In part 1 of this mini-series, I mentioned David Potts’s comments on China from an earlier post, promising to respond more directly to them. DP’s comments on China fall into three parts: a condemnation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on grounds of its systematic disrespect for human rights; an accusation of hypocrisy against activists for their relative indifference to China’s human rights record; and a skeptical shrug of the shoulders about collective action against China.
I put my summary response to his argument this way in part 1:
Either his remarks are meant to rebut my claims or not. If they are, I don’t see how they do; if they’re not I don’t see why they’re there.
I’m going to focus here on the first of these conditionals, assuming that his remarks were intended to rebut my claims, and arguing that they don’t.
China’s human rights record
Here is the first part of DP’s argument:
Fortunately, there is no need to look to history for examples of complicity with fascism, since we have examples around us in the present day. Across the Pacific, for instance, there is a (practically speaking) fascist regime that we are all well aware of, by which I mean, of course, China. It is a one-party, totalitarian dictatorship that disappears dissenters (and not just women tennis players, but businessmen and anybody else who displeases the Chinese Communist Party), abuses ethnic minorities severely, does not acknowledge civil liberties or much in the way of other individual rights, has subjugated Hong Kong, and may well soon do the same to Taiwan. Morally, China is not a better regime than Franco’s Spain. If anything, it is worse.
I don’t disagree with any of that. As I made clear in part 1, I myself regard the PRC as having an atrocious human rights record, and share DP’s revulsion for that record. Nor is this revulsion something I opportunistically conjured up a few weeks ago for polemical purposes. It’s a view I’ve held and expressed for decades.
Nor, more importantly, is it a view inconsistent with the position I’ve taken on activism or cancellation. My view is that activism ought to be undertaken in the cause of justice, and cancellation is a legitimate tactic in pursuit of that cause. No part of that argument entails, or even begins to suggest, that activism shouldn’t be undertaken in the cause of justice for China, or that cancellation is a legitimate tactic everywhere but China. So no part of the just-quoted passage rebuts anything I said.
Here’s the second part of DP’s argument:
But we are doing beaucoup business with China, and I don’t see any groundswell of mass popular protest, outrage, and denunciation. Such popular concern as I do see is concentrated mostly on the right, and it is minor. Institutions that have taken to lecturing Americans about moral issues, such as the NBA, prostrate themselves before China in abject displays of moral cowardice. For a demonstration of how much American corporations really care about moral issues, I doubt this one from Disney can be topped. (The stand taken by the Women’s Tennis Association is noteworthy precisely for the contrast it makes with virtually all other U.S. corporations and institutions.) The U.S. will soon send its athletes to the 2022 Winter Olympics there, although it seems that no U.S. diplomats will attend.
This is an accusation of hypocrisy, not an attempt to rebut my argument. As part 1 suggests, it’s not an accusation that applies to me personally. Given that, I think I’d be justified in leaving the matter there.
That said, I address the accusation at some length below, less for its direct than for its indirect relevance to anything I’ve said. DP’s accusation of hypocrisy doesn’t dispute (or rebut) a specific claim I make about the legitimacy of cancellation; what it does instead is to challenge my overall estimate of the more general phenomenon, political activism, and imply that the same challenge applies a fortiori to the more specific one, cancellation. I regard activism and cancellation as justified activities that can in principle be abused; DP regards them as fundamentally harmful activities that can in principle reach beneficial results. We might call this a yin/yang disagreement: a case where two people look at the same phenomenon, see some of the same things, but disagree on what’s fundamental and what’s peripheral to the phenomenon as a whole.
There’s no way to deal with a yin/yang sort of disagreement than to take the long way around, e.g., by working through the details of a “case study,” and determining in step-wise fashion where the disagreements lie. One criticism I’ve made from the outset of critics of cancellation is their ahistoricity, that is, their failure to put complex social phenomena in historical context. That’s my complaint in what follows as well. China seems like an indictment of “activism” if we look at it from an artificially narrow focus. Broaden the focus, and the indictment becomes an illusion.
Suppose we take DP’s accusation entirely at face value. What follows at best is that “activists” have not worried enough about, or done enough on behalf of, human rights violations in China.
