Human Rights Connotations and Contemporary Values of Traditional Chinese People-Based Thinking
April 27,2018   By:CSHRS
Human Rights Connotations and Contemporary Values of Traditional Chinese People-Based Thinking
ZHAO Jianwen*
Abstract: The time-honored traditional Chinese minben (peo-ple-based) thinking has rich implications for human rights. The con-cepts of min and minben are much in line with their contemporary counterparts of “human” and “people orientation”. Upholding the belief of “people as the foundation of states”, minben advocates the fundamental political status of the people, and requires leaders to implement “people-oriented” policies. Its encapsulation of the theo-retical foundation and basic requirements for the protection of human rights enabled it to promote the protection of people’s livelihoods and civil rights in ancient China. Its sublimation in contemporary China has had, and will continue to have, a far-reaching impact on the devel-opment of human rights in China.
Keywords: people-based thinking    people as the foundation    human rights    traditional culture
The lack of an equivalent term for “human rights” in ancient China does not mean there was no historical concept of or protection of human rights. The traditional Chinese people-based thinking established the theoretical foundation and basic re-quirements for the protection of human rights in ancient China and has rich human rights implications today, as it has a significant influence on the protection of human rights in contemporary China. To study the traditional Chinese philosophy of “people as the foundation” is conducive to inheriting and carrying forward this cultural tradi-tion, promoting the cause of contemporary human rights in China, and enriching the theoretical system of human rights with Chinese characteristics.
Ⅰ. The Origin and Development of Traditional Chinese People-Based Thinking
Traditional Chinese people-based thinking has a long history. It was unequiv-ocally put forward in Book of History, an ancient classic dedicated to the history of the Xia Dynasty (21st-16th century BC), the Shang Dynasty (16th-11th century BC) and the Zhou dynasty (11th century-256 BC). And according to the Song of the Five Sons in the Book of Songs, “Our grandfather Xia Yu exhorted us that the people should be approached amiably but never treated lightly. They were the foundation of the state, and stability among them leads to secure sovereignty and prevailing peace.” During the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC) and the Warring States Period (475-221 BC), ancient philosophers took the doctrine to a new stage. Guan Zhong, the noted strategist of the Spring and Autumn Period, said, “From its very germination, the im-perial cause has to be founded on the people. A solid foundation leads to an invincible state, while a shaky one leads to a chaotic state” (Words to Rule, by Guan Zi). Lao Zi held that “the high and the mighty are rooted among the disadvantaged.” (Chapter 39, Laozi). Confucius championed the idea of “cherishing the people,” “loving the people,” “benefiting the people,” and “acculturating the people.” Mencius proposed the concept of supremacy of the people over the monarch, and elaborated the peo-ple-based thinking in greater detail. In the early Han Dynasty (206 BC-220), Jia Yi summed up the reasons for the premature demise of the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) in his masterpiece The Ten Crimes of Qin, highlighting the imposition of harsh rule with harsh laws and deviation from people-oriented rule. He pointed out in the “Macro Government” chapter of the Xinshu (New Book) that “people as the cornerstone of the state are the very source of finance and security.” According to Li Shimin, Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), “The fundamentals of all issues must be pri-oritized. A state is founded on the people, for whom clothing and food are indispens-able. Timing is the key to production of daily necessities.” (“On Farming,” Adminis-trative Essentials of Policies during the Zhenguan Era). According to History of the Song Dynasty (960-479), Emperor Qinzong issued an edict saying that “entrusted with governance of the people, I have always cherished the people as the basis of the coun-try and thought about policies to benefit them.” (“Records on Food and Commodities: Accounting,” History of the Song Dynasty, Vol. 179) And, as recorded in History of the Yuan Dynasty, “When the first emperor of Yuan (1271-1368) acceded the throne he made it clear to the entire country in his first decree that the people should be the top priority of the state, food and clothing that of the people and farming and sericul-ture that of daily necessities.” (“Annals: Food and Groceries, Part I,” History of the Yuan Dynasty). In the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and the early Qing Dynasty (1636-1912), Huang Zongxi put forward the concept of “people as the master and the sovereign as the guest” (“Being a King,” Mingyi Daifang Lu [For Future Generations: A Wise Man in Peril]), and brought about a new theoretical peak in traditional Chinese people-based thinking.
