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Double Standard

November 29, 1987

Does the U.S. government apply a double standard when it comes to noting and protesting human-rights violations in China as compared, say, to those that take place in the Soviet Union or South Africa? Policy-makers, who clearly aren't comfortable with the question, acknowledge when pressed that the government does take a "differentiated approach" toward human rights in different countries. That's a euphemistic way of conceding that, effectively, a double standard indeed exists. The fact of the matter is that from the reopening of relations with Beijing in 1972 to the present time, successive Administrations have considered it helpful to U.S. interests to say as little as possible about the status of human rights in China. The record of most academic experts on China, and of the press, hasn't been much better.

What's helped perpetuate this code of quasisilence is the absence of any organized constituency of Americans interested enough in human rights in China to insist that abuses there be publicized and condemned. That is not the case with the Soviet Union or South Africa. With both countries, well-organized groups of Americans closely monitor, outspokenly condemn and regularly lobby against the offending regimes.

Some U.S. officials and scholars suggest that to judge China by Western standards of law and morality is unfair or unreasonable. A better standard, they say, is to compare today's China with the sanctioned lawlessness and extraordinary cruelty that caused such suffering during the decade of the Cultural Revolution. Assessed this way, they say, there has been a marked improvement from the depredations of those nightmarish years.

Well, yes. But the fact remains that, more than a decade after the Cultural Revolution ended, Chinese who protest their lack of basic freedoms or seek a relaxation of controls on intellectual activities risk stiff prison sentences or worse. For Americans and others to speak out against these things does not constitute an effort to apply peculiarly Western values to a non-Western culture. What's involved instead is an interest in seeing a universal standard of decency consistently applied.

Consistency, though, for long seems to have taken second place to expediency at the highest levels of the U.S. government. Administration officials and academic experts quoted the other day by Times reporter Jim Mann are candid in explaining why. The United States has entered into a quasi-alliance with China, primarily against the Soviet Union, and Washington--aware of official Chinese sensitivities--has been reluctant to risk jeopardizing those ties by calling attention to human-rights abuses.

Other experts, though, question whether the U.S.-China relationship is so fragile that it would suffer major damage if Washington spoke out against China's human-rights abuses. Speaking out does not mean mounting a crusade against Beijing's failure to respect and further human rights. But surely the principles that the United States so vigorously seeks to see applied in the Soviet Union and other countries apply equally to China, and surely what is insisted upon as morally appropriate for one regime is appropriate for others. There's no way to tell whether clear-spoken U.S. comment on human-rights conditions in China, when it is called for, would produce any change for the better. But effective or not, it is still the right thing for the United States to be doing.

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