There’s a problematic ambiguity here, one that I think runs throughout DP’s criticisms of “activism”: which activists does he have in mind? Well, clearly he’s referring to the hypocritical advocates of double standards about China, but John Cena aside, which ones are they supposed to be? It’s not clear. I’ll return to this issue at the end of this section.
For now, it’s enough to note that the ex hypothesi truth of DP’s accusation points in two opposing directions. We could, consistent with it, ratchet activism down to match our relative inaction on China. Or we could, with equal consistency, ratchet it up vis-a-vis China to match our fervor elsewhere. The accusation by itself doesn’t tell us which option to take. Obviously, given the argument of part 1, I favor the latter, “ratchet-up” option. I suppose DP favors the former, “rachet-down” one. But no inference from an accusation of hypocrisy by itself will decide this dispute.
Suppose instead that we take DP’s descriptive claim at face value, but contest his explanation for it. In other words, we might accept the claim that human rights activists have been insufficiently focused on China, but instead of explaining that fact by accusing them of hypocrisy or cowardice (or solely those factors), we might look elsewhere for an explanation. As it happens, I think there is one. Activism (including cancellation) often fills a gap left by lacunae in government policy; when government steps in to fill the gap, and/or confuses the issue by sending mixed messages about policy, activism tends to get crowded out by government policy. So an alternative explanation for the relative dearth of activism on China is co-optation or dilution by government policy. To see this, however, we need to introduce the historical perspective that DP omits.
Consider Chinese-American relations since 1949, the year of the Maoist take-over of China. Between that date and Nixon’s initial opening to China in 1972, the PRC was an active and explicit focus of American foreign policy: the two countries were outright enemies in a decades-long series of military confrontations. US forces fought Chinese forces in the Korean War, and engaged in nuclear brinksmanship both on the Korean peninsula, and over the Taiwan Straits thereafter. US support for South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan was likewise considered a potential casus belli by China, with all the attendant saber-rattling on both sides, along with the usual military maneuvers and tensions. Trade with China during these years was essentially illegal, and the absence of diplomatic relations made interaction with China nearly impossible. The closed nature of Chinese totalitarianism made it difficult to know what was going on there, as well.
For precisely these reasons, there was, between the 1950s and 1980s, little activism in favor of Chinese human rights because there neither a point to it nor room for it. The would-be space occupied by activism was occupied instead by government policy. In short, you can’t cancel a country already under sanctions or embargo, nor is there much of a need to do so. This three-decade historical period is the clear, paradigm case in which activism was effectively supplanted by official government policy. The later cases are not quite as clear as this, but exemplify the same pattern from the 1980s to the present day.
Nixon began the process of detente with China in 1972; Carter opened diplomatic relations with the PRC in late 1978 (effective January 1, 1979). Under this new dispensation, the earlier policies of hostility gave way both to uncertainty as well as to hopes (partially realized) for reconciliation and reform. The detente led to a liberalization of trade relations as well as to some (very limited) political liberalization, culminating in the US-China Relations Act of 2000, i.e., to the “beaucoup business” to which DP alludes. It’s worth remembering that this commerce was initially conceived (or misconceived) by advocates of the free market–generally critics of political activism–as a means of taming the totalitarian fervor of Chinese communism via Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.” The Market was, in other words, supposed to be exactly the sort of “evolutionary” substitute for activism that DP explicitly defends as the only viable route to moral progress.
And admittedly, it produced real progress: a great deal of economic progress, and a modest degree of political progress. But precisely because the Chinese leadership had never consciously, intentionally figured out how to integrate their capitalist economic commitments with their communist political ones–and reliance on unguided “evolution” turned out to be an abject failure at this task*–Chinese political progress eventually came to a screeching halt. The screeching halt took the form of the sharp intensification of repression that led to the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, and to China’s crackdowns on individual rights thereafter.
If any approach to Chinese human rights deserves criticism here, it’s the blanket reliance on morally unguided sorts of “evolution” recommended by dogmatic advocates of “The Free Market.” If the aim of this approach was to make the PRC rich, it succeeded. But if the aim was to tame Chinese totalitarianism, it failed in a spectacular (yet predictable) way. The failure arose (and still arises) from reducing all political problems to economic ones, and treating “the free market” as an all-purpose nostrum for every problem so conceived.
