China has released a report on the condition of human rights within its borders – essentially a report to counter the one issued by the United States earlier this year on the state of human rights all over the world for the year 2000. The bottom line reads: the people are richer, better fed and more educated now than ever before. And, oh yeah, we won a few gold medals at the Olympics.
The Big Brother report
When it was released, the US human rights report was highly critical of the state of human rights in many countries around the world. Of Indonesia, the report says that it is a country that has "encountered significant setbacks in areas of democratic governance". Of Tunisia, the report states that the "President strongly influences the judiciary, particularly in sensitive political cases", a particularly damning judgement on any democratic country. It’s tone softens when it describes countries that are more in-line with the US perception of human rights; of Britain, it says that the "Government generally respects the human rights of its citizens, and the law and judiciary provide effective means of dealing with individual instances of abuse". For obvious reasons, the countries whom the report was kind to hailed it as a comprehensive benchmark of universal human rights while those who it criticized labeled it as another example of US imperialistic policy.
The US report heavily criticized China over a number of human rights issues, notably the problem China has with the Falun Gong and the jailing and abuse of political dissidents. Stung by the report, China moved quickly to publish its own version of the state of human rights in China. Unsurprisingly, the report focused on the the economic progress the nation has made in the past few years, citing higher living standards, education, lower mortality rates and an overall improvement in the quality of life. It justified its harsh line on organizations like the Falun Gong and political dissidents by alleging that these groups destabilized the "social order" of the country and thus, were threats to national security. By taking such that position, China stood firmly behind the belief that the rights of these groups were worth sacrificing to maintain social stability.
This stand brings to fore a central issue that drives to the core of many developing nations’ socio-economic policy: are human rights an acceptable sacrifice when a nation is striving to achieve economic prosperity?
Economic prosperity = low human right standards?
The answer to that question lies in the logic of a simple assumption, the assumption that it is NOT possible to achieve economic progress WITHOUT sacrificing human rights. If we look around the world at some notable examples, the truth behind this assumption seems inconclusive.
Consider Malaysia, one of the famed Asian Tigers. Over the last decade, it has achieved, on average, a phenomenal growth rate of 5-8% per year. Even during the economic crisis that hit the region in 1997-98, Malaysia managed to weather the storm better than others. One of the reasons behind its success would be its relatively high level of social stability, achieved partly by some very tough laws among them a law allowing the jailing of any person without trial whom is seen to be "destabilizing" the nation. Other laws forbid the publication of racially-disagreeable material. In a multi-racial country such as Malaysia, this particular law that limits free speech has kept racial friction between races under control. Another country with similar laws and similar economic results is Singapore.
Same result, difference routes, different results, same route
Then, there are countries that have gone the whole nine yards when it comes to their citizens’ access to human rights. In comparison to the examples above, these countries have also done very well in economic terms. Countries such as South Korea and Taiwan come to mind; both have enjoyed their strongest period of economic growth after they abandoned non-democratic systems of government in favor of open, democratic systems.
The equation is further confused when you consider a country like India where its citizens enjoy high levels of individual freedom. But India is a perfect example of a nation still struggling to fulfill its economic potential due to the abuse of social freedoms that lead to social instability. For example, India has a very active media - both the Muslims and Hindus have religiously-intolerant media organizations that actively provoke their readers. The Babri Mosque incident of 1992 is a classic case of media reporting inciting groups from each religion that led to a severe riot where hundreds lost their lives.
It seems strange that China and India are the two most populous nations on earth, yet the more restrictive of the two governments is the one enjoying a higher level of economic growth. Does a correlation lie here?
It’s difficult to understand why same methods of governance work in some countries but fail in others, why the same rules lead to a different effects wherever they are applied. Until we understand the correlation between economic success and human rights, or even if there is any sort of correlation to begin with, it will be nearly impossible to say that one system or another is better for any particular society.
Appearing on www.renungan.com 10 April 2001.