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Human Rights Quarterly 23.4 (2001) 1098-1105

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Book Review

Rights Beyond Borders: The Global Community and the Struggle over Human Rights in China

Rights Beyond Borders: The Global Community and the Struggle over Human Rights in China, by Rosemary Foot (Oxford University Press, 2000).

In May of 2001 the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences invited a few western "experts" on human rights to come to Beijing for a dialogue with their Chinese counterparts under the theme of human rights in foreign policy. In preparation for that meeting I read two new treatments on human rights and China, by Ming Wan and Rosemary Foot. I found both of them helpful, although they may not be in full agreement on the future. Ming argues that China has basically outsmarted its western interlocutors regarding human rights for now. He is mostly non-committal about where China might be headed in the future. Foot, while not disagreeing about the lack of substantive change thus far on rights in China, seems more optimistic about the effect of the human rights dialogue on China in the long run. This difference in orientation stems partly from whether one believes states act primarily on the basis of traditional national interests egoistically defined in terms of power and independence, or whether they can alter those interests on the basis of changing identities and non-instrumental or non-self-serving values.

Ming, professor of public and international affairs at George Mason University, and writing in an admirably clear and concise style, argues that human rights is indeed an important subject in western diplomacy toward China. 1 But he goes on to say that China has engaged in adaptive learning to parry the western thrust, and has become adept at fending off western efforts aimed at producing substantive change.

Foot, Professor of International Relations at St. Antony's College at the University of Oxford, and writing in a less direct style, says that China has been "drawn steadily into the discourse on human rights." 2 She argues that "the transformation of Chinese discourse in this area, its expanded involvement with this issue, and domestic policy reform in the fields of criminal and other related legislation do represent significant and essential steps on the long road to full acceptance of human rights norms." 3

Ming suggests something that I found quite evident in Beijing during May of 2001. In my opinion because Chinese foreign policy on human rights and most other subjects is overwhelmingly realist, and thus devoted to a narrow national [End Page 1098] interest defined in egoistical and power terms, many on the Chinese side assume that western foreign policy is similar. Thus for many of our counterparts at the meeting sponsored by CASS, and largely funded by the Canadian government, there is a tendency to assume that western diplomacy on human rights represents a renewed effort to weaken and discredit China--similar to past efforts especially during the Twentieth Century. The idea that at least some western actors might be motivated by liberal rather than realist concerns, and thus genuinely interested in the fate of individuals in foreign countries, is difficult for the Chinese side to understand and accept. Hence as Ming explains, there is much resentment in official Chinese circles regarding western interest in the subject of human rights, giving rise to a reinforced and narrow nationalism. 4

Ming notes, 5 and both sides at the CASS meeting agreed, that human rights did not loom large in western diplomacy as long as the West saw China in the 1971-1989 period in realist terms--which is to say as a counter-weight to the Soviet Union. Indeed this western neglect of human rights in China has been documented in this Quarterly. 6 For many on the Chinese side, the west became interested in human rights in China only when China began its rather spectacular economic and military growth after 1978, hence one reason for the interpretation that a western focus on rights is a realist effort to destabilize and weaken the awakening Chinese dragon. Ming, like other scholars, stresses the Chinese...


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