The 1911 Revolution overthrew the decadent Qing Dynasty and ended the feudal autocratic system in China. The theory of “Three Principles of the People” (that is, the people’s rule, the people’s power and the people’s livelihood) founded by Dr. Sun Yat-sen was “more drawn on Chinese classics than overseas thought.” It embodied “the people-based thinking that had dominated the politics of China for thousands of years.”1 Dr. Sun Yat-sen regarded “people” as the theme of political ideas and the practice and put forward the proposition of “building in the world a richest, most pow-erful and happiest country of the people, for the people and by the people. Thus he transformed the traditional people-based thinking to modern democratic thinking.”2
Chinese communists combined the universal truth of Marxism with the concrete practice of China’s revolution and development, and inherited and developed the people-based thinking handed down from Confucius to Sun Yat-sen. They “gradu-ally completed the historical transition from the traditional people-based concept to new-democratic democracy, socialist democracy and socialist democracy with Chi-nese characteristics. The people-based thinking under a new realm of socialism with Chinese characteristics will also be constantly enriched and developed.”3
According to General Secretary of Communist Party of China Xi Jinping, “The Chinese nation has nurtured and formed unique philosophies and ethics over pro-longed periods of practice. It has created such ideals as pursuit for benevolence, people orientation, credibility, dialectics, harmony, and common ground.”4 It can be seen from the book Allusions Quoted by Xi Jinping that the president has made a point of citing classic quotes reflective of traditional Chinese people-based thinking in his speeches, talks and articles over the years. “One sees his image from the re-flection in water and the achievement of his government from the people.” “Policies conforming to popular desires should be advocated and those against popular desires should be abolished.” “Empathize with the people and they will share your worries and happiness.” “The paramount virtue is none other than loving the people and the greatest vice is none other than victimizing them.” “The key to government lies in peace among people, and the approach to popular peace consists in empathy. “Alle-viate the worries of the people as you would remove the most threatening diseases for yourself.” “The slightest cause must be pursued so long as it benefits the people, and the slightest vice must be eliminated so long as it undermines their well-being.”5 Those famous quotes are the embodiment of the “unique concepts and moral norms” of “cherishing the people’s livelihood” in traditional Chinese culture.
For thousands of years, the traditional Chinese people-based thinking has un-knowingly deeply rooted among the people. Handed down from generation to gener-ation, it has evolved into a major feature of Chinese civilization. Its rich human rights implications are conducive to respecting, protecting and promoting people’s rights.
Ⅱ. The Consistency of “People as the Foundation” and “People’s Rights” in Traditional Chinese People-Based Thinking with “People Orientation” and “Human Rights”
A. Ideas and requirements of human rights in traditional Chinese “people-based” philosophy
From the perspective of human rights, traditional Chinese people-centered think-ing contains rich human rights implications, including the theoretical foundation and basic requirements for protecting human rights in ancient China. “The advocacy of people as the foundation for all undertakings and ethics as the yardstick in the tradi-tion Chinese culture in fact contains profound ideas on human rights.”6
In April 2006, the then Chinese President Hu Jintao mentioned “people-oriented” Chinese civilization in his speech at Yale University. “The Chinese civilization has always given prominence to the people and respect for people’s dignity and value. Centuries ago, the Chinese already pointed out that ‘people are the foundation of a country; when the foundation is stable, the country is in peace.’ ‘Nothing is more valu-able in the universe than human beings.’ The ancient Chinese emphasized the value of serving the people, enriching them, nourishing them and benefiting them. We are pursuing today a people-oriented approach toward development because we believe that development must be for the people and by the people and its benefits should be shared among the people. We care about people’s value, rights and interests and free-dom, the quality of their life, and their development potential and happiness index be-cause our goal is to realize an all-round development of the people.”7 In Hu’s speech, “people” equals human beings while “people-oriented” corresponds to human-orien-tation. The “people’s dignity,” “people’s value, rights and freedom,” “quality of life, development potential and happiness index” and “all-round development” therein are all topics of “human rights.”
B. “People” and “Human Beings” as the subject of rights in traditional Chinese people-based thinking
In the proposition of “people as the foundation,” “people” (min) usually refers to those who constitute the masses excluding the ruler, and occasionally as a collective term for all human beings. According to the expression “the king considers the people first and foremost, while the people regard food first and foremost” in “The Legend of Li Yiji” in Records of the Grand Historian, “the people” are those other than the ruler and his administrators. From the logical point of view, “people” is the term for sub-jects and nationals, a notion opposite to “officials.”
In the term “people orientation,” the concept “people” is the same as “human beings” in contemporary human rights theory and refers to all people. In ancient Chi-nese books, “people as the foundation” is sometimes used synonymously as “people orientation.” For example, strategist Guan Zi once said: “From its very germination, the imperial cause has to be founded on the people. A solid foundation leads to an invincible state, while a shaky one leads to a chaotic state.” (Words to Rule, by Guan Zi). As Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty said, “The fundamentals of all issues must be prioritized. A state is founded on the people, for whom clothing and food are indispensable. Timing is the key to production of daily necessities.” (“On Farming,” Administrative Essentials of Policies during the Zhenguan Reign). Here, people “for whom clothing and food are indispensable” are “natural persons.” Both the ruler and his subjects are natural persons subject to clothing and food. From the logical point of view, “people” means human beings, as relative to “non-human” existence (such as deities, animals, plants and articles).
