A recent discussion on a Chinese politics discussion group of which I’m a member raised the issue of whataboutism. What prompted it was a set of tweets and responses from Chen Weihua, the chief Washington, DC correspondent of the China Daily. Chen’s first tweet said, “RT disappeared from my RCN cable in DC Metro area since days ago. Is this part of the Russian purge in the US? Is this even constitutional? Why no one dares to speak up?” (For those who don’t know, the US constitution does not govern the acts of privately-owned cable TV companies.) His second tweet said, “It is interesting to read the response to my tweet on RT. Using their logic, the next time US leaders talk about moral high ground, I should just remind them of Gitmo, Abu Ghraib to shut them up. Wow, freedom of speech[.]”
One of the members of the discussion group said that Chen’s second tweet was in response to tweets like the following: “How about writing a piece or two about how your government censors news, jails journalists, and essentially let a Nobel Peace Prize winner—Liu Xiaobo—die in your custody? You are in no position to have a conversation about free speech, sir.” The member then said that to be fair, this seemed like a classic case of whataboutism, and that Chen’s second tweet was just criticizing that.
That didn’t seem quite right to me, but I couldn’t immediately put my finger on why. Now that I’ve given the matter some thought, here’s my analysis of whataboutism, when it’s OK and when it’s not, and why this isn’t a case of bad whataboutism. [AUG. 9, 2020 ADDENDUM: I just came across this recent extended essay on whataboutism in the Made in China Journal; thanks to Neysun Mahboubi for the reference.]
Whataboutism is not always in every way wrong or misguided. We need to break down the concept a bit.
Let’s start with the form: B says to C, “Y is bad.” C responds to B (intending it to be a rebuttal), “Oh, yeah? Well, what about X?”
- True whataboutism
X is arguably as bad as or worse than Y, and B is responsible for, or otherwise supports, X. This kind of whataboutism is unobjectionable in exposing B as a hypocrite. It fails, on the other hand, as a defense of Y, since whether Y is bad or B is a hypocrite has nothing to do with whether X is bad, and exposing B as a hypocrite probably does nothing to help those injured by Y. Indeed, if we (as observers of the debate) think Y is bad, then if B’s hypocritical critique actually helps those injured by Y, we should support it.
Example: Chinese government officials in their official capacity criticize Spanish policies toward Catalonia. Spanish officials respond, “Oh, yeah? Well, what about your treatment of Uighurs?”
Again, this kind of whataboutism is fine for some purposes but not for others. It is invalid if it is offered as a defense of Y. But it is valid if the point is to say that B is a hypocrite: B has said that Y is bad, but X is just as bad, and B won’t criticize it. (Of course, it is possible that B just hasn’t gotten around to criticizing X. People are busy and can’t do everything. To be fair, we should give them the chance.) [Error with variables in previous parenthetical now fixed.]
- Spurious whataboutism
X may be as bad as Y, but there is no link to B. B is not responsible for, and does not otherwise support, X. Spurious whataboutism is the classic response to individuals and human rights organizations when they criticize governments: “Oh, yeah? Well, what about X [which occurs in country W]?” The assumption that B is somehow responsible for what occurs in country W is unstated, but obviously the whataboutism completely loses its force if we drop that assumption.
Example: The ACLU criticizes Chinese prison conditions. Chinese officials respond by saying, “What about the US prison system?” This is like responding, “What about massacres in Rwanda?”
This kind of whataboutism has no validity for any purpose and deserves to be criticized.
- Illusory whataboutism
Y doesn’t exist. This could be a variant of true whataboutism or spurious whataboutism.
I see what is going on with Chen Weihua as a type of illusory true whataboutism. Chen (in effect a Chinese government official) says to Twitter, “US government censorship of RT is bad.” Twitter responds, “Oh, yeah? What about Chinese censorship?” Here, the element Y (USG censorship of RT) doesn’t exist. It didn’t happen. This removes the objection to true whataboutism, which is that it fails to offer a valid defense of Y. Since Y doesn’t exist, the lack of a valid defense doesn’t matter. But the valid element of true whataboutism remains.