It’s free-market technocrats, not left-wing political activists, who came up with that idea. A commitment to greed, these technocrats told us (and still tell us), solves “real world” problems in a way that a commitment to justice cannot. Somehow, by taking justice out of the motivational equation, and replacing it with the pursuit of the Almighty Dollar, unbridled greed would, as if by an invisible hand, miraculously produce justice in the PRC. No one can blame the advocates of “cancel culture” for this picture of human affairs. Its sources lie elsewhere. (Where they lie would take a long post of its own to explain.)
In any case contrary to DP’s suggestion, there have been periods of genuine activist engagement over China up to the present day. What followed the Tiananmen Square massacre really was a “groundswell” of activism in defense of Chinese human rights, more active in the 1990s than now, but still active in a zig-zag fashion across the last three decades, even if blunted in part by the vicissitudes of US foreign policy. Consider some examples.
(1) The Free Tibet movement was born in 1987, led in a de facto (though not de jure) way by the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama became an internationally-recognized figure, addressed Congress, became an informal adviser to the US on China policy, and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. He retains this elder statesman status to this today; he’s the last of the elder statesmen-activists of the generation that included Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. Though officially retired as of 2011, he’s still active, still speaks out on China, and is still the target of Chinese repression.
Meanwhile, the Free Tibet movement remains active, headquartered in London, and led by Sam Walton. It has active branches all over the US and elsewhere. Indeed, Free Tibet activists recently cancelled a PRC-led propaganda exhibit about Tibet in New York City–not that critics of cancellation would have noticed this, much less praised it. From the Jackson Heights Post, a local newspaper:
The Queens Public Library announced Friday that it is no longer displaying a controversial exhibition about the life and customs of Tibet at its Elmhurst branch.
The library said that the Chinese Consulate and its affiliate that put together the exhibit, titled Everyday Life in Tibet, made the decision to discontinue it. The exhibit was removed Saturday.
Various Tibetan groups had been calling for the display to be shut down saying that it painted an unrealistic picture of life in the country and referred to it as propaganda.
More than 150 people protested the exhibit outside the Elmhurst library earlier this month and an online petition demanding its closure had garnered more than 4,600 signatures.
There it is–the dreaded “cancel culture” at work. Such cancellations are the stuff of everyday activism, and have been, since well before Tocqueville took notice of them in Democracy in America (1840). You can find them in every city, every borough, every town, and every village in the country. Some tack to the Left, others to the Right, depending on the demographics of the place in question. That they don’t attract the same attention as the cancellations of Dave Chapelle et al is an unfortunate fact about the way contemporary journalism operates, not a criticism of cancellation, or an indication of its nature.
(2) The Falun Gong movement arose in China itself in the early 1990s, and then left China to escape persecution there. Now headquartered in the US, it’s become an international phenomenon, and remains active in agitating for human rights for China. Epoch Times, its in-house propaganda vehicle, went from being an unknown newsletter to being a major international newspaper. Though idiosyncratic and problematic as a journalistic outlet, there’s no denying its anti-PRC stance, or the breadth of its readership: it ranks 11th among video creators worldwide (as cited in the Wikipedia entry two links above).
Shen Yun, a Falun Gong theatrical production, eventually became a $100+ million dollar family-friendly anti-communist propaganda act, packing performing arts centers across the US. By way of comparison, consider that Shen Yun’s net assets exceed those of the Cato Institute, the flagship think tank of mainstream libertarianism.** My late wife and I happened to watch a performance of Shen Yun at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center back in the spring of 2018. No one watching the performance could possibly miss the political message: Communist repression is evil, and must be resisted; pre-Communist Chinese culture is beautiful, and ought to be celebrated. Shen Yun continues, four years later, to play to sold out audiences at NJPAC (and across the country) despite the pandemic. I would challenge any political organization in this country, right- or left-wing, mainstream or not, to replicate that success. It’s easier ignored or derided than accomplished.
