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Judging China by Chinese Standards

By Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom / October 20, 1997



When Westerners attack Beijing's human rights record, the Chinese official press decries it as cultural imperialism and insists China should be judged by its own traditions, not foreign criteria. Western critics typically dismiss this argument, defending universal standards and calling on Beijing to take specific action, such as releasing a high-profile prisoner of conscience.

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It would be interesting to see what would happen if Westerners took a different tack: accepting the "China as a special case" premise but insisting it be followed to its logical conclusion. Beijing's leaders might end up finding this an unsettling experience.

Recent Western calls for Beijing to release Wei Jingsheng (China's best-known prisoner of conscience), which have been part of the build-up to Chinese leader Jiang Zemin's Oct. 28 visit to Washington, makes this an opportune time to test this proposition. After all, Chinese leaders have criticized foreign lobbying on Wei's behalf as yet another example of Western determination to meddle in China's affairs.

Interestingly, pleas for amnesty aside, the Western press has been presenting a fairly positive image of the People's Republic in the past few weeks. Because of Jiang's calls for dramatic moves toward the privatization of state-run enterprises, China has been portrayed as embarking on a new era under the guidance of new kind of leader.

Jiang has been hailed for securing his position as Deng Xiaoping's successor, promoting to high position people known for their pragmatism, and even choosing the right clothes - Western suits rather than Mao jackets and Army uniforms. The only sour note for Jiang has been references to his failure to send any signal that he wants to increase political, not just market, freedoms.

The dawn of a new era?

This is where the calls for an amnesty for Wei come in, leading Beijing, predictably, to invoke China's distinctive traditions. The best rejoinder for Westerners might be a question: What kind of gesture might someone sensitive to China's past reasonably look for when searching for signs that a new political order is taking shape there?

Commentators could move directly from there to reminding Jiang that some Chinese power-holders freed not just some but all prisoners to show that a new era had begun. Emperor Ping's comment, and the many similar statements quoted by historian Brian McKnight in his studies of Chinese amnesties, shows that this practice began about two millennia ago.

Now, Jiang is not an emperor - like Deng, he is a pragmatic bureaucrat. Moreover, his regime claims to be infinitely less oppressive than any dynasty. This means, however, that if we are to judge the Communist Party "on its own terms," we should expect its amnesties to be more generous, not stingier, than those of the emperors.

Focusing on Chinese Communist traditions, we can imagine several ways of signaling the dawn of a new era. For example, the Communist Party prides itself on having liberated Chinese women from patriarchy. By that standard, the photo of Jiang's new leadership team invites criticism: If women "hold up half the sky," why no female faces?

Also, given the Communist claim that Beijing takes social and economic rights seriously, why has the Communist Party done so little to cushion the impact privatization is bound to have on ordinary workers? This is a crucial issue in a country where the only social welfare safety net has, for decades, been that linked to state-run enterprises. The more one thinks about it, the punier the call for Wei's release seems.

* Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom teaches history at Indiana University and is the author of "Student Protests in Twentieth-Century China" (Stanford University Press).