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Friday 18 Aug 2017 | 20:49 | SYDNEY
Friday 18 Aug 2017 | 20:49 | SYDNEY

Reader riposte: The perennial China question

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9 April 2008 11:08

Peter McCawley responds to my post of yesterday on why it is wrong to separate economic and human rights issues too starkly in our diplomacy toward China. My response follows:

One central issue that underpins Sam Roggeveen's comment on the 'perennial China question' is the broader issue (also perennial) of choices between economic and non-economic rights in developing countries. On one hand, there is a set of economic rights which are generally given high priority in poor countries (the right to food, to water, to housing, to jobs, to basic health services, to schooling). On the other hand, non-economic rights (the right to vote, to fair legal processes, to worship, to protection against arbitrary action by the state, and to rights for women) are generally given high priority in rich countries.

Part of the misunderstanding which dogs the global rights debate is the first world bias which colours views within rich countries. Within the first world, the term 'human rights' is often used to apply mainly to non-economic rights — as if economic rights did not matter much. It is perhaps understandable that that this approach tends to be taken within rich countries, because most people within those countries already have relatively well-protected economic rights. But the debate within rich countries needs to give more weight to economic rights as well as traditional ideas of 'human rights'.

A second and related part of the misunderstanding is the lack of appreciation in the first world of the great importance attached to economic rights across the third world. Mass poverty will remain the most important economic problem in developing countries for decades to come. Strong economic growth, probably sustained for the whole of the next century, is needed to lift billions of people across the world out of poverty. It is hardly surprising that leaders in poor countries are inclined to give high weight to the need to promote economic rights.

Peter reinforces my argument that we should not see our China policy as some kind of zero-sum trade-off between trade and human rights (a good example of this kind of thinking is in the last line of today's editorial in The Age). I part with him only in his description of women's rights as 'non-economic'. The integration of women into Western economies has released a huge source of labour and creativity, and has been a major force behind the economic success of the West. It could do the same for developing countries.

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