Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a professor of history at UC, Irvine, is a co-founder of The China Beat (a group blog) and the author, most recently, of the forthcoming China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know.
In the best of all possible worlds, 8-8-08 will be the luckiest of dates for China, as the Olympic Games put the country on display. Or it could become a real nightmare.
Three new books on China invite the West to give up simplistic dreams
and nightmares and come to terms with a complex and rapidly evolving
A hundred days ago Wu'er Kaixi was a fugitive.... Yesterday, before an
audience of 800 Americans and Chinese at Brandeis University, he showed
what brought a 21-year-old Beijing Normal School student to the head of
an earth-shaking movement.
He sang a song about a wolf.
And he told people who had listened to two days of often-ponderous
analysis of the student movement that Chinese rock music composers Qin
Qi of Taiwan and Cui Jian of mainland China were more important to the
students than the dissident physicist Fang Lizhi...
The auditorium buzzed with the gasps and whispers of delighted students
and their bewildered elders.
(Boston Globe, September 18, 1989)
John Sebastian's famous lyric about the impossibility of "trying to tell
a stranger about rock and roll" notwithstanding, it was a special moment
indeed when Wu'er Kaixi--the flamboyant Tiananmen student
leader--attempted to do just that. I know. I was one of the strangers
who heard him sing Qin Qi's "Wolf From the North" and explain what its
celebration of individualism meant to his generation. The students
agreed with senior dissidents that institutions must change, he said,
but what they yearned for most was to live in a freer society. (The
anniversary of the Beijing massacre recently passed, on June 4.)
When I witnessed Wu'er's performance, even though I was no longer a
student and even though I had misgivings about any single activist
claiming to speak for the Tiananmen generation, I was definitely in the
"delighted" camp. One reason was that I was in Shanghai in 1986 when
demonstrations occurred that helped lay the groundwork for those of
1989. I was struck then by the Western media's tendency to overstate the
dissident Fang Lizhi's impact. Students found his speeches inspiring,
but other things also triggered protests: complaints about compulsory
calisthenics, for example, and a scuffle at--of all things--a Jan and
Another reason Wu'er's performance pleased me was that I was to give a
presentation at Harvard the next evening and planned to talk about a
song, albeit one without a backbeat: "Frère Jacques." Why that
one? Because Chinese youth often put new lyrics to it during pre-1949
protests, Red Guards did likewise in the 1960s and the Tiananmen
protesters had just followed suit. Wu'er used a new song to argue for
his generation's uniqueness. But I used an old one to show how often he
and others had reworked (albeit often unconsciously) a rich inherited
I also pointed out that the lyrics to the latest version of
"Frère Jacques" (which began "Down With Li Peng, Down With Li
Peng, Deng Xiaoping, Deng Xiaoping," and which went on to refer to these
and other Communist Party leaders as "bullies") expressed contempt for
corrupt, autocratic officials.
A desire for reform and personal freedom helped get students onto the
streets--not just in Beijing but in scores of Chinese cities. A major
reason that workers joined them there in such large numbers, though, was
moral outrage, widespread disgust with power-holders whose attachment to
the ideals of the Communist revolution of 1949 had seemingly disappeared
completely. The country's leaders now seemed only to care about
protecting their privileged positions. And this meant, I argued, that
there were topical as well as melodic links between 1989 and some
protests of the first half of the century. During the civil war era
(1945-49), for example, demonstrators criticized the ruling Nationalist
Party's leaders for being corrupt and abandoning the ideals of the
revolution that had brought them to power.
In the many books on the events of 1989 published in Chinese and Western
languages in the past dozen years, the uniqueness of the Tiananmen
generation, the root causes of their activism and the songs that
inspired them have all been handled in still different ways from the two
just described. Most notably, when it comes to music, many Tiananmen
books--including the two under review--have singled out for special
attention one of two songs that neither Wu'er Kaixi nor I discussed.
These are a Communist anthem (the "Internationale") and a composition by
Taiwan pop star Hou Dejian ("Heirs of the Dragon"). Students frequently
sang these songs throughout the demonstrations of mid-April through late
May. And each was sung a final time by the last group of students to
leave Tiananmen Square on June 4, during a pre-dawn exodus that took
them through the nearby streets, which had just been turned into killing
fields by the People's Liberation Army.
Zhao Dingxin's The Power of Tiananmen is the latest in a long
line of works to treat the "Internationale" as the movement's most
revealing song. He claims, in a section on "The Imprint of Communist
Mass Mobilization," that students were drawn to it because it is
"rebellious in spirit" and because a steady diet of post-1949
party-sponsored "revolutionary dramas and films" in which the song
figured had made singing it "a standard way of expressing" discontent
with the status quo. In this section, as elsewhere in his study, Zhao
stresses the importance of history in shaping 1989, but he sees only the
preceding forty years as directly relevant. In contrast to my approach,
which linked the pre-Communist and Communist eras, he distinguishes
sharply between (nationalistic) pre-1949 protests and the
("pro-Western") Tiananmen ones.
