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Human Rights Quarterly 24.4 (2002) 1035-1053

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Human Rights in China and the United States:
Competing Visions and Discrepant Performances

Steve Chan*


I. Introduction

Important differences exist between the Chinese and US political systems and cultures. Yet they share one seemingly paradoxical similarity. Each sees itself as a special, if not unique, case that at the same time somehow offers a worthy model for emulation by others. Whether described as the Middle Kingdom syndrome, Manifest Destiny, or American exceptionalism, popular self-attribution assigns to each country a particularly favorable, indeed central, status in the community of nations. This self-image, however, is often accompanied by a strong isolationist streak with an open disdain for the rest of the world. Paradoxically, the views and conduct of both countries also evince a self-appointed messianic role, assuming as a matter of course that their values, institutions, and practices should naturally be a source of inspiration for and a target of admiration and imitation by others. Thus, notwithstanding self-attribution of distinctness, each sees itself as the embodiment of universal principles. There appears to be little discomfort in this apparent contradiction—and little awareness of the shared proclivity for self-assured ethnocentrism and missionary zeal for converts.

Both countries also appear to be remarkably at ease in moving in and out of phases of love and hate—repeating seemingly alternating cycles of cordiality and confrontation. Periods of mutual admiration and enchantment (remember the euphoria accompanying Richard Nixon's "opening" of [End Page 1035] China?) can quickly give way to periods of critical disdain and even outright hostility. Many officials, journalists, scholars, and ordinary citizens of both countries seem immune to any cognitive dissonance when yesterday's strategic ally is mysteriously transformed into today's security threat.

It is difficult to explain this "sweet and sour" quality of Sino-American relations in terms of what China or the United States did. After all, the breakthrough in Sino-American rapprochement occurred in the wake of some of the worst violations of basic human rights in China when literally millions of people were persecuted and an untold number killed during the so-called Cultural Revolution. These atrocities did not deter Washington from seeking detente with Beijing and a united front to contain Moscow. Nor did the fact that the United States (US) was fighting a war against China's communist ally stop Beijing from pursuing this rapprochement. Since 1972, the US had disengaged from Vietnam and the economic conditions and social freedoms, if not political rights, of the Chinese people had improved immensely as a result of the reforms launched under Deng Xiaoping. Yet tension between the two countries has mounted rather than abated.

How could this be? Some people may point to the changes in the international balance of forces. The disintegration of the Soviet Union enabled uncontested US hegemony, making China's partnership dispensable and changing Beijing's status (along with Baghdad and Belgrade) to a candidate for Washington's "substitute enemies." Others may refer to more profound and enduring differences in the Chinese and American political economy and political culture—in what they are or think or see themselves to be. These differences are not haphazard or ephemeral. Rather they are the defining characteristics of these systems. They form integral elements of their self-image and professed ideology, and constitute the core institutions of their respective societies. They are persistent and deeply entrenched. While submerged during periods of cordiality, they re-emerge as points of contention during downturns in Sino-American relations. When expressed as the uncompromising ideals of Maoist egalitarianism or American individualism, the divergent views and values motivate competitive attempts to seize the moral high-ground in campaigns more designed to score rhetorical points than to affect actual behavior.

The cultural and political differences in question have to do with popular ethos and customary practice pertaining to matters such as the legitimacy and priority to be accorded to competition versus collaboration, contest versus harmony, work versus leisure, savings versus consumption, equity versus liberty, and personal...


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