(3) The previously loose set of human rights organizations focused on China coalesced (around 2010) into a consortium called Chinese Human Rights Defenders, which continues to engage in activism to this day. After Tiananmen Square, all of the traditional human rights organizations–Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, Front Line Defenders, Human Rights First–increased their scrutiny of and activism about China. What we know about the state of human rights in China is largely their doing, and all of them agitate almost constantly for boycotts and cancellations of Chinese propaganda junkets. (A smaller and more explicitly Christian organization, ChinaAid, plays a similar role.)
(4) Finally, consider the recent calls to boycott the Beijing Olympics, spearheaded in large part by Human Rights Watch. The effort may have failed, but was it really “minor”?
From a story in DW:
An alliance of 243 human rights organizations and nongovernment organizations have called for a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympic Games, a week before the event begins.
“The 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics will open amid atrocities and other grave human rights violations by the Chinese government,” the organizations said in a statement.
Human Rights Watch, Frontline Defenders, Women’s Rights Without Frontiers were among the signatories of the petition calling on politicians to boycott the Games.
Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, said, “It’s not possible for the Olympic Games to be a ‘force for good,’ as the International Olympic Committee claims, while the host government is committing grave crimes in violation of international law.”
Here’s the HRW Statement itself, along with the website of #NoBeijing2022. Here are the boycott protests as reported by the BBC, and by The Washington Post. Here’s an op-ed in The New York Times in favor of boycott, and here’s another one. Here’s another piece from the Times, one of many of its type in the mainstream press, implicitly critical of business interests’ participation in the Olympics. Here’s a story from NPR, one from PBS, and one from the CBC. Here’s an anti-Olympics protest in Turkey, covered in Al Jazeera. Here’s a piece in Slate. Here’s a rather stridently pro-boycott piece in The Diplomat, of all places. I’d previously cited an op-ed in The Washington Post and one piece in Reason defending boycott.
I could go on. The pro-boycott campaign was years-long in duration, involved hundreds of human rights organizations around the world, and got a full year of coverage in virtually every major news outlet around the globe. It simply is not plausible to call this “minor,” while treating the cancellation of an academic here, a comedian there, and a dentist-hunter over there as major events. Nor is it plausible to identify all of the pro-boycott activism (or even most of it) with the American Right. Some of it comes from the Right, some of it is essentially ethnic in origin, and some of it comes from ordinary left-of-center human rights organizations, scholars, and activists.***
So why the relative absence of activism now? Because despite the liberalization of trade relations, the US and China have, for about a decade now, been drifting back into the Cold War posture of the pre-Nixon era. It was during the Obama Administration that policy began to “pivot” against the evolutionary, approach of its predecessor administrations. Since then, the US has taken a more aggressive posture toward the PRC–most aggressive under Trump, slightly aggressive under Bush, semi-aggressive under Obama, residually or inertially aggressive under Biden. You wouldn’t know from DP’s account of US-China relations that the US prosecuted a trade war against China during the Trump years, and that the Biden Administration’s policies have differed in degree rather than kind from Trump’s. There is now open discussion of the possibility of outright war with China over Taiwan. A trade war and aggressive military posture are bound to co-opt non-governmental activism by all but the most committed activists.
And that, I would argue, is exactly what we’ve seen. The activist fervor of the 1990s has (regrettably) died down as memories of Tiananmen Square have faded, but also as a result of the facile argument that capitalist commerce would bring human rights to China by means of an “invisible hand” while we treated the PRC (off and on) as a military adversary. This confusing trio of considerations has led activists to a dilemma or trilemma. On the one hand, they face a situation in which it’s impossible to boycott China as a whole, given the path-dependencies of prior commercial engagement; on the other hand, the US government has slapped sanctions on the PRC, rendering activism somewhat pointless. And activists understandably don’t want to be part of a process that leads to or is implicated in an all-out war over Taiwan. So the complexity of the situation has left activists unclear about the path forward. But none of this really helps DP’s argument. What it shows is that activists need a strategy for handling the ups and downs of US policy, not that there’s anything wrong with either activism or cancellation per se.
