Posts Tagged ‘human rights’

China versus America: the candid truth

December 3, 2015

I was recently on panel, with two Chinese natives, comparing our respective countries’ cultures. Here (a bit condensed) is my presentation:

UnknownChina is a great civilization with many accomplishments, a rich history and culture, and much to admire. I’m saying this because the rest of my comments won’t be so complimentary.

When I got the phone call to do this, I happened to be reading David Brooks’s book, The Road to Character. And I asked myself, would such a book be written in China? Because its approach is very humanistic, a book written for a society of individuals. Then I recalled the phrase “Asian Values” popularized by the late leader of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew: an attempt to dress up authoritarianism and paternalism as reflecting deep cultural traditions, as an alternative to Western values that emphasize democracy, human rights, the worth of the individual, and so forth.

Unknown-1We hear a lot of nonsense that America is not really a democracy. But there’s really no voting at all in China, certainly no political competition, no opposition allowed, no freedom of speech and press. And this does reflect a cultural difference. We Americans do value people as individuals, whereas in China what’s most important is one’s role as a part of a group – the family, and, more broadly, the whole society. Compared to America, Chinese society is more like an ant colony or beehive, which biologist E.O. Wilson has likened to “superorganisms,” with the role of the individual ant or bee equivalent to that of a cell in a human body.images-1

One important element of human rights is the rule of law. President, Xi Jinping talks a lot about this, but it means something different to him than to us. It’s not a restraint on government, it’s a tool for government to restrain citizens. The government and the Communist party (pretty much the same thing) are still above the law.

China does have a constitution, full of worthy platitudes, yet the word “constitutionalism” is seen as a subversive Western idea. People have been jailed simply for voicing the radical concept that the constitution should be obeyed.

images-2I was one of those optimists believing that as China grew richer it would evolve toward democracy. For a while that seemed to be happening, albeit at a glacial pace. But now it’s gone into reverse. President Xi is consolidating power to a degree unmatched since Mao, cracking down on anyone and anything seen as remotely challenging to the party’s control. Recently all the country’s human rights lawyers were arrested.

Speaking of control, you probably know about China’s one-child policy, which just became a two-child policy. A long overdue change, but it’s still an unjustifiably cruel, coercive approach. It’s given China a big labor shortage, with not enough working age people to support a growing population of elderly pensioners. And because of a strong cultural preference for male children, people often made sure their one child would be a boy. So males outnumber females, and many of those pampered little princes won’t be able to find princesses to marry. This is a societal time-bomb.

Unknown-2Then there’s the hukou system. A hukou is a sort of internal passport and residence permit. It’s a very big deal. You can go from the countryside to the city to get a factory job, but you cannot get a city hukou. Without it you’re you’re barred from local public services, like health care, and your children can’t even go to school. One consequence is that an estimated 70 million children are left behind with other relatives, growing up with all kinds of psychological and adjustment problems. Another societal time-bomb.

Now, Americans are very patriotic, we love our country. Chinese love theirs, but with a difference. It’s perhaps explainable in light of China’s past history of depredation by other powers. Chinese are highly nationalistic and obsess about their global standing, with a chip on their shoulders. This is seen in China’s aggressive claims to vast ocean regions.

But here’s some good news: since Mao and his mad policies were buried, China has experienced phenomenal economic growth. In 35 years its average income has increased by 3000% — thirty-fold. Some would say this shows authoritarianism works. That would be wrong.

China is really two economies: the communist sector of state-owned businesses, and the private sector, which is in fact the closest thing ever to that mythical beast, “unfettered laissez faire capitalism.” And virtually all of China’s economic growth has come from that sector. The lesson is not that authoritarianism works, it’s that free market capitalism works.

My final point: compared to America, China is a profoundly corrupt society.

images-3We’re often told the U.S. Senate is a millionaire’s club. Well, China’s legislature – with much less real power – is packed with billionaires. And whereas our Senatorial millionaires in general earned their money outside of politics, most in China got theirs by abusing their official positions. American political corruption is mostly politicians catering to private interests to get campaign money, not personal wealth. In China it’s the latter. Being a high official is a license to steal.

Now, President Xi is crusading against corruption, and some big fish have been caught, like Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang. But this is really less a clean-up than a political purge, aimed mainly at tightening Xi’s control. China’s apologists like to point out that Western democracies are not immune to abuses of power, citing Watergate as a prime example. But Nixon fell because of checks and balances within the American political system – notably a strong opposition party and a free press. Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang fell to the power of an even bigger fish. And what will constrain that bigger fish’s power?

