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On the View on Human Rights with Chinese Characteristics
May 03,2017   By:CSHRS

On the View on Human Rights with Chinese Characteristics

LIU Hainian*

Abstract: Studying and practicing the view on human rights with Chinese characteristics is important for raising the awareness and improving the protection system for human rights in China. It is important for China to improve the human rights on its own path and to promote the safeguard of human rights in the world. The paper offers an overview of the concepts, contents and features of China’s view on human rights.

Key words: Human rights, China, right to subsistence, right to development

Studying and practicing the view on human rights with Chinese characteristics is important for raising the awareness and improving the protection system for human rights in China. It is important for China to develop human rights on its own path, increase exchanges with other countries on this issue, and to promote the safeguard of human rights in the world. The paper offers some opinions on the view on human rights with Chinese characteristics.

I. The concept

The view on human rights with Chinese characteristics is, in other words, the socialist view on human rights with Chinese characteristics, or China’s subjective view on the matter. Literally, it combines the concept of human rights and the Chinese view concerning it. A concept is a form of idea that reflects the nature of an object. It is the objective reflection of things. A view is the result of thinking, the idea of things that forms in one’s mind. The two terms are closely related but should not be confused. Otherwise, it can lead to chaos in theory and do harm in practice. 

Human rights refer to the rights that human beings enjoy in accordance with their natural attributes and social attributes. Human rights have two parts—the subject and the object. The subject is human, including individuals and their extensions—communities, ethnicities and countries. The object is rights, which comprise fundamental rights and other rights. The concept of human rights reflects its universality. The concept of human rights is included in the constitutions and laws of more than 100 countries with various regimes. Terms of human rights are also included in Charter of the United Nations, Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Bill of Human Rights because it is a human nature to seek a good life and to work together in the prevention of natural and man-made disasters. What are included in these global pacts are some universal human rights which are accepted by all signatories and participating countries, such as protecting national independence and sovereignty, promoting democracy, freedom and equality, opposing to ethnic discrimination, murder and torture of people, and protecting the rights of the vulnerable groups including women, children and the disabled. The view on human rights held by a country results from its distinctive national identity, culture and religion, social system and the level of development. Different countries, ethnicities and communities have different views on human rights. We can learn from the valuable insights into human rights by other countries, but we can’t entirely copy their models. China formed its view on human rights through efforts of generations of people by drawing on the gems of the human civilization and combining them with traditional Chinese culture, as well as the modern revolutionary history with the realities of our time. It is a combination and unification of the commonness in human rights and its unique culture in China.

II. Background

The concept of human rights was imported from the West to China in modern times. However, the preachers of human rights did not practice what they preached—while advocating the human rights, the big talkers infringed upon them in real life. As a result, it raised doubts among Chinese: “It is strange how the teachers invaded the students so much.”1

Chinese people have learnt the essence of human rights from the practices and fought to win our own human rights. In fact, Chinese culture treasures the value of people since ancient times, with constant struggle for human rights throughout the history. If we take a look at the development of traditional Chinese culture, we will find that the ideas of “benevolence” and “harmony” that were brought forward by Confucius and other thinkers in the late Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC) have evolved into a systematic theory. At the core of the theory is the great importance attached to the value of human, and to the social and natural environment in which human live. The following lines from Chinese classic literature illustrate the idea of “benevolence.” For example, “The word human refers to those who are benevolent,”2 “Human is the essence of the heaven and the earth,”3 and “Human is the most precious among all creatures in the world.”4 The relationship between individuals should be defined by “love”: “Those who are benevolent love people.”5 This love should start from oneself, from those that surrounds him to those that are faraway, from individual to community: “One who wants to fulfill his own desire should help others to fulfill their desires first,”6 and “Love the elderlies in my family first and then love the elderlies in other families; love my children first and then love the children of others.”7 There are also words about “Harmony”: “Harmony is the most precious thing”8. “With harmony comes peace,”9 “All nations should live in harmony,”10 “Harmony is the key to everything in the world.”11 The relationship between human and nature should be a harmonized one. This idea is reflected in: “Man is an integral part of the nature,” “the benevolent sees everything in the world as a whole,” and “Human and nature are in one,”12 and “Man models itself after earth, earth after heaven, heaven after Tao, and Tao after the nature.”13 The traditional culture based on Confucianism is a legacy and the bloodline of Chinese civilization, and contains rich resources in human rights for modern China to exchange with the world.

In September 1991, a Chinese delegation visited North America and met with Mr. John Humphrey, one of the authors of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Mr. Humphrey spoke highly of Zhang Pengchun, deputy chairman of the UN Commission on Human Rights who co-authored the Declaration on behalf of China, for solving conflicts of different countries and integrating the idea of “benevolence” into the Declaration. “Conscience”—a word included in Article 1 of the Declaration, is evidence. In another example, a line from the Analects of Confucius is inscribed on a huge stone displayed at the exhibition hall of the Red Cross headquarters in Geneva. It says, “don’t impose upon others what you don’t others do upon you,”14 a Confucianist line that bears universal value for human beings.

