China has long occupied an exceptional place in the regime of international human rights. It has acted as if it were not subject to the same rules of democratic accountability and legal process as everyone else. Condemnation of its behavior has never been as vigorous as that directed at other nations, even though its performance has often been worse.
This tendency to go easy on China cannot be explained by appeal to Asian values that somehow compete with the Western values expressed in various human rights conventions and practices. Chinese leaders may speak disparagingly of Western ideas of democracy, but their remarks have no impact beyond their borders and probably convince few people outside the Communist Party in China. No one thinks the Chinese are by nature different. No, China’s exceptional character has had to do with the extraordinary accomplishments of modern China. The difference lies in the practical results.
Whatever one thinks of Chinese law and policy, China has been viewed with a certain amount of awe for the economic transformation it has accomplished. If rights are ultimately about making people’s lives better, China gained some measure of respect — not because it has extended rights but because it has made so many lives better. Nowhere else and at no other time have so many people moved so far and so fast up the economic ladder. This transformation of the lives of hundreds of millions of people claims our respect. If it fails to justify the violation of rights, it at least looks like an excuse that has to be reckoned with.
Of course, no one thinks that rights are irrelevant to those in poverty. Everyone thinks that people need dignity and respect as citizens just as much as they need housing, employment and a decent income. Yet the vastness of the Chinese accomplishment takes us back and challenges our values. We have worried about complaining too much and too loudly because China really has done more for more people than any other country. One would have to be supremely confident in one’s values to propose dramatic changes in the course that China has plotted for itself.
So China has received something of a pass. Of course, we expect human rights groups to protest, and we expect the representatives of Western governments to urge relief for imprisoned dissidents. We have not, however, expected much, and we have not been willing to hold China to account. There is no denying that the West has had economic interests to protect, but the exceptional place of China cannot be reduced to complacency in the face of our self-interest. China has really made us question whether we knew what we were talking about when we insisted that human rights always and everywhere trump other concerns. We have simply lacked the confidence to claim that we are in any position to tell the Chinese how to carry out a transformation on the scale they have achieved. China earned a kind of grudging respect because it delivered real economic goods.
To be sure, a crisis of Western conscience came with Tiananmen Square in 1989. There was Western condemnation of China, proving that there was some point beyond which the violation of rights could not be ignored. But repression advanced to murder there. This reaction to extraordinary violence told us little about the Western demand for ordinary rights of political participation and legal process. And in truth, the only long-term response was an embargo on military sales — an embargo supported today for reasons having less to do with rights and more to do with China’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy.
The ongoing demonstrations in Hong Kong in favor of open elections, along with the threat that they will not end peaceably, raise the question of whether this attitude toward Chinese exceptionalism has reached its end. Can China any longer stand on its extraordinary development accomplishments? I don’t think so. Nor do I think much of the world will think so, although economic interests may subvert the defense of human rights.
It is extraordinarily difficult to think of a good reason that the politics of Hong Kong should be any less an expression of free and fair elections than anywhere else in the world. The only way that Hong Kong differs from London, Paris or New York is that it exists under the threat of an authoritarian regime. There are no transitional issues confronted, no economic miracles to be treated respectfully. What the world sees in Hong Kong is only an authoritarian regime trying to decide whether it can get away with an act of violent repression. We in the West know exactly where we should be standing, and that is with the people in the streets of Hong Kong.
The point is more general than the special status of Hong Kong within China. This is not a matter of the “one country, two systems” pledge that China made to Hong Kong after the transition of sovereignty from Britain. Simply put, China’s era of exceptionality is over. Hong Kong is just the leading edge of this change in attitude. Shanghai and Beijing are not different in kind from Hong Kong. The Chinese leadership worries that if they yield in Hong Kong, similar demands may spread to the mainland. They are right to worry, for they very much should spread. Fear is not an excuse for repression. China has come of age, which means that we are right to demand of it the same thing we demand of ourselves: recognition of the rights of its citizens.
What, however, about those hundreds of millions of peasants who have yet to be included in the Chinese economic miracle? This story is hardly over, so why is China’s exceptionalism over? The answer is not just the extraordinary wealth of China’s great cities. Rather it is that China has now chosen to act as a world power. The demand that China respect the rights of its citizens was born as much in the Chinese naval actions in the South China Sea as it was in Hong Kong’s Occupy movement. With great power comes great responsibility. A nation cannot thrust itself into the world without subjecting itself to the world’s expectations. A great nation must treat its citizens as citizens everywhere deserve. China ran out of excuses the day it launched its first aircraft carrier.
Of course, we cannot force China to do anything, and foreign policy is always a mixture of moral, economic, political and strategic concerns. Apart from foreign policy, however, is moral condemnation by humankind. On this point, China deserves no special treatment. It has become like us and deserves to be held to account under the same standards that we apply to ourselves.