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New Literary History 33.1 (2002) 171-187

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Rights Discourse in the Age of U.S./China Trade 1

Paul A. Bové

The age of neoliberalism in economics and politics has coincided with a great deal of public and academic discussion of human rights in China and America and much of the rest of the world. There are at least two obvious explanations of this coincidence. Depending largely upon one's place within the new world order, one might say either that as economic and political liberalism displace tyranny and authoritarianism, along come human rights and the necessary discussion of and struggle for the same. Or, if one is already in an advanced economy with a form of parliamentary democracy and looking abroad, one could offer a causal explanation for this coincidence: first come the dislocations and abuses of neoliberal policies and practices and then come assertions of natural human rights in the face of pain and abuse. There is a great deal of force to these accounts, but they leave a great deal to consider.

This essay argues that during the Clinton administration especially the U.S. government developed an intense interest in the rhetoric and ideology of human rights as part and parcel of the U.S. desire to establish neoliberal economic dominance across as much of the world as possible. Human rights talk functioned as part of the U.S. effort to extend a liberal market across the globe, especially in China, justifying that expansion, in large part, with the promise that markets will provide the economic freedom from which rights must follow--a promise resting itself on an assertion that the market's proper pure function requires liberal political arrangements such as constitutions and legal systems in which human rights can find a protected home. In essence, the Clinton administration's global policies made an economic political weapon of human rights talk to serve the U.S. ambition of global hegemony.

In the case of China, this talk and the interests underlying it found allies in several quarters. Newspapers and journal articles make this clear and a number of important critical scholarly discussions refine and develop the general point. 2 Intellectuals have debated the value of human rights and talk about them for a very long time. This discussion, [End Page 171] from Hobbes to Lee Kuan Yew, contributes to both the formation of the nation-state and individuals' relations within and to it. 3 In recent years, especially since Michel Foucault's suspicious critique of rights, 4 particularly women and other "marginal" organic intellectuals, have developed a defense of rights discourse both to force the liberal state to extend citizenship protection to oppressed minorities and to pressure authoritarian regimes to reduce their use of torture and coercion. 5 This important debate could be resolved in a number of ways. If a claim to human rights emerges from a specific social struggle, most likely it is to be supported except when it appears to analysis to lead to undesired and unintended consequences. In the case of the relations between China and the U.S., specific class and state elements share common interests even if these interests have different values in their particular situation. Furthermore, similar discourses, similar knowledges form a shared common-sense and way of talking. Speaking about the dominant knowledge and discipline in the People's Republic of China (P.R.C.), Wang Hui testifies that: "Today, of course, the dominant discipline in China is neo-classical economics. This is a development of the nineties. . . . after 1990, Hayekian ideas gained real ascendancy. Today economics--understood in its most rigidly liberal acceptation--has acquired the force of an ethics in China. Laissez faire axioms form a code of conduct, as rules of the commodity which no agent may violate. So currently economics is not just a technical discipline, any more than its predecessors [as a dominant discipline]: it too is an imperative world view" (FCG 94f).

Wang Hui accounts for the dominance of neoliberal discourse among China's elites and knowledge producers in...


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