Implementing the rights of the disabled in a cross-cultural context – the case of China
July 25,2017   By:chinahumanrights.org

Implementing the rights of the disabled in a cross-cultural context – the case of China

Peter J. Peverelli


The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, adopted in 2006, is referred to by the UN Human Rights Office as a paradigm shift from charity-oriented, medical-based approaches to disability to one based on human rights. The Convention has been ratified by most member states. While endorsing the interpretation of the Convention by the UN, we are also wary that the actual implementation of the rights in various parts of world will have to fit into the local cultures and social practices. If the Western nations fail to accept this fact, this Convention is in risk of generating similar disputes as the original UDHR. It analyses the practical implementation of the rights of disabled people in China using the 7-Dimension culture model of Trompenaars and show that a certain right can be upheld in different ways in various cultures.


This paper builds on my paper for the conference ‘Traditional Spiritual and Cultural Values as Sources of Human Rights held in Tianjin Dec. 2 -3, 2016 (Peverelli, 2016). This introduction will therefore draw heavily on the earlier one.

Culture often seems to be a topic of which everyone is a self-acclaimed expert, in particular people whose job involves commercial interaction with people from various nationalities. They have stories of ‘cultural differences’ as a source of interesting differences of opinion to serious conflicts. Many international business professionals are very keen to explain the salient features of the culture of Ecuadorians, Ugandans, Laotians, or whoever they regular deal with in the execution of their profession, and claim that their accumulated intercultural experience helps them avoid such conflicts, building strong intercultural relationships.

However, I often observe that those very same people can turn remarkably harsh in their opinions about social practices in the same nations that are perceived as related to (human) rights.They refer to a nation that lacks a parliament that is renewed through general elections every few years as ‘undemocratic’. When people are penalised for expressing certain ideas, they see it as a violation of ‘freedom of speech’. They believe those practices should change and be aligned more with ‘generally accepted international practices’.

Inspired by this striking difference in approaching cultural differences in business dealings and social practice, in this paper I would like to take a well-known model of cultural differences in business practices and see if, and if so how, this model can help understand cultural differences in other aspects of society, in particular (human) rights.

Not all aspects of the handling of the rights of disabled can be explained in terms of culture, but culture will play an overall moderating role. The aim of this contribution is limited to setting up a conceptual framework for studying the implementation of rights of disabled in a cultural context. Information about the current Chinese practice has been mainly derived from the seminal study of Liang and Zhou (2015).

Trompenaars' 7D model

Fons Trompenaars launched his 7-dimension model of business culture in the early 1990s as an improvement of Geert Hofstede’s model introduced a decade earlier. He has turned out an impressive line of studies of various aspects of international business, but the basic model as introduced in his ‘Riding the Waves of Culture’ (Trompenaars & Hampden-Turner, 1997) is the source of inspiration of his entire oeuvre. In this section, I will briefly introduce the model as it was launched to explain differences in business practices. I will then attempt to apply the model on human rights in the following section.

Trompenaars measures culture using 7 dimensions. Each dimension is named using its two extremes, but should not be mistaken as dichotomous. Each culture occupies a place on a dimension, calculated on the basis of questionnaires completed by business executives a certain nation. The location of a culture indicates where the people of that culture start out, their base position. However, they are, usually subconsciously, aware that others may start from other positions on the scale. Although Trompenaars’ dimensions are customarily graphically represented as lines, they are in fact circles. People from a particular culture start at a certain point, but can cognitively reach other points. These intercultural skills can be improved by experience and training to help people from different cultures reconcile their differences.

Each culture thus has a profile of points on those 7 scales. People from a particular culture intending to interact with representatives of another culture can consult the most striking differences between their own culture and that of their counterparts. Dimensions on which they are relatively different are regarded as more prone to generate conflicts and therefore in need of reconciliation.

Universalism – particularism

Universalism is the perception that procedures, rules or standards can be applied in any situation whereas particularism places more emphasis on the circumstances, in particular the relationship with the interlocutor, in which the procedures, rules or standards are applied. Hence, universalism is rule-based and particularism is relationship-focused. In a universalist perception, a reliable person sticks to agreements, while in particularist setting a reliable person adepts to the situation.

Individualism – communitarianism

Many people familiar with intercultural literature will expect ‘collectivism’ as the other side of individualism, but Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner have opted for the term communitarianism because they look at how people felt as part of a group. In individualist cultures, a group can only function well, if all individuals can develop their full potential, while in communitarian cultures the individual can only function well a part of a group.

