Because I Said So

Tony Phillips' Blog at Open.Salon.Com
APRIL 2, 2012 6:14AM

Lessons from China: Rights Matter

Rate: 3 Flag

I spent most of 2008 in the People’s Republic of China. I lived in Changsha, a city of some eight million souls in the middle of Hunan, a province just south of the Yangtze River, 500 miles or so inland from the Pacific. Changsha, though a densely populated metropolis, is a far cry culturally, economically and in every other way from the “New China” represented at least superficially in coastal cities like Shanghai and Shenzhen. It’s an even farther cry from the affected modernity of Beijing. Not a day passed in Changsha that I did not meet literally hundreds of Chinese who had never seen a foreigner. I watched shopkeepers slaughter ducks on the sidewalks of major thoroughfares. I visited a live meat market that included a section with caged dogs and another with skinned snakes still wriggling. My neighbors kept chickens in a coop beneath the common stairwell in our apartment building.

Changsha is a pretty fair representation of most of China, as opposed to the supposedly advanced society Beijing wants the world to know, and while the unassuming life of Changsha has its attractions, it is, no matter how you slice it, pretty darn primitive. Almost everything in Changsha is broken. That which is not yet broken is in the process of breaking. Where there is construction it’s haphazard and intrusive. I have passed gaping holes in highly-traveled pavement, some of them yards deep with nary a guard rope nor a pylon posted as a warning to passersby. I have purchased dozens of counterfeit products displayed brazenly on shelves in the street fronts of popular bazaars. I have personally bought favors from law enforcement and stood by as others did so.


Produce market in Changsha

My spoken Mandarin is feeble at best and I cannot write a word, but I got pretty good at communicating with the Chinese in a short time and one thing I never heard anyone say in China was, “I have rights.”

The truth is, the Chinese don’t have rights. I’m prepared to argue this point with anyone who might take offense and I’m not suggesting there is anything inherently better or worse about Jeffersonian Democracy than one-party totalitarian rule, but I am saying that in the legal sense of the term we Westerners use so freely, the Chinese people do not have “rights,” or at least not many. They don’t have them not because they’re unworthy of them and not because they’re less vested by their humanity in the common liberties we all seek. They don’t have them only because they’re government does not recognize them.

Officially there are 24 articles in the second chapter of the Chinese Constitution covering the rights of Chinese citizens. In the roughly 1,300 words of those 24 articles are such statements as, “It is the duty of citizens of the People’s Republic of China to safeguard the security, honor and interests of the motherland,” and “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China must abide by the constitution and the law, keep state secrets, protect public property, observe labor discipline and public order and respect social ethics.”

In addition, in Article 42 one finds the statement that “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China have the right as well as the duty to work.” A bit further on, in Article 51, the constitution of the most populous nation on earth declares, “The exercise by citizens of the People’s Republic of China of their freedoms and rights may not infringe upon the interests of the state.” From my own observation I can tell you that Article 51 gets a lot more attention from those in charge of China than anything else in Chapter II of the country’s constitution. The basic right of all Chinese people is to exercise as much freedom as they want, provided Beijing approves of how they exercise it.

In the middle of the last Century, Lin Yu Tang, the finest Chinese export of his generation, wrote in My Country and My People that “[i]t is curious that the word ‘society’ does not exist as an idea in Chinese thought.” Lin also observed that as a matter of principle, the Chinese people have always existed to feed the government and not the other way around.

There are hazardous, cavernous holes in Chinese sidewalks because no individual Chinese person enjoys the legal standing to be protected from them. Liability laws are either absent or unenforced because under the Chinese system the government owes less to its citizens than the citizens owe to the government. Similarly, the individual’s right to his or her intellectual product is still poorly recognized and laxly enforced under Chinese law as the individual’s putative “rights” to such things as copyrights and patents aren’t manifestly encoded in a guarantee of individual protections. Ditto such things as occupational safety and health standards, product liability, construction codes, and the list goes on and on.

The result is that in a superficial sense one can, ironically, feel freer in China than in the West, but such superficial freedom comes at the price of protection. In China one can act without much regard to one’s neighbors, one’s city, one’s environment or even one’s immediate surroundings because without individual rights there is little if any obligation and without obligation there is little or no consequence. From such a state grows a sort of social chaos that is held in check only by the force of a heavy-handed central government that will tolerate individualism up to the point that its expression threatens the party line, at which point the penalty is up to the powers that be and the penalty is usually arbitrary and capricious by Western standards.