Even in “people as the foundation,” the concept “people” conforms in fact to “human beings” in contemporary human rights theory. First of all, human rights orig-inated in the “people’s” rights and not from the sovereign or state officials. The first generation of human rights, including the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly, are generally considered the rights of the people to curb the power of kings or governments. Some rights and freedoms in human rights have the innate property of “civil rights.” National public officials are supposed to lose part or even all of their rights or freedom to strike and migration in the performance of their duties or throughout the course of their tenure. Once they left their official posts, officials would have all their human rights reinstated. Second, the kings and all officials did not need “human rights” to protect their interests, since they were the members of society with power. In ancient times, they were privileged to varying degrees. In the contem-porary era, there is adequate legal protection for the interests of those in power. In general, the corresponding rights of the kings and officials were also guaranteed when the “people’s” rights were guaranteed. This truth is reflected in Analects of Confucius: “Lord Ai asked You Ruo, a follower of Confucius, ‘In the lean year, the expenditure is so limited. How can I cope?’ Ruo answered, ‘Why not follow the example of the Zhou Dynasty and collect one tenth of the harvest for tax?’ Upon that, Lord Ai said, ‘How can I make ends meet at that tax rate?’ ‘How could the monarch be lacking if the peo-ple are well off? How could the monarch be well supported if the people donot have sufficient?’”(“Yan Yuan,” Analects).
The rights of “people” or “human beings” in traditional Chinese people-based thinking include the collective rights of “the people” and those of individuals. The subjects of those rights include groups as well as individuals, just like the right to de-velopment in the contemporary theory of human rights. The right to development is a collective right of all the people in different countries and a right of individuals that make up the people of a country. Ancient Chinese thinkers generally regarded “people” or “human beings” as a whole in their generalization of the status and interests of the people. Even so, the ultimate goal was to meet the needs of individuals as “people” or “human beings.” The needs of the “people” as a whole can be met only when the needs of the majority of individuals comprising the “people” or “human beings” are met. Otherwise, they cannot be met. From the perspective of the people’s rights to a livelihood, a specifically emphasized issue in ancient China, the rights to be enjoyed by the “people” as a whole are those to be entitled to individuals. In the meantime, when the ancient Chinese thinkers discussed the specific interests and rights of the people, including the right to life, property rights and the assistance for the disabled, they often meant individuals when they spoke of “people” or “human beings.”
In other words, the “people’s” rights embodied in traditional Chinese peo-ple-based thinking are essentially human rights. “People orientation” is consistent with “human orientation,” which is why “people orientation” can be interpreted as “human orientation.”
C. The meaning of Ben in traditional Chinese people-based thinking
To understand the connotations of “people orientation” and “human orientation,” we must clarify the basic meaning of “orientation.” Traditional Chinese culture re-garded mankind as the measure of all things—“Between the heaven and earth, noth-ing is more valuable than human beings.” (“Battle and the Moon,” Sun Bin on the Art of War). “Of all those nurtured by nature, man is the most valuable.” The (Classic of Filial Piety). Here, “valuable” shares the meaning of “orientation.”
From the perspective of human rights, “orientation” in the context of “people orientation” and “human orientation” is a value that involves the roles, statuses, rights and interests of the people. Comrade Mao Zedong argued that “the people and the people alone are the driving force behind the creation of world history,”8 which ex-pounded the concept of “orientation” from the perspective of historical development.
“People orientation” or “human orientation” affirms the position of “the people” or “mankind” as the subject of rights. They carry the meaning of “civil rights” or “human rights” or “people-oriented.” For administrators exercising government with people orientation as the guiding principle and code of conduct, they also carry the meaning of “orientated to the rights of the people” or “orientated at the rights of hu-man beings.”
Ⅲ. The Proposition of Traditional Chinese People-Based Thinking on the Status of the People: As the Foundation of State
The basic assertion about the people’s status in traditional Chinese people-based thinking is that people are the foundation of the country. In the Song of the Five Sons in the Book of Songs, the author observed that “people are the foundation of a country; when the foundation is stable, the country is in peace,” in which people were regarded the foundation of a state. During the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-581), Em-peror Xian of Han, the last emperor of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220), said in the “Prioritizing Farming” section of his book New Theory: “Food and clothing are the sustenance of the people, who in turn are the foundation of the state. Food and cloth-ing are to the people what water is to the fish. And the people are indispensable to the state, just like feet are indispensable to the people. Fish cannot live without water, nor can people walk without feet. Without support from the people, no governance can be achieved.” Wang Anshi, a Prime Minister of the Song Dynasty pointed out that “The people are known to support the state, and never the other way around.” (Collected Works of Wang Anshi: Vol. 2).
