Prosperity at freedom's expense: Asian leaders are disputing the West's insistence on human rights, says Jonathan Eyal

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The Independent Online
THE RESULTS of the US Secretary of State Warren Christopher's recent visit to China were little short of disastrous: the Communist leaders not only rebuffed US demands for improvements in Peking's human rights record, but even arrested dissidents on the eve of Christopher's arrival, and are threatening to return to Cold War relations if Washington persists in linking trade to respect for human rights.

Nor are the Chinese alone. Throughout Asia leaders are rejecting Western concern for human rights provisions as at best a new form of imperialism - an attempt to impose Western values on Asian societies. This 'cultural relativism', the advancing of national differences as a justification for human rights offences, is not an Asian invention - it was a familiar defence during the Cold War of East European and Soviet governments accused of stifling dissent.

There is, indeed, some substance to aspects of the cultural relativism case. For instance, differences about what constitutes human rights do persist: in some countries, death penalties or public floggings are viewed as barbaric; in others, they remain the norm. And the entire concept of human rights is fluid: sometimes the aim is to protect individuals from the powers of the state, in other cases to protect ethnic groups, rather than individuals. To confuse matters further, the dividing line between the rights of the individual and the rights of society is constantly shifting: yesterday's pornographic tract may be tomorrow's literary masterpiece.

Moreover, the decision to highlight human rights abuses in particular countries always has been politically motivated. The same Western leaders who fret about abuses in China are noticeably careful not to press 'traditional' Arab states into political change. And the cancellation of democratic elections by the military in Algeria was greeted with studied silence.

The most compelling argument in support of cultural relativism is also the simplest: the 'tigers' of Asia appear to be good at spurring economic prosperity and their claim that they must be allowed to continue rings true. Russia had elections, but is bankrupt; China had none, yet it is notching up double-digit growth rates.

Yet the arguments for cultural relativism were wrong in the past and remain so today: far from being compromised, the universal idea of freedom needs to be advanced in a practical and methodical fashion.

It is relatively easy to deal with the Asians' claims. Every Asian state has already subscribed to treaties that enshrine many fundamental freedoms. The Chinese and some of their regional allies are not challenging the validity of these rights (which are very often guaranteed by their own constitutions); they simply object to anyone who points out that their own legal provisions remain unobserved.

More important, arguments for cultural relativism are advanced by Asian leaders, not their people. Asians themselves are increasingly challenging the notion that economic prosperity can be achieved without personal freedom. Taiwan, South Korea, Pakistan and the Philippines have already joined the ranks of democracies, despite inherent difficulties. Mohamad Mahathir in Malaysia is rattled not because of British smear campaigns, but because he knows that, with an election approaching, the opposition will be aiming its allegations of corruption at his government.

Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma or Fang Lizhi and Wei Jingsheng in China are threats because their governments know that such people could rally millions to their cause. Indeed, China's doddery leaders arrested dissidents recently precisely because they sense a developing coalition between peasants, industrial workers and intellectuals: a mortal danger to any Communist regime.

An explosion in non-governmental human rights associations is taking place throughout Asia. Their existence negates the claim that Asia has found a miraculous way of having a market economy without an open society. The crystallisation of a civil society depends in its initial phase on dissidents who command respect and can lead the masses. The Czech Republic, for instance, did better than Romania or Bulgaria precisely because it had Vaclav Havel. By raising human rights issues the West gives the dissidents hope, and affords them protection. Havel, Sakharov or Wei Jingsheng may languish in jail periodically, but they are unlikely to be exterminated simply because they are too famous.

The problem for the West is that the instruments available for upholding human rights are simply unsuited to the task. Withdrawing trade concessions from China would punish Hong Kong and Taiwan more than Peking, and it would jeopardise the co- operation which the West expects from China in containing North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

What, then, can be done? First, respect for Asia's cultural traditions must continue: the American recently sentenced to flogging in Singapore for hooliganism must suffer his punishment; those who smuggle drugs should expect the death penalty, provided they are subject to the due process of local laws.

Second, Western governments should not pay too much attention to the protests of their traders eager to continue making money in Asia at all costs. The same fat cats who gave Warren Christopher a pasting for daring to raise human rights in Peking would be the first to huddle in the American embassy compound asking for protection if the Chinese experiment turned sour.

They should be allowed to continue trading, but Western consumers should be notified of their involvements. Levi Strauss, the American clothing company, pulled out of China because of human rights concerns. That leaves those consumers who care a clear choice to reward that company for its stance - precisely the kind of consumer choice that defeated apartheid in South Africa.

Western governments should confront recalcitrant Asian governments with a mixture of continued engagement and denial. Peking should be denied the chance of holding the 2004 Olympic Games and, instead of threatening China with dire sanctions, Washington should now push for Taiwan to join Gatt. The message should be that co-operation can continue, but that violations of human rights always incur costs. By refusing to compromise the ideal of freedom, the West will lay the foundation for a friendship with Asia that will endure long after the Mahathirs or Dengs of this world have joined Allah and Marx.

(Photograph omitted)