The shadow of Tiananmen: economic reform and human rights

Through many Western eyes there has been a dark shadow over China’s economic rise. The often-brutal authoritarian rule of the Communist Party has been responsible for some of the most pervasive and significant human rights violations the modern world has witnessed. Westerners of a certain age will never forget the searing images of China in June 1989: students occupying Tiananmen Square and erecting the Goddess of Democracy; these same students and sympathetic workers being slaughtered in the streets by People’s Liberation Army soldiers; and a brave, solitary man defiantly standing in front of a stream of rolling tanks. For many Westerners, no matter how prosperous and powerful China has become, the dark legacy of Tiananmen will always define it. This impression is deepened by the fact that Chinese history books and websites are not permitted to discuss those events. Even today, for labor advocates the factory floors of China are an important battleground for global worker rights. Other human rights concerns include issues such as political repression, internet censorship, the use of facial recognition and artificial intelligence technology to keep track of and control citizens, and the territorial and cultural assaults on Tibetans and Uighurs. The Hong Kong turmoil of 2019 and 2020 was eerily reminiscent of Tiananmen Square, with hundreds of thousands taking to the streets in a quest for greater democracy and self-determination while the police and military mobilized ominously to quell the protests. The future of Hong Kong and the potential for violence and disorder to spill over into mainland China are as unpredictable as they are worrisome. Once more, calls for democracy and human rights seem headed for a showdown with an authoritarian regime bent on holding onto power at all costs.

Western business leaders find themselves reluctantly on the frontlines of these human rights struggles. There are today powerful global expectations coming from diverse directions that companies have significant responsibilities to address human rights violations. The ideas we discuss in this book about traditional Chinese culture present a paradox for human rights advocates. On the one hand, as we shall see, much of traditional Chinese culture and ethics is at odds with modern, Western conceptions of human rights. At the same time, in trying to implement global human rights standards, knowledge of traditional normative concepts and foundational values is indispensable for achieving progress on human rights.

When China first opened up its economy to the West, many observers— including one of the authors of this book—were hopeful that economic transformation would lead to the eventual emergence of democratic and human rights values (Santoro, 2000). Indeed, one of the key premises of China’s admission into the World Trade Organization for many was that this transformation would at least incrementally occur. It is understandable that some might now have buyer’s remorse about “normalizing” trade relations with China. The economic and socio-economic fallout for those working in manufacturing jobs has been more devastating than was expected, particularly in regions like the American Midwest. Conversely, the effect on social and political reform in China has been less pronounced than hoped for.

China has proven to be quite resistant to political change, even as its economy has transformed and its economic interactions with the rest of the world have increased. A number of factors have contributed to this persistence. First, it cannot be denied that the Communist Party has been nimble and effective in retaining power by coopting potential forces of change and continuing to exert control over the economy. To be sure, some areas of the economy, most notably social media, are proving to be not so easy for the Party to control (Jiang, 2016, pp. 139-144). However, for the most part, the Party rules over the economy with a heavy hand. Because the “free market” is not really free but rather subjected to strong government control, it should come as no surprise that these not-so-free markets have not led ineluctably toward democratization and dramatic human rights improvements. A second reason that economic transformation has had limited impact on political and social transformation is that Western companies have failed, for the most part, to stand up for values like the rule of law and economic rights that underpin both free markets and free societies (Santoro, 2009). As a result, the West missed the opportunity in the early stages of the reform era to help shape the business ethics environment in China, as well as its social and political development. At this point in time, Western or “barbarian” influence over China’s future is highly limited. What narrow potential for influence remains can be, we will argue, significantly enhanced by understanding and applying normative concepts and foundational values of traditional Chinese culture. As we shall emphasize time and again in this book, the point of Westerners becoming familiar with this traditional culture is not to “go native,” but rather to become more effective in achieving their own commercial, business ethics, and human rights objectives.

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