Traditional Chinese people-minded thinkers demonstrated the truth of “people as the foundation of a country” from different perspectives and formed various funda-mental concepts, showing the fundamental political status of the people in the country.
A. Sovereignty intended to serve the people
According to records in The Book of Songs: Heavenly Pledge, Part 1, in the Zhou dynasties it was believed that “the heaven nurtured the people, the rulers and the teachers.” Xun Zi made a statement that is more straightforward: “The heaven nurtured people not for serving the ruler; it instated the ruler to benefit the people.” (“Major Strategem”, Xunzi). According to records in “The 13th Year of Lord Wen of Lu” in Master Zuo’s Spring and Autumn Annals, “Lord Wen of Zhu sought divination about moving the capital to Yi. The diviner said that the relocation would be auspi-cious for the people but not for the ruler. The Lord then said, ‘Benefits for the people are in my interest. The heaven nurtures the people and then instated rulers in their benefit. I would never miss a chance to benefit the people.’ His advisors suggested, ‘Isn’t it advisable to follow the divination and stay in the original capital for longevi-ty?’ Lord Wen replied, ‘The meaning of my life lies in supporting the people. Life and death are not of my choice. If moving the capital means benefits for the people, then I shall proceed. Nothing can be more auspicious!’ So, he eventually moved state capital to Yi.” Faced with the divination indicating “contradiction between benefits for the people and woe to the king,” Lord Wen of Zhu resolutely chose to relocate the capital because he believed that “the ruler had been instated for the benefits of the people.” When the interests of the monarch and the people were in conflict, he opted to benefit the people.
Li Gou of the Song Dynasty said, “The ruler is instated by the heaven and sup-ported by the people. The instatement does not spring from preference for the one, but for millions upon millions of people. Rulers with popular support are blessed by heaven and those without are against the will of heaven. The heavenly way does not change its cause, and the people should thus be held in awe. That is the reason for an-cient kings to dedicate themselves to popular peace.”
In the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and the early Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), Huang Zongxi pointed out in “Being a King” in Mingyi Daifang Lu: “In the very be-ginning, all the people were selfish since each had his own interests. Public welfare was left unattended and public nuisance left unaddressed. Then, the benevolent arose. Putting aside personal interests, they sought benefits for the entire world. Ignoring per-sonal banes, they sought to eradicate evils for the people... However, subsequent kings deviated from their cause. They thought themselves fully justified in seeking personal benefits and leaving the undesirable to the people since they were the ones in con-trol… In this way, they became arch evils of the world. Previously when there were no kings, the people were free to pursue their own interests. Alas, is not the scenario against the original intentions for instating kings?” In the passage, Huang compared the kingless era with the era of kings before putting forward the question of “intentions for instating kings.” He believed that those kings that “exploited their advantages for personal gains” were seriously against the principle of “kings for the people.”
From The Book of Songs to Mingyi Daifang Lu, ancient Chinese philosophers be-lieved that the monarch was instated by heaven for the benefit of the people. Since the will of heaven was consistent with public opinion, the monarch was instated accord-ing to popular opinion for popular benefits. This theory is similar to the modern “social contract” in the West. It can be explained in Tan Sitong’s words as: “At the beginning of mankind, there was no monarch or subjects. All were ordinary people. As they had no capacity or means of managing the affairs of others, they elected one of their fel-low people as the king. Thus it can be seen that the king was chosen by the people, not the other way round... Since kings were elected, they could also be overthrown.”9
B. Sovereign power vested by the people
Where does the power of the monarch come from? In ancient China, there was a theory that “sovereign power is vested by heaven.” For instance, Dong Zhongshu said, “The emperor was instated according to heavenly decrees, while the princes were appointed at the order of the emperor.” (“Obedience,” Rich Dews of the Spring and Autumn Period). However, “heaven”, “people” and “deities” were believed to be consistent. The concept of sovereign power from the heaven and deities amounted to sovereign power vested by the people.
