Binary distinctions are one of the easiest ways to see the world. Insider or outsider, with us or against us, friend or enemy. Even in technology, one can do a great deal of computer programming using only the numbers 0 and 1. How simple, how elegant, how comprehensible.
Unfortunately, the world as it is very often cannot be reduced to simplistic reductionism. Take the current crisis between the United States and China. This week will see the annual economic and strategic dialogue between the two countries. High level U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Treasury Tim Geithner, are in Beijing to meet with their counterparts. This dialogue process is a most positive development in the often contentious relations between the two countries. Regular meetings among top officials can only be applauded.
But, this year's meeting has become severely clouded by the case of Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng. The blind human rights lawyer escaped house arrest, took refuge in the American Embassy and has just been released. Known for his militant advocacy against forced abortions and sterilization, Chen managed to flee local authorities. The United States has sent an Assistant Secretary of State to Beijing to deal with this issue. President Obama has refrained from any specific comments. Republicans are calling for more action of the government's part, an obvious tactic in an election year.
It is impressive, to say the least, how the case of one dissident can potentially have such an impact on U.S. - China relations. President Obama did say on Monday that human rights were always on the agenda in talks with China. But, to return to the issue of binary distinctions, the hope behind the dialogue process was that economic and strategic issues could be separated from human rights issues. Indeed, China recently has been much more cooperative politically in terms of Syria, North Korea, Iran and its currency. Serious progress has been made on the bilateral front although much remains to be done.
How this particular issue will play out remains to be seen. The deal to allow the dissident to leave the Embassy after 6 days remains unclear. But one can easily say that for those who see the world in binary distinctions this will be another opportunity to lambast China. This is not to defend China's policies on civil and political rights. Their emphasis on economic, social and cultural rights has merit, but should not be exclusive. The United States, it could be argued, places too much emphasis on civil and political rights and not enough on economic, social and cultural rights. The interdependence of the two sets of rights must be upheld by both countries.
Binary distinctions are very attractive and tempting. They can be dangerous, however, when they block progress. Nuances are complicated, often frustrating, but the world as it is, alas, is very far from black and white.