Living in mainland China is, to an uninitiated Westerner, a bit like living on Mars. It reminded me of Thomas Hobbes hypothetical nasty, brutish and short life in a state of nature. As Hobbes observed in Chapter XIII of Leviathan (1651):

“NATURE hath made men so equal in the faculties of body and mind as that, though there be found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body or of quicker mind than another, yet when all is reckoned together the difference between man and man is not so considerable as that one man can thereupon claim to himself any benefit to which another may not pretend as well as he.”

The entire tradition of Western government over the past 300-plus years is informed by the thought of philosophers, political scientists and scholars who believed that government does not exist to feed off the people but to guarantee to them some basic rights, rights that amount to protections from Hobbes’ ungoverned state of nature in which one man might claim to himself any benefit to which another may pretend. Who we are, Americans especially, and what we take for granted in our mental habits, the background to common expressions like “I have rights,” all stem from the fact that ours is a society of laws and chief among those laws are certain assurances given to the people in exchange for their agreement to live within a common framework that assures each individual’s liberties are not sacrificed for the sake of any other’s.

Without basic individual rights that lie at the core of our legal code, there might be no such thing as overtime laws, freedom to travel and live where one chooses, consumer protection, workplace standards, building safety codes and so many other seemingly normal protections utterly unknown to most Chinese. Again, I can’t really argue that in any absolute sense one system of government is better than another, but I think it’s obvious that the one has different consequences than the other. A Canadian colleague of mine, hell-bent evidently on starting a fight, once pointed out the example of Taiwan to a group of Chinese businessmen asking, “What exactly makes the Taiwanese different from you?” On the surface there is nothing different about the two people. They speak the same language, have the same heritage, the same traditions and more or less the same philosophies. But in 1949 what remained of the governing officials of the Republic of China, along with some two million soldiers, members of the Koumintang party and business and intellectual leaders, evacuated the mainland and settled on the island of Taiwan.

The mainland fell to communist rule under Mao Zedong while the Republic, with Western assurances and protections, governed its island retreat as the self-proclaimed legitimate government of the Chinese people. It has been 63 years since one small group of Chinese people established a Western-styled government on Taiwan while another lived under a one-party totalitarian system on the mainland. Today, the per capita gross domestic product of Taiwan is in the world’s top 20 at nearly $38,000 per year while the mainland ranks 90th at less than $8,500 per year. One can’t suspect the people who settled on Taiwan are inherently four times better than their neighbors just 80 miles away. Many factors probably contributed to the flourishing of one people and the comparative desperation of the other, but if I were looking for a key principle at work, I’d start with each government’s respect or lack thereof for its individual citizens.

Just in case you’re thinking, “Yes, but that’s just one case. You can’t infer too much from that,” well you’re right. But then there are also the cases of Hong Kong and Macau, both historically Western-governed parts of Chinese territory, Hong Kong a peninsula and adjoining island under British rule for the 150 years preceding 1997 and Macau an island administered by Portugal for nearly all of the same period ending in 2009. According to the International Monetary Fund, in 2011 Hong Kong’s per capita GDP was the sixth highest in the world exceeding $49,000 while Macau’s was $33,000 in 2009 and has been a matter of dispute since. (A report in the China Daily from March 2011 cited a spurious figure of $49,745 for 2010.) Three times out of three, Chinese societies governed either by Western democracies or by governments with Western democratic ideals vastly outperformed a Chinese society governed by a totalitarian regime.campus

Hunan First Normal University 

Not long back I remember hearing that China’s economy as a whole had overtaken Japan’s as the second largest in the world. Plenty of pundits inferred plenty of things from that but not enough of them observed that China’s population is 10 times larger than Japan’s. The fact is, in terms of purchasing power parity, Japan’s per capita GDP remains at more than $34,000 or four times higher than China’s.

Not that economic performance is all that makes a society strong or livable. On the contrary, there are some fabulously wealthy societies in which I’d never wish to live. Saudi Arabia springs to mind. Likewise, there are a few comparatively poor societies where I think I’d get along just fine. Take Fiji for instance, number 120 on the IMF’s list of countries ranked by per capita GDP at just over $4,600. I’d far sooner be poor in Fiji than rich in Saudi Arabia!

It’s not just the relative affluence of one social system versus another that matters. It’s also the quality of life enjoyed by those system’s respective citizenries.