The fundamental nature of human rights is interests. “Everything people fight for is related with their interests.”15 The Chinese people’s fight for their interests dates back to 2000 BC, when Chen Sheng and Wu Guang led the first uprising against the rulers of Qin Dynasty (221-207 BC) with the famous war cry—“Are the dignitaries born with power?”16 Their fight for equal rights led to the first massive peasant revolution in Chinese history which eventually toppled the Qin rulers. Since then, crowns fell to the ground and dynasties collapsed one after another. Except for a few times when the minorities ruled the land, it was mostly peasants that played the major role in the struggle for their rights. It has been a long-standing tradition for Chinese people to stand up to tyranny and oppression and fight for equality and rights.

Since the First Opium War in 1940, China has been repeatedly invaded by imperialist powers equipped with modern weapons. As a result, the country has been forced to sign over a dozen of unequal treaties, ceding territories and paying reparations to the invaders, and was eventually reduced to a half-feudal and half-colonial nation. After the country lost its sovereignty, its people became slaved by imperialist powers and their agents in China. The situation worsened when Japan launched a full-scale invasion against China in 1937, leaving the nation and its people on the brink of extinction. At the time, Chinese people stood up to the brutal aggression and fought back. On August 1, 1935, the Communist Party of China (CPC) called for all Chinese people to take actions in a clear-cut public statement: “Fight for the life of our motherland! Fight for the survival of our nation! Fight for the independence of our country! And fight for the integrity of our territory!” In China’s modern history, fighting for democracy, freedom and human rights was chanted repeatedly to mobilize the people and to motivate them to struggle against the imperialist and feudal forces. From the patriots who died for the Hundred Days’ Reform17 to the revolutionists who overthrew the imperial regime in 1911 Revolution18, from the armed forces19 under the leadership of the CPC and Kuomintang that fought against Japan’s brutal aggression to the heroes who fought Kuomintang rulers and liberated China in the civil war—they all fought for human rights and freedom. To pay homage to the martyrs, an inscription on the Monument to the People’s Heroes in Tiananmen Square reads, “long live the heroes who died fighting enemies within and outside the country for the independence of our nation and the freedom and happiness of our people since 1840.”20 The inscription was a message from late Chairman Mao Zedong and handwritten by former Premier Zhou Enlai. Therefore, Human Rights in China, a white paper the Chinese government published in 1991, stated that, “over the past more than a hundred years, generations of suffering Chinese people have made long and arduous struggle at the expense of blood and sacrifice to fight for human rights and overthrow the ‘three big mountains’ of imperialism, feudalism and bureaucratic capitalism.” The inscription on the Monument to the People’s Heroes and the white paper pay tribute to those who died fighting for human rights over a century and declare the sublime goal of further improving the human rights, greatly inspiring the whole nation and its coming generations.

The founding of the People’s Republic of China marked the independence of the nation, and a significant achievement in Chinese people’s struggle for human rights. However, the US and some other western countries did not give up on their intent to colonize China. In the Korean War, upon the first landing in Inchon, South Korea, the US-led allied forces crossed the 38th parallel21, bringing war to the Yalu River on China-North Korea border despite the repeated warnings by China. At the same time, the US sent warships to invade the territorial sea of China. Western countries led by the US also imposed a full blockade on China. For a long period, the new-born People’s Republic of China was either in war or under the threat of war, its existence threatened.

After the “Cultural Revolution” (1966-1976), the nation learnt a lesson from the painful experience. In 1978, the reform and opening-up policy was adopted at the Third Plenary of the 11th Central Commission of the CPC. In 1982, the country reinstated the guiding principles in the 1954 Constitution, with enriched contents on human rights. In two milestone amendments were made in 1999 and 2004 when the principles of “rule by law and build a socialist country under the rule of law” and “the State respects and protects human rights” were added to the Constitution. We have made mistakes over the past sixty years since the founding of the New China. Today, we are still faced with many problems including how to integrate the market economy into the socialist system and how to further promote the safeguard of human rights. However, we have also made remarkable achievements, ones that even some of the hostile foreigners would have to acknowledge. Since the 18th CPC National Congress, we have made new, concrete progress in protecting human rights, and under the leadership of the Party, we are advancing toward the new goal by pushing forward the rule of law and a comprehensively deepening reform.

The above-mentioned traditional Chinese culture, its revolutionary history and the socialist system form the context that shaped China’s view on human rights.