The Monkey and the Dragon mentions the "Internationale" and many
other compositions (from Cui Jian's rousing "Nothing to My Name" to the
punk-rock song "Garbage Dump"), but the gently lilting "Heirs" gets most
attention. This is to be expected. Linda Jaivin's book is not a
Tiananmen study per se (though 170 pages of it deal with 1989) but a
biography of Hou Dejian. This fascinating singer-songwriter grew up in
Taiwan and, while still in his 20s, saw "Heirs" become a hit (and be
appropriated for political purposes) on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.
Soon afterward, he surprised everyone (even close friends like Jaivin)
by defecting to the mainland--only to quickly become a gadfly to the
Hou ended up playing key roles in 1989 both as a songwriter (he penned a
song for the movement, "Get Off the Stage," which called on aging
leaders like Deng to retire) and eventually as a direct participant. He
stayed aloof from the movement at first, but from late May onward threw
himself into it with abandon. In short order, he flew to Hong Kong to
perform in a fundraiser, returned to Beijing to join other intellectuals
in a hunger strike, then helped negotiate a temporary cease-fire that
allowed that last group of youths to leave the square on June 4. In 1990
the party shipped him back across the strait, making him, as Jaivin puts
it, with typical irreverence and stylistic flair, "the first Taiwan
defector to be returned to sender."
Patriotism is the central theme of "Heirs" (the "Dragon" in its title is
China), and Jaivin argues that this explains the song's appeal to a
generation of Chinese students who (like many of their predecessors) saw
themselves as charged with an epic mission to save their homeland from
misrule. According to Jaivin, this patriotism occasionally blurred into
a narrow jingoism of a sort that appalled Hou--particularly because his
song was used to express it. Her discussion of "Heirs" thus plays up
1989's nationalistic side and links it both backward (to pre-1949
struggles by youths determined to save their country) and forward (to
such events as the anti-NATO demonstration that broke out when the
Chinese Embassy in Belgrade was hit by US warplanes in 1999).
These opening comments on music are meant to convey three things. First,
China's 1989 was a complex, multifaceted struggle (not a simple
"democracy" movement). Second, in part because of this, the events of
that year remain open to competing interpretations, even among those of
us who dismiss (as everyone should) Beijing's self-serving "Big Lie"
about the government's supposed need to use force to pacify
"counterrevolutionary" riots. Third--and this is a much more general
point--providing a clear picture of a multifaceted movement is never
This is because one has to grapple continually not only with big
questions of interpretation but also numerous small ones of
detail--right down to picking which songs to discuss. This is true
whether the protesters in question are American or Chinese and whether
the person doing the grappling is a former participant (like Wu'er), a
cultural historian (like me), a dispassionate sociologist (like Zhao) or
an impassioned, iconoclastic, frequently entertaining, often insightful
and sometimes self-indulgent
journalist-turned-novelist-turned-biographer (like Jaivin). Whatever the
movement, whoever the writer, contrasting approaches to small matters
can create big gaps in overall perspective.
Leaving China aside, consider how minor divergences can create major
differences in presentations of an American student movement--that of
the 1960s--depending on the answers given to the following questions:
When exactly did this movement begin and end? Which student activists
and which nonstudents (leaders of related struggles, radical
philosophers, singers, politicians) had the largest impact? How much
weight should we give to the protesters' stated goals? How much to
actions that contradicted these? Were countercultural elements central
or peripheral to the movement? Give one set of answers and Abbie Hoffman
gets a chapter to himself, but give another and he becomes a footnote.
The same goes for everyone from Mario Savio to Malcolm X, Herbert
Marcuse to Jane Fonda, Jimi Hendrix to Ronald Reagan. It also goes for
such events as the Free Speech Movement (too early?), be-ins
(irrelevant?) and the first gay-pride parades (too late?).
Accounts of student movements can also diverge, depending on the answers
given to more basic questions. If one has complete data and knows a lot
about "political opportunity structures" and "rational choice analysis,"
can one explain all dimensions of a movement? Or will some things remain
mysterious, such as the moment when a nonviolent event turns violent or
the process by which a song or chant assumes talismanic properties? Do
we need to leave room for spontaneous, even irrational individual
choices? To put this another way, do we need to make analytic space for
what might best be termed--for lack of a more precise word--magic? I
mean by this both the black magic that transforms a group of individuals
into a lynch mob and the glorious sort that leads to brave acts of
It may be true that the potential for divergence between accounts is
unusually great in that particular case, due to the struggle's
protracted nature and connections to other upheavals, especially the
civil rights movement. And yet, anyone who reads Zhao's study and then
Jaivin's book may doubt this. Tiananmen was comparatively short-lived
and self-contained, yet accounts of China's 1989 spin off in
dramatically different directions.
