Let’s stop jacking the Chinese around. We do not care a whit now — nor have we ever cared — about their human rights or any other aspect of their lives as long as they satiate our unbridled appetites. To pretend otherwise is to deny centuries of exploitative history in which the West drugged the Middle Kingdom and plundered it for its resources and cheap labor while obliterating any sign of popular resistance to our imperial sway.

From the Opium Wars to the contemplation of using nuclear weapons to bomb China back to the Stone Age because of our differences with it over Korea and Vietnam, the response of the West has been one of brute intimidation. Never have we been willing to acknowledge that China, for all of its immense contradictions, upheavals, sufferings and errant ways, represents the most complex and impressive example of national history.

Instead we intrude upon China in fitful moments of pique or treat it as a plaything. Who owns China? That was the question that marked the first period of U.S. involvement, when we joined other Western imperialists in carving up China into economic zones. And then came the bitter argument in the U.S. in the late 1940s and the ’50s about “Who lost China?” Now Americans find themselves preoccupied with how best to exploit China’s amazing economic prowess while feigning interest in the well-being of its people.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton performed the expected diplomatic dance around the latest flare-up of pretend concern, involving a blind lawyer suddenly made world-famous when he escaped from house arrest in rural China. The fact that Chen Guangcheng was targeted by Chinese authorities because of his opposition to his nation’s oppressive population control policies added the United States’ “pro-life” lobby to the army of morally subjective China watchers. Now if we can get the pro-lifers to care about the human rights of fetuses after birth, the condition of the millions of severely exploited Chinese workers who float U.S. consumption and our national debt just might stand a chance of improvement.

The overwhelming human rights issue in China is one of labor justice: the right of workers to organize into independent unions and to politically advance their claims on the nation’s new treasure, which they have done so much to generate. China has relatively few natural resources other than its people, and its survival as a nation is dependent most of all upon nurturing the well-being of its population. Fortunately that population, ever better educated and more resourceful, has turned out to be the economic salvation of the country rather than the curse that once had been almost universally predicted.

How convenient to forget that concern over China’s population bomb began with hysterical warnings from Western alarmists half a century ago when the country’s population stood at a mere 400 million. Or to disregard the nation’s immense achievement in increasing life expectancy and life quality for a population now more than three times higher. The Chinese also have made giant strides in business, and now when the overlords of Chinese finance attempt to rig international trade in the well-honed practice of the masters of Wall Street, outsiders condemn them for being too effective at the capitalists’ game.

Western multinational companies have found advantage in China’s population growth by turning many of those additional people into a labor power that now drives the world’s economy. While the courage of an activist speaking up against the forced sterilization of women is certainly to be applauded, foreigners’ deafening indifference to the working conditions of the millions who make our technologically exquisite toys is a sad commentary on the state of the international human rights movement.

The sanctuary that Chen found in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing was particularly awkward because U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Clinton were en route to China at the time for urgent meetings on cooperation over security and economic issues. Republicans will attempt to score points by claiming that Chen was pushed out of the embassy to protect the negotiations aimed at getting China to buy more of our bonds. They will be right, but who will they be kidding in suggesting that a Republican president wouldn’t have taken the same hard line in dealing with the dissident?

Ever since the Republican Richard Nixon went to Beijing to suck up to Mao Zedong, every American president has acknowledged the power of China’s rulers to sweep aside the human rights concerns of foreigners as mere political theater for the folks back home. What a great spin it is to pretend that we are the champions of universal human rights as we tweet about our great concern for the Chinese people on the very mobile devices that their exploited labor created.

We all know that the rulers of China now have the clout to mess up our economy overnight by shedding their holdings in U.S. debt. Our leaders are no more serious about human rights in China than they are about such conditions in oil-rich Saudi Arabia, for the simple reason that we need what those nations have more than they need us.

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