It seems that nowadays, whenever you refuse to criticize China for not being a democracy and not respecting human rights, you will be automatically branded an opportunist, a cynic, or a coward. I am constantly amazed by the subtlety with which the democracy and human rights discourse in the West has been charged with political implications. Let us ask ourselves a simple question: why are the media so obsessed with democracy and human rights in China? Is China perhaps the only country which has such issues? What about, for example, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, India, or Europe?
I argue that the main reason why China has become the focus of a discourse about democratization, is the underlying power struggle between the West, most especially the United States, and China, and that given the extraordinary economic development of the People’s Republic, democracy functions as a compensatory element to differentiate the West’s identity sharply from that of China, and to define an alleged superiority of the West.
First of all, let me clarify that I am not criticizing either democracy as such, or the attempts made by people who believe in democracy to have a dialogue with Chinese individuals or institutional representatives about issues such as democracy and human rights. I am simply trying to draw a clear line between democracy and human rights as a set of values, and the manipulation of these values for other political purposes.
Instead of criticizing China, for instance, why don’t the media discuss about corruption and criminality in Italy? Or about the fact that the current Italian government is not democratically elected? Why don’t we talk about rising poverty and rising right-wing extremism in Greece? Why don’t we engage in a serious discussion about the causes and remedies of hunger in many parts of the world? About the misery of millions of people? In the perception of public opinion, austerity and technocracies in Europe are justifiable, even necessary, and Southern Europeans are often portrayed as lazy people who should be punished. So we tacitly accept that democracy in Europe might be endangered if unemployment and social unrest rise, without apparently being very alarmed about it. Poverty and corruption in India or Africa are things that seem not to be worth discussing as often as we debate poverty and corruption in China. When it comes to the Middle Kingdom, it seems that the moral standards of public opinion suddenly become very high.
Media work like a magnifying glass which enlarges the problems in one country, and completely ignores, or at best mentions only sporadically, the contradictions of other countries. As I suggested before, the reason is deeply rooted in the Western power discourse that began after the end of World War II.
When the United States and the Soviet Union emerged as the two sole world superpowers, the old Western imperialistic, hierarchic worldview merged with the new Cold War narrative. It was Sir Winston Churchill who, in the light of British decline, pushed the United States to take the role which had belonged to the British Empire. America adopted a policy of leadership different and in many ways more humane than the old-style Pax Britannica, though it wasn’t completely devoid of cruelty (like in Vietnam) and of hubris. Power had shifted from Europe to the United States, but in the eyes of the West it was still reassuringly in the hands of a Western country.
It’s worth remembering that the ascendance of Japan sparked fear in the West, a fear which was similar to the one Western countries feel towards China today, and which was only mitigated by the fact that Japan, having lost the war, knew that it had to accept a position lower than the United States’ in the hierarchy of nations. Nevertheless, until the economic bubble burst, suddenly stopping Japan’s astonishing growth, Japanophobia was widespread. The title of a 1991 PBS documentary, “Losing the War with Japan”, might sound odd nowadays, but it reflects the fears of Western people back then [watch video].
When the Cold War ended, the triumph of America and its Western Allies seemed a fait accompli. The rise of the “Little Dragons” didn’t seem to pose a threat to Western domination. In hindsight, the economic success of the Asian Dragons should have prompted the West to analyse their economic model and maybe to learn from them. In many ways, the development of China would have been less surprising, had Western observers not believed too much in their own political, economic and cultural dogmas.
When it became clear, in the late 1990’s, that China, this huge country which for centuries had been perceived as poor and backward, was undergoing the most amazing process of modernization of the last hundred years, public opinion in the West couldn’t cope with this fact. All of a sudden, the world order that had been taken for granted was being questioned. Hysteria and panic were followed by self-reassurances and the reaffirmation of the own moral superiority. Anger, hopelessness, hubris – contradictory feelings began to dominate the China discourse. The West is still not ready to accept the reality of the present and the challenges of the future.
While the free market dogma proves more and more problematic, with the West experiencing decades of poor growth and de-industrialization, trade deficits and an erosion of the middle-class, China’s quick and solid industrialization has been impressive, prompting many in the West to view China with a mix of admiration, envy, and at the same time an instinctive contemptuous rejection of her economic model.
In this vacuum left by its dwindling material advantage, democracy has become the West’s only tool to assert its superiority. In this respect, the criticism of the Communist government, except for continuing the traditional practices of the Cold War era, is also the last way in which the West can try to redefine its relationship with China without losing its claim to be entitled to lead and dominate the world (at least morally), having the absolute certainty that the goal of freedom and democracy is a righteous one. This dynamic is dangerous, because it is subtle and often hidden behind fear and hubris. In fact, it is far easier to construct the image of an enemy when one is certain of one’s own moral superiority. And when an enemy, a threat have been created in the collective subconscious, the need for action in order to eradicate what one sees as a deadly menace becomes more pressing, and easier to justify.
Mo Yan’s Nobel Prize award is only the last example of this ongoing, undeclared power struggle. The Western public asked from a writer, who is also a member of the Communist Party, to challenge the Chinese authorities, and to plead for the release of human rights activist Liu Xiaobo. Defending a man who has been deprived of his freedom is without doubt a noble act, and I am not saying that Western media or organizations shouldn’t demand that he be discharged.
But what is the relationship between a Nobel Prize in Literature and a Chinese activist? Why is it so important that a man who creates art should support certain political ideas? Why do media focus on his political views and demand from him certain statements, instead of celebrating his talent and career? Some people say that he was afraid of speaking out the truth. Maybe. But who has the right to judge another man because he is afraid? I admire people who have courage. For example, the Italian journalist and writer Roberto Saviano, who wrote a book about the mafia (more specifically, the Camorra). I admire him. Because he stood up for the rights of those who are oppressed by the mafia, and because he put his life in danger and is now under police surveillance after receiving murder threats. But can I blame people who are not as courageous as him? Well, I don’t. I can’t. Not everyone is a hero. Most people aren’t.
The real reason why Mo Yan was criticized so vehemently is the power struggle which the West hopes to win by using democracy as a political tool. We collectively experience a sense of threat when we don’t lambaste China. We think that we shouldn’t show weakness or make compromises. We are trying to mobilize public opinion in this undeclared, but ongoing ideological war against a country that many already consider an enemy. By doing so, we create an enemy. If we want to talk about Liu Xiaobo or human rights, let’s do it. But let’s not politicize literature and art. Let’s not politicize the media. Let’s not construct a new Cold War.
We lived for forty years with the Soviet Union and other dictatorships. It should be much easier to co-exist with China, which is much more open and international than any Communist country ever was.
There is only one way we can spread democracy and human rights. By being a good example for others. We should fix our economies, create more equality and improve our own democratic institutions. The best strategy to promote values that we consider good is to inspire other people, to make them say: “That’s how we want to be.” And we are not going to achieve this, as long as we fight deceitful ideological battles and don’t improve ourselves.