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Human Rights Double Standard?

If the Bush Administration fails to express the strongest possible concern over China’s imposition of martial law in Tibet, it will undercut the cause of human rights not only in that tortured region but also in the wider world.

Since the historic rapprochement between Washington and Beijing in 1972, American foreign-policy makers have given the People’s Republic what amounts to a free ride on the issue of basic human liberties. Abuses of individual rights that would provoke stormy outrage if they were committed elsewhere are ignored when they occur in China. If--to cite but one example--anything like Beijing’s brutal repression of the Catholic Church had happened in the Soviet Union, contructive relations between Washington and Moscow probably would have come toa halt.

President Bush took a small step toward equalizing this double standard during his recent visit to Beijing, when he invited some of China’s leading human rights advocates to dinner. He and his aides stumbled badly, however, when they failed to ensure that Fang Lizhi--often called the Andrei Sakharov of China--would be able to attend. Matters were muddied further when the President’s spokesmen subsequently were unable to provide a straight answer to the simple question of whether or not Bush even had raised human rights issues during his talks with Chinese leaders.

Experience has shown that the West’s ability to speak constructively to the human rights question depends on accurate knowledge. For instance, one of the worst large-scale abuses of human rights in recent years is thought to have occurred during Indonesia’s supression of the independence movement in East Timor. But because there are few foreign journalists based in Jakarta and because the authorities there have denied those who visit access to East Timor, the situation has gone all but unnoticed. Conversely, the relative, though still insufficient, openness of Soviet society to foreign travelers and reporters has made Moscow’s approach to human rights very much an issue in East-West relations.

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The lesson suggested by these contrasting examples bears directly on how the United States ought to respond to China’s declaration of martial law in Tibet. Chinese authorities say the proclamation--the first in the history of the People’s Republic--was necessary to quell “separatist” riots that have killed at least 12 people and injured hundreds of others. The real targets, however, are not the Tibetans--against whom the Chinese have a well-oiled and well-proven mechanism of repression--but the foreign travelers, who will be barred from the region.

Since a similar outbreak of fighting in October of 1987, foreign journalists and diplomats have been denied regular, unsupervised access to Tibet. What little news of that unhappy place the outside world receives comes from tourists. Now the Chinese have drawn a curtain across even that small window on the truth.

The Tibetan people have suffered unspeakably under Chinese rule. During the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, the Maoist authorities attempted the obliteration of the region’s rich and ancient Buddhist culture. Things have improved since then, but the standards of the Cultural Revolution are no more appropriate as a measure of Chinese conduct than those of Stalinism are of contemporary Soviet behavior.

What the international community calls human rights is a rather minimal standard of basic decency. It applies equally in Washington, Moscow, Pretoria, Santiago and Lhasa--which is what the Administration ought to say.

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