What’s at stake in the Chinese century?

This Sunday the 10th was the 69th anniversary of the adoption by the United Nations General Assembly of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. LandscapeAs one of the various attempts to put civilization back together after World War II, the creation of the Declaration – chaired by American Eleanor Roosevelt – spelled out in 30 articles a rich set of freedoms to which every person in the world should be entitled. Forty-eight nations approved the Declaration, with the Soviet Union, other Communist countries, Saudi Arabia, and the Union of South Africa abstaining from the vote. China, which was then the Republic of China, voted for its adoption.

Certainly, the principles in the Declaration weren’t always practiced. Many nations and leaders would fall short in the decades to come. For example, even the United States condoned torture during the George W. Bush administration, and it has kept prisoners locked away in Gitmo now for years with no hope of release. But that doesn’t change that the Declaration is still on the books as an aspirational document. And it remains true that it was modeled on the U.S. Bill of Rights and notions of individual liberty, which the U.S. has promoted during its “American century” as one of the leading ideologies during that period.

But now, the U.S. century seems to be coming to a close, and in its place, we have the rise of the Chinese century under the Communist Party. This has been a banner year for the People’s Republic of China and its supreme leader, Xi Jinping. After decades of building its economic and diplomatic power, in 2017, China stepped up to become a world leader, while the U.S. – after the election of Donald Trump – seems to have stepped back. If the trend lines of China’s development continue, we seem to be poised for a coming “Chinese century”.

If one adopts a certain, blunt nationalist and nativist perspective, this is to be feared. The hubris of nationalism would dictate that the U.S. should run the show to the exclusion of everyone else. I confess, having grown up in a world where the U.S. was pre-eminent, it will seem strange if that disappears. But I don’t necessarily fear it.

I have never felt that the U.S. had some pre-ordained right to remain the global hegemon. I reject outright any kind of racist, “Yellow Peril” backlash. I don’t necessarily fear Chinese ownership of companies – after all, U.S. and European companies have been doing this for decades in the rest of the world. And I don’t even necessarily fear China as a military threat. Modern economics makes enormous wars a bad idea. (And on this score, the U.S. seems the bigger threat with its many small wars in the Mideast and elsewhere).

No, I don’t fear a Chinese century for these reasons. What I fear is what will happen to the values spelled out in the Declaration.

It seems an inevitable rule of history that the greatest standing power has enormous influence over the culture and norms of other civilizations. This was true of the British empire and then, in turn, the American empire. While I acknowledge the many flaws of these systems, I still believe in the values of freedom and human rights that emerged from western culture, and these values did manage to seep into the international consciousness. It is no accident that we have liberal democratic regimes now in Germany, Japan, South Korea, and India. The rights and political systems pioneered, articulated, and promoted in the west still shined through, despite the many failures and atrocities of the promoters.

But these values are not shared currently by China. And in fact, under Pres. Xi, China has become more repressive and intolerant of freedom, even as it continues to promote trade with other countries. Should China remain on track in its development and current political stability, I fear that the allure and support for systems of authoritarianism will grow – and that the systems of human rights as spelled out in the Declaration will shrivel down until they are the norms of a group of small, backwater nations that carry little influence. My fear is that the era of human rights in human history will have reached its high water mark, never to rise again. Pres. Xi expressly rejected these values in his address to the Community Party Congress this year. I think we need to take him at his word.

Nothing is guaranteed, of course, in history. China has many internal tensions to avoid and overcome. But I am a bit of pessimist by nature. And I think we need, as inheritors of the western tradition of rights, make sure that they are not lost as the new century begins.

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