In ancient Chinese books, there are abundant records of the ancient sages believ-ing that “heaven” was consistent with “people,” and “people” with “deities.” Just to name a few examples: “Heaven empathizes with the people. It grants them all their wishes. (“Heavenly Pledge, Part 1,” the Book of Songs): “Heaven sees and hears through the people and demonstrates its sanctity through the people.” (“Stratagem of Gao Yao,” the Book of Songs). “The people are the master of deities. So, wise kings see to the needs of the people before committing themselves to a deity.” “The gods are clever, upright and faithful and they act according to the wish of the people.” (“The 32nd year of Lord Zhuang,” Master Zuo’s Spring and Autumn Annals) Look at this story from Collected Stories: Foundation by Liu Xiang: In the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 24), Liu Xiang asked Guan Zhong, “Why kings are held in respect?” Guan Zhong said, “For the sake of heaven.” Lord Huan looked up at the sky. Guan Zhong said, “The so-called heaven is not the vast sky above. For a king, the people are heaven. With popular support, he thrives; without it, he will be lost.” In the East-ern Han Dynasty, Wang Fu said, “The top priority of a king in ruling a country is none other than the achievement of a balance between yin and yang. If heaven’s will is fol-lowed, yin and yang will be in harmony. Otherwise, they will be in conflict. The will of the heaven is dependent on the circumstances of the people. It is supportive when the people are at peace and detrimental when the people are distressed. The people are rallied around the people. When the kingly policies are benign, the people will be har-monious and content. When it is evil, the people will be indignant and wreak havoc.” In the Song Dynasty, Wang Anshi wrote in Complete Works of Wang Anshi (Vol. 62) that “Heaven sees and hears through the people” and “Attainment of heavenly support is tantamount to the attainment of popular endorsement.”
Consistency between the concept of “people” and “heaven” and recognition of “people as the master of deity” are cornerstones supporting the concept of “sovereign power.” They embody the essence of the vestment of sovereignty by the divine or heaven. The interpretation by ancient thinkers of the relationship between “heaven” and “the people” and that between “the people” and “deities” was aimed at demonstrating the relationship between “the king” and “the people” and the proposition of “people as the foundation of state.” “Heaven” does not have an independent will of its own; instead, it reflects the will of the people. The source of sovereign power is the people. If it is not used to the benefit of the people but to betray their interests, it loses its political legitimacy.
C. Restraints on sovereignty for the people
Key elements of traditional Chinese people-centered thought are “people-orienta-tion” and not “sovereignty-orientation.” Its essence lies in “setting restrictions for the king to benefit the people”, that is, pursuing peaceful people, a respected monarch, a secure state and social harmony by regulating the political behavior of the monarch and the people. It upheld the monarchy under the condition that the monarch “be peo-ple oriented.” It is inseparable from “the way of acting as a monarch” and “the way of ruling.”
Since the people-based thinking permeated the codes, laws and institutions of the various dynasties over thousands of years, implementation of those laws and institu-tions served to “set restrictions for the king to benefit the people.” There were differ-ent degrees of restraint over the monarchy in different dynasties. In some dynasties, such as the Song Dynasty, there were greater restrictions on monarchy.10
In addition to the restraints embodied in laws and institutions, limitations were also set by Confucian theory and practice on the monarchy in such non-institutional or non-binding ways as “self-discipline, heavenly condemnation, and remonstrance.” According to traditional Chinese people-based thinking morality was above monarchi-cal power and the monarch should “rule with virtue.” This analogy was an important part of Confucian ethics. In the warnings of “abnormalities and disasters”, the court, intellectuals and civilians attributed solar eclipses, comets and earthquakes and other disasters and abnormalities to heaven’s condemnation of the emperor and requesting the attention of the monarch. Cases of subordinates remonstrating against those rulers who did not act as “accomplished wise emperors” abound in the history books. As a whole, the ancient monarchs were self-disciplined, respectful of the heaven and atten-tive to remonstrance.
In the writings of traditional Chinese people-based thinkers, the thought of “re-straint on the monarch for the benefit of the people” in “Being a King”, “Being a Minister”, and “The Essence of Laws” in Huang Zongxi’s Mingyi Daifang Lu is com-mendable. It contains the implications of “restraining the monarchy with power” and “restricting the monarchy with rights” and the germination of “opposing dictatorship and pursuing the political rights for the people.” Huang Zongxi proposed empowering the prime minister, so that he might “admonish the monarch, who would follow his advice out of awe.” (“Instating Prime Ministers,” Mingyi Daifang Lu). The thought of delegating overly centralized monarch power to the prime minister so that the monarch “might follow out of awe” more or less encapsulated the connotations of the “separation of powers and checks and balances” and “restraint on power with power”. Huang Zongxi proposed turning “schools” into institutions of education and politics, “so that administrative talents were trained in schools. In this way, the objectives for establishing schools will be met... Those affirmed by the emperor were not neces-sarily right, while those negated by him were not necessarily wrong. This way, the emperor dared not exercise judgment alone at the risk of incurring remonstrance from schools”. Huang Zongxi proposed dividing schools into central and local ones. At the central level, “the imperial college” would be established. On the first day of each lunar month, the emperor should pay a visit to the imperial college for comments on his government, together with his courtiers and officials. At the local schools, officials from the prefectures and counties should gather to listen to the comments on govern-ment affairs on the first and fifth of each lunar month. The “schools” were allowed to pass judgment on the emperor because of their right to “freedom of speech”. That can be seen as an approach to “restrict power with rights”.
