Watch: From My Lai to Ferguson, China blasts US human rights abuses in a new documentary

Homelessness in the US is a problem, China points out.
Homelessness in the US is a problem, China points out.
Image: CCTV screen grab
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China’s state television channel CCTV broadcast a 45-minute documentary on Sunday (Mar. 13) to hundreds of millions of households in China, accusing the US of severe human rights abuses from sexual assault to gun violence to racism.

The movie is the latest example of Beijing’s increasing criticism of the US on human rights issues, even as the Chinese Communist Party under Xi Jinping oversees an increasing crackdown on human rights lawyers, free speech, and the rule of law in China. The documentary, titled The Human Rights Record of the “Human Rights Defender,” was also posted on YouTube, which is blocked in China.

It ranges in time from 1968 to the present day, and details a long list of US abuses from police shootings to FBI eavesdropping on European leaders, narrated in Mandarin with English subtitles. At the end, it concludes human rights are only a tool for the US to “persevere its hegemony.”

“While infringement on the human rights of other countries was intensifying, the US was waving the flag of ‘human rights diplomacy’ to realize its international political goals,” the narrator says. “Every country is a runner on this track” of improving its human rights, and “the US is no exception.”

Many of the issues raised in the documentary were thoroughly reported in the US when they occurred, and in most instances CCTV relied on that reporting or US government or UN data for its coverage. In many cases, Chinese citizens wouldn’t have seen this reporting when the abuses occurred, because the original news sources are blocked in China. Here’s what the documentary covers, in chronological order:

  • My Lai Massacre. The US army killed over 500 unarmed civilians in the My Lai village during the Vietnam War in 1968. The Nixon administration initially tried to cover up the incident.
  • The homeless and unemployed. More than 560,000 US people were homeless in 2015, and among them 25% were under age, CCTV said, citing figures from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. One unemployed programmer told a CCTV reporter during the cold winter of 2014 “A lot of shelters are full during the winter time… Survival is rough.”
  • Sexual abuse in prisons. CCTV highlighted a Miami Herald investigation into Lowell Correctional Institution in 2015 to discuss sexual abuse in the US’s largest women’s prison. Alabama’s Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women had similar problems, CCTV reported, citing a 2014 US Dept. of Justice report.
  • Women in poverty. US women in poverty rose from 12.1% to 14.5% over the past ten years, a higher rate than men in poverty, CCTV said, citing UN data. The US is the only industrialized country that has no laws on paid maternity leave, CCTV said. Only three US states offer paid parental leave to full-time, private-sector workers.
  • Children’s rights. The US is the world’s only country that has not ratified the UN convention on children’s rights.
  • Police violence against children. Texas police officer pulled guns on African-American teens at a pool party in June of 2015, CCTV reported. An officer violently flipped over an African-American student at her desk in a South Carolina high school in October of 2015.
  • The US is “overflowing with guns.” 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot to death by Cleveland police because he was holding a toy gun in 2014. According to American Academic of Pediatrics, a quarter of  of the US teenagers aged 15 and up who died of injuries died of shootings. More than 13,000 US citizens were killed in shootings in 2015.
  • Politics are controlled by money and family connections. 200 of the US’s most politically active corporations spent a combined $5.8 billion on federal lobbying and campaign contributions between 2007 and 2012, with a 76000% return on investment, CCTV said, citing research from The Sunshine Foundation. The sons of presidents have are 1.4 million times more likely to become president than an average US male boomer, CCTV said, citing The New York Times.
  • Privacy rights. The FBI accesses personal web history with out a court warrant, CCTV said, citing a December 2015 Washington Post report. The NSA spies on European leaders.
  • Racism. African-American Freddie Gray died after he received a spinal injury in police custody, sparking riots in Baltimore and nationwide in August of 2015. Michael Brown shot dead by a white police officer in August of 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, and there was another similar case in Chicago.
  • More racism. Of the 965 US citizens shot and killed by police in 2015, 36 were unarmed African-Americans, CCTV said, citing Washington Post research.  The WaPo actually wrote that white police officers killing unarmed black men “represent less than 4 percent of fatal police shootings”—that’s most probably where 36 comes from.
  • More racism. Former Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw sexually assaulted eight black women in 2015. The US police is 28 times more likely to stop and search black people.
  • Imprisonment. Two Yemen nationals Mustafa Ait Idir and Mohammed al-Qahtani were held under “mistaken detention” in Guantanamo Bay, but were later found innocent.
  • Civilian victims in US drone strikes. An estimated 423 to 962 civilians are believed to have been killed in US drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen since the Sept. 11, 2001, CCTV said citing a Washington Post report. A drone strike called Operation Haymaker killed 219 people in Afghanistan between 2012 and 2013, and only 35 were attack targets. The documentary also noted US’s air strikes in Afghanistan and Syria also killed civilians—including a Doctors Without Borders medical compound.

The documentary was screened at least twice by CCTV, and has also been publicized by China’s state media, but it is hard to estimate how effective a piece of propaganda it has been. A post on the Twitter-like Weibo by state tabloid Global Times (link in Chinese, registration required) promoting the documentary got just over 1,000 re-posts and comments, a small number in China where popular posts get hundreds of thousands of reactions.

Many of them were critical of both the US and China. ”Does the US have human rights problems? Yes. Does China have? Yes,” one blogger commented. “Both sides are trying to discredit the other party, but they cannot whitewash themselves.”

A scathing, in-depth look at China’s human rights issues seems unlikely to come from the US or Europe in the near future.

While the US State Department and diplomats stepped up criticism of China over the recent abduction of Hong Kong booksellers, Western documentaries and films at all critical China have become increasingly scarce as Hollywood cozies up with Beijing, eyeing China’s record-breaking box offices. Were such a movie about China’s human rights record to be made in the US, it would probably be impossible for Chinese citizens to view, as Beijing tightly controls the media to promote its own policies and ideologies.