What Bari Weiss Won't Tell You About Human Rights and China

capitalism is the CCP's greatest source of power and most loyal defender

Bari Weiss fears that China and its government imperil human rights both at home and abroad. She discusses escalating crackdowns in Hong Kong and elsewhere. I see little to disagree with in terms of her basic recitation of the facts; the CCP has been curtailing personal freedoms for a long time, and appears to feel more and more emboldened to do so. (Sorry, tankies.) But Weiss buries the lead.

Here I’m not just thinking of of movie stars like John Cena groveling about calling Taiwan a country; or of NBA stars like Lebron James who claim the mantle of social justice but are go mute in the face of the world’s greatest threat to human freedom; or of powerful brands like Apple and Nike that market themselves as progressive but rely on forced labor. (This past week, as Apple Daily shuttered, the CEO of Nike said: “Nike is a brand that is of China and for China.”)

There should be an obvious connection to make here: American people and institutions don’t bow down to Beijing out of fealty to their peculiar brand of state capitalism. (Not communism, sorry tankies.) They are doing so out of the value-maximizing motives of free-market capitalism. Nike is a corporation. Apple is a corporation. The WWE is a corporation. Lebron James is a corporation unto himself. As corporations they follow - must follow, can only follow - the profit motive. And the profit motive doesn’t give a single shit about press freedoms or democracy or human rights. If anything those things are inconvenient to the business of making money. Why doesn’t China receive greater international censure and sanction for its impositions on human rights? Because China makes a lot of countries a lot of money, disproportionately so in those countries that have the greatest control over the endlessly corrupt institutions of international norms and law. When people ask the (humane and sensible) question, “why isn’t the international community doing something?,” the answer is because the international community exists for the facilitation of commerce, before and above anything else. The abstract principles of rights and freedom are totally powerless in the face of the cash China brings to the system, through manufacturing and increasingly through the buying power of their own consumers. Where money exists, money rules everything.

Unfortunately, Weiss is an ardent capitalist. So you can see her dilemma, although I doubt she sees it herself. She praises Hong Kong entrepreneur Jimmy Lai for his “awakening” after reading Friedrich Hayek, after all, and Hayek was an ardent supporter of dictatorship so long as it served free market capitalism. That’s a simple fact. Would Weiss have wept for Chile like she weeps for China? Hard to say.

What Weiss and other “classic liberals” will eventually have to grapple with is this: you cannot meaningfully stand for human rights if you think that among those rights is the right for corporations to participate in unfettered capitalism. People who espouse these politics love to act as though there’s no space between market rights and civil rights, such as the rights to free expression or association. Many rights-focused people, whether liberal or libertarian, suggest that civil rights and capitalist rights are the same in kind. The problem, among other things, is that those capitalist rights invest ultimate power in profit, including the power to trample those other rights. Under capitalism the profit motive is insatiable. If you think the norms and institutions of “the West” protect us from such corruption, I advise you to consider (for example) that prisoners are forced to labor for pennies an hour while private entities reap the benefits.

Is that specific issue of the scale or depth of China’s infringements on rights? No. But it should demonstrate to us that the interpretation of rights is always refracted through a lens of what the moneyed and corporations want. And there are many more threats to human rights in or originating from the United States, including the endless support of cruel dictators who advance American interests. (To pick an underdiscussed one, Indonesia’s Suharto, a murderous kleptocrat who the Democratic Clinton administration called “our kind of guy” - after he had massacred a third of the population of East Timor.) We might consider that the publishing companies who are kowtowing to woke norms and refusing to publish books for insufficient devotion to social liberalism, which I join Weiss in deploring, do so not out of authentic concern for progressive politics but as a form of marketing to the affluent white liberals who disproportionately buy books - the publishing houses are censorious not for principle but for money.

There’s been, for some time, a quiet tendency among some conservative thinkers to question the possibility of actual conservatism within a world of unfettered capitalism. (I associate it with Front Porch Republic and thinkers like Patrick Deneen, though it’s bigger than that.) Of course this tiny movement holds no sway within the GOP, which despite all of the upheaval of the past 5 years is still a plutocrat’s party first; never forget that Trump could not get Obamacare repeal or immigration reform past his own party, but everyone fell in line with tax cuts for the wealthy. Fighting against the profit motive is the hardest battle you can pick in our system, even in the best of times. Certainly neither establishment political party will take up the flag. So in order to fight for human rights, we’ll have to first convince everyone of the plain fact that it is the vagaries of capitalist exchange that lead to, for example, America’s immense support for the brutal and corrupt theocratic autocracy in Saudi Arabia. (In the Bush era, a period where the US treated Islam with distrust at best and active military aggression at worst, there was bipartisan support for the awful Saudi dictatorship. That’s how powerful oil money is.) As with environmentalism, you can make some valuable reforms within the capitalist system, but you can never actually fix what’s really wrong with human rights until you recognize that the profit motive is the real culprit, the final boss.

I don’t see an immediate turn from the profit motive in general in the offing, nor do I think we should act as though various needed reforms can wait until we hold the socialist revolution. In the short term, there does need to be more public pressure applied to individuals and corporations that make excuses for Chinese bad behavior. (If nothing else, it should be very embarrassing to publicly bend the knee like John Cena did.) Perhaps there could be greater trade barriers between the United States and China - but there’s a real risk that doing so could cause major damage to the international economy. And that’s precisely the problem, right? When the fight to treating people with respect and dignity by extending them basic freedoms is such a challenge to the world economic system, you have to acknowledge that there’s something wrong with what that system defines as valuable. So let’s have that conversation, even if it’s mostly theoretical at this stage. And while we’re having that conversation, we might recognize that any condemnation of China should prompt us to consider all the ways, big and small, the United States abridges human rights itself. Moral judgment of others always demands moral judgment of the self.

I do not share Weiss’s politics on a great number of issues, but she’s no dummy. I hope she’ll someday realize that civil rights and market rights are always in tension with one another - and that sooner or later she’ll have to choose.