This is not to say that Zhao's and Jaivin's treatments of Tiananmen
never converge. You could even claim that for works by such different
authors--Jaivin's previous writings include a rollicking novel called
Eat Me, while Zhao's peer-reviewed scholarly articles are
peppered with charts and tables--their books have much in common. One
author may rely on things she observed and was told in 1989, the other
on interviews conducted later according to social scientific protocols,
but some of their narrative choices are the same. For instance, each
focuses tightly on Beijing as a site of protest (it was actually just
one of many) and of state violence (there was also a massacre in
Chengdu). And each pays relatively little attention to workers.
Still, it is the divergences between the discussions of 1989 that remain
most striking. There are people Jaivin discusses in detail (Cui Jian)
who are not even listed in Zhao's index. And there are aspects of the
struggle analyzed insightfully by Zhao that are ignored by Jaivin--what
Zhao calls "campus ecology" (the physical structures and social patterns
of student life) for instance. His treatment of the way this shaped 1989
is excellent, yet the topic falls outside the scope of Jaivin's
The two authors also treat previous studies very differently. Take
sociologist Craig Calhoun's justly acclaimed 1994 study Neither Gods
Nor Emperors. Zhao cites it several times (sometimes approvingly,
sometimes to criticize Calhoun for making too much of 1989's links to
pre-1949 events and patterns); Jaivin never mentions it. On the other
hand, she draws heavily on works by Geremie Barmé, a leading
Australian China specialist whom Zhao never cites. Jaivin's reliance on
Barmé is no surprise: The two co-edited a superb
Tiananmen-related document collection, New Ghosts, Old Dreams,
were married for a time (Monkey includes a diverting account of
their courtship) and remain close friends. What is surprising is that
none of Barmé's writings are listed in Zhao's bibliography. This
wouldn't matter except that some specialists (myself included) think him
among the most consistently insightful and on-target analysts of Chinese
culture and politics.
Switching from references to events, we again find divergences. For
example, only Jaivin refers to the 1988 campus riots in which young
African men were attacked. In these incidents, some male Chinese
students--of the same Tiananmen generation that would soon do such
admirable things--lashed out against African males whose freer
lifestyles they envied. The rioters also expressed outrage at efforts by
the black exchange students to establish sexual liaisons with Chinese
women. That only Jaivin mentions these racist incidents is illustrative
of a general pattern. Zhao criticizes the Tiananmen generation for
strategic mistakes, factionalism and political immaturity but otherwise
veers toward hagiography. Jaivin takes a warts-and-all approach to her
heroes. Hou gets chided for egotism and sexism, and the students for
their tendency to be elitist (toward workers) and antiforeign (on
occasion even toward Westerners).
Surprisingly, given Jaivin's greater fascination with pop culture, among
the many events that she ignores but that Zhao mentions is the Jan and
Dean concert fracas. I was glad to see Zhao allude to this November 1986
event (few analysts of 1989 have), but found his comments problematic.
He states that demonstrations began in Shanghai "as a protest against
the arrest and beating of students after many students danced on the
stage" with the surf-rock band. Soon, the movement's focus shifted to
"democracy and other issues," Zhao continues, when news arrived of
campus unrest in Hefei (where Fang Lizhi taught). The protests there
were triggered by complaints about cafeteria food and manipulated local
elections. This is accurate but leaves out a significant twist: The buzz
around Shanghai campuses had a class-related dimension. Students
complained that concert security guards had treated their classmates
like mere "workers," not intellectuals-in-the-making, the flower of
China's youth. And while this sort of elitism was tempered a bit during
the 1989 mass movement, it never disappeared.
In the end, though, where Jaivin and Zhao really part company has to do
with something more basic than choices about whom to cite or even how
critical to be of activists. It comes from the fact that only one
(Jaivin) leaves space for magic. Zhao is influenced by a recent (and
welcome) development in social movement theory: a commitment to paying
more attention to emotion. And yet, in his hands, this emotional turn
amounts to only a minor shift in emphasis. It is as though, to him, a
sense of disgust or feelings of pride can be factored into existing
equations quite easily, without disrupting a basic approach that relies
heavily on assessing structural variables, the sway of formal ideologies
and rational calculations of risk.