III. The Core of China’s View on Human Rights: Rights to Subsistence and Development Are Basic Human Rights

As mentioned above, human is the subject of human rights and rights the object. Human rights refer to all the rights entitled to all human beings. The term basic rights can be seen in a number of articles in the international human rights law and Chinese Constitution. Literally, basic rights refer to the inalienable rights of human being. Without these rights, a person is not independent. Without these rights (sovereignty), a country is not independent. This suggests that the basic rights are superior over other rights. All human rights are interdependent and inseparable to each other. The rights to development is the foundation of the other rights. According to “The fundamental rights and duties of citizens” in Chapter 2 of the Constitution of China, the fundamental rights of citizens include right to personal liberty, right to dignity, right to equality, rights to elect and be elected, right to supervision, right to property, right to freedom of religion, right to freedom of correspondence and privacy of correspondence, right to education, right to work, right to rest, and right to social security. These fundamental rights cover the political, social, cultural, civil and economic rights provided in the International Bill of Human Rights.  

The white paper Human Rights in China established the rights to subsistence and development as the fundamental human rights, which is a conclusion after examining the country’s history and realities. As a general concept, the right to subsistence refers to the subsistence of individuals as well as the subsistence of an ethnicity or a country. To meet people’s needs for subsistence, we should constantly improve their economic, social and cultural rights. More importantly, given China’s own history as well as that of many developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, it is impossible to secure people’s right to subsistence without national independence and sovereign integrity. We should not forget that the US and some other western countries have always tried to stir up the so-called “color revolution” within China in order to topple the people’s democratic government. We should not forget that the US has played a major role in preventing Taiwan from reuniting with mainland China, and has been supporting separatist forces in Tibet and Xinjiang. It has also both secretly and openly supported the provocations against the Diaoyu Islands in East China Sea and islands in the South China Sea. Though the US proclaimed that human rights are the cornerstone of its foreign policy, it has been following dual standards on this issue after the collapse of the former Soviet Union and took China as its number one target. The US was the direct leader or the mastermind behind a dozen of proposals against China on the issue of human rights presented to the UN Commission on Human Rights (now known as the UN Human Rights Council). Today, the US still takes advantage of every chance to smear China on this issue. We should guard ourselves against its intent to contain China and threaten our existence. Besides, since the 1990s, climate change response and pollution control have emerged as two major issues on the global agenda. Climate change and pollutions pose serious threats to the existence of all human beings as well as China’s preservation of the rights to subsistence and development of its people.  

The rights to subsistence and development are closely related. The right to development underlies all the other human rights, including the right to subsistence. Deng Xiaoping, a former top leader of China, observed that “development is of paramount importance,” given China’s realities. The Declaration on the Right to Development passed by the UN General Assembly in 1986 established the right to development as an inalienable human right. As a developing country, China will be at the primary stage of socialism for a long time. Since the reform and opening-up policy was adopted by the nation in 1978, economic development has been made a top priority. Against the backdrop of complex environments at home and abroad, China has made significant achievements over the past three decades. In recent years, it has overtaken Germany and Japan to become the second largest economy in the world. But we are still a country with a large population and weak economic basis. The GDP per capita ranks at around the 80th place globally, with about 55 million people living under the poverty line and having no guarantee for basic living conditions in food, clothes, shelter, education and health care (the number would be larger by the standard of the World Bank). Therefore, we have a long and hard way to go in securing the right to development.

In a word, subsistence and development will remain the biggest problems China need to address for a long time. By maintaining peace, we can create a good environment for protecting the rights to subsistence and development and all the other human rights. 

IV. Summary

Further research is needed to define the view on human rights with Chinese characteristics concisely and accurately. However, the following factors are noteworthy. First, the traditional Chinese philosophies of “benevolence” and “nature and human as one,” the value of human, the harmony between human beings and the harmony between human and the nature. Second, the patriotism and national bond. And the revolutionary spirit against invasion and hegemony that were shaped in Chinese people’s struggle against the imperialist powers, colonialists and their agents in China. Third, under the leadership of the CPC, we have formulated and improved our Constitution and laws through revolutions and construction practice over the past half century. “The State respects and protects human rights,” a rule set in the Constitution, has become the fundamental principle in governing the country. The Chinese socialist system built according to the Constitution and laws brings us confidence in the path we take, the theory we believe in and the system we adopt, which will guide the people to further success. Fourth, under the leadership of the Party, we are comprehensively deepening the reform, and pushing forward the rule of law in order to build a moderately prosperous society and realize the Chinese dream of reviving the nation, which will guarantee our people a full access to human rights and an all-around personal development. Fifth, China proposed to build an Asian community of common interests and destiny and one for the world at large, based on the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence22 and the foreign policy to work in harmony with our neighbors, which pointed out a new direction for the protection of human rights at a global level. 

