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I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

The difference between Iran and China

China is a country in which no political dissent is allowed, there is no free expression of religion, no free press, and political dissidents are arbitrarily and indefinitely imprisoned, tortured and often executed. According to Amnesty International:

Tens of thousands of people continued to be detained or imprisoned in violation of their fundamental human rights and were at high risk of torture or ill-treatment. Thousands of people were sentenced to death or executed, many after unfair trials. Public protests increased against forcible evictions and land requisition without adequate compensation. . . .

Torture and ill-treatment continued to be reported in a wide variety of state institutions despite the introduction of several new regulations aimed at curbing the practice. Common methods included kicking, beating, electric shocks, suspension by the arms, shackling in painful positions, and sleep and food deprivation.


The U.S. is currently holding two Chinese nationals who are ethnic Uighurs at Guantanamo. The U.S. Government has been holding them for several years even though our own military tribunal long ago ruled that the men were not enemy combatants against the U.S. The reason we are still holding them? Because we can't send them back to China, because they will be almost certainly tortured and killed by the Chinese Government, and no other country will take them.

Beyond their horrendous record of human rights abuses and a complete suppression of democracy, China has weapons of mass destruction - lots and lots of them. And they routinely threaten their neighbors, particularly a free and democratic Taiwan, one of our closest allies. This is the kind of thing they have been saying for years:

The Taiwan leaders have before them two roads: one is to pull back immediately from their dangerous lurch towards independence ... The other is to keep following their separatist agenda to cut Taiwan from the rest of China, and in the end, meet their own destruction by playing with fire.

Moreover, not only is China not working with us to prevent Iranian proliferation, they have made clear that they will veto any U.N. sanctions regardless of what Iran does. All of this leads directly to the stirring proclamation in the Bush administration's new national security strategy:

Governments that brutalize their people also threaten the peace and stability of other nations.

Clearly, China has a government "that brutalize(s) their people," yet we aren't threatening them with preemptive attacks or putting them on the lists we keep of evil nations. Instead, we are meeting with them in an attempt to improve our relationship with them, even knowing that we have no influence whatsoever over their domestic policies or the liberties they extend to their citizens. We have extensive economic relations with them, and today President Bush met with Chinese President Hu Jintao, and even accommodated his request to ban reporters from asking questions:

The White House's acquiescence to a Chinese demand that Mr. Hu not be subjected to possibly embarrassing queries about political prisoners, religious freedom or censorship of the Internet symbolizes a major element of Mr. Bush's policy -- his willingness to relegate China's worsening performance on political freedom and human rights to a back burner.

The President's opening remarks included some cursory and half-hearted references to Iran and some vague allusions to China's human rights abuses, both of which Hu effortlessly ignored when he spoke.

So what accounts for the fundamentally different treatment we give to China and Iran -- two countries which themselves have a fairly close relationship, tolerate little dissent, offer little democratic freedom or liberty to their citizens, and issue threats of militarism and aggression against some of their neighbors? If anything, one could make a quite reasonable argument that an Iranian citizen has more liberty and more democratic participation in their government than does a Chinese citizen -- supposedly one of the primary, if not the primary, criteria for how we measure the threat-level posed by another country.

So why are we heaping praise on China and developing increasingly productive relations with them, while threatening Iran with invasion and even preemptive nuclear attack? One obvious answer -- that China has nuclear weapons and Iran does not -- surely cannot be the explanation, since to embrace that framework is to send the most dangerous and counterproductive message possible to the nations of the world: obtain nuclear weapons and we will treat you with great respect and civility; fail to obtain such weapons and we will threaten you with invasion and attack you at will.

We make common cause with all sorts of countries that issue crazy, hostile statements and which abuse human rights at least as much as the Iranians do, and in many cases more. And we ought to. That's what smart nations have always done. There is simply nothing that distinguishes Iran from scores of other countries, including China, with whom we maintain friendly or at least neutral relations, at least nothing that even remotely justifies attacking them militarily.

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