Canada, China, human rights and hypocrisy


Until we cure ourselves of our addiction to inexpensive Chinese goods, we are being hypocritical calling for human rights in China.  Disagree.

What is hypocrisy?

Is it a pretense of having desirable or publicly approved attitudes, beliefs, principles that one does not actually possess as this dictionary would suggest?

Is a hypocrite a person who pretends to have virtues, moral or religious beliefs, principles, etc., that he or she does not actually possess, esp. a person whose actions belie stated beliefs?

Or is there something more to it, beyond what the dictionary might suggest?

According to the a multi-disciplined poet, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor and lexicographer, Samuel Johnson,

Nothing is more unjust, however common, than to charge with hypocrisy him that expresses zeal for those virtues which he neglects to practice; since he may be sincerely convinced of the advantages of conquering his passions, without having yet obtained the victory, as a man may be confident of the advantages of a voyage, or a journey, without having courage or industry to undertake it, and may honestly recommend to others, those attempts which he neglects himself.

As we can’t agree within the west about certain fundamental rights, how can we expect that there are rights that are universal? And if it is unclear which, if any, rights are universal, how can we accuse one, let’s say Stephen Harper, of being a hypocrite when he promotes the ones he believes ought to take precedence?

In 2006, our prime minister spoke out in no uncertain terms about human rights abuses in China. He made his point, albeit, rather undiplomatically that he did not believe Canadians wanted him to sell out human right beliefs to the almighty dollar and trade relations with China decreased. That was 2006. In 2008, he was one of few leaders not to attend the Beijing Olympics. In 2010, Harper has improved trade relations with China, and quieted his rhetoric about its human rights abuses. That is not to say he has changed his mind. He may have come to realize that it is in his and Canada’s best interests to maintain trade relations with China. He has also stated that human rights will be discussed in meetings. Why is it hypocritical to promote human rights in a fashion that will not humiliate the Chinese, while at the same time improve trade relations? Aren’t we talking about two different things here? The main criticisms about human rights abuses in China appear to be in the area of civil and political rights, while trade and economic ties to China would relate to a different aspect of human rights i.e. economic or worker’s rights. Are we only supposed to trade with countries that abide by, define, and prioritize human rights in the exact way that we do?

Postmodernists believe that no definite terms, boundaries, or absolute truths exist.

No definitive evidence exists to prove democracy is the ideal form of government, that any one religion or system of belief holds the moral high ground over all others, that the free market is indeed free for all those that participate in it, just as one country’s interpretation and prioritization of human rights cannot be determined to be more correct than all others.

But we don’t have to get lost in cultural relativism, as certain governments and their political cultures do share, or may come to share common values or find common ground to discuss and debate human rights.

Rather that drifting into hypocrisy, is it any less valid to suggest that Stephen Harper has struck a balance between promoting Canadian values abroad, recognizing that it must be done diplomatically, and maintaining trade relations with China, and hence, keeping the lines of communication open rather than closed?

I think we have seen where moral absolutism gets us:

You’re either with us or against us, good versus evil isn’t a useful notion when the world works in gray ways, not black and white.

Thou shalt not kill…..but what about when your life or that of your family is at risk?

A country may not infringe on another’s sovereignty…..but what about if that country commits genocide?

How can one possibly gauge the overall superiority of one system over another when even within countries no one can settle on the same criteria to judge what is true, what is right, and what is wrong?

What is important is that we listen, that we communicate, engage, and open our minds to the possibility that we may be somewhat misguided even in those places where we are sure we are not.

Debating not with harsh judgement but with even and open communication aids the prospect of greater understanding in the international community.

What is least useful in journalists, politicians or academics is an insistence or unwavering sense of self-righteousness (except in the most egregious of situations, such as the need to intervene in a genocide or send aid to a natural disaster site) that their point of view is the right way to truth or justice. Such mentality diminishes the possibility that other viewpoints may provide educational value to aid in the prospect of international peace and cross-cultural understanding.

Couldn’t every citizen of the world, especially those in some of the more multicultural countries of the world, benefit from learning to work with others across cultural lines toward common ends, such as peace and security for all? Everyone has the right to protest falsehood, unfair criticism or treatment, but it too often seems like many in positions of power don’t know how to do that constructively.

Perhaps Harper is learning to compromise or pursue his agenda through a double lens i.e. one that emphasizes economic interests and another that deals with human rights abuses.

Some conflict, be it violent in war or words, is unavoidable. History shows us that constant. Our perspectives are limited by our perceptions and since we never have the whole story, i.e. the Canadian government does not have the means of understanding at the same level as the Chinese government, the political culture of its country.

Such flawed approaches to diplomacy and conflict, be they dismissive or limiting trade policies, hostile rhetoric disproportionate to the situation, may define how much harm results from conflict.

That is not to say take no position, see an issue naively not considering ulterior motives of other parties, or take on a foreign perspective (after living abroad) to the complete exclusion of popular domestic perspectives. Ask questions rather than presume, persuade rather than demand, promote deeply held beliefs rather than enforce them, share ideas and well-thought out opinions , listen to various perspectives and offer new ones, and take from every theory in moderation.

Anyone who would harshly criticize the Harper government for hypocrisy for maintaining trade and calling for human rights with China might want to check his or her closet for Made in China labels.

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