NEW HAVEN: The graphic images of Iraqi prisoners being abused have evoked condemnation of the US from almost every corner of the globe. That too would have been the predictable reaction from China. As a country which has been on the receiving end of regular American criticism for its human rights violations, the torture revelations present a clear opportunity to return the 'favor'. China's official media and many of its citizens have lived up to that expectation. Surprisingly, however, many of China's internet users have turned the Abu Ghraib prison scandal into a lesson in the value of a free press and government accountability - two features of the US system that are sorely lacking in China.
China's official reaction has been slow in coming. Only on May 10 - ten days after CBS broadcast the abuse pictures- did Beijing even address the issue. Answering questions at a regularly-scheduled press conference, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said, "China believes the US and UK should abide by the Geneva Convention and other international agreements and guarantee the basic human rights of Iraqi prisoners." He added that the scandal revealed that human rights abuses can occur in any country, and that "protecting human rights is a duty that every country in the world must uphold."
The official Chinese media has been similarly slow to publish harsh criticism of the US. Two weeks of primarily factual reporting focused on the details of the case and the negative reaction from the Arab world. When the People's Daily turned to commentary on May 13, it was not from the newspaper's editorial board but from China's internet users. The lead article on the People's Daily news network home page proclaimed: "Is This American Human Rights? Netizens Speak Out About the Tortured Prisoners Affair." The postings collected in that clip file reflected virulent anti-US sentiment.
Ever since the US mistakenly bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, internet bulletin boards have provided spaces for Chinese netizens to express their opposition to America's 'hegemonic' behavior. In early 2001, when a US spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet - sending the pilot to his death - the Internet chat rooms were soon boiling over with anti-American sentiment. The US invasion of Iraq also drew the ire of many Chinese citizens while the official media expressed only measured disapproval.
Yet although the People's Daily network chose to publicize only those internet postings that fit this established pattern of anti-U.S. criticism, the postings as a whole show a wide diversity of opinion among Chinese netizens. Many people have derided the US as hypocritical, but others have taken this opportunity to hint at China's own difficulties in this area. With over 80 million Chinese people accessing the web, the country's internet discussion boards serve as a proxy barometer of public opinion and reveal much about the type of public discussions Beijing is willing to permit. An analysis of postings on the 'Strengthening the Country Discussion Forum' (Qiangguo Luntan), run by the People's Daily, reveals that China's internet censors are granting Chinese web users a wide berth to lay out their views. Far from eliciting a simple, one-sided anti-US stance, the US torture revelations are providing fodder for wide-ranging discussions on human rights, democracy, and the role of the media.
In the more than 500 comments on the Iraqi prisoner torture posted in the past week, about 45 percent expressed a clear anti-American sentiment. Yet one-fourth of the postings praised the US media for its role in exposing the abuse and criticized China's press for not being able to do the same on problems at home. What's more, over a third of all postings included some sort of praise for America's democratic political system.
To be sure, there is no dearth of anti-US sentiment. Negative criticism since the affair made the news has ranged from the graphic - "America talks of human rights and the whole world vomits!" - to the sarcastic - "America should improve its own 'human rights' education." Yet not all were convinced that America's human rights abuses were so noteworthy. In response to the May 13 lead article, one person asked, "Why does the article only show the anti-US postings? Is this the nature of China's news media?" Another poster followed up with "You get criticized for exposing your own 'embarrassing human rights record', but if you cover up your own 'embarrassing human rights record' it's an honorable thing!
On the subject of democracy, some Chinese bulletin board users skewered American politics, with comments like, "Bush and Rumsfeld's apologies over the prisoner abuse was for what? In my opinion, it was only for votes." Not all were so cynical, however, as that remark was countered with "Well, at least it's better than those people who never apologize…" - a thinly-veiled critique of the autocratic practices of China's own leaders, who have never apologized for actions like the killings in Tiananmen Square. Another user re-iterated the point, arguing that: "The problem with some countries is that when they harm their own people they don't even apologize, and they don't allow you to talk about it. In comparison, America is truly a great nation." To one person who argued that stability was crucial for China's growth, another netizen replied: "Stability must come from democracy and the rule of law, not oppression."
Many of the fact-based articles published this week have made references to how the New Yorker magazine, the New York Times, and the Washington Post broke the stories that have proven so damning to America's image worldwide. These are details that have not gone unnoticed by Chinese bulletin board users.
"The military scandal was revealed by America's own media," notes one user. "The president and the secretary of defense apologized and acknowledged errors. It's clear that this type of system and this country work to correct mistakes." Almost without exception, other comments on the media's role in the scandal won praise for the US: "That the US would reveal this scandal on its own is amazing! This is truly the meaning of 'democracy' and 'free press'!" said one posting. "One has to admit that their news media is much better than ours," agreed another.
With the Iraqi prison scandal prompting heated international condemnation of human rights abuses, the Chinese government has allowed the country's netizens to voice their views in a fairly free fashion. Although censors could choose to restrict bulletin board discussions at any time, there are small signs that concrete policy changes may also be underway. On May 12, the government announced a sweeping campaign to investigate human rights infringements, including the use of torture during interrogations and the abuse of prisoners in official custody. Whether this move will win China any praise from the international human rights community will depend on how the campaign is implemented. Whatever the global reaction to these changes, Chinese leaders cannot have missed the point argued by many of its netizens: it is not only the US that is in need of reform.