China’s culture of corruption goes beyond politics. Ironically, for a country that actually invented civil service examinations centuries ago, today it’s based not on what you know but who you know; the greasing of palms and disingenuousness. Yale University had a bad experience trying to set up branches in China. Of course there’s cheating in American schools, but Chinese students took it to a new level. Yale gave up and left. A New York Times essay quoted Chinese author Wang Xiaofang: “The habit of falsehood is fatal to a culture. But to us, falsehood is the essence.”

Unknown-3Recently we learned about China’s cyber-hacking, stealing corporate secrets. Here again, of course such things happen in the West. But for the government to set up a whole bureaucracy to carry it out? David Brooks has commented that this shows China sees world economic competition as equivalent to war, with all weapons allowed. But this destroys the trust that lubricates free exchange and international commerce. This is not how you become a global economic leader.

I recognize that, compared to China, American government has become dysfunctional and paralyzed. It’s mainly down to our partisan political polarization. But Francis Fukuyama wrote a book in 1992, titled The End of History, arguing that the classically liberal Western model of democratic government under rule of law, accountable to the governed, is bound to prevail because it satisfies a basic human hunger for personal dignity and self worth. America may be in decline relative to a rising China; but I’d rather live in a declining democracy than in a rising authoritarian state.

“Muslim Rage” and Enlightenment Values

September 22, 2012

Someone just commented on my 2008 post, The Enlightenment and its Critics, calling me arrogant for saying (“Western”) Enlightenment values are good for other, very different societies. This is a standard multi-culti trope, denying progress. But what’s really arrogant is believing enlightened Western values are good only for us enlightened Westerners, and not for those other benighted brown-skinned people over there.

So call me arrogant, but I do say Muslim societies would be better – for the Muslims in them – if they were more like ours. All this “Muslim Rage” happens because their existing social constructs aren’t working for them the way ours do. Europeans and Americans don’t burn embassies, basically because we lead more satisfying lives and aren’t so insecure that we feel humiliated or threatened by some stupid You-Tube video or cartoons. The violent response of Muslims who feel “dissed” mirrors that of the young street tough who feels dissed. Both are powerless nobodies and know it, defending their honor because, from their perspective, that’s all they’ve got. People whose place in the sun is secure don’t behave that way. (And, of course, nothing degrades Muslims as much as crazy violence.)

It’s no coincidence that Western nations, with “Western” values, are far richer not only materially but intellectually and socially than most Muslim societies, backward in every respect. It’s because they haven’t yet gotten “Western” values – like democracy, openness, competition, rule of law, pluralism – and freedom of expression.

These are what historian Niall Ferguson calls the “killer apps” of Western civilization, that have made us so phenomenally successful in providing good lives for most of our people. Some Muslims act as though it would pay for them to be protected against the insults coming from free expression. It would not. Freedom from insult carries a very high price, in intellectual stagnation. An open market in ideas is a key factor propelling the West to so much progress and human betterment than less open, and less open-minded, Muslim societies. I love living in the kind of dynamic society where my beliefs are insulted every day.

But Muslims are not doomed to forever stew in their self-emasculating backwardness. Western society was not born with our killer apps pre-installed. We had a long road groping our way toward them, with some stumbles along the way, like the odd world war. Only lately have we finally gotten into the groove. Muslim societies aren’t there yet, but they’re not congenitally handicapped; they’re on the road too, if only farther back. We were not straitjacketed by our feudal past, nor are they eternally stuck in their dysfunctional present. Societies change; and, in the grand sweep of history, for the better.

 In fact, in just the last few years, some Muslim societies have made a lot of progress. Tunisia had elections, won by secularists. So has Libya; and thousands there, bless them, have marched against Islamic extremism. In Egypt, an elected president is pushing back against the army. And the embassy burners are, after all, small minorities. They are yesterday’s men, fighting against a tomorrow they cannot stop – because even most Muslims realize that “Western” values are human values.

Reading Lolita in Tehran

September 8, 2012

Azar Nafisi, an Iranian educated in Oklahoma, taught English literature at Tehran universities. Or tried to. Eventually that became impossible, and devolved into a secret seminar in her apartment, with a selected group of female students meeting weekly to discuss literature free from the regime’s tentacles. Her book is Reading Lolita in Tehran.

