Observing the use of “whataboutism” has become of a speciality of mine, given it is so common in diplomacy and in general argument on university campuses. Whataboutism refers to the practice of responding to an accusation by making a counter-accusation. It amounts to charging someone with hypocrisy without directly refuting or disproving their allegation or argument. It is a common arguing tactic in international affairs, one which dictatorships have traditionally used to diffuse criticism.
The Soviet Union elevated the status of whataboutism to high art during the Stalinist era, and there it has remained for Russia. Virtually any argument about Soviet human rights abuses or foreign aggression was rebutted by Stalin’s operatives with snide comments about lynching in the USA, slavery or Native Americans, notwithstanding any differences in scale, time period or government intent.
Worryingly, the aim of Soviet whataboutism wasn’t the denial of abuses but the deflection of criticism resulting from them. Soviet abuses were so integral to their system that their denials were implausible to anyone who cared to look, hence the need for deflection, for the international context, for the incitation of moral confusion. Essentially, the abuser was suggesting that everyone else was just as abusive as themselves. With such cheery thoughts as a world full of murderers clouding the minds of activists, journalists, policymakers and academics, resistance to abuses was made more difficult.
The use of whataboutism by such grand and terrible entities as the Soviet Union (or Britain, France and the USA, too) gives undue dignity to the simple tactic. Whataboutism is actually extremely lowbrow, even juvenile, which is why whataboutism is well understood by every child who has ever disputed the command to go to bed by pointing to siblings still unsleeping. In such cases, the use of whataboutism actually amounts to a query – “Why do they get to do it, and not me?”
That seems like a fair question, at least when it’s coming from children. But when you realise the same basic whataboutism is being used by a great power, it takes on more disturbing and sinister tones. Consider the following statement and its rebuttal:
- Person X: “China has brutally colonised Tibet.”
- Person Y: “You mean, just like Britain brutally colonised Africa?”
This absolutely riveting argument is the kind made daily by China’s Twitter army, the so-called Wumao (五毛), and, much like children debating their bedtime, it amounts to a question. “Why do they get to brutalise weaker nations and not us?”
When China’s Global Times editor Hu Xijin recently rebuked accusations of genocide in Xinjiang, he did so with the flair typical of his kind: “What’s genocide? Massacring Native Americans and Aboriginal Australians, forcing people colonised to speak English, French, Spanish, transforming their way of life, these are genocide, right?”
In case there is any doubt, the answer is, “Yes.” But something tells me Hu Xinjin isn’t looking for an answer. Instead, he’s asking for permission. Here the Chinese government and its mouthpieces are essentially treating genocide as if it were an audience prize on the Oprah Winfrey Show – everyone gets a free one. By Hu’s logic, seeing as genocide was committed against Australian Aborigines, no one can complain about China.
And, presumably, millions in Maoist gulags do not count as genocide, so China still has a genocide up its sleeve. Just one, we hope. Or is it one for each genocide committed by another power? Or some combination of powers? Seeing as Xu Xijin singled out both Native Americans and Australian Aborigines, does China actually have a pair of genocides to cash in on? Clearly, fair is fair.
One would hope that such obviously vapid arguments wouldn’t be taken seriously and that average people would be smart enough to know that we can criticise more than one atrocity at a time. In fact, we can operate according to consistent moral principles quite easily. Unfortunately, the fact that Western journalists think such statements as Hu’s are newsworthy illustrates that whataboutism does work.
Indeed, when one major newspaper reported on Hu’s statements, as though there aren’t a million such banalities on Twitter, they even elevated Hu to the hallowed status of “journalist.” Thus, somehow, a person who actually works for a state propaganda department in a country without an independent media was treated as a worthwhile authority. This was someone who could hold up the mirror of morality to the West and reflect it back at Uyghurs-Australians who were arguing with him about genocide in Xinjiang. Did no one think Hu Xijin might be a little insincere? Did no one think it might be in poor form to amplify his whataboutism, which amounts to permission to colonise?
Here I am not asking for media censorship. Rather, the goal of the real journalist should be to find and transmit news. As the facts of the genocide of Aborigines or Native Americans have utterly no bearing on what China should or should not do in Xinjing, such whataboutism shouldn’t waste our time. Nobody who references unconnected events from tens, hundreds or thousands of years ago (on a different continent too) is seriously attempting to resolve a modern problem. Rather, they are, at best, seeking to score an ideological point. At worst, they are raising a distraction, cloaking a guilty conscience, undermining the moral grounds for resistance, and asking awful permission via awful precedent.
It should come as no surprise that China began publishing its annual report on human rights – the gold standard of Beijing’s whataboutism – just after the Chinese government shot thousands of people on the 4th of June, 1989. Since then, China has published lengthy defences of its own human rights record and attempted to redefine what human rights mean. Instead of “democracy,” China has “development.” Instead of a “free media,” China has more “Internet access.” Instead of “elections,” China has “stability.”
In these cases, whataboutism takes on a slightly different form because China’s rulers highlight the positives of their rule. The argument becomes, “Seeing as the economy is growing, we should be allowed to murder dissidents.” Thus, no longer is the whataboutism following an example. No longer does it need to adhere to a previously set standard. No longer do crimes require a precedent to be excused and, eventually, normalised. Rather, the crime is legitimate because some other service was provided.
This is the argument of those academics who ask that China’s human rights violations be ignored, downplayed, accepted or contextualised amid China’s economic achievements. Concealing their agenda amidst calls for cooperation and shared development, China’s myriad apologists are actually saying, “Dictatorships are fine, so long as we can point to some positive aspect.” And because nations of millions are complex entities, there will always be some positives. There will always be services provided. There will always be a worse alternative. There will always be, “But what about…?”
With such powerful arguments as this arrayed against the cause of freedom, how can any country resist using their one free genocide? After all, someone else did it.