By Jacob Derin
On Tuesday, the Chinese deputy envoy to the UN responded to Germany’s challenge of its human rights record by bidding it “good riddance” from the Security Council. At issue was China’s politically motivated detention of Canadian citizens Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. Western criticism of China’s human rights abuses has been blunted by the twin forces of whataboutism and economic interest.
The NBA’s response to Daryl Morey’s (general manager of the Houston Rockets) tweet about the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement, was probably the most prominent example of the latter. Eager to avoid angering the Chinese government, especially given its growing economic influence, the NBA did its best to disavow Morey’s stance.
If we in the United States, protected by the first amendment and the right to freedom of speech, are too afraid to speak out, what chance do the protestors themselves have? Somehow we have acquired the misbegotten notion that sports and politics must be sharply delineated. Hence the outrage over kneeling during the national anthem and other political speech.
There have been more subtle, but no less damaging, examples of China’s economic influence on American speech. American movie producers are increasingly censoring their products to appease Beijing. It’s worth reiterating that this is a government that has been accused of serious human rights abuses, including the mass detention of Uyghurs in Orwellian concentration camps in China’s Xinjiang province, the repression of democratic movements in Hong Kong and arbitrary detention and torture.
Freedom of speech must be cherished wherever it exists because it is a necessary prerequisite for every other liberty. The ability to demand rights is the last and most important bulwark against these kinds of abuses. The right to speak freely is, at the same time, the freedom to think clearly.
Perhaps, the second response to Western criticisms of these methods is even more sinister. The term “whataboutism” is a holdover from the Soviet era. During this time, Soviet propagandists were known for responding to American criticisms of their human rights abuses with statements that began with the phrase “What about.”
One response became so common as to be cliché: “And in your country, they are lynching Black people.” China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman saw an opportunity after George Floyd’s death to employ a similar tactic. She retweeted a statement made by an American State Department official on the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests with the caption, “I can’t breathe.”
The sinister element of this tactic is that it exploits what we think of as a fundamental principle of fairness while at the same time impressively missing the point. We generally believe that criticism should come from a legitimate source, that hypocrisy somehow negates the substance of an argument. But, China’s invocation of Floyd’s death to protect itself against criticisms of its own human rights record ignores the possibility, indeed the reality, that both things can be wrong simultaneously.
This is a good truism to keep in mind in all political discussions, but particularly ones aimed at dictatorial regimes.
Frederick Douglass once said that “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” Whether through economic coercion, moral confusion or outright violence, people must not tolerate any attempt to strangle that demand.
This is the only way people have ever gotten and retained their freedom.
Jacob Derin is a third-year English and Philosophy major at UC Davis.
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