Azar Nafisi

We Americans know Iran’s regime is oppressive, especially toward women. Or sort of know. In truth most of us haven’t the faintest idea. So acculturated are we to our version of “normal” human life that we instinctively imagine even a nation like Iran as more similar than different. It isn’t. It’s a totally bizarro inversion of our “normal,” and Nafisi’s book shows this.*

One story concerned a group of girls on a brief seaside vacation together. Relaxing on a verandah, it was literally invaded by one of the “morality police” goon squads. The girls, properly dressed and all, even under Iran’s suffocating rules, were doing nothing “wrong.” Nevertheless, trolling for people to mess with, the goons accused them of acting “Western” and hauled them off to jail, where they remained for forty-eight hours, subjected to repeated virginity exams. After trial, they were each given 25 lashes. But this was actually a comparatively benign outcome. Such stories could end in execution.

Iran’s true believers are obsessed with “morality” – and its supposed lack in the “decadent” West. It’s all about sexual morality. And sexually they are fubar. Male-female relations, compared to ours, are mostly a bitter human desert. They act as though men can’t handle a glimpse of female hair or skin. Of course, they may not have sex with anyone not their wives; but a “temporary marriage” of an hour with a prostitute solves that problem. And supposedly a girl dying a virgin goes straight to Heaven; so they solve that problem too before executing any girl. I guess in such cases even the sham marriage is dispensed with. (Is Allah fooled?)

Khomeini — the real “Great Satan”

This is not sexual morality but perversion, virulent and pervasive.

And of course sex is but a narrow sector of morality; what is conspicuously absent in Iran’s “morality” obsession is any concern for actual human well-being. That is the true alpha and omega of morality and Iran reflects its very antithesis. Nafisi nails it: “Lack of empathy was to my mind the central sin of the regime, from which all others flowed.”

The book also usefully recaps the 1979 events. After the Shah’s fall, there was a window in which Iran’s future was up for grabs. Most people wanted an open, secular, democratic constitution. So how did that majority lose out to Khomeini and his medieval vision? Violence. Sustained, unrestrained, brutal ultra-violence. Many thousands killed. And why not? After all, it was God’s work. That sanctifies any and all horrors. “Lack of empathy” indeed!

Say what you will about America’s religious fundamentalists and their political assertiveness, they don’t even think of shooting opponents, and that’s a very big difference. Non-violent politics is so ingrained in America (and other advanced democracies) that we’re oblivious to how utopian this actually is.


I recently wrote about Pakistan’s being fubar too, again mainly by religious fanaticism. The latest story involves a mentally handicapped Christian girl, Rimsha Misah (said to be 11, her age is disputed), accused of Koran burning. Imprisoned with hardened criminals, she has been granted bail, but still faces the death penalty; her family is in hiding; local Muslims want to burn them all alive. Their imam says he can’t control them. While a Muslim cleric (same guy??) has been charged with planting the burned pages on Rimsha. Meantime the body of a missing Christian boy, Samuel Yaqoob, also 11, has been found showing hideous torture. (You really don’t want to click on that link.) And in Pakistan, most women incarcerated are there for the crime of – get this — being raped.

Western culture is incomparably more moral than Iranian or Pakistani culture.

Reading a book like Nafisi’s always poses the question: why not just leave? But it’s never so simple. Is leaving – and leaving behind all those who can’t leave – a cop-out? In today’s Syria, thousands choose to stand and fight rather than give up and leave. But in Syria at least there is a fight going on. In Nafisi’s Iran, no fight was even possible, and staying literally risked death. Writers and intellectuals are regularly murdered by the regime. Yet she considered it her home, and agonized over the choice.**

In Nafisi’s discussions of literature; of her favorite authors Fitzgerald, Nabokov, Austen, James; the theme of choice looms large. It is through making choices for ourselves that we live our humanity. In the end, Azar Nafisi did make her choice.

Welcome to America.

* She mentions a student who visited abroad and was shocked by the sense of freedom she felt there. In Syria! Everything is relative. (I remember a group of U.S. peace activists, years ago, returned from confabs with Assad and Iranian officials, burbling how decent they seemed. What fools, I thought.)

** My grandfather similarly took his family out of 1930s Germany; but for them, the fortunate ability to leave was hardly a choice at all.