Tuesday, September 05, 2006

On the James Traub piece

A few thoughts on the James Traub piece, The World According to China in this past weekend's New York Times Magazine:

I share Traub's worries about China's stance in regards to Darfur and in regards to many such human rights crises generally. In particular, I am worried that China will push the UN in a technocratic, passionless direction at a time when big vision is more needed than ever.

But Traub's piece is disappointingly shallow.

First, he is wrong to dismiss altogether China's emphasis on "collective rights" over individual rights. The way he writes it, this is entirely a ploy on the P.R.C.'s part to avoid responsibility for its own abuses and the abuses of its new friends in Africa and elsewhere.

But regardless of China's aims, isn't the debate over different forms of "rights" a legitimate debate?

There is a lively and very worthwhile discussion on this subject in the human rights community that Traub either is ignorant of or ignores for the sake of simplifying his point--a pity.

Traub similarly writes off "sovereignty" as an outdated concept and a fig leaf for despots, without (and this is strange from someone presumably so familiar with the UN) any sense of how deeply this concept undergirds international law and, in China's case, how much respect for different countries' sovereignty can be an IDEAL, not just a tactic.

Traub comes off not unlike those who would dismiss talk of "freedom" and "democracy" just because the Bush administration has given these terms a bad name.

More generally, Traub assumes--often without evidence--that China has no vision for the world (the P.R.C. has, for example, pushed a trade regime much fairer to the developing world than that advocated by the U.S.--self interest, yes, but a vision nonetheless and a good one at that).

Meanwhile, he naiively works on the assumption that the U.S. and its allies are forever thinking of ways of improving humanity's conditions, always taking on the big issues because it's the right thing to do, even if other member nations--especially the developing world nations, in Traub's view, don't know what's best for them.

In fact, as any American conservative will proudly acknowledge, the U.S. is actively blocking--along with China--many meaningful reforms to the UN Human Rights Council and has gone to absurd lengths to punish countries that support the International Criminal Court (and has blocked progress on landmines, biological weapons, and the rights of children, to name a few other issues).

Of course, the U.S. has contributed much to the UN system over the years--and can, after all, be credited in large part for the UN's creation. But surely if Traub is so skeptical of China's role, he could shine the same critical light on the United States or not, at least, set it up as the light to China's dark.

Traub paints an interesting portrait of Ambassador Wang Guangyu as a confident, sophisticated diplomat. However, why this should be such a surprise, I don't know--has Traub never heard of Zhou Enlai? Or Deng Xiaoping, for that matter?

What could have been a revealing look at China's emerging world role--good and bad--is, in Traub's hands, a tired, ideological rant.

He says that he is the first journalist to have been granted such access to Ambassador Wang. Hopefully, for the sake of Western readers, he won't be the last.

(Photo from NY Times)


Yvonne said...

I guess the topic is interesting to New York Times' readers because there haven't been any in-depth report on the role that China plays in the UN. However, given the absence of in-depth thoughts from the author, don't think the piece should be given that much weight by the Times. From newspaper's perspective, China is such a hot topic that sometimes editors are not well prepared yet when new topics arrive.

Manfred said...

Good point. Someone told me that China is a good place to be a journalist because you can write so many more different kinds of stories than in other places--human interest stories, culture, local politics, complex foreign relations, etc. Because China is hot anything from China is interesting. But when you get into that kind of breadth and depth you need editors who are well-versed on the subject, too.