When the Western democratic thought was introduced to China, it was found to be similar to the people-centered thinking in the Mingyi Daifang Lu.
D. Supremacy of the people over sovereignty
Mencius held that “The people ranked first in importance, followed by the state and the monarch successively” (“Dedication, Part 2”, Mencius). Among the three, the people came foremost. In this regard, Zhu Xi’s explanation was: “The people are the foundation of the state, and the country established for the benefit of the people. In addition, the veneration of the monarch rests with the existence of the people and the state. Hence the ranking” (Collected Annotations on Mencius) Zhu Xi’s reasons are interrelated. First, the state was people-based; second, the existence of “the venerated monarch” rests with the existence of the state and the people.
At the end of the 19th century, Kang Youwei considered the idea of “Supremacy of the People over the Sovereignty” to be “intended for democratic system by Men-cius” in demonstrating his own reform proposals (Vol. 1, Commenst on Mencius). What Kang Youwei said might work, the value orientation of Mencius’s “Supremacy of the People over Sovereignty” is beyond doubt. In fact, the status and role of the people as the foundation of a state could not be inferior to those of the monarch.
E. The country as belonging to the people
In ancient China when “All land under heaven falls within the domain of the Son of Heaven” (“Xiaoya: Beishan”, the Book of Songs), “all under heaven” was usually consistent with a contemporary nation. Since “all those on this land are his subjects”, “all under heaven” sometimes referred to the people. Xun Yue pointed out in his treatise Regime: “The world and the state are one and the same. The king is the head, while the ministers are the limbs and the people are the feet and hands.”
1. The world is the realm of all people
Does the world belong to the people, or to the monarch alone? It is recorded in “Wanzhang, Part 1” in Mencius that “Wan Zhang asked, ‘Is it true that Yao gave the
world to Shun?’ Mencius said, ‘No, the Son of Heaven was in no position to dispose of the world.” ‘In that case, how did Shun come to rule the world?’ ‘Heaven did.’ ‘Heaven and the people may instate one as the king, but the world is not the king’s to be handed over.’ The annotation of Zhu Xi in “Wan Zhang, Part I” of the Collected Annotations to Mencius reads as follows: The world belongs to all the people; it is not private property. Mencius believed that although Yao abdicated and hand over the crown to Shun in line with “heavenly will,” the essence of the “heavenly arrange-ment” consists in “popular support makes the Son of Heaven.” Therefore, the “heav-enly arrangement” was actually a “popular arrangement.”
According to “Being a King” in the Mingyi Daifang Lu by Huang Zongxi: “In ancient times, the world (i.e., the people) was regarded as the master and the monarch as the guest. The monarch dedicated his entire life to pursuit of popular benefit. Now the monarch is also considered the master and the world (i.e., the people) as the guest. All those achieving peace without land are made monarchs. Huang Zongxi’s theory of “the people as the master and the monarch as the guest” vividly showed that the world belonged to the people. The monarch should follow the will of the people.
It is probable that emperors also agreed that the world belonged to the people. Emperor Yang of the Sui Dynasty (581-618) believed that “it is not that the world serves one, but that one manages the world”11 (Annals of Emperor Yang in Book of Sui). During the reign of Empeor Yongzheng in the Qing Dynasty, couplets to the effect were inscribed on a pair of painted red columns in the Hall of Mental Cultiva-tion in the Forbidden City. Admittedly, the people-centered thinking as recognized by the monarch was under the precondition of no interference with the autocratic rule featuring “domination of the world by one man”. “Ancient emperors did not see any contradiction between the exclusiveness of supreme power and the people as the body of politics”.12
2. Everyone having a duty to the country
Gu Yanwu explicitly distinguished between the “kingdom” of the monarchy and the “world” of the people, and highlighted the duty of individuals to the country. He pointed out, “There were conquered countries and a lost world. How should one tell the difference? Changing the imperial clan means conquered countries. When be-nevolence and righteousness were shelved, and the ruler victimized the people into destitute realms, the world would be lost. How could the people lose the world in the Wei and Jin dynasties by impractical discussion? Therefore, when the rites governing personal relationships were lost, the people would become no different from animals, just as Mencius said in criticizing Yang Zhu and Mo Zi”. “Therefore, safeguard of the world precedes defense of the country, which is the duty of the meat eaters, that is, the monarch and his ministers. Safeguard of the world is the duty of all commoners, including the unworthy ones (“Zheng Shi”, Rizhi Lu). The idea of “everyone having a duty to the country” is preconditioned by “the world belonging to the people”.