Specific – diffuse

A specific culture is one in which people have large public space which they are happy to allow others into yet they keep a small area of privacy aside for closer friends.  A diffuse culture is one where public and private space is similar in size and people guard their space. Specific cultures, e.g., will strictly keep work and family apart (‘leave work in the office’), while in diffuse cultures they are intertwined. Communication in specific cultures is unequivocal, clear and to the point, while in diffuse cultures prefer keep every argument open in communication.

Achieved status – ascribed status

An achieved status culture is based on how well someone performs whereas ascribed status is based more on the person’s background, connections or what they ‘do’. The CEO of a company in an achieved status culture has to prove that he is worth that position every day, while in an ascribed status culture his authority is linked to the title of CEO. Being the CEO entitles you to be treated as such. Senior managers tend be relatively older in an ascribed status culture.

Internal control – external control

People of internal control cultures, believe that man determines his own destiny. Success is based on your own effort. People from external control cultures believe that man's destiny is determined by external factors. Success is partly a matter of through luck, sometimes with the help of others.

Sequential – synchronous

Sequential people perceive processes as consisting of separate sequential steps. Synchronous cultures see processes as consisting of subprocesses that take place simultaneously. As a result, sequential people handle a matter step by step, while synchronous people seem to do everything at the same time. The former make an effort to honour appointments punctually, while the latter do so more approximately.

Affective – neutral

In neutral cultures, emotions have to be suppressed in social interaction, while in affective cultures, emotions have to be shown freely. Neutral cultures also often avoid physical contact.

In this explorative paper, I have limited my analysis to the first two dimensions. The rights of the disabled are more specific than the UDHR that was the topic of Peverelli (2016), so measuring the available data with all dimensions may seem excessive. The first two already seem add considerable explanatory power to the analysis of Liang & Zhou and generate considerable new thoughts for discussion.

Dimensions of the rights of disabled

In this section, I will attempt to assess the consequences of cultural differences to the perception and practice of rights and obligations, in particular to the rights of the disabled. Certainly in this initial stage of my research, I will restrict my comparison to the cultures I am most familiar with: the Dutch and Chinese.

Universalism – particularism

This is the most important dimension for this paper. The two cultures I am comparing differ greatly on this scale. The official name: Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), indicates that human rights in their current mainstream interpretation have been drawn up in a universalist setting. Apart from the Dutch, the English speaking nations, whose language has been used to codify the human rights, also rank among the most universalist cultures.

The name suggests that the UDHRis applicable to all people under all circumstances.This is also the most common view of Western scholars and practitioners in the field of human rights. A Western scholar with an impressive conduit in studying human rights, Jack Donelly, tries pull the discussion away from the universalist-particularist debate, by contending that the concept of human rights started in Europe as a product of the renaissance and the development of a bourgeois mercantile class that needed not so much human rights, but a codified legal system applicable to all people(Donelly, 2007). He sees this view substantiated by the confirmation of human rights, though sometimes only pro forma, by a growing number of governments.

Unfortunately, the systematic torturing of prisoners by various US government employees (military, intelligence) as part of the ‘war on terror’ seems to deny Donelly’s view. It does, however, confirm Trompenaars’ concept of the circularity of cultural dimensions. Even the extremely universalist Americans can behave particularly, when ‘the situation forces us to do so’.

China has an intricate system of codified laws, as any nation. However, the application of those laws often depends on the circumstances. This can be the people involved, or environmental factors, like a current political campaign. The latter is in accordance with Confucian ideas on morality, ‘law does not eradicate problems; people’s behaviour can only be influenced effectively by a set of self-regulating moral mechanisms’ (Faure & Fang, 2008).

An interesting case of where a particularist culture seems to do better to human rights is medicine. Art. 25 of the UDHR stipulates that ‘Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care…’ A Hungarian reports about a medical check-up in China:

Doctors focus more on finding the cause than treating the symptom. I can go to the hospital in the morning and in the afternoon I will exactly know what is my problem and how to treat it. Once I did a full-body check, it took around 3 hours. The throat specialist looked into my throat and told me sometimes I will feel pain because I drink too many cold drinks. Which was true. On the abdominal ultrasound they found out I have some fat in my liver because of eating too many dairy products. Which was also very true. Later for some reason I did the same thing in Hungary and the doctors said I have no problem at all. Nothing. The difference? While Hungarian doctors seek for only real existing problems, Chinese doctors see little changes in the body which can be later turn into a real health problem. Very different mind-set. (Quora, 2016)

It probably does wrong to medical professionals in universalist cultures, but the above could be summarised as: universalist doctors have a propensity to look at symptoms, while those in particularist cultures start with the person of the patient. The latter is also in accordance with Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).