What it also shows, I think, is that DP’s description of activism is itself mistaken. Only if we cherry pick the evidence does it appear that activism about China is “minor,” and confined to the political Right. If we look at it in broader historical context, that doesn’t hold true. There is plenty of activism out there. It’s not a minor phenomenon, and not all right wing.
A final point. As should be obvious from part 1, I think Americans should be doing more to resist Chinese totalitarianism. But DP’s near-blanket criticisms of activism sit rather incongruously with his moral estimate of the PRC. He describes activism as an activity involving “appalling ignorance and extreme emotionality coupled with claims to be fighting justice,” refers to collective action as “mob justice,” and insists that activism is vitiated by the complexity of moral phenomena, phenomena whose complexity always (or almost always) outruns the epistemic resources of activists. When it comes to China, it sounds as though these barbs are intended for European and American leftists, but that isn’t what DP actually says. Conceding that activism is a “mixed bag,” he nonetheless goes after activism as such: he’s “not a fan.” In this unqualified form, his arguments can without trouble be read as an indictment of activism as such–including, paradoxically, activism by Chinese activists in China itself.
So forget American (or European) activists for the moment, and consider what DP’s account entails for activists in China itself. “[T]he proper moral principles, and the causal principles that underlie human behavior,” he says, “and the particular facts of a given case, will at best be only partially known to political activists.” So should the Hong Kong freedom movement lapse into skepticism about the moral status of their oppressors, and give up? Again: “It is striking…that in 3000 years of intellectual history, essentially no principled moral stand against slavery is found almost anywhere.” Must Xighur activists then produce a foolproof philosophical argument against concentration camps before they can resist the idea of being put into them? And again: “Most human progress of any kind is evolutionary in character…That is to say, it is rarely intentional.” Should the Free Tibet movement then infer that if only they’d stop intentionally resisting the Chinese occupation, an “evolutionary” process would kick in and liberate them on its own? These suggestions strike me as reductios when applied to activists in China, but their logical status doesn’t improve when applied to activists elsewhere.
It doesn’t help DP’s case that he concedes that “Where activism seems most positive is in liberation movements,” followed quickly by the ad hoc claim that “a great deal of today’s political activism is not about liberation.” The claims he makes on this score just strike me as an attempt to have things all ways at once, as in:
- Activism is generally bad.
- Except when it involves liberation, where it seems somewhat positive.
- But most activism “today” isn’t about liberation.
- Not that most of it was about liberation in past years.
- Though sometimes it was.
- Historical cases aside, as a rule it’s not been.
- Of course, this “rule” has many, many exceptions.
- Not that I could begin to tell you how many.
- Indeed, I’ve been telling you that moral thinking is bedeviled by epistemic uncertainty, and I myself lack the quantitative evidence to make the judgments I’ve just made…
- And yet.
Etc. My own view, by contrast, is pretty straightforward: “activism” names a necessary and justified form of activity that can in principle be abused, as does “cancellation.” The justified forms are justified, and the unjustified ones aren’t. I don’t pretend to know the ratio of justified to unjustified cases, and don’t feel the need to calculate them.
DP’s dismissal of activism may well score some polemical points against the Euro-American “Left,” but it does so at the dubious price of taking out the entire activist community concerned with China, including mainstream human rights organizations, anti-PRC cancellers in New York City, and the activists fighting the good fight in China itself. That strikes me as the polemical equivalent of taking a sledgehammer to a gnat without worrying too much about what else the hammer manages to hit.
The conundrum of “collective action”
Here is the last part of DP’s argument:
In other words, today’s situation with regard to China seems to be a repeat of 1936 in Europe (as far as we knew in 1936 or we know now). And I would say that today, as then, what we should do about it is not especially clear. And bear in mind that there are people now saying that China is proving that “authoritarian capitalism” is a good idea. For myself, I feel outraged by China’s crimes, but I haven’t stopped buying products made in China, and more seriously, I don’t know whether trying to boycott China or take any other such collective action is the right response or not.
I’ve already given an answer to this in part 1, but I would add that we are in this intractable situation precisely because we’ve been complacent about the process by which we got into it. We all listened a little too acquiescently, and were persuaded too quickly, by capitalists of the anti-activist variety who insisted that the best way to soften the edges of communist totalitarianism was through peaceful commerce and trade. We shouldn’t have been so acquiescent, and shouldn’t be now.
