, its large prison population and a democracy that “is largely based on money.” The report went on to say: “violence against children is very severe” in the U.S., “the United States has a notorious record of international human rights violations” and “women in the United States often experience sexual assault and violence.”

There was once crucial difference between the two reports. The Chinese researchers culled much of their information from American news sources. This was something their American counterparts couldn’t have done, given the state-controlled nature of the Chinese media. Instead, the U.S. writers depended partly on reports from human-rights watchdogs or other NGOs that do their best to monitor China. This information, of course, isn’t easily available to Chinese citizens online who don’t venture past the Great Firewall. But that fact hasn’t deterred the drumbeat of indignation in China about the U.S. findings—and the reflexive recitation of American failings in the Chinese state media. In its coverage of the Chinese report on American human rights, the Global Times newspaper deemed that there were “violent and discriminatory elements present in the U.S.” and that “this report ran counter to the U.S.’ latest report slamming Chinese human rights.” Let the debate rage on.