Originally published June 1, 2012.
By Fareed Zakaria
Last week, the U.S. State Department released its annual report on human rights around the world. It covers nearly 200 countries, from Tunisia and Egypt and their uprisings, to North Korea and Cuba and the repression in those nations.
The report is an annual State Department tradition, going back nearly four decades. And for the last 13 years, it has been followed immediately by another tradition: a rebuttal.
China has released its own report on America. It says Washington is full of "overcritical" remarks about the world and "turns a blind eye to its own woeful human rights situation."
Let's flip through the two reports…
On the State Department’s report, the China section begins by listing state-sponsored killings, political arrests, known cases of torture, and disappearances. It says Beijing does not respect civil liberties, documenting known restrictions on freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and censorship.
Beijing's report, by contrast, talks about the Occupy Wall Street movement — that its protesters were treated in a "rude and violent" way.
OK, not sure how that's a human rights violation.
Beijing's report also points to the homicide rate in the U.S., going into great length about how the U.S. is a world leader in gun violence.
Again, that's not really a violation of human rights — that's what human beings sometimes do with rights. It may be bad public policy, but it's not tyranny.
But let's not simply dismiss Beijing's report.
On the contrary, I think it would make fascinating reading for Americans, because a lot of the problems the Chinese point out are indeed real problems, whether or not they are violations of human rights.
The report points out, for example, that with 5% of the world's population, we own between 35% and 50% of its civilian-owned guns.
That's crazy and should make us all pause.
The report says the U.S. has the largest prison population in the world per capita, and the highest rate of incarceration. One out of every 132 Americans is behind bars.
The Chinese report criticizes us for high unemployment, for widening the gap between rich and poor — again, not a human rights issue, but an important critique of American society.
The report goes on to criticize our health care system, saying 50 million Americans lack insurance.
It reports education spending cuts. School budgets in New York City have been cut an average of 14% a year for the last five years.
The Chinese say minorities suffer disproportionately in America: 11% of Hispanics are unemployed, 16% of African Americans are jobless.
The report cites inequalities between the sexes, saying women get paid 77 cents on average for every dollar paid for men.
These are all issues worth examining, discussing, and — when possible — improving. America has many problems it needs to fix.
Of course, it would be equally important for the Chinese public to read the State Department report on China. Could a Chinese news network put it on its website maybe?
No, of course not. The report is banned in China, and any website that would dare to publish it would be censored and punished. Now that is an abridgment of freedom of expression — and an example of what a human rights violation looks like.