F. The people shall prevail
1. Popular support
Traditional Chinese people-based thinking cherished popular support, consider-ing it to be the decisive factor for success in government. So, it demanded conformity to the popular will. Guan Zi said, “Policies conforming to popular desires should be advocated and those against popular desires should be abolished”. “Decrees conform-ing to popular will shall prevail” (“Mu Min,” Guanzi). Guan Zhong advocated, “Giv-ing the people what they want and eliminating what they hate.” (Biography of Guan Zhong and Yan Yin in Records of the Grand Historian). Mencius said, “Emperor Jie of the Xia Dynasty and Emperor Zhou of the Shang Dynasty were overthrown because they had lost the favor of the people, that is, they had lost popular support. The way to obtain sovereignty consists in securing the support of the people. The secret to obtain-ing popular support consists in contenting them, which in turn means giving what they want and eliminating what they abominate” (“Li Lou, Part 1”, Mencius). In the early years of the Western Han Dynasty, Liu Anan the Lord of Huainan said, “Law rises from righteousness, which in turn rises from public life. Conformity to popular will is the secret to governance”.
Why should those with popular support win the world? Jia Yi of the Western Han Dynasty demonstrated the point as follows: “Throughout the history of government, the people have always been cherished as the foundation, for the state, for the mon-arch and for officials. A state depends on the people for its security, the monarch for its majesty and the officials for their ranks. Therefore, the people are the cornerstone of all. Throughout the history of government, the people have always been the lifeline for the state, for the monarch and for the officials. To the people, the state owes its existence, the monarch its wisdom and the officials their virtue. Therefore, the people are the lifeline for all. Throughout the history of government, the people have always been the factor of accomplishment for the state, for the monarch and for officials. To the people, the state, the monarch and the officials owe their achievements. Therefore, the people have always been the factor of accomplishment. Throughout the history of government, the people have always been the source of power for the state, for the monarch and for officials. Battles have been won and offensives and defenses success-ful because the people desired so. For this reason, no defense could have succeeded should the people have desired otherwise. Nor could any attack have succeeded if they had desired otherwise. Hence, if the people led to war do not crave victory, no victory can be expected. If they are eager to go into action and thus become unstoppable, the enemy will falter because of fear. This way, victory will be attained. If they are afraid at the moment of engagement, they will disperse and defeat shall follow. Therefore, disaster and bliss are not entirely the result of heavenly arrangement, but the culmina-tion of popular support. (“Macro Government, Part 1”, Xinshu). In this passage, Jia Yi demonstrated the people’s status and role in the state from four aspects, namely as the foundation, lifeline, factor of accomplishment and source of power, showing that “those with popular support will have the power.” Among them, “the foundation” shows the status of the people, and “lifeline”, “factor of accomplishment” and “source of strength” concern the role of the people. Precisely because “people are the foundation of state”, they have the fundamental political status. They are thus the “power” that determines the “destiny,” “meritorious deeds” and victory of the state.
2. Those victimizing the people will invariably be conquered by the people
According to Confucian theory, the monarch and the people have their own duties and should perform their respective duties. If the monarch rules properly and upholds people orientation, the people should perform their duties faithfully, such as abiding by the law, paying taxes, and performing military service to protect their homeland. This “division of monarchy and civilian duties is the political concept of the Chinese”.13 However, if the sovereign exercises tyranny, the people shall have the right to revolt and overthrow him. This is essentially identical to the theory of a social contract. Traditional Chinese people-based thinking admits that the people have the right to oppose tyranny by “rising up.” By recognizing the legitimacy of opposing a tyrant, it in essence recognizes the “revolutionary right” of the people to fight against exploitation and oppression.
The Book of History shows that if the king is proven unworthy, heaven “that al-ways stands by the virtuous” will choose a prince to crusade against him and replace him. That is what is meant by “the heavenly god changes the emperor” in “Decrees” in the Book of History. The Book of Changes described the point in more explicit terms in Tuan Text under Revolution by saying “King Wu of Tang began a revolution according to heavenly and popular will. “Revolution by King Shang of Tang and King Wu of Zhou” (King Tang of Shang and King Wu of Zhou replaced the tyrannical Xia and Shang Regime by force respectively). “According to heavenly and popular will” means that the revolt was legitimate and justifiable.
