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7.30.2011

EU vox populi on rights, China and Ai Weiwei

I have noticed how here in Europe there seems to be a vox populi advancing a critical stance on China rights discourse.

I don´t know how widespread these views are, as I have not conducted systematic research on this. But I have been hearing more or less the same arguments in different social circles over at least one or two years. Some are cynical about the discourse on rights in China, and consider it little more than gratuitous China-bashing.

Members of this loose camp could draw on their lack of satisfaction with rights discourse to make better sense of the world around them. But, they do not seem to be interested in understanding why or how rights can be violated. Engagement with this or similar questions – in any kind of social or intellectual circle, at any level of competence or intellectual sophistication – means that one is at least making an attempt to overcome or minimize the impact of clichés, or circumvent the “us vs. them” dichotomy and mentality.

Members of this loose camp have instead embarked upon a road where one needs not ask questions. They purport to be critical of China rights discourse, as they observe how discourse is replete with orientalist clichés or polarized. More than genuine criticism, this is a mere statement about well-known shortcomings of China Studies.

Membership in the camp of critics sometimes comes with the added bonus of a ´better-than-thou´ attitude. People are smarter than you, and they know better than you. They know, for instance, that the real reason why someone as Ai Weiwei was targeted may be unrelated to his political views.

The latest argument I have encountered states that since in China many people evade tax, and Ai is wealthy, he must have evaded tax too. This is not about Ai the ´dissident´, this is about Ai the taxpayer – so does the vox populi say. Those who speak in favor of Ai engage in the usual China-bashing. What if Ai is indicted and found guilty? Are you defending criminals? Don´t you realize how weak this position is? Are you for or against justice?

As discourse unfolds, people seem to forget that Ai was detained overtime and without a warrant.

Allegations of tax evasion will inevitably awaken strong feelings, thus obscuring this fact. The decision whether to devote attention to the allegations made against Ai rather than to procedural violations is a matter of personal choice. But, some implications of this choice should be made explicit.

If we consider allegations more important than the fact of detention, then we imply that detaining people at one´s whims can be acceptable. So if you want to detain somebody for a couple of months, all you have to do is come up with an allegation that seems plausible to the public, and then proclaim it to the four winds. People will talk about Ai and fiscal evasion, and display no particular concern about his detention. Indifference towards the detention of one is dangerous, as it can lead to a tacit acceptance of power abuses toward others.

But in the eyes of critics at least, this implication is not a problem.

The “true” problem is that we are bashing China, and that we ignore all that it is good about the country (its sustained rate of economic growth, culture, history etc). The "true" problem is that we are painting a one-sided image of China. The "true" problem is that this is not good for business.

People may sincerely believe they are just criticizing a “trite” discourse on rights in China. But in putting forward this view they do much more. They become ensnared in a discursive practice that leads them to condone arbitrary detentions.

More than one´s opinions on China or Ai Weiwei, arguments about the case reveal one´s ideas about rights. Their proponents may be talking about China. But, discourse refers eventually to rights in Europe.

Those who advance the views I mentioned are not under Chinese law. They are under the law of EU countries. And it is not the power of the Chinese police they are exposed to, but the power of their national police. Saying that we can close an eye on arbitrary detention it is saying that the police can strip anybody of their rights, if only the public thinks their allegations may be supported by evidence - evidence the public may not see.

If the PRC is not playing by its own rules in this case, then proponents of these views are not reasoning by our own rules either.


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