The TCM perception of medicine is also highly relevant to the well being of disabled, as most disabled people will need medical care more frequently than the able bodied.

A number of the issues identified by Liang & Zhou can be regarded as particularist in Trompenaars’ terms. They point out that while the (various levels of) government was the main player in the care for the disabled in China for a long time, a number of players have appeared: the market, communities and NGOs. They also mention the family of the disabled as a relevant stakeholder.

The market refers to the fact that social enterprises have been set up specializing in care for the disabled. These entrepreneurs do so with an eye for care, but also to generate an income from the profit of their business. Communities (shequ) are the lowest administrative level of Chinese society. It is a relative informal organization, administrated by volunteers from the inhabitants of a certain community. Many issues related to the daily life of Chinese urban dwellers (electricity, household waste, safety, etc.) are regulated at the community level(Peverelli, 2006). A distinct benefit of delegating part of the care of disabled to the community is that it encourages people to help the neighbours, people they know.

Liang & Zhou further point out that the level of development still varies in China. It would be undoable and even undesirable to expect the same level of care for disabled in poor regions as that in the big cities.

Finally, two of the ‘three directions’ of development identified by Liang & Zhou, internationalization and localization (bentuhua) are strongly embedded in the particularist nature of Chinese culture. Internationalisation and localisation seem contradictory notions, but play a central role in many aspects of present day China. It is a mental dialogue caused by the wish to be part of the international community and preserve Chinese values. This dialogue can be expected to spring up in many other non-Western regions and could become another source of criticism from the Western nation. The reconciliation of these different approaches is the basis of the philosophy of the Cross-Cultural Human Rights Centre: accepting all nations as part of the large international community on the basis of the individual employment of human rights and related issues like the rights of the disabled.

Individualism – communitarianism

This is another essential dimension for the topic of this paper. The UDHR’s opening article already leaves no doubt that it is the product of an individualist culture. Interestingly, while the declaration contains several statements regarding individual human beings, the notion of identity is not incorporated. This is a serious omission, as serious as not taking account of the consequences of more communitarian cultures to the application of (human) rights.

In individualistic cultures, children are urged from a very young age to ‘find out who they are’ and develop an own identity, that separates them from others. Through all stages of life, they will feel urged to protect and defend that identity, even to the extent that doing so may harm other individuals. In more communitarian cultures, people locate their identity in the social interaction with others. This means that the personal identity changes when the people with whom one interacts change. The group identity contributes to the private identity of the group members. Individuals in China are willing to put in considerable individual effort, including sacrificing individual needs, for the greater good of the group (Browaeys & Price, 2011).

Sinkwan Cheng has written a seminal paper on the attempts of Chinese diplomat P.C. Chang to introduce Confucianist values in the UDHR (Cheng, 2015). Her argument centres around the Confucian notion of ren (仁), a word that is homonymous with ren (人) person and hence usually translated as ‘humanity’. The ren of individuals can only be established in their relationships with others. This is reflected in the character of ren, which is composed of that of ren ‘person’ and er ‘two’. In the Confucian perception, which has become a core value of Chinese culture, an individual is not human(e) outside social relationships. The Western excessive stress on individual rights directly violates that essential principle of Chinese culture. C.P. Chang fought to get at least some of that principle woven into the UDHR, but to no avail.

Fox Brindley (2010) presents a revealing study on individualism in early Chinese thinking. She shows that the right to self-cultivation is part of most schools of thought in the formative periods of Chinese philosophy. Individuals can be ‘decision-making and self-reflecting agents who find freedom in a fixed and universal truth beyond the individual’ (op. cit; 28).

. . . such individuals would be entitled to the fulfilment of themselves as integral members of a complicated web of traditional authorities (state, culture, society, family), cosmic powers (natural transformations of the Dao), and responsibilities (filial piety, loyalty incumbent in one’s position, trustworthiness toward friends, etc.). One might imagine, for example, a type of human rights in China that is based on a concept of the moral imperative of the individual to seek spiritual cultivation qua harmony with and participation in one’s larger community and natural environment. In such a scenario, the emphasis would not be on an individual’s claims to something like “free speech” (in terms of the freedom to say anything you wish regardless of the response it might garner), but to “free judgment,” “free thought,” “free will,” and even “free speech” in terms of a constant interaction between individual inputs and pre-existing moral and spiritual teachings and guidelines (op. cit.; 188).

