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To Defeat America, China Must Respect Human Rights

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To Defeat America, China Must Respect Human Rights

China’s best path to facing its domestic and foreign challenges is to grant its people greater freedom.

To Defeat America, China Must Respect Human Rights
Credit: Chinese flag and people image via Shutterstock

From the recent trends in China-U.S. relations and in neighboring countries, the containment strategy of the U.S. rebalance to Asia is increasingly obvious. It seems that a new Cold War is unavoidable. In past years, we’ve had many people “cry wolf,” but now it seems the danger is really here. What should China do?

The origins of the current situation lie in America’s worries about the rise of China. When U.S. people say they “welcome China’s rise,” what they really mean is that they “welcome the rise of a China that embraces universal values.” Meanwhile, Beijing’s rhetoric has shifted from “democracy isn’t suitable for China” to “China doesn’t need democracy” and finally to “China is already democratic.” These changes have made people in America uneasy and impatient. Meanwhile, China’s foreign relations have gone from “China can say ‘No’” to the world starting to “say no” to China. As I’ve said before, the future China-U.S. conflict looks like a military rivalry on the surface, but the real battlefield is in the economic sphere. The keys to victory lie in economic development and popular support (or lack thereof). Culture and values are crucial factors that will last longer than money. Whoever who can keep the economy going and help people enjoy prosperous and happy lives; whoever has values conforming to the tide of history as well as the hearts and minds of the people; whoever who can realize fairness and justice — that side will have the last laugh.

Taking the above into account, how should China respond to an aggressive United States?

First, the problem isn’t whether or not the U.S. likes China, the problem is whether we are satisfied with ourselves. This is a very important position. And if we can hold fast to this idea, we will never be caught wrong-footed by U.S. approval or disapproval and will never let other countries lead us by the nose. Whether a nation (or regime) can win international favor and support is not nearly as significant as winning hearts and minds at home. If people are satisfied by the performance of the government and feel confident about the prospect of their country, then it will be easy to build consensus among the people, and the regime therefore will not need to care about how other countries see it. And if people aren’t content? Then we need to change and to reform.

The more complicated the international and domestic situation is, the more sober-minded one should be to avoid being driven to extremes by another country’s (like America’s) dislike. At one extreme, our attitude is “If you don’t like it, then I’m going to keep it up.” At the other end of the spectrum, our position is: “If you don’t like it, I will change it to suit you, no matter what.”

On the strategic level, I want to stress that, although the U.S.-led West appears to be taking military containment measures against China (and they have in fact partially done this), in today’s international environment, odds are slim that a military conflict will occur between China and U.S. However, some of our comrades may be thrown into a tizzy once they see how an increase in U.S. troop presence is creating a wall of containment around China. These comrades want to follow in the footsteps of the militaristic Soviet Union, ignoring the strategic focus on improving people’s standard of living that was established by Deng Xiaoping. This is exactly what other countries want.

Over their 230 years’ history (minus the 100 year period when isolationism was in full swing), the U.S. has mixed together pursuing national interests with promoting the values of freedom and democracy (which, in truth, conforms to America’s high-level national interests). The U.S. has even used these values to weaken or outright topple some regimes. As a result, many people in developing countries falsely believe that the values of democracy and freedom are indistinguishable from U.S. national interests and regime change. So, as the U.S. encircles China, we seek to banish both the U.S. and its loudly proclaimed values of democracy and freedom to beyond the “second island chain.”

We can’t exclude the possibility that a handful of people with ulterior motives are using this as an excuse to reject democracy and freedom. But the majority of people are making stupid decisions by using simplistic logic. It’s like last century during the ultra-leftist period. Capitalism was booming, but we loudly proclaimed that China “would rather have the weeds of socialism than the sprouts of capitalism.” We thought this was a snappy comeback, but really it was stupid. We proudly thought, “You’re rich? Well, I prefer not to be rich. Damn your capitalism!” And the result?  Tens of millions of Chinese people starved to death. If we don’t change our course, we will repeat the same mistakes!

There’s an irresistible trend toward democracy and freedom. It doesn’t matter whether other countries like it or hate it; this is the road China’s people must walk to finally become prosperous and strong. Our young people especially should remember not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We should not be carried away by the strategic mindset of “we are against whatever our enemy supports.” That leads only to dead ends. The lesson we should take from history is this: the Soviet Union’s bloc in Eastern Europe toppled itself, and the dictators in the Middle East chose their own destiny.