In Jaivin's book, magic--of varying sorts--figures centrally. Even the
book's title is a nod toward the magical, since the "Monkey" in it
refers to the most famous trickster character in Chinese culture, the
mischief-loving hero of the novel Journey From the West, with
whom Hou apparently identifies. A major characteristic of Monkey (in the
novel) and Hou (in Jaivin's biography) is an ability to transform
himself and contribute to the transformation of others--something often
associated with spells of enchantment.
When it comes to the magical aspects of Tiananmen, Jaivin stresses the
"magnetic pull" (Barmé's term) that the square exerted. And she
emphasizes that the 1989 movement was full of unexpected developments
that perplexed even those who knew Chinese politics intimately. In
addition, she gives a good sense of how often people did peculiar,
seemingly contradictory things. For example, she writes that Hou was
convinced by late May that the students should leave the square before
the regime cleared it by force. Only by living on could they build on
what they had accomplished and continue to work to change China, he
felt, as did many others. And yet, Hou flew to Hong Kong, even though he
knew the funds raised by the concert there would help the students
extend their occupation of the square. He could never explain why he did
this, and I doubt any "model" can do justice to his choice. Moreover,
Hou was not the only one to find himself doing inexplicable things as
magic moments followed one another at a dizzying speed that spring.
Those who know little about Tiananmen can learn more from Zhao than from
Jaivin (even if they find her more fun to read). And specialists will
come away from his book with more new data. In the end, though, I think
Jaivin gets closer to the heart of 1989. I say this in part because I
agree with her on several points (the role of nationalism, for example).
But my main reason for preferring her book is my conviction that with
Tiananmen--and perhaps many mass movements--you have to take seriously
not just structures and calculations of interest but also passion and
The composition of the UN's Commission on Human Rights changes annually, since a third of the seats are up for grabs each year. Elections, which take place in the spring, determine which countries will be granted new three-year terms and which will cycle off come December 31. Ever since the body was founded in 1947, however, there have been three constant firmaments in this otherwise ever-changing galaxy. There have always been seats held by India, Russia and the United States. But this tradition will come to a halt next January 1: India's and Russia's representatives will still be there, but an American one will not.The United States was voted off the Commission on Human Rights this past spring. It also lost its place on the UN body that monitors the international drug trade.
Whenever there is a break from a long-standing pattern, it is tempting to focus on short-term causes. Critics of the new Administration are eager to see these two votes as a negative judgment on its unilateral approach to the arms race, cold war nostalgia and reversal of course on the Kyoto Protocols on global warming. Defenders of President George W. Bush, meanwhile, stress bad timing: The UN elections came while China was upset about the Administration's "tough" (though,to some hawks, not tough enough) handling of the spy-plane incident and while tensions in the Middle East were rising--something that presumably encouraged Arab states to join Beijing in voting against the United States.
However, one thing that the books under review make clear, each in its own way, is the need to place the issue in a long-term perspective. For example, Oxford-based diplomatic historian Rosemary Foot reminds us in Rights Beyond Borders that tensions between China and the United States were playing themselves out in Geneva, where the Commission on Human Rights meets, long before the term EP-3 became known to the American public. Moreover, as Robert Drinan (a Jesuit priest and former Democratic Congressman) and Noam Chomsky show in The Mobilization of Shame and Rogue States , respectively, too much can be made of the novelties of the new Bush Administration's policies.
Before going any further, let me stress that I do not mean to suggest that Drinan, much less Chomsky, is a fan of George II's approach to international affairs. Even though The Mobilization of Shame and Rogue States were completed before George W. began exerting influence in foreign policy, after all, there is plenty of criticism in both of an Administration that contained some of the same key players and was motivated by the same guiding principles as this one: his father's. For example, Drinan laments that during the "twelve years of the Reagan-Bush administrations," the United States was not "aggressively proactive" in the "defense of human rights." Chomsky is blunter: It is odd, he claims, that though Reagan and Bush liked to think of themselves as "guardians of global order," both had "unusually warm relations" with dictators, including some, such as Saddam Hussein, they would eventually come to call "mass murderers."
In other words, tempting as it might have been for Drinan and Chomsky to place the blame for the commission votes at the feet of the new President, neither would do so if given the opportunity, nor would they even say that only Republican administrations have been at fault. Why? Because both see enduring flaws in Washington's approach to human rights, flaws that transcend the Democrat-Republican divide. Drinan, not surprisingly, has more positive things to say about some Democratic leaders of the past than does Chomsky. Drinan praises Jimmy Carter, for example, for delivering speeches on freedom that "gave hope and inspiration to countless dissidents" and helped "the idea of human rights to enter the political and moral coinage of the nation and to some extent of the world." Nevertheless, Drinan, like Chomsky, argues that for decades there has been too little consistency and too much hubris in the American handling of human rights no matter who has occupied the Oval Office.
