China Power

China and the Question of ‘Double Standards’

Recent Features

China Power

China and the Question of ‘Double Standards’

The root cause of applying “double standards” to China lies with China itself.

China and the Question of ‘Double Standards’
Credit: Tiananman Gate image via Attila JANDI /

Recently, a post by an “angry youth” (fen qing) has been circulating on China’s internet. The post reads:

How many people were sacrificed so that [George] Washington could fight for independence? And he still kept black slaves at his estate after serving as president! At that time were the Chinese people building railroads in the West even treated like human beings? So why is Washington always called the father of America? And then there’s Lincoln – to combat the splitting of the country, he brazenly launched an “invasion” and war. Hundreds of thousands of people died in this war, but he became one of America’s greatest presidents… Wasn’t Chairman Mao the leader who unified China? Why do you curse him? Why do you adopt “double standards’?     

I also recently experienced this “double standard” when talking about the case of Bi Fujian. Last week, an American media outlet asked me and two other experts to talk about Bi. The host already had an idea of what I should say, probably something about “freedom of speech.” So he began to lead the conversation in that direction. But this American host was dumbfounded when I suddenly informed him that the Bi Fujian incident had nothing to do with “freedom of speech.”

“Freedom of expression” is a national question involving the rule of law. Of course China has some serious issues with “freedom of speech,” but you have to wait until the law is actually used against Bi Fujian before his case reaches that level. As of right now, it’s solely a matter between Bi and his employer – either CCTV or the government. An employment agreement is a matter of professional ethics. If Bi was willing to trade away some of his rights to gain the spotlight of CCTV platforms, then he has to abide by that agreement.

Why is it that if a similar event happened in America, foreign friends seem to ignore it, but when the same thing happens in China, they adopt a “double standard” that they’re not even aware of? This is really something worth thinking about. The question is not whether there are “double standards,” but why they are used when looking at China.

In my opinion, the biggest problem lies with China herself and with the authorities, not with those people who look at China with “double standards.” Why?  Because behind a standard are values. If you have never acknowledged that universal values (or even commonly used values) exist, then how can you be measured according to the same standard? Under these circumstances, of course people will apply a “double standard” for you.

For example, “freedom of speech” is a value. Generally the nations that accept this value can openly talk about and criticize their founding fathers, let alone the current leaders. From Washington to Obama, American scholars and media can speak their minds freely about their merits and faults as well as their places in history. It’s only once this foundation is in place that you can truly agree to give up a part of your freedom of speech (for example, not defaming your employer) to work for the government or the media. Such an arrangement is reasonable and in accordance with professional ethics. But if you don’t have the general foundation of “freedom in speech” in place first, that employment agreement goes against the larger values.

In a country where even an ordinary person cannot openly evaluate the founding fathers and leaders, any code of “professional ethics” that touches on the government is already immoral. In that case, it seems that promising to speak carefully isn’t a virtue – instead, doing the opposite becomes a form of “political correctness.” Western countries value professional ethics and employment agreements. But when it comes to cases like Bi’s in China, they not only keep silent about him breaking the agreement, but even encourage it. Thus it is obvious that they adopt “double standards.”

The use of “double standards” against China has become more and more serious. Many young people do not understand the root of the problem; they firmly believe that some Western countries are still out to subjugate China. And so the country is divided by these “double standards.” It is interesting that in most cases, the authorities keep a relatively moderate silence, when only confuses people more.

But really this isn’t strange, as theoretical innovation in China still lags far behind. China rejects universally used values and even snubs and misunderstands the “12 core socialist values” proposed by the 18th Party Congress, including democracy, freedom, and the rule of law. Instead, everyone uses his own standards to judge beauty and ugliness, right and wrong. It seems China has reached a crossroads in terms of both value choices and institutional innovation.

Let’s get back to the question of “double standards” from the beginning of the article. Yes, when judging Washington and Lincoln based on their motivations and purposes for waging war, they don’t seem that great. What made them great was the later development of their country. Washington, a slave owner, founded a nation that ultimately lived up the saying “all men are equal” by relying on the values of “freedom, democracy, and human rights.” Obama, a black man, ascended to the American presidency,Washington’s former post. Lincoln, meanwhile, waged a bloody civil war with the goal of maintaining federal unity, but the unified country turned out to be a wealthy and powerful nation respecting human rights…

Let’s suppose that today America still enslaved vulnerable groups, that blacks and other minorities lived unequal lives, that this unified America was a place were the state is strong but citizens are weak, with people’s rights being oppressed by bureaucrats. Would Washington and Lincoln still enjoy the same status? Could Americans still respect them as the founding father and the greatest president while overlooking the mistakes they committed in those historical periods?

Let’s put it like this. Even if Washington was no good while he lived, Americans would still mostly think that he’s not bad, because he founded a nation where citizens can openly criticize and even abuse him! On the contrary, no matter how highly you praise the founding leader, who will really believe he did something good if 50 years later there are no open and impartial evaluations of him?

In this sense, judging a leader from half a century ago isn’t the problem. The problem is that even today we don’t have values and judgment standards that have been accepted by most people around the world. Everyone uses his own standard to evaluate the world and other people. Those holding the “truth” can wantonly distort facts, and people grasping one or two facts but claiming to have the “truth” are more and more common. Under these circumstances, of course people will use different standards to look at you, and the China of “double standards” will become more and more fractured. We might see great trouble in the near future.

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