Recently we have had several good, vigorous debates on the proper role of human rights in the International Order – including in China in particular. In a recent thread, I even got to argue in the comments that the Chinese government is right to focus on issues of general human welfare (as embodied by its calls for a “peaceful and harmonious” society) rather than ideologies such as “human rights” (as embodied by Western calls for democracy and freedom of speech).
Assuming I am right for purposes of this discussion, the Chinese government may however still have its work cut out. For example an important aspect of building a “peaceful and harmonious society,” given China’s vast ethnic,religious, and cultural diversity, no doubt involves the government to tolerate, if not outright embrace, China’s myriad ethnic and religious subgroups.
Can the Chinese government deliver?
The world’s current infatuation with and hyper sensitivity to ethnic and religious identities do not bode well. Take the experience of “democratic India” as an example.
In an interesting article in the New York Times on the ethno-religious strife that has been flaring up across India, the Times reported:
With national elections only months away, India is reeling from a rash of spiteful religious and ethnic clashes, prompting many in this country to ask why their vibrant, pluralistic democracy tends to encourage, rather than avert, the cruelty of neighbor against neighbor.
Tensions are growing in several corners of the country. The latest dispute was set off in Mumbai last week, when an upstart nativist party claiming to represent Marathas, the dominant ethnic group in the state, pounced on Indians who had come from elsewhere to apply for jobs at Indian Railways.
Clashes between Hindus and Christians [also has] continued to sweep through eastern Orissa State. In northeastern Assam State, indigenous Bodos fought with Bengali-speaking Muslims, leaving more than 50 people dead.
All the while, Indian cities remained skittish after a spate of terrorist attacks blamed largely on Islamic militants. Other factors include the longstanding Kashmir insurgency in the north and Maoist guerrillas across central India.
The Hindustan Times recently carried a map of India, splattered with red stains to mark current trouble spots. Many more would have to be added in the two weeks since the map was published. In mid-October, speaking to the wishfully named National Integration Council, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called the rash of violence “an assault on our composite culture.”
He added, “An atmosphere of hatred and violence is being artificially generated.”
How can the world’s largest democracy fail to prevent such a fury of intolerance?
Ashis Nandy, a political psychologist and social critic, said that India was a democracy in a far more limited sense than many Indians cared to recognize. In spite of its lively and largely transparent elections, he said, some of the other basic pillars of democracy, including tolerance and respect for the rule of law, were fragile at best.
Perhaps, he went on to suggest, India was gradually becoming less democratic, as a variety of small, factionalized political parties vied to mobilize their caste and ethnic constituencies. National elections are expected to be held next spring, and five state elections are scheduled for November.
“Some amount of virulent, strident rhetoric, as well as violence, is becoming a deepening part of the democratic culture,” Mr. Nandy said. He described it as an inevitable danger of all large, pluralistic democracies. After all, he said, the Ku Klux Klan survives in the United States. And look at the increasingly aggressive campaign messages in the American presidential race, Mr. Nandy said.
“The role of democracy in preventing community-based violence depends on the ability of universalist political processes to subdue the poisonous fanaticism of divisive communal thinking,” he wrote in an e-mail message. “Much will depend on the vigor of democratic politics, not just the existence of democratic institutions.”
Vivek Gautam, known as Vicky, this evening’s Ravana, sat on a chair with his legs splayed, his hirsute and heavy girth pouring over a shimmering black nylon dhoti at his waist. He ruminated over the troubles of the times, saying it was in keeping with what Hindu legend called the Kalayuga, or the dark age.
“It is just the start of the Kalayuga,” he warned. “Once it reaches its climax you cannot imagine what it will be like. There will be no friendships, no relationships, not even between fathers and sons, only crime.”
Ravana’s cellphone trilled. As for the strife now erupting across his country, he said cryptically, “Our own people are betraying us.”
It is unfortunate that India has not been able to avert the type of ethnic and religious based fanaticism that has ripped many other societies apart. As the article noted, even in a democratic, human-rights conforming societies like India, “preventing community-based violence depends on the ability of universalist political processes to subdue the poisonous fanaticism of divisive communal thinking. … Much will depend on the vigor of democratic politics, not just the existence of democratic institutions.”
Where has India gone wrong? How can she strengthen her social and political fibers to foster tolerance and unity?
Like India, China too is a mega pluralistic cultural society with many religions as well as ethnicity. In that sense, India’s experience should not be easily dismissed out of hand.
Is the violence in India merely result of economic underdevelopment – i.e. an expression of frustration with poverty and economic helplessness? Or is India’s experience symptomatic of something deeper and more disturbing?
For example, are the conflicts and violence part of a deeper ethnic and religious divide being fanned and exploited by a surging tide of global ethnic and religious fanaticism?
Given China’s non-democratic government, is China more prone or less prone to a similar fate? To what extent can economic developments be used to embrace (rather than highlight) ethnic and religious differences?
And finally, in what ways can Western-style “human rights” be tapped (in a way that is not being tapped in India) to promote peace and stability?