That definition again confirms Trompenaars’ concept of the circularity of cultural dimensions, which states that both ends of a dimension are parts of all cultures and that cultures differ in their point of departure. In her postscript on human rights, Fox Brindley cites Angle (2002) who has looked the more recent history of human rights in China and states that ‘one strand of the nineteenth-centuryChinese discourse . . . does highlight the quan [powers, rights] of individuals: These are the writings that place at their centre the claim that ‘every person has the quan of self-mastery’ (Angle, 2002; 130).

I would like to summarise this section by tentatively concluding that in a communitarian culture individuals have a duty to fulfil a set of social roles. Failing to do so will position them as outcasts. However, this does not mean that individual cannot have a definite degree of freedom in deciding in what ways they want to fulfil their social roles.

Communitarian issues brought up by Liang & Zhou include the role given to the community and family of a particular disabled person. The duty to care for those who are unable to care for themselves is part of all main schools of thought that have shaped Chinese culture: Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism. The family is the core social organization in Chinese culture and the present day concept of community (shequ) can be regarded as an extension of the family: a community of households sharing a compound. Governments at various levels therefore do not only need to support the individual disabled directly, but also those who are supporting them. This is similar to the development of the care for elderly in Chinese society in recent years. While this has typically been the duty for the children from ancient times, with the demographic changes in Chinese society and the increasing pace of life, children are not always able to take of their own elderly adequately. Communities, social enterprises and NGOs are taking over more and more of those tasks (Peverelli & Song, 2012).


Conclusions may be an inappropriate term for an exploratory paper like this. In this section, I will formulate a number of propositions for altering the (application of) the UDHR to fit them better into cultural practices in different parts of the world. China seems to be the ideal region to study this cultural implementation of international agreements on various aspects of human rights as it is a developing country in an advanced stage of development. Problems and solutions we can observe in China will not only increase academic insight in cross-cultural aspects of (human) rights, but will also generate useful practical solutions that can be, again with consideration of local culture and practices, implemented elsewhere.


Angle, S. (2002). Human Rights in Chinese Thought: A Cross-Cultural Inquiry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Browaeys, M.-J. & Price, R. (2011). Understanding cross-cultural management, 2nd ed. Edinburgh: Pearson Educated Limited.

Cheng, S. (2015). Translation, Power Hierarchy, and the Globalization of the Concept “Human Rights”: Potential Contributions from Confucianism Missed by the UDHR; in: The Age of Human Rights Journal, 4 (June 2015) pp. 1-33.

Donelly, J. (2007). The Relative Universality of Human Rights; in Human Rights Quarterly 29(2): 281-306.

Faure, G. O. & Fang, T. (2008). Changing Chinese values: Keeping up with paradoxes. International Business Review, vol. 17 (pp. 194-207).

Fox Brindley, E. (2010). Individualism in Early China – Human Agency and the Self in Thought and Politics. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

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Peverelli, P.J. & Song, J.W. (2012). Extending Network Analysis with Social Inclusions: A Chinese Entrepreneur Building Social Capital: in: Front. Bus. Res. China 2011, 5(1): 121 - 143.

Peverelli, P.J. (2016). Exploring the Cultural Dimensions of Human Rights. Paper presented at the workshop‘Traditional Spiritual and Cultural Values as Sources of Human Rights’ held in Tianjin Nankai University, Dec. 2 -3, 2016

Quora (2016). Why is it that people are saying China is a good place to live in? Millions of people have been migrating from China to other countries. (https://www.quora.com/Why-is-it-that-people-are-saying-China-is-a-good-place-to-live-in-Millions-of-people-have-been-migrating-from-China-to-other-countries; accessed: 10/11/2016).

Liang Deyou & Zhou Pei (2015) Three dimensions on the development of Chinese care for disabled (Zhongguo tese canjiren shiye fazhan de san ge xiangdu), in: Henan Social Science, 2015, 23(1): 70 – 75.

Trompenaars, F. & Hampden-Turner, Ch. (1997). Riding the waves of culture: Understanding cultural diversity in business, 2nd ed. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

(The author is Academic Director China of China Research Centre, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam)

From:The Third Session of China-Europe Seminar on Human Rights , July 2-3