The Mobilization of Shame and Rogue States are, of course, very dissimilar books, as anyone familiar with the careers of the authors would expect. They differ in style: The former is more personal, the latter more extensively documented. They differ in emphasis: Drinan has more to say about religious freedom. And they differ in terminology: Only Chomsky says that the label "rogue state" can be logically applied to the United States as well as countries such as Iraq. Chomsky's basis for this provocative claim is that, in its "literal" as opposed to merely "propagandistic" sense, the term "rogue state" refers to those that feel free to override the directives of international bodies and "do not regard themselves as bound by international norms." By this standard, the Reagan Administration behaved like a "rogue state" regime when it denied the validity of a world court decision favoring Nicaragua, and the Clinton Administration did the same when it claimed NATO was free to act independently of the UN in Kosovo. Chomsky cites other past instances of military intervention in Southeast Asia and the Middle East as further evidence of a US tendency to take unilateral action that has far too often run amok. Drinan, though also critical of unilateralism, stops far short of calling the United States a "rogue state."
Still, when it comes to US Human Rights policies, there are important points of convergence between the two authors beyond a shared conviction that both Democratic and Republican administrations have erred. And they differ in emphasis: Chomsky says much more about military intervention, less about religious freedom.
For example, neither Drinan nor Chomsky accepts the notion all too commonly taken for granted here (though not in Europe, let alone China) that Washington's vision of human rights has always been that articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. Each stresses, on the contrary, that Washington frequently shows disdain for two central tenets of that great UN document. First, that social and economic freedoms, on the one hand, and political and civil rights, on the other, should be accorded similar status. Second, that the Universal Declaration represents many different rights traditions, hence no single nation has a special claim as its main progenitor. Washington has flouted these ideas by signing covenants dealing with political and civil rights but refusing to do the same for ones dealing with social and economic freedoms, and by treating the Universal Declaration as just an updated version of our Bill of Rights.
To appreciate fully these criticisms by Drinan and Chomsky, it is useful to supplement their discussions of UN documents with those of Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard Law School. I am thinking here of her elegant new study, A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and of her pathbreaking 1998 Notre Dame Law Review essay on the subject, which Chomsky draws on in Rogue States. Glendon stresses that the first incarnation of the Commission on Human Rights, which was responsible for creating the Universal Declaration, was a cosmopolitan group, the members of which were influenced by and spoke for diverse traditions. On the commission were not just an American social reformer and former First Lady but also a Confucian intellectual, a French legal scholar and a Lebanese philosopher. On it also sat Mehta Hansa, the female delegate from India who convinced the group to avoid gendered language and refer to the rights that "all human beings," not just "all men," deserve.
Glendon stresses that the UN's 1948 document champions a holistic vision of human rights that owes much to the precedents set by the declarations of 1776 and 1789 but is not reflective only of Anglo-American and French traditions. She also emphasizes the concerted effort Eleanor Roosevelt and others made to insure that protection of "second generation" rights (for example, to shelter and decent working conditions) was considered a central feature of their document.
Drinan and Chomsky both find much to admire in the Universal Declaration's holistic approach to rights, something taken still further in the Vienna Declaration of 1993, which emerged from a conference the former attended as a delegate. To be sure, Drinan's optimism and Chomsky's pessimism concerning contemporary political conditions colors their comments on the Universal Declaration. Drinan calls it "the most important legal document in the history of the world" and celebrates the fact that the ideals proclaimed in it and in other UN documents have given rise to an "astonishing dream." Despite the horrors of the past half-century, he writes, "the progress and advancement in the area of human rights since 1945 has actually been more spectacular than might have been expected or even imagined." Chomsky strikes a more somber tone in a pair of essays, reprinted in Rogue States , that were written to mark the Universal Declaration's fiftieth anniversary. For example, he begins one by saying that so many people continue to suffer unjustly that admirers of the document should think of the famous Confucian adage that described the Master as the sort of virtuous person "who keeps trying although he knows that it is in vain."
There is no disagreement between these two authors, however, when it comes to the importance of the Universal Declaration's refusal to relegate social and economic rights to a secondary status. Both insist, like Glendon, that the United States has failed to live up to the spirit of 1948 by unduly privileging, in its practice and rhetoric, those political and civil rights that loom particularly large in the American tradition. Drinan and Chomsky also take issue with US resistance to the idea, which many in other countries argue is a direct extension of the logic of the Universal Declaration, that the "right to development" is fundamental. Each might also have stressed,as Glendon does, that downplaying material concerns marks a divergence from the ideals propounded by the husband of the best-known drafter of the Universal Declaration: Freedom from want was one the "Four Freedoms" Franklin Roosevelt described in a famous speech.
A different sort of American inconsistency also worries Drinan and Chomsky: Washington's tendency to use different criteria when judging the records of allies as opposed to enemies or competitors. Chomsky is at his best when elaborating on this theme, detailing the many abuses that have been committed by countries supported by or working with the United States to which US political leaders turned a blind eye. Always on the lookout for diplomatic double standards, he finds much grist for his mill here, particularly where Latin America is concerned. He continually contrasts criticisms leveled at Castro with things left unsaid about nearby right-wing authoritarian regimes.
Drinan uses Latin American examples to similar effect. A central theme, for instance, in his discussion of the Fraser Bill is that this admirable piece of mid-1970s legislation, which called for human rights concerns to be made more central to American foreign policy decisions, was inspired by anger over the 1973 coup in Chile. According to Drinan, hearings on the US role in the fall of Allende and rise of Pinochet led members of Congress to feel "embarrassed that the United States in its struggle to stop Soviet aggression ended up arming dictators because they were enemies of our enemy."
These Latin American contrasts work well, but East Asian ones could have done the same rhetorical job. Take, for example, the very different US responses to the Kwangju massacre of 1980 and the Beijing massacre of 1989, events that had much in common. Whether Washington responded vigorously enough to the latter is an open question, though my own feeling remains that the decision to send informal envoys to China within a few months of the June 4killings undermined the efficacy of the first Bush Administration's 1989 censure of Beijing. What is unquestionable is that more was done to show displeasure with the Chinese Communist Party leadership than had been done nine years earlier vis-à-vis South Korea's right-wing authoritarian government.
The contrast relating to the Olympics is particularly stark. In the early 1990s some American politicians insisted that the honor of hosting the 2000 Games should not go to any country that did not hold free elections or had leaders whose hands were stained by the blood of a massacre. Whatever the merits of this argument--a variation of which was heard again in recent months in debates over China's successful bid to host the 2008 Games--it is worth noting that every part of it would have applied to South Korea in the early 1980s. Yet no senator or representative seems to have been troubled then by the idea that Seoul was being considered to host the 1988 Games. In this kind of contrasting response to similar acts of brutality and the assumption that Washington should determine where the Olympic Games are held, even though an international body makes the call, we get a sense of why the recent UN votes went as they did. It is definitely true, as some commentators have noted, that many countries that are much less free than this one will have seats on the Commission on Human Rights next year. At voting time, however, a country's domestic record may matter a good deal less than patterns associated with its handling of international issues.
After reading either The Mobilization of Shame or Rogue States, it becomes abundantly clear that pride certainly went before this particular fall, as did sharp divergences between rhetoric and practice. And the United States has other Achilles' heels as well where human rights are concerned. For example, with China, we are among a dwindling number of countries that conduct executions, something many people in Europe and elsewhere consider a human rights abuse. And even though a central part of human rights ideology is that all lives are of equal value, we often seem disproportionately concerned with the plight of those victims abroad with whom we can most easily identify. Hence the frequent misremembering of the Beijing massacre as an event in which those who died were students lobbying for democracy and carrying banners emblazoned with GIVE ME LIBERTY OR GIVE ME DEATH and similar slogans. In fact, the majority of those killed were workers who had turned out to support the students, largely because of a shared disgust at official corruption.
Should we then see the latest vote for the Commission on Human Rights as a long-overdue wake-up call for a country with a distorted national self-image as a global champion of human rights and clearsighted interpreter of the Universal Declaration? There is something to be said for this notion. And yet, as Rights Beyond Borders shows, there is at least one good reason to lament the loss of a US presence on the commission: While Foot is no apologist for Washington, she does draw attention to the positive things that have come from US efforts in Geneva and elsewhere to bring pressure to bear on Beijing over its record of human rights abuses.
Foot's main interest, unlike Drinan's and Chomsky's, is not the United States, I should stress, but China; so policies and rhetoric emanating from Washington become relevant to her only through the way they are understood in or affect Beijing. Still, in her discussion of China, Chinese-American disputes relating to human rights loom large. Her overall argument, though made with considerable subtlety, can be summarized as follows. Even though the Chinese Communist Party continues to perpetrate many abuses, positive developments have taken place in recent years that, when taken together, mean that many citizens of China now live more freely than they formerly did. Helping these changes along has been Beijing's increasing "enmeshment" in an international human rights regime. And US criticism has facilitated this enmeshment.
