I’ve noticed repeatedly that when western reporters interview Chinese diplomats or politicians they almost always take an apologetic tone and talk about criticisms as if they were outright true and ought not be questioned. Most of us know that many of these criticisms are either not accurate or given not out of a spirit of true dialogue and constructive, friendly criticism but out of more nefarious motives.
Take the issue of human rights. The latest example is Xi at the State Department. At his speech, Xi talked about the criticisms of alleged human rights violations from his “old friends” in the US. He was quick to mention that China has improved drastically in human rights during the last 30 years.
That much is true. But in talking about improvement, he may not be getting the right message across. It may seem to an American audience that that is admission of the accuracy of much human rights criticisms of China. It may convey to the audience not a message of how far China has improved but how backwards it once was and how far it needs to go. Xi and his colleagues may not even realize this is the message they are unwittingly communicating.
The human rights issue of course, is just one example. I see in general an apologetic and diffident tone in treating criticisms from the west. But there is no evidence that such tone has currency, is persuasive among the western audience. Diffidence and meekness is often taken as a sign of guilt or duplicity rather than a sign of respect for an alternative perspective (which I believe is the intention of Chinese diplomats). Those who do have legitimate perspectives are often expected to defend their position with some passion and vehemence in the west.
That is how I personally like to do things. But I also understand that in Chinese culture where one is expected not to be dogmatic and adversarial but to argue one’s case in a spirit of cooperation at arriving at the truth, tones that convey antagonism may be seen as the opposite, that is, as expressing hubris and compensating for deficiencies of evidence with vehemence.
So there is this cultural divide. But I think that when speaking to a western and especially American audience, it may be more fruitful for Chinese diplomats to adopt a more aggressive tone, to go on the offensive. As odd as that may sound to many Chinese, that may achieve more in convincing them than a more respectful tone that is on the defensive.
So instead of tacitly acknowledging as legitimate many illegitimate criticisms against China, perhaps a better strategy is to go on the offensive. When asked about human rights abuses, Chinese diplomats may answer something like, “Yes, we are deeply concerned about human rights and are looking for ways to improve. But we also consider the invasion of Iraq to be a fundamental human rights infringement on the Iraqi people. We consider the deaths of 1.4 million Iraqis and tens of thousands of people in Afghanistan from unjust wars to be grave human rights abuses. We consider the destruction of their country to be human rights abuses and the fact that tens of thousands of people die in the US every year because they do not have health care to be human rights abuses and the fact that the US has imprisoned more people than any nation in the world, many of whom minorities, sent to long prison terms for nonviolent crimes, to be massive human rights violations. We consider torturing, imprisoning and assassinating people without legal due process to be massive human rights violations. We hope to speak to you on all these issues in a spirit of dialogue instead of a lecture from one side at the other. Only in such multilateral communication based on equality can we learn from each other and improve human rights for the whole world.”
This provides the context to China’s actions by making analogies between China and other countries. As for the allegations which are straightforwardly false or misleading (such as many of the ones concerning Tibet), it may be more effective to not let the allegations lay in silence but to directly confront them with refutation. Holding one’s tongue is often construed as a sign of tacit admission of guilt in the west and direct responses are seen as evidence of sincerity.
Often the perpetrators of crimes are not even aware of their own complicity in the crime. It is rare that they can come to realize their own crimes without outside perspectives. China has been listening to the other side for decades through constant, self-righteous, arrogant lectures and hectoring (often using false accusations to do so). It’s time for the west to accept an outside voice regarding its own behavior. In this way, not only will Americans see that their own country perpetrates many of the crimes they allege at others and question the immoral actions of their own country but come to see that many of the criticisms they level at others may need to be questioned as well.