For any Chinese who might be tempted to think of the United States as an international defender of human rights, the official newspaper People's Daily recently offered a countervailing view.
"I will not use China's human rights criteria to judge U.S. affairs, because we Chinese do not agree with the practice of forcing one's own ideology on other countries," wrote the Communist Party commentator. "Let's use the U.S. Declaration of Independence to judge the American human rights situation."
The commentator noted that the Declaration of Independence lists the "inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Citing statistics on murders, incarcerations and economic growth, he declared that all three of these rights are routinely violated in the United States.
Such articles, which have appeared with growing frequency in the state-controlled Chinese media during recent months, do not reflect any sudden blossoming of liberal concern for the welfare of Americans on the part of Chinese journalists.
They are the result, instead, of a harsh but rather sophisticated policy aimed at defending Communist rule by turning Western rhetoric back against those pressing China to grant its people greater civil liberties.
China's leaders say they want to move forward with market-oriented economic reforms, but they also insist that multi-party democracy would only bring chaos. Where foreign pressure used to be simply ignored, now it is more often rebutted--with the main target being China's domestic audience. This change in policy is deliberate.
"At present, a number of Western countries, particularly the United States, are using the pretext of human rights to put pressure on us," declared a recent Chinese media directive. "We must . . . expose the false nature of their 'democracy,' 'liberty' and 'human rights.' "
Such directives are produced by high-level Communist Party authorities in Beijing and are handed down through an internal control system to party-appointed editors at newspapers, magazines and broadcasting outlets. They carry great weight because all media in China are controlled either directly or indirectly by the Communist Party.
The recent directive explained that "U.S. domestic problems are serious, and we should thoroughly expose them, while being sure to use authentic materials--ideally those provided by the United States itself or by other countries."
The People's Daily commentary on human rights in the United States reads like a textbook example of this approach.
"The German press agency DPA quoted U.S. police departments as saying that in 1991, the number of people being murdered reached a record high, with the murder rate at 9.6 per 100,000 and a total number of 24,020," the commentary said. "How horrible this is!"
The piece also quoted the Boston Globe with the statistic that 455 out of every 100,000 Americans were imprisoned in 1990. And it reported that while China's economy expanded by 7% in 1991, the U.S. economy contracted by 0.7%.
"These facts manifest that the U.S. government and Congress failed to defend their people's right to pursue happiness," the article declared. "How sad, the American human rights situation! When will it ever get better?"
The media directive focused not just on how to defuse the sensitive human rights issue, a key irritant in China's ties with Western nations; it also outlined the proper philosophical approaches for reporting on a broad range of international issues.
"We should use the Marxist viewpoint . . . and be skilled at reporting and utilizing contradictions to strengthen our own position," it said. "Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States and European states are struggling for power in Europe, and there is widespread fear of German ambitions. We should report and analyze these developments extensively."
A People's Daily report on Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin's February visit to Paris, and the signing of a document concerning French-Russian relations, followed this policy line.
"From the point of view of France, after the end of the Cold War the frictions and contradictions between Western countries are sharpening day by day," the official newspaper reported. "France faces a severe political and economic challenge from its powerful neighbor to the east. Strengthening its relations with Russia can help France preserve its voice in European affairs and maintain the new balance within Europe."
The official directive called for a softer line with regard to developing nations. But in reporting on the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the media is expected to highlight difficulties as a warning against the threat of "peaceful evolution"--a gradual transition from communism to capitalism--in China.
The People's Daily presented a gloomy picture of life in eastern Germany since the collapse of communism, with unemployment at 1.34 million in January. "Privatization and the halting of production are the direct causes for this large-scale unemployment," the article said.
Life isn't much better in Britain, according to a report in another official newspaper, the Guangming Daily, which was headlined: "The British Housing Dream Is Shattered." The article reported that 75,540 families lost their homes in 1991 because they were unable to make their mortgage payments, a figure up 72% over the previous year.
Just in case all these broad arguments might prove insufficient, the directive also made a direct appeal to the personal interests of China's own ruling class, declaring bluntly: "We should use the pain and suffering experienced by Communist Party members following the capitalist restoration in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe to make people aware of the dangers of peaceful evolution at home."