Foot sees in China a nearly perfect test case for the proposition that acceptance of international norms really does matter. Few people outside the Chinese Communist Party's inner circle would dispute the claim that serious human rights abuses continue to occur in China. It is also, however, clearly a country that has undergone a dramatic transformation of late where the discourse of human rights is concerned. Twenty-five years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration, the official line was still that this was a bourgeois document designed to cloak the predations of capitalists and imperialists. To speak positively of renquan (human rights) was to risk being dubbed a lackey or a traitor. By 1998, however, the Universal Declaration's fiftieth anniversary was treated in Beijing as a moment for celebration and reflection on the state of an international human rights project of which China considered itself a part. Foot argues that this discursive shift matters. It helped improve some lives and, perhaps more significant in the long run, was accompanied by institutional developments.
One thing she finds promising is that Beijing has shifted from denouncing the Commission on Human Rights to seeking a vigorous voice within it. This is a clear indication that Beijing "has moved--or been shoved--along a winding and bumpy path" toward full integration into a global human rights regime. The diffusion of "human rights norms is neither linear, nor incapable of being periodically halted," she admits, but when "viewed over the longer term, and despite the recent political chill in China, global criticism of China's human rights record" has had positive effects. For example, an "infrastructure that can help to protect human rights has begun to be built, and it stands ready to be drawn upon in the advent of progressive political reform."
American pressure on China has played a role in the growth of this "infrastructure," according to Foot, and has sometimes led as well to specific positive moves, such as the release from prison of prominent dissidents and the signing of UN accords. Once Beijing accepted international human rights standards--even with caveats regarding China's supposedly special status as a less developed country that subscribes to "Asian values"--the ground began to shift beneath the Chinese Communist Party's feet. The government has been forced to develop more sophisticated excuses for its failures, train more specialists in fields like international law, translate more Western works on human rights into Chinese, and so forth. This, at least, is Foot's argument, and she makes it very well. The United States cannot take all the credit for these changes, but Washington's role in doing such things as sponsoring motions in Geneva calling for censure of Beijing has been significant. This is true even though such motions have always been defeated in the end, and even though one result of China's "enmeshment" has been that Chinese counterattacks on the United States as a land of inequality and racial injustice have become much more sophisticated.
Foot's study, though it makes important points and manages to be both scholarly and readable, is marred by one thing: It focuses almost exclusively upon political and civil rights. This choice is understandable. When the global community has criticized Beijing, the tendency has been to emphasize issues like the limits placed on speech, political dissent and religious behavior. Nevertheless, paying more attention to social and economic rights would have made Foot's book even better in two significant ways. It would have put it more in sync with the spirit of 1948, and it would have helped us come to terms with a major new issue: namely, more than two decades into Beijing's Reform Era, during which the government has been slow to replace old social welfare mechanisms with new ones, some of the biggest human rights problems concern social and economic freedoms.
All this suggests that the human rights challenge brought into focus by the recent UN vote is a multifaceted one. In the United States there is a need to find ways to criticize Beijing (and other governments with abhorrent human rights records) that are less hypocritical, patronizing and self-serving. Doing this may even help us regain representation at the Commission on Human Rights. Meanwhile, other countries must pick up the slack in insuring that China continues to be pushed along the "bumpy" road leading to full enmeshment. And Americans concerned with Chinese affairs might do well to follow the lead of NGOs like Human Rights Watch and start paying more attention to social and economic issues. We would do well to combine pleas for the release of persecuted dissidents and Falun Gong members with expressions of outrage over the mistreatment of other vulnerable groups. The most notable of these, perhaps, are the many migrant workers who have poured into Chinese cities only to find themselves in the ironic predicament of being exploited and treated like second-class citizens in a land where the proletariat was supposed to reign supreme.
Bill Clinton and George Will so rarely agree with each other that when they embrace the same position, we should be alarmed. This thought came to mind upon realizing that their stances on the Internet and China are interchangeable--despite Clinton's favoring a softer political line than Will on Beijing. When it comes to the web, both espouse what might best be dubbed a neo-McLuhanite approach, or a form of "McLuhanism with Capitalist Characteristics." The medium (the net) is the message (freedom), both insist, but ideally the market and the modem have to work their respective magics simultaneously. There is something appealing about this vision, but it is deeply flawed. And viewing the future through this particular rose-colored lens can lead observers to misunderstand crises in Chinese-American affairs (and in cross-cultural communications), such as those generated by the recent spy-plane fiasco and the 1999 destruction by NATO bombs of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade.
What exactly is the neo-McLuhanite camp, and why place Clinton and Will inside it? Consider, first, a speech the then-President gave in March 2000 calling for permanent normal trade relations with China. Clinton invoked Earl Warren's claim that "liberty is the most contagious force in the world," then insisted that the "cell phone and cable modem" would help freedom flourish in the new century. "We know how much the Internet has changed America," Clinton said, "and we are already an open society. Imagine how much it could change China." The Chinese government had "been trying to crack down on the Internet," he acknowledged, but this was like trying "to nail Jell-O to the wall."
