Sunday, January 23, 2011

Switching Sides

One of the things I most enjoy about the current US relationship to China (and here I mean more our cultural and intellectual relationship, not simply our State department's diplomatic relationship) is the knack it has for dredging up ideological issues that confuse the fixed-in-stone left-right sides which constitute our country's stale parody of political debate.  

For example, in an irony Jeremy Grantham noted a while back, China is widely if warily admired in the business community, as if it were just another very large and successful business.  How did all these rabid free market types end up envying an economy run on the communist party's five year central planning?  

Today's twist is brought to you by Hu Jintao's recent visit:

As the two leaders stood side by side at a nationally televised news conference, he called on China to live up to human rights values that he said were enshrined in the Chinese Constitution, adding that Americans "have some core views as Americans about the universality of certain rights: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly."

Mr. Hu, for his part, seemed to hearten White House officials by acknowledging that China had a ways to go on human rights issues. "China still faces many challenges in economic and social development," he said. "And a lot still needs to be done in China in terms of human rights."

Looking at a few other articles, you can already see it dawning on people that China treats a basic level of economic freedom, freedom from poverty at least, as a human right -- in fact, as perhaps the most basic human right.  So, "a lot needing to be done," here means doing a lot more to raise everyone's standard of living so that they don't remain forever locked to the land or the factory floor.  The mainstream left, in its clamor for "human rights in China", does not tend to sympathize with this much more radical point of view on human rights, which I associate with Chomsky's notion of anarchy (succinctly introduced in this video, by the way).  

Seeing a certain level of economic development as itself a form of freedom takes the left's question of human rights in a more radical but also more pragmatic direction.  The same thing happens to the debate about the wonders of the free market when you see representatives of the right acknowledging the productive role state involvement can play in practice.  I'm hardly saying that either side has found a solution to these problems, but I hopefully imagine that the rise of a (relatively) pacific new superpower could alter the terms enough to make progress.

Makes me wonder what happens to the political debate in China when they have to talk about the US.  

No comments: