China has a population of 1.4 billion people. “Red” China has lifted more people out of poverty than any other system yet why is it constantly attacked in the Western media when it was extremely successful in poverty reduction?
I like this question because this argument highlights a key cultural difference among China and Western countries. Western countries constantly detail what they consider to be human rights abuses in China, while China points to the massive increase in quality of life for hundreds of millions and is incredulous about that not being taken into consideration.
I saw this same conflict in value systems when I taught debate to Chinese high school students. We would teach them to give the debate a framework, or a system of definitions, observations, and values that make it easier to compare arguments and “frame” the debate. Without fail, Chinese students used a utilitarian framework. Our job as instructors is to teach debaters how to argue for and against all value systems to build their toolkit that they can use to win rounds, so I tried to teach them to make deontological arguments. We started with the trolley problem.
A runaway trolley is speeding toward a fork in the track. Five people are in the trolley’s path, certain to be hit and killed. You, an innocent and neutral bystander, see this happening and realize that if you pull a switch right now the trolley will change to a different track with one person in the way, who will perish instead. What is the ethical choice to make? Do you pull the switch?
Ask a Chinese person and they will almost certainly tell you to pull the switch—after all, you save a net of 4 lives. If you ask them to craft an argument for why they shouldn’t pull the switch, they may have a very difficult time doing so. For my students it was almost always an insurmountable challenge to argue for the opposite viewpoint, which made it in turn very difficult for them to defeat the common utilitarian arguments they faced in debate rounds.
My students and I did not derive our different value systems out of nothing; the society in which we were raised played a huge part. In China, where the courts have a 99.93% conviction rate, there are very few violent crimes and gun deaths per capita compared to America. It is not considered good here that 100 guilty men go free rather than convict one innocent. In China, whose laws are not traced back to Voltaire, they would gladly pay the price of a few wrongful convictions for the reward of a safer society at large. By contrast, American burdens of proof are high and the rights of the accused are strong.
Raised in such opposite societies, it is no wonder that we can misunderstand one another. China looks at change in overall happiness, quality of life, and well being and says, “How about THAT for human rights?” The Western media criticizes them anyhow and says, as they may say to the person who would pull the lever and change the trolley, that certain acts are wrong in and of themselves and should never be performed because it is not the total life or wealth or happiness at the end that is important.