Flash forward to a column Will wrote during the latest crisis, while the man the Chinese call Xiao Bushi (Little Bush) was proving (as a headline in the Guardian put it) that sorry really is the hardest word. Despite being troubled by Beijing's demand for an apology, the pundit saw hope on the horizon. Henry Kissinger had reported in glowing terms about the "proliferation of 'Internet cafes'" in China, and Will considered these "small businesses" to be "huge portents" of changes to come, since without a "monopoly of information," authoritarian governments collapse.
"Totalitarianism is rendered impossible, and perhaps even tyranny is rendered difficult," Will wrote, "by technologies that make nations porous to information." He then reminded his readers that "China already was becoming porous in 1989," when students there learned about massacres via e-mails sent to them from "American campuses where they had studied and made friends," and it has grown even more porous since. The official media might still try to "nationalize the public's consciousness," he concluded, but the web would undermine this.
Typically, neo-McLuhanite commentaries of this sort take three things for granted: first, that access to the Internet will not just make Chinese citizens more like us but also like us more. Second, that virtual globalization is tantamount to virtual Americanization, so the Internet can do for information what the Big Mac has done for cuisine. And last, that nationalism, at least in virulent forms, is a remnant ideology clung to only by older, less-plugged-in people out of step with the cosmopolitan dot-com generation.
So, what's wrong with this picture? Plenty--at least where Chinese-American conflicts are concerned. This struck me in 1999 (when I happened to be in China and witnessed anti-American protest spurred by the US bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade) and again this year.
The first mistaken neo-McLuhanite assumption is that when Chinese go onto the web to connect with foreign cultures, they naturally turn to American URLs. Sometimes they do, often they don't. In 1999, when I visited an Internet cafe in Beijing before the anti-American protests began, most of the youths I saw were hooked up to Japanese-style video games. After the demonstrations began, more patrons logged on to news sites, but as likely as not this would be www.serbia.com. Cultural globalization is never about one-way flows, though Americans often forget this, conveniently ignoring the fact that the world's cities are now cluttered not just with KFC franchises but also karaoke bars. American destinations provide some attractive options to netizens in search of adventure, but they are never the only places these globetrotters go.
A second problematic assumption is that visiting American websites will make Chinese doubt their government's propaganda. In the most emotional stages of recent crises, many US magazines, newspapers and on-line zines have showcased China-bashing Op-Eds and editorial cartoons that might well serve to confirm, not undermine, Beijing's rhetoric of victimization. They contain postings supporting the notion that for all our talk of the universality of human rights, we are not above being more outraged by the endangerment of US lives than by the loss of Chinese ones, and supporting the idea that Americans are far too prone to demonize and infantilize China. I actually hope, at certain moments, that my Chinese friends will stay away from the web. What good will it do them to see resurrections of Yellow Peril-type images of bloodthirsty dragons? Or to read the headline at least one paper used for George Will's recent column: "America Shouldn't Appease Its Adolescent Foe"?
Yet another problem with the neo-McLuhanite approach is that there is in fact never a clear line separating nationalists from netizens. There are plenty of plugged-in populists with jingoistic impulses in China (as anyone who has visited its chatrooms can attest). And the same goes for the United States (just visit www.RushLimbaugh.com). Nor does generation make the difference. Some of the nastiest anti-American cyberpostings on Chinese bulletin boards in 1999 came from educated youths. And Wang Wei, the young pilot downed in the brush with the US spy plane, has been described recently in the Chinese media as having traits we associate both with the global netizen (a regular surfer of the web and user of e-mail) and the fervent nationalist (ready to die for his homeland).
Last but not least, neo-McLuhanite rhapsodists often overlook the extent to which old and new media forms overlap and affect each other. Old forms of communication never die, they just get digital makeovers, and new media can easily be integrated into traditional political games. Witness the key role of an exchange of snail-mail letters between Wang Wei's wife and Xiao Bushi in the most recent Chinese-American crisis, the importance of which was magnified by both Chinese TV and CNN coverage. Or consider the use in the 1999 Chinese protests of a new form of wall poster: printouts from websites.
The neo-McLuhanites are certainly right about two things: China is changing dramatically, in part because of new forms of international communication and commerce, and the transformations will continue. But these changes have not and will not take simple and predictable forms. Markets and modems, in the era of the New World Disorder, push and pull people and countries in different directions, and the choices individuals and groups make when faced with novel challenges matter.
It seems fitting to end with an ironic question. Wasn't it Marxist analysts who used to be criticized--albeit sometimes unfairly--for insisting that History flows in a predetermined direction? I, for one, doubt that the new forms of virtual determinism will prove any better at predicting the future in this century than the materialist one spelled out by the author of Das Kapital did in the last one.