I taught college students in China, more than 600 of them in 10 sections, some freshmen and sophomores, mostly juniors and seniors. They had varying commands of English. Most were conversant, a few were nearly fluent. They ranged in age from 18 to 22. None of them lived on their own. None chose their own majors. None selected their own courses. None owned their own car. None worked during the school year. None had ever cast a vote. None had ever exercised any meaningful choice in any aspect of his or her life. I don’t care what the rumors are about our kids falling behind the Chinese and others in math and science – the ability to calculate functions has no bearing on critical thinking, choice making or leading the life of an informed, participating citizen. Our kids are vastly better prepared for life and better disposed to enjoy it than the average Chinese kid can even imagine.

Sadly, life won’t get much better for most of my former students after graduation. The typical Chinese worker is employed under a multi-year contract to his or her employer, a contract that prohibits the employer from indiscriminately terminating the employee but just as importantly impedes the employee’s freedom to seek work elsewhere. There are in almost all such contracts penalties for early termination.

The minimum wage for employment in China differs across provinces and municipalities. It is roughly $165 per month in prosperous Shanghai but just $130 in Chongqing. Although there are overtime laws on the Chinese books, in reality the Chinese work day is as long as a manager says it is. Most Chinese workers up to mid-management level live in worker housing, adjacent to their place of employment. Workers typically dine together in a community cafeteria and a large percentage of the Chinese workforce nationwide is employed far away from their homes. Such migrant workers frequently arrange with their employers to work significantly more hours than their officially contracted weekly norm in order to earn more money to send home to their families. Employers also frequently maneuver around overtime laws by applying to labor authorities for approval to use an alternative system of working hours.


Nike factory in China 

No matter how many hours a Chinese employee is at his or her desk or on the shop floor, Chinese working conditions are often abhorrent. According to the State Administration of Work Safety, more than 83,000 workers, nearly one out of every 10,000, died in workplace accidents in 2009. In Guangdong province alone more than 40,000 fingers are severed each year. The most frequently cited causes of workplace injuries are carelessness and fatigue, both related to a lack of job training and long work hours at repetitive tasks.

And so what? That’s probably more than you wanted to know about China, so why would I bother bringing it all up? For three reasons: First, according to the Congressional Research Service, Chinese-American bilateral trade reached $457 billion in 2010 and to the extent that American corporations, and hence consumers, are involved in that trade for profit’s sake, they are so to the detriment of their Chinese counterparts who work under conditions the average American would find deplorable and that, well if it’s not immoral it’s close.

Secondly, there are, at last count, more than 1.3 billion Chinese, nearly one-fifth of the world’s population. I cannot believe those masses of people living in a still fairly closed society with ever-widening cracks to the outside world will long endure the unprivileged lives to which they are heir by virtue only of their government’s ruthless grip on power. In 1989, as the Eastern Bloc crumbled away, Beijing took a step to avoid Moscow’s fate – it created markets full of stuff and allowed the Chinese to buy it. The reasoning appears to have been that if people can distract themselves with baubles and bangles, they’ll not care too much about playing a part in their own governance. Since the uprising in Tiananmen Square, that bought China one generation of forestalled revolution but I doubt it will by it another one. The youth of today’s China, children of the students in Tiananmen, are increasingly connected to a much larger world through an internet that knows no allegiance to party or ideology. Those youth will not live forever under the dominion of tyrants and I don’t think the world is prepared to have a fifth of its population in revolt.

Thirdly and most importantly, I have lived long enough to see various rights hard-won by we Americans over the course of decades and centuries now under threat from those who would politicize personal values to inhibit individual choice and freedom and I’ve seen where that leads in the extreme case. I cannot fully comprehend how it is that a people whose legally embodied rights and protections were once the standard of the advanced world can stand by and watch those rights and protections attacked by a zealous few whose wealth and privilege render them personally immune to the government infringements the rest of us should fear. We have in this world examples of societies without the guarantees of individual rights we take for granted. China is not an isolated example; it’s just by far the biggest. The greatest lesson we can learn from China is what not to do by way of surrendering to government power.

Some Americans truly believe that all people are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” Others don’t. But it matters not whether one believes rights are maker-endowed or crafted by human minds, rights are, when it’s all said and done, nothing more than a duty for one’s government to perform certain acts and refrain from others in deference to its citizenry. Our rights oblige the government to do certain things and not do other things for our sake. We have numerous such prescribed and proscribed duties of government written into our legal code, the most fundamental of which are included in our constitution, especially its first 10 amendments. Others have grown from a constitutional basis through a combined process of legislation and judicial precedent. We have these rights. Other people, including the Chinese, do not.

