What in the world? China calls out the U.S. on human rights


April 18th, 2011
04:01 PM ET

Earlier this month the U.S. State Department released a report on the state of human rights around the world as it has done annually for the past 35 years.

It is a critique of the records of not just our enemies, but some of our friends as well. As you'd expect, many countries dispute Washington's version of the truth - mostly countries that had been described as abusing human rights.

No sooner did the report emerge than the global blowback began. Most nations were happy to just put out statements alleging unfairness and contradictions.

Trumping the rest of the world, China produced a report of its own - a reciprocal report one might call it.

It goes by the title "The Human Rights Record of the United States in 2010." They have been putting out such a report for years, but every year it gets bolder. This one has an almost gleeful tone and key punch lines like this: "The United States has always called itself 'land of freedom,' but the number of inmates in the country is the world's largest." That, according to China, is a human rights violation.

Then it goes on to cite figures that have no bearing on human rights violations as such - unemployment numbers, the number of people going hungry, gun ownership and so on.

The report loses itself and takes away from the more serious charges it does make about Guantanamo Bay and CIA detention facilities. The Chinese government should get the report done by serious Chinese scholars, of whom there are many, rather than the propaganda department of its Communist Party, which seems to have written this one.

The report also comes out at an awkward time for Beijing. The Chinese government has ramped up its political repression over the last few weeks in a way that's frankly puzzling. Clearly the events across the Middle East have scared Beijing's leadership. As soon as the first signs of the uprising began in Tunisia, the words "Jasmine Revolution" became taboo on Chinese computers. Searches for anything connected to them led to blanks.

Some Chinese citizens called for regular Sunday gatherings in thirteen Chinese cities to seek political reform. Very few people showed up. Those that did found a heavy police presence already there. Those who resisted were swiftly detained. Journalists, including a CNN reporter, were prevented from covering the story.

But this we all know. Censorship is standard procedure in China. What's new is the ferocity of the crack-down. Consider the arrest of Ai Weiwei, China's best known artist, for what it has called 'economic crimes.' The international outrage should have been expected. Yet the Beijing government believed it was worth putting him away.

To remind, you Ai Weiwei helped design the crown jewel of the Beijing Olympics, the Bird's Nest Stadium. His work has been exhibited in some of the finest museums in China and around the world. 169 people were arrested for praying earlier this week. Why is this happening and why now?

The China scholar Minxin Pei says while conditions in China are nothing like the Middle East, Chinese leaders do have reason to feel insecure. Inflation is rising. There is a housing bubble. Unemployment is getting higher and Beijing likes to err on the side of caution, he says.

The other key factor, according to Minxin Pei, is that China will have a new set of leaders a year from now. They all need to show they are tough against domestic dissent.

To me it's an interesting sign of the nervousness of China's leaders and their own sense of vulnerability. Because looking from the outside, I don't think the Chinese regime has anything to fear. Under its reign, the average income has quadrupled. People have many more opportunities than they have ever had before. China is economically and socially dynamic.

But maybe China's Communist Party leaders - who study their people and their discontents very carefully - know something that I don't.