By combining the above-mentioned factors and the basic principles underlying the International Bill of Human Rights, I sum up the view on human rights with Chinese characteristics as followed: by integrating the universal properties of human rights and its unique development in China, as well as the individual human rights and collective human rights, and following the Constitutional principle of “the State respects and protects human rights” and the guiding principles set in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the International Bill of Human Rights, we will comprehensively deepen the reform and push for the rule of law under the leadership of the CPC in order to guarantee the people’s fundamental human rights—rights to subsistence and development. At home, we will create better conditions at economical, political, cultural, socially and environmental levels to allow Chinese people a full access to human rights; abroad, we will be committed to maintaining the right to peaceful development, carrying out equal exchanges and cooperation on human rights based on the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence, in order to build a harmonious world, a human community with common destiny in which everyone can fulfill their personal comprehensive development.

As President Xi Jinping once said, we can never improve too much on the matter of human rights. This is a scientific conclusion based on historical materialism. China will improve human rights along with the progress of human civilization and the development of socialist system with Chinese characteristics. To make progress, we must think outside the box, refreshing our ideas and breaking through the old systems. To better protect human rights in China, we should adhere to the leadership of the Party as always; we should, based on the nation’s realities, take the good and reject the bad in inheriting traditional Chinese culture, and keep the true and discard the false in learning from western countries; and we should integrate the fruits of the human civilization with the experiences accumulated in building the socialist country with Chinese characteristics. In this way, we will be able to constantly push forward the safeguard of human rights for a better tomorrow.

* LIU Hainian (刘海年), an honorary member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), honorary director of the CASS Human Rights Research Center.

1. The Selected Works of Mao Zedong, Volume 4, 1991 edition, People’s Publishing House, p. 1,471.
2. Chapter 31, “Doctrine of the Mean,” Book of Rites. The Book of Rites (Chinese: 礼记) or Liji, is a collection of texts describing the social norms, administration and ceremonial rites of the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BC).
3. Chapter 9 “The Conveyance of Rites,” Book of Rites.
4. Chapter 1 “Heaven’s Gifts,” in Liezi. Liezi (Chinese:列子): a Taoist text attributed to Lie Yukou, a c. 5th century BC philosopher.
5. “Li Lou: Part II,”in Mencius. Mencius (Chinese: 孟子): a collection of anecdotes and conversations of the philosopher Mencius.
6. Chapter 6 “Yongye,” in The Analects of Confucius.The Analects of Confucius (Chinese: 论语): a collection of sayings and ideas attributed to Confucius and his followers.
7. “King Hui of Liang: Part I,” in Mencius.
8. Chapter 1 “Studying,” in The Analects of Confucius.
9. Shipbuilder, the Office of Winter, in Rites of Zhou.Rites of Zhou (Chinese: 周礼): a work on bureaucracy and organizational theory of Zhou Dynasty.
10. Chapter 1 “Canon of Yao,” in Classic of History. Classic of History (Chinese: 尚书): a collection of speeches made by rulers and politicians from mythical times to the mid of the Western Zhou Dynasty (11th century - 770 BC).
11. Chapter 31 “Doctrine of the Mean,” in The Book of Rites.
12. Chapter 49 “The Concept of Yin and Yang,” Luxuriant Dew of the Spring and Autumn Annals. Luxuriant Dew of the Spring and Autumn Annals (Chinese: 春秋繁露): or Chunqiu Fanlu, is a work compiled by Han philosopher Dong Zhongshu (179 – 104 BC).
13. Chapter 13, Laozi. Laozi (Chinese: 老子): a work by ancient Chinese philosopher Laozi, the founder of Taoism.
14. Chapter 12 “Yan Yuan,” in Analects of Confucius.
15. The Collected Works of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Volume 1, People’s Publishing House, 1961, at 187.
16. “Hereditary Houses: Chen She,” in Records of the Grand Historian. Records of the Grand Historian (Chinese:史记): a record of ancient China’s history until 94 BC written by the Han official Sima Qian and his father Sima Tan.
17. Hundred Days’ Reform: a failed 103-day cultural, political and educational reform movement in 1898 in the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
18. 1911 Revolution: or Xinhai revolution, a revolution that overthrew China’s last imperial dynasty and established the Republic of China.
19. Kuomintang: or the Nationalist Party of China, the ruling party of Chinese mainland from 1928 to 1949 when it retreated to Taiwan after being defeated by the Communist Party of China.
20. The Selected Works of Mao Zedong, Volume 5, 1991 edition, People’s Publishing House, at 11.
21. The 38th parallel: the line of 38 degrees North which formed the border between North Korea and South Korea prior to the Korean War.
22. The Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence: mutual respect for each other's territorial integrity and sovereignty; mutual non-aggression; mutual non-interference in each other's internal affairs; equality and cooperation for mutual benefit; and peaceful co-existence.