When it comes to sovereignty and human rights, I have always argued that we should fight for sovereignty abroad and fight for human rights domestically. Human rights are the rights of humans, and the most important thing in any period — even if the nation does not exist. Human rights are how we distinguish ourselves from the animals. However, we aren’t living in a primitive society or the era of communism. And in this period of nation-states, sovereignty is a necessary safeguard of human rights. Solving the “chicken or egg” problem of sovereignty vs. human rights is not important. The important thing is that human rights and sovereignty are not only not contradictory, but they often complement each other, bringing out the best results for both. A regime which always confuses the two concepts is not a good regime, while a regime that uses sovereignty to suppress human rights is a dictatorship. A government which disrespects and undermines human rights in order to keep power can never truly maintain its sovereignty. Simply put, all such a government wants to protect is the regime itself; both human rights and sovereignty are secondary and could be sacrificed at any time to safeguard the regime.

Facing an aggressive U.S., some people don’t think about how to neutralize the American offensive or how to address our basic weaknesses. Instead, they turn around to deal with their own people, thinking, “To resist foreign aggression we must first have peace domestically.” These people seize the opportunity to squeeze human rights more tightly, bringing public anger to a boil. To these people I say, as I mentioned above, that the winner of the Cold War was determined by the hearts and minds of the people, not by who had more nuclear weapons and aircraft carriers. At the height of the Cold War, a civil rights movement opposing the authorities emerged in the U.S., while the Soviet Union ruthlessly violated human rights from start to finish. The regime that allowed its people to speak up, criticize, and protest endured, while the oppressive Soviet Union broke up.

Now China’s development has reached a bottleneck where it faces both domestic and foreign challenges. But if we want to deal with challenges abroad, we must work through domestic issues. China is enormous. As long as China is stable domestically, the Americans will never be able to mess with China, and they wouldn’t even dare to try. America realized this a long time ago, and felt it even more deeply after the Iraq War and the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. After spending so much manpower, including the lives of over 4,000 U.S. soldiers, and so many resources, the U.S. still hasn’t fixed Iraq. Meanwhile, when the time was ripe in the Middle East, several regimes fell without the U.S. needing to send in any ground forces. Even if they were stupid, American couldn’t fail to understand this.

Yes, the U.S. is an opportunist. If you don’t want America to interfere with your affairs, to bring “peaceful evolution” or to topple your regime, you’d best not give the U.S. a chance to do so. You should keep your country stable, your society harmonious, and your people happy — by using rational and constant reforms to realize social justice and equity, return the power to the people, and bring wealth to the people. Stability is crucial to a big country like China. However, I particularly want to remind those in power that to strengthen social governance today, you must start by allowing the people to participate in supervising the use of power. We can’t keep the old-fashioned idea of “stability preservation” — blocking, suppressing and even using Fascist methods to preserve stability. The idea of “stability above all else” places stability above the constitution, national authority, and human rights. If this situation, which confuses cause and effect, continues, then eventually “stability” itself will be the victim.

Facing domestic and foreign challenges, we are suddenly aware that China lacks a grand strategy.  Because the Foreign Ministry isn’t guided by a grand strategy, people think it’s reactionary, simply trying to smooth things over…  Of course, we can’t blame any single official. Besides lacking a grand strategy, China has a bigger problem: our hard power is not hard enough, but our soft power is too soft. As a result, recently the new idea of “smart power” has become more popular, and China has jumped on this idea to do some hollow, self-deceiving things.

Hearing this, some people may want to remind me, “You should say this stuff to those in power — there’s no use in telling it to us.” Wrong! I’m aiming all my words at you — at every citizen.  In the rise and fall of the realm, every Joe Schmo has a role. Under a system that lacks effective democratic supervision, we must make use of whatever space we have to point out problems and make suggestions. This is a good thing that benefits both the nation and the people. Although you may fall victim to “stabilization,” history will evaluate you fairly, and the people around you will gradually come to understand you.

Some netizens have asked me why I am always confident, but my words are sharp. Others have asked me whether there’s still hope for China as we face so many problems. My response: Of course there’s hope. If not, why would I criticize China? One of the most important reasons why I keep up a critical attitude toward a nation and its government is that I think the nation and government are worth my criticism — there is a possibility for improvement and for reform. If I were living in North Korea or in Libya under Gaddafi, I would shut up immediately and wait for the outbreak of the revolution.

Some may think that I am over optimistic about the nation and the government. However my optimism derives largely from every one of us. What gives me the greatest hope is every one of us, every citizen. The type of people determines the type of government. What kind of nation do you want? What kind of government do you want to rule you? First, let’s ask ourselves what we have done.


This piece originally appeared in Chinese on Yang Hengjun’s blog. The original post can be found here.

Yang Hengjun is a Chinese independent scholar, novelist, and blogger. He once worked in the Chinese Foreign Ministry and as a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC. Yang received his Ph.D. from the University of Technology, Sydney in Australia. His Chinese language blog is featured on major Chinese current affairs and international relations portals and his pieces receive millions of hits. Yang’s blog can be accessed at