IMPERIALIST IDEALS: Facilitating, Not Dominating, China’s Promotion of Human Rights

by Imani Franklin, ‘13 + Holly Fetter, ‘13

Some values are not meant to be universal. Imani’s belief that it is acceptable to begin playing Christmas music in October, for example, needs not be imposed on everyone, everywhere. But what about the more significant values? What about a belief that a right to free speech is dangerous? Or that the state should be allowed to decide how many children a woman will have?

These are the questions we’ve been asking ourselves and each other for the past six weeks that we’ve spent in Beijing. If you know either of us at all, you can imagine the sort of conversations that occur in our room. Each of our heated discussions is particularly informed by two classes that we’ve been fortunate enough to take – the first, a course about the criminal justice system in China; the second, an exploration of Chinese media.

In our class about the criminal justice system, we spend each class learning about the utter lack of laws in this country. Our (unabashedly pro-China) professor dates the beginning of China at 1979, when Deng Xiaoping initiated his famous economic reforms. When we ask him why it is that China has few human rights laws, and even fewer basic civil rights laws, he tells us that we should be patient – China is a new country, and they’re moving slowly toward a robust legal system, complete with fancy Western-style human rights protections. (Nevermind the fact that the Chinese Communist Party has been so quick to promulgate laws that relate to economics and trade, of course).

Then we have our media studies class, in which we read about the government’s blatant control over the content and publication of all forms of Chinese media. We learn about radical thinkers like Liu Binyan who dared to promote the right to free speech and was then expelled from the Party and sent to the United States. We experience first-hand the way that the CCP limits our Internet access while paying people 50 cents to post pro-government propaganda on web forums and news sites.

Our initial instinct is to be mad as hell. As young people who have been brainwashed by the red, white, and blue, we can’t imagine a government that doesn’t respect people’s basic rights. Sure, we both read enough alternative media to know that the American government commits some unbelievably atrocious violations of its citizens’ human rights. But at the same time, we spend a lot of time praising the Bill of Rights and the respectful debate that occurs every election season. We believe in free speech, we believe in democracy, and we believe in a person’s right to have hir rights protected. And whether we like to admit it or not, we also believe that everyone else in the world should believe that, too.

Take, for example, the multiplicity of NGOs in foreign countries like China. You have foreign foundations giving money to organizations (usually run or primarily staffed by foreigners) to bring “Western” values of democracy to those communities. Don’t get us wrong – there are undoubtedly incredible activists and NGOs working hard to provide absolutely necessary services to people in need outside the U.S. But there are also people and organizations working abroad to fix what they’ve identified as problems, looking for solutions that they know are the right ones because of the values with which they’ve been indoctrinated. There are people who think that bringing democracy to China, for example, is the right thing to do because of the context in which they’ve experienced the benefits of a democratic society. They think that democracy is surely better than any alternative.

But here’s where things get messy. When we start thinking critically about these values that we espouse, we realize that these are distinctly West-centric ideals that we are carelessly imposing onto other cultural contexts. We do it with the best of intentions – we are genuinely concerned about the plight of journalists in China, so we believe that the government needs to create more laws to protect their rights. The notion of universal values is complicated, especially when its laced with a certain condescension that is so uniquely American. When we champion our values, aren’t we implying that “ours” are better than “theirs?”

The more that we’ve thought about these questions of what’s universally right and wrong, and the more that we’ve grappled with our own visceral anger at the human rights violations that we see and hear about, the more we see the parallel between our role in China and the role of many activists in communities within the U.S. We’ve both had our share of experiences coming into a community and thinking we know what’s best for “those people,” because we read about “them” in an academic journal or because our relative is “one of them.” We’ve joined movements with the best of intentions, only to realize that we were doing it all wrong – that we didn’t take the time to get to know the people in that community, to realize that we didn’t know the first thing about their experience and that we needed to step back and let them lead the way.

Those are the sort of lessons that domestic activists need to learn in the U.S., and they are the same ones that foreigner activists in China (and other countries) need to learn as well. We can’t just come to a new place and decide what’s right for those people, even if it’s so clear to us. We don’t know the nuances of that space and of those communities – we don’t know what it’s like to actually be affected by what we are so quick to call human rights violations. We’re both making a conscious effort to listen to and learn from the locals with whom we interact, and to understand their needs before telling them what we think those needs should be.

It’s hard, though, to do that work when we are surrounded by an intense fascination with foreigners. Everywhere we go, our blond hair and brown skin makes us stand out like that one sad girl in the USC crowd. People notice us; some even idolize us. The passports we hold add an extra layer of confusion to our political and social conversations with Chinese people. Many citizens either become defensive of China or praise the U.S., making it hard to have many honest interactions. How do you learn from a community that has been affected by a history of imperialist power? How do you genuinely engage with a community of people that love Justin Bieber and McDonald’s more than you do? It’s tough to overcome this power dynamic, but it’s necessary. We need to support activist work in China, not dominate it. We need to keep that American imperialism in check.


Imani Franklin is a Junior studying International Relations with a focus on the Middle East. Holly Fetter is a Junior from the Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity program. Both women hail from the South, and are currently sharing a lovely room together while studying abroad in China as part of the Stanford Program in Beijing. When not exploring the city and cramming for Mandarin quizzes, the two love dancing, discussing politics, and deconstructing Justin Bieber videos.

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One thought on “IMPERIALIST IDEALS: Facilitating, Not Dominating, China’s Promotion of Human Rights

  1. David Ng says:

    Deeply agree with the need to support and not dominate activist work in China.

    Especially for a country that has perceived itself as having been abused and pushed around for over a century, the absolutely wrong thing to do is to further make it think that it can’t even get “universal” rights correct.

    The most apt piece of advice is probably from Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People”, Part 3:

    7) Let the other person feel that the idea is his or hers- if you are trying to suggest an idea to someone, try to engage him in a way that leads him to think he came up with the idea himself.

    People are always more willing to accept their own ideas than others.

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