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Jiang's Halloween Costume

How Structural Violence Lies Beneath a Rhetoric of Cultural Relativism

By Adam J. Levitin

President Jiang Zemin of China has chosen the perfect time to come to Harvard: Halloween. Jiang is himself a master at masquerading. He and his trade-hungry apologists in the United States are attempting to portray the structural violence of Chinese human rights abuses as an understandable part of Chinese culture.

Structural violence stems from the form and logic of a political system. This violence is used to cow the population into submission in order to support the system. In China this structural violence has taken the form of human rights abuses in a variety of guises meant to destroy any political dissent, free thought or understanding of personal freedom.

The list of these abuses is mindboggling, ranging from a secret police network to an extensive system of laogai, or prison camps, filled with political prisoners, to forced abortions for purposes of population control, to the brazen and brutal occupation of Tibet. It would take a serious tome to document these abuses in their entirety.

Although Jiang was mayor of Shanghai during the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, he is nevertheless the unrepentant heir to a regime that continues widescale human rights abuses, and as such he should be held fully accountable. The ghoulishness of some of these deeds surpasses the fright caused by any Halloween costume.

Professor Ezra F. Vogel, who is hosting Jiang, has, like many other China apologists, noted that Jiang "faces massive problems within China, including how to cope with widespread poverty, the more than 100 million migrants who have come to cities since reform began and inefficient state enterprises which provide security to over 100 million workers and their families."

Governing China is indeed an enormously difficult job. But the systematic abuse of human rights by Jiang's regime goes far beyond any need to maintain the civic order necessary to keep China fed or increase literacy. Only maintaining a corrupt, elite Communist cadre necessitates such outrages; the meal ticket Jiang really cares about is his own. It is not coincidental that the two greatest famines that occurred during in the 20th century apart from those during civil wars were in Soviet Ukraine (1930s) and Communist China (1960s). History has shown that democracy is more likely to care for its citizens in times of need than totalitarian regimes.

That is not to blame the theory of communism per se as the cause of these famines--it can be argued that these famines are just examples of the poor execution (no pun intended) of the communist ideal. However, I do mean to point out that these regimes used the same rationale to justify their excesses: the rights of the collective over the rights of the individual.

Whereas the Soviet Union claimed this formula in the name of socialism (the official culture of the U.S.S.R.), China now claims it in the name of Chinese culture. The masquerading of structural violence (which can be eliminated) as part and parcel of a culture is one of the most pernicious lies of this century. It duped many Americans for many years about the Soviet Union.

At our Halloween party this year, we should not let Jiang pass off in the same disguise. Let's call Jiang and the officials in his regime the vampires that they are: a new elite class of mandarins (bureaucrats) who benefit from the exploition of their fellow citizens. For whatever gains China has made economically during the last decade have neither trickled down nor translated into political liberalization.

A famous slogan of Jiang's predecessor, Deng Xiaoping, runs, "It is glorious to get rich." Who is getting rich today in China, and at whose expense? The impressive economic gains that Jiang can boast of are built on the bones of Chinese peasants and dissidents.

Excusing the actions of the Chinese government through cultural relativism is, ultimately, patronizing and insulting to Chinese culture, not to mention a denial of the true source of China's human rights abuses. Through this medium, which Jiang and his cohorts are so happy to play upon, China is exoticized and thus exempted from the basic norms of human interaction. It is not Chinese culture, but rather the self-serving raison d'etre of the communist elite that causes the intense and brutal political repression.

The strongest possible rebuke should be given to those who attempt to justify the suffering of the Chinese people on the basis of their cultural heritage. Millions of Chinese are abused in prison camps because of the structure of the communist regime, not because of any Chinese cultural reason that suppresses democracy. China is not yet ready for a participatory democracy, but Jiang's repressive policies are not bringing the nation any closer to that universal ideal to which even Jiang has begun to pay lip service.

Jiang's policies are not for the good of Chinese society at large, but for the good of his governing elite. Let's tell Jiang that his trick hasn't worked and not give him a treat.

Adam J. Levitin '98 is a Crimson editor living in Currier House.

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