Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Come again, Mrs. Clinton ??

I must admit I was pretty shocked when I read that Hillary Clinton, in the frame of her visit to China during her first Asia-trip as U.S. Secretary of State, had stated that human rights could not interfere with other more pressing issues:

"Successive administrations and Chinese governments have been poised back and forth on these issues, and we have to continue to press them. But our pressing on those issues can't interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crisis," she told reporters in Seoul, South Korea.

I guess the world had expected she would sound a different bell, but I can't help the feeling that in a certain sense she is right: there are piles of pressing issues on the table and it's impossible to treat them all at an equal level. Actually, it's almost become hard to think up an issue that would not be pressing. Yet to use the word "interfere" in connection to human rights, I think, is outright dangerous. The word has an outspoken negative ring to it, as if one would want to shrug off something annoying that won't go away by itself, which of course the issue of the human rights in China is. It is annoying on that level of interaction where two global giants are eyeing each other with distrust while all the time knowing very well their fates are tied together and they have to make do with each other. Human rights, in that kind of "marriage de raison", is a conversational topic that doesn't make for a great opening line.

Taking it one step further, I get more scared, because what does that mean "not interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crisis" ? Is there anybody here on earth who has a reasonable clue on when each of these three issues will be solved ? I don't think so. Global climate change crisis: let us safely assume we will be taking that one at least into the second part of this century, if not straight into the next one, which is the more likely assumption in my opinion. So is Mrs. Clinton now saying that, while this crisis plays out, she will all the time not have human rights "interfere" with it till it's solved ? Sounds like bad luck for those in the wrong side of the human rights camp.

Let us also assume she diligently fulfills her job and performs excellent crisis management in the economic, security and climate sphere (good luck to her on all three counts, she'll need it), then who will be able to enjoy the results of it ? Surely not the human rights victims, who, if they haven't gone into oblivion by that time, probably won't be heard of a lot anymore either. Annoying, you know. And how does this reflect then on our societies here in the West, who (often rightfully still) pride themselves on trying to take care equally of the less fortunate, where the offenders have the equal right to defense as the victims and where the principle of making every voice, no matter how small, heard in a democractic decision-making process all but makes it impossible to come to an agreement on several issues (the European Union, anyone ?) ? How would our societies look like if we, from time to time, wouldn't allow human rights to "interfere" with our business as usual ? Maybe not all that different, but different nonetheless.

Now I've always considered it a bit awkward myself, hearing about the next statesman going to China, promising he or she would table the human rights issue with whatever leader China choose to put in front of this Excellency. Delivered my line, been there, done that, KPI achieved, now can I have my bonus please ? It starts to sound outright boring, the way it is delivered. Yet, to me, swinging the pendulum to the completely opposite side of "non-interference", is a station too far. Obama signed the closing of Guantanamo on his very first day in office as president of the United States. Had the world not consistently shown his anger on the violation of some of the most basic of human rights in there, he might have done it a month, maybe a year later, maybe even not, for it wouldn't have been perceived as "a pressing issue". Driving the message home time and again, I believe, in the end does change things and makes simple "issues" become "priorities".

Allow me also to wholeheartedly disagree with the article being presented here. I always have this uncomfortable feeling when we get to the point of the "face-saving". I definitely consider myself quite lacking in the skill of saving or giving face, but it seems to me that, when it comes to China, to some it is the only thing that matters and the beneficiaries of it are, of course, always the Chinese. I am absolutely not opposed to courteous diplomacy when it concerns two partners talking about the most elegant way around a problem. It is the only reason why my country still exists today and we have elevated the "compromise" (for is that not the essence of "giving face" ?) almost to an artform. I am however also not opposed to have a party, from time to time, loose some face on certain issues that are blatantly counter to my sense of propriety and justice. Silencing people for voicing their opinion is one example, just like eavesdropping on your own people in name of a rather undefinable national security threat is another. May I refer to my previous post on Bogota mayor Antanas Mockus and his rather unconventional method of using mimes to regulate the unruly traffic in downtown Bogota ? The whole concept of what he did is based on making people, in a gentle way, loose face, for those mimes were posted at the major crossroads where there were mostly big crowds who would see the "culprits" made fun of by mimicking their every move. Traffic casualties dropped by half in the period when Mockus was mayor. You and me, we have been raised in an education system that incorporates the "loosing face" concept as a way of self-betterment: how many times, as a kid, did you have to go and stand in a corner for ten minutes when you had been too noisy when there were guests around ? I remember in elementary school, when we had crossed the rules, we had to walk ten times around the playground, hands on our back so the rest of the kids could see. I haven't suffered trauma because of it, and likewise, I am very confident that China will not suffer trauma from loosing some face now and then when it comes to something as important as "human rights".



justrecently said...

"It seems to me that, when it comes to China, to some [face-saving] is the only thing that matters and the beneficiaries of it are, of course, always the Chinese."
Hey! That's blunt. But for your consideration, only those in power are the beneficiaries. That's why they invented it. The opposite of face-saving would probably be performance-rating.

Lao Lu said...

... which proves my point that I am probably not very good at the face-saving game :-). But I see no issue in being blunt. I really feel that when it comes to sensitive issues on the China-front, some people have this argument always readily at hand to undermine any solid discussion. I also have a problem with those who seem to make face-saving a uniquely chinese characteristic. Do you like to loose face ? I know I don't and I'm not chinese. Therefore your argument that this would have been invented as some sort of power strategy, is very interesting.

I'm not entirely with you that it would ONLY benefit those in power, for I do not deny that chinese in general are particularly sensitive to this concept, so I assume that the fact that Mrs. Clinton did not bring up the human rights issue this time will be felt as some sort of victory with a lot of individuals also outside the power circles.

Thanks for leaving your comment and pointing me to another interesting blog, so it seems.

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