US is anything but a beacon of human rights

The United States has long professed to be a "beacon of human rights". Former president Ronald Reagan invoked the Bible and pilgrim John Winthrop, metaphorically referring to "American exceptionalism" and likening the US to "the shining city on a hill".

But with two mass shootings last month by 18-year-old gunmen with assault rifles in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, in which 10 people were killed, that beacon, if it were ever truly lit, has gone deathly dark. And yet US elites continue to criticize other countries for human rights violations, when legal and moral precedents dictate that the US must first set its own house in order before bullying and criticizing others.

Ironically, it was Reagan-shot and nearly assassinated by a mentally ill 25-year-old who had legally bought his .22 caliber weapon at a pawn shop-who continued to resist most gun safety reforms. Since then, his Republican Party has gone from bad to worse. The Republican Party is still called the "GOP", which used to stand for the "Grand Old Party" but today might as well mean the "Gun Owners Party".

When it comes to guns and the ease with which they can be obtained, it's the GOP that should be blamed for the sorry state of affairs today. In league with the National Rifle Association, the GOP has terrorized politicians at all levels to vote against common sense gun safety laws at the peril of their personal and political security.

For more than two centuries the Second Amendment to the US Constitution was interpreted to limit people's right to bear arms. But powered by millions of dollars in funding to academics, politicians and political action committees from right-wing elites, the precedent was overturned in 2008 by a 5-4 vote of the US Supreme Court.

When I was a student at Harvard Law School, we were taught by the likes of now-retiring Justice Stephen Breyer that the Constitution's greatness was that it was a "living document", flexible enough to withstand all future eventualities. The 2008 opinion, written by Antonin Scalia, changed all that.

It was Scalia who championed what had previously been a far-out legal theory of "originalism" that dictated that the US Supreme Court's decisions be based only on late 18th century "public meaning", standards and circumstances. Yet, comparing high-tech weapons of the late 18th century, which fired one bullet at a time, with today's much more powerful multi-round assault rifles like those used in last month's shootings, is like comparing horses with space rockets.

In primary school, we learned that Thomas Jefferson was the author of the Declaration of Independence and that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator, with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness". But we were never taught the inconvenient truth that Jefferson, along with many others who signed the declaration, was a slave owner.

Is this what the beacon of human rights is all about? Slavery is the polar opposite of human rights. So is the lack of a decent income, good health and being safe. But white supremacy over Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans and Asians has ruled the country in one form or the other until this very day.

By almost any relevant measure of human rights, the US has failed.

Living safely without fear of violence is a basic human right. So is good health, education and having enough to eat. But most of the minority groups in the US are less healthy than whites, less educated than whites, poorer than whites, and live shorter lives than whites.

Contrast this with China where more than 850 million people have been lifted out of extreme poverty. When I was growing up in what was then the prosperous city of Detroit in the late 1940s, China's per capita GDP was about $50 and life expectancy at birth was 35. With more than three times the population of the US, China's per capita income today is over $10,000 and growing, and Chinese people's life expectancy has more than doubled to about 77 years. In the US, except for the ultra-wealthy, wages have been stagnant for decades and during the COVID-19 pandemic, life expectancy declined by nearly 2 years.

No wonder in survey after survey, including before and during the pandemic, Chinese respondents have rated their government institutions very highly but US citizens not so much.

In law, the saying people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones at others is called the clean hands doctrine. It has existed since the Roman Empire. Unlike the US, which still sees itself as the world's policeman, China doesn't interfere in other countries' internal affairs, and opposes other countries trying to interfere in its internal matters.

Days ago, the US attempted to derail China's efforts to develop win-win cooperation with the Pacific Island countries. Those countries are facing an existential threat, with climate change threatening to submerge their island nations. So instead of attempting to block China's efforts to help those countries, the US should work with China to jointly help them survive.

Jimmy Carter, the US president in whose administration I served, said at his inauguration 45 years ago that "the best way to enhance freedom in other lands is to demonstrate here that our democratic system is worthy of emulation." By this measure, the US is no beacon of human rights.

And while Roman philosopher Cicero said people's welfare should be the supreme law, Chairman Mao believed a state should "serve the people" in order to become a true beacon of human rights. The US must reverse course and follow their wisdom.

The author is a senior fellow at the Center for China and Globalization. 

The views don't necessarily reflect those of China Daily.