How China's Human Rights Record Is Like Michael Jackson

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An awkward metaphor by a low-level Chinese official might be more apt than she knew

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Left, a Chinese foreman supervises workers in Guinea-Bissau. Right, the King of Pop in Japan / AP

A representative of China's Human Rights Society told a public gathering of African officials that the West is unfairly maligning China's human records -- just as it unfairly maligned Michael Jackson, she said. The speech, during a government-sponsored "Seminar for Information Officers from English-Speaking African countries," was titled "China's human rights in my eyes."

"There is an artist, a world famous artist, who has donated the most to philanthropy causes, who is also the most misunderstood and suffered the most pain in the world," Dr. Yao Junei said, according to a reporter for Zambian newspaper The Post. "You may guess many names but actually, this one is Michael Jackson, the superstar of the United States."  Both Jackson and China, she said, are victims of Western double-standards.

"I think that just like the case of Michael Jackson the image of China is also distorted by the coined phrases of Western countries, like one party rule, censorship of press and internet censorship," Yao explained, arguing that Michael Jackson was unjustly attacked for his plastic surgery and alleged pedophilia.

Yao's metaphor may be more apt than she knows, as both China and Michael Jackson are perceived in the West as having used their power to do some pretty terrible things. But she wasn't speaking to the West -- she was speaking to official representatives from Sub-Saharan Africa, where China is expanding its industrial interests. And Michael Jackson is still the King of Pop in that part of the world. Yao's metaphor, as silly and unintentionally revealing as it might sound to Westerners, probably resonated a bit more with African listeners.

The speech is a small (and, probably, uncoordinated) part of China's much larger effort to deploy soft power in Sub-Saharan Africa, where Chinese workers and firms are increasingly prevalent. China has brought their human rights and labor practices with them to Africa, which are not always very well received. In Zambia, for example, labor abuses at Chinese firms helped make Chinese influence a big issue in the country's recent presidential election, which the incumbent lost.

"Zambia has become a province of China," opposition leader and now president Michael Sata said in a campaign speech. "The Chinese are the most unpopular people in the country because no one trusts them. The Chinaman is coming just to invade and exploit Africa."

So maybe Yao has a point. Maybe there are some parallels between China's image in Africa and Michael Jackson's image in the West. When he was alive, we all bought MJ's albums even as we shook our heads at his personal behavior -- the music was good enough to justify funding his crazy lifestyle. African governments still welcome Chinese investment even as African civil society groups protest Chinese labor abuses: Africa's need for Chinese money and development and jobs currently outweighs its dislike of Chinese practices. But, just as you wouldn't have let Michael Jackson near your kids, will African governments become wary of putting valuable natural resources -- hydroelectric power sources, for example -- in Chinese hands?

One big difference is that Jackson died before peoples' dislike of his image could overtake their love of his music. China isn't going anywhere. Chinese officials like Yao want to improve China's image in Africa, but they might consider trying a new metaphor.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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