That said, we need not, as far as activism or cancellation are concerned, bite off more than we can chew. I’ve given some eminently chewable and digestible suggestions: boycott or cancel institutions, people, or events that facilitate Chinese totalitarianism by extorting our participation in it. I’m the last person on Earth to care about the adverse consequences of my argument for the NBA, Hollywood, the International Olympic Committee, or academia. As I’ve repeatedly said, everyone is fair game. And as far as China is concerned, those four surely are.
DP puzzles over whether collective action is appropriate, as though the issue were whether or not to mount such action de novo. But as should be clear from his very framing of the issues, collective action is already underway, and has been for decades. The question is how to ratchet it back, not whether to start it up. That’s precisely why the thing I’m defending is cancellation! A cancellation is the nullification of a prior arrangement or expectation.
If anything should have given us pause, it was the prior “collective action” of leaping into bed with the PRC, not the much-belated decision to wash off the collected filth that has accumulated as a result. Given DP’s own moral estimate of China, we needn’t be paralyzed by skepticism about the idea of backing out of a relationship with them, or at least hitting the brakes. That skepticism comes far too late, and applies to exactly the wrong thing. What really deserves skepticism is the comforting dogma that unbridled greed would have led to freedom and justice in China. Why did anyone fall for that? Why fall for it now?
Bottom line: it isn’t plausible to use China as Exhibit A against either activism or cancellation. On the most charitable reading, the case of China is consistent with a demand for more activism and more cancellation. On a less charitable reading, the accusation of hypocrisy that DP makes is in fact an indictment of the view he’s defended, not a critique of cancellation. Either way, construed as an argument against either activism or cancellation, his China gambit fails.
*China’s transition from communist to market economy provides a clear, decisive counter-example to DP’s claim that human progress “results from tinkering, trial and error, and the gradual accumulation of what works.” Insofar as that claim is supposed to contrast with coming up with an intentional, worked-out strategy, it names the underlying cause of virtually all of the PRC’s political failures since the outset of the post-Mao liberalization process.
The PRC’s leaders were in the grips of two logically incompatible commitments–capitalist political economy and Maoist political philosophy. No purely gradualist approach was going to reconcile these two commitments. Either one or both of them had to be dropped, and one or both replaced. This act of “dropping” and “replacement” then had to be translated, self-consciously, into a national plan of action involving a uniform set of rules codified as laws so as to produce something resembling the rule of law.
The problem with the PRC’s approach was precisely that it stopped at evolutionary “tinkering,” outsourcing the problems that arose from failed experiments to decentralized bodies, and punting on anything more intellectually ambitious than that. But that method wasn’t going to work, and didn’t. You can’t transform an economy based on forced collectivization into one based on private property by the “gradual accumulation of what works” and leave it there. By that method, “evolutionary change” becomes a recipe for the multiplication of unsolved problems driven by buck-passing. Private property entails property rights codified in law, and legal rules entail counterfactual stability. What the PRC’s leaders needed was a more open confrontation with the falsity and inconsistency of their belief system, followed by systematic, deliberate action designed to resolve the practical consequences of its adoption. The only alternative to large-scale transitional planning was abdication of the rule of law, which was effectively the option they chose. When that abdication seemed to lead to anarchy, they resolved that by repression. To be blunt, no part of contemporary Chinese history fits DP’s script.
For a very clear discussion of this issue, see Klaus Muhlhahn’s Making China Modern: From the Great Qing to Xi Jinping, chs. 10-12, but particularly pp. 503-14, on “institutional innovations.”
**Shen Yun’s net assets for 2018 were $121 million, the last year for which I could find reliable records. The Cato Institute’s net assets for that year were $81 million. The Cato Institute’s net assets hovered at $81 million in 2019 and 2020. Of course, Shen Yun is just the theatrical production of Falun Gong. Falun Gong’s net assets are hard to pin down, but would only add to the figure.
***This useful history of Olympic boycotts implicitly supports the view I defend in the post.