Still, there exists a natural antipathy on the part of any government towards its people and vice-versa, our government included. In 2002, George W. Bush infamously joked, “If this were a dictatorship it would be a heckuva lot easier, just so long as I’m the dictator.” I think that statement is more than just the typical Dub-flub to which that president was uniquely prone. I think if he were honest Barack Obama would concede the same thing as would any president heretofore. Of course governing is easier for dictators, they don’t have to contend with pesky things like checks and balances and popular consent.

It is only natural that people who wield power wish to see its reach expanded. It should be equally natural for those governed by that power to try to keep it restrained. But perhaps I’m wrong about that. Judging from the apparent willingness of a large share of Americans to watch their rights steadily encroached upon by the reach of a government daily more and more empowered, perhaps there’s nothing at all natural about a people’s wish to keep its rights intact. It doesn’t matter how you personally feel about flag burning or embryonic stem cell research or gay marriage – a gay embryo will never burn a flag at a wedding. There is no reason to entrust the government to protect us from such an event. On the contrary, allowing the government to interfere is those things, even if you dislike them, is nothing short of permitting the government to pick away at a corpus of rights built up through the hard work and persistence of a citizenry that insists upon granting the government just enough authority to ensure its own protection.

Today’s target du jour for the erosion of personal rights is women. Other groups and Americans writ large remain on the defensive with such laws on the books as the Patriot Act, among others, but no group currently finds itself under so brutal an assault as women, whose bodies are now the stuff upon which many a backward thinking politician would build a legacy of reactionary legislation. I find that offensive in particular because women’s rights are among the most recently granted in the United States. Blacks had the universal right to vote in this country more than 50 years before women. Women were not protected from discriminatory pay practices until the passage of the Equal Pay Act in 1963. They were not protected from workplace discrimination until the year after. The Equal Rights Amendment, passed by Congress in 1972, was never ratified and still remains a dream for women’s activists.


Betty Ford

Not until 1973 did the Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade establish a woman’s right to a safe and legal abortion and today that right exists in name only in many communities. Texas, Kansas, Mississippi and Virginia, among other states, currently have laws that restrict a woman’s right to the free exercise of reproductive choice. Legislation is pending in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Utah that would do the same. In a further assault on women’s rights, several states have attacked contraceptive rights, including Arizona where a law that would have allowed employers to drop coverage for birth control was narrowly defeated by the State Senate just four days ago.

Among nationwide political figures Rick Santorum leads the way in attacking women’s rights. His position, based on his own espoused conservative Christianity, has helped garner him victories in 10 of the 28 states where primary votes have been cast. It alarms me that a man who unapologetically calls the practice of birth control immoral can defend his position by saying, “I’m reflecting the views of the church I believe in,” and carry 10 states in major party primaries. What church you believe in is irrelevant, Mr. Santorum. The question is, what kind of government do you believe in? Apparently he believes in one with the power to strip half its citizens of control over their own reproduction and it seems more than a few voters believe in the same thing.

I have three daughters, six nieces and a grand-niece, all of whom will someday decide when, with whom and whether they have children of their own. I’m not at all interested in what advice Rick Santorum might give them. I bet they’re not either.

I don’t really know what to do about the collective disinterest in our government’s intrusion into personal rights. I don’t know what if anything might make people agree that the loss of one right is a threat to all others. I don’t know how to convey what I think is the gravity of the present or its implications for the future. I know what can become of a society without rights. I’ve lived in such a society. But I don’t know how best to paint a picture of a possible America in which our descendants live under a government that does not know respect for its citizens’ personal rights, freedoms and assurances.

The best I can do, I suppose, is to opine. We’ll see where that gets us. But were I the dictator, I’d order mandatory civics lessons, every night after work, until folks start thinking right and voting accordingly.

Your tags:


Enter the amount, and click "Tip" to submit!
Recipient's email address:
Personal message (optional):

Your email address:


Type your comment below:
Anything that is taken for granted disappeared. Generations of Americans suffered and died to gain our freedoms in the workplace. Our generations just thought they were permanently won, and we are slowly loosing them.
Remember just a few Republicans made weird statements about birth control.
A society in which promiscuity, unwed motherhood and casual divorce have become the norm also puts women and children at extreme risk. And good responsible men at risk also.
Thanks Kathy. Regarding "just a few Republicans made weird statements about birth control," aye. That's indeed so and most of them are candidates at the state or local level where one can pitch one's message to a more homogenous electorate. That any candidate would try extremism at the national level level would be rather confusing, except that I've gotten cynical enough to suspect such candidates aren't 'really' running for federal office -- they're preening for contracts with Fox News and preparing to sign book deals. Thanks very much for your comment.