According to “Lord Ai” in Xun Zii, Confucius said to Lord Ai of Lu, “I have heard that the king is like a boat, while the common people are like water. Water can carry the boat and overturn it. If you think about danger this way, your sense of danger will be enhanced. According to “King Hui of Liang, Part 2” in Mencius, “Mencius said to King Xuan of Qi that ‘Say one of your ministers entrusted his wife and chil-dren to the care of a friend before traveling to the State of Chu, and when he returned, he found his wife and children suffering in cold and hunger. How should he deal with such a friend?’ ‘Abandon him.’ ‘If a general cannot discipline his soldiers, what should be done about him?’ ‘Fire him.’ ‘What if government of the country fails?’ Lord Ai be-came embarrassed and tried to change the topic.” Mencius championed overthrowing tyrannical kings, believing that tyrannicide was not regicide. Instead, the tyrannical king was but an autocrat. He said, “Those undermining benevolence are called thieves and those undermining morality called butchers. I only call the killing of Emperor Zhou of Shang tyrannicide not regicide” (“King Hui of Liang (2)”, Mencius). He also said that “Remonstrance must be made against the monarch for serious mistakes. The monarch turning a deaf ear to repeated remonstrance shall be replaced.” (“Wan Zhang, Part 2,”Mencius) Mencius held that unworthy kings should be replaced or “killed”. It is pointed out in “Fuguo” in Xun Zi that “land taxes should be light, trade taxes equi-table, number of merchants reduced, levies and conscription minimized so as not to interfere with agricultural timing and to enrich the state. This is called enriching the people via policies”. However, the situation is different nowadays. Heavy taxes are imposed on trade to scramble for money. Heavy land levies are exercised to seize the food. Exorbitant taxes are imposed, taking its toll on commercial activities. Nothing comes of any avail. Blackmail, bending the rules for personal gain and giving false accounts have become rampant. The people are all keenly aware of imminent grave danger. Thus ministers might kill their emperor and subordinates slaughter their su-perior. All are busy selling out their cities, corrupting their moral integrity. According to “The Way of Ministers” in Xun Zi, both King Shang of Tang and King Wu of Zhou “were examples of seizing sovereignty to practice morality and righteousness, killing the tyrannical emperor for benevolence and switching position with the emperor so as to uphold justice, achieving immortal feats and benefiting all the people.”
Jia Yi said that “the world is not reserved for one family. It belongs to the virtu-ous” (“Notes on Governance, Part 2”, New Book). Since ancient times, those hold-ing the people in hostility have invariably been defeated by the people, at varying rates.”(“Major Politics, Part 1”, New Book).
It can be seen from the above writings that “popular support makes the monarch” and “doom of all those hostile to the people” are essentially domination of the world by the people and the embodiment of people as the foundation of a state.
The above basic concepts of “instating the monarch for the people,” “sovereign power vested by the people”, “restricting sovereign power for the people”, “suprema-cy of the people over the sovereignty”, “the world belonging to the people”, and “the people shall prevail” are all arguments used by ancient thinkers to demonstrate their assertion of “the people as the foundation of a state.”
The theory of “the people as the foundation of a state” is the basic theory regard-ing the relationship between the state and the people in traditional Chinese culture, be-fore the introduction of Western political theory. Affirming the fundamental political status of the people, it reflects the rational understanding by ancient Chinese intellec-tuals and rulers of the people’s status and role and of the law for social development. It has important theoretical and practical significance. If the people of a country as a whole do not have the fundamental political status, it would be hard for them to uni-versally enjoy due human rights protection both as groups or individuals. Only when the people are attributed status can individual members of the people enjoy due human rights universally. That is actually an issue of the relationship between democracy and human rights.
The theory of “people as the foundation of state” carries connotations of democ-racy. Since the “May 4th” New Culture Movement, scholars who regarding Confucian-ism as the enemy of science and democracy have denied traditional Chinese thought centered on Confucianism. Most of them have drawn on the theory and practice of modern Western democracy to deny the existence of “popular government” in tradi-tional Chinese people-centered thinking. They believe that the thinking was nothing like “democracy”. That logic will probably lead to the conclusion that democracy and human rights have no historical or cultural roots in China. In fact, we believe that although traditional Chinese people-based thinking and people-centered politics did not have a procedural or formal democratic system in the modern Western sense of the term, it has nonetheless achieved certain substantive elements of democracy under the precondition of compatibility with monarchy. It has also slowly evolved towards procedural or formal democracy. Traditional Chinese people-based thinking and peo-ple-centered politics are unique ideological and institutional systems formed under the specific historical conditions in ancient China. They are different from the Western political civilization, showing the diversity of human political civilization. Admittedly, the campaign of opposing despotism and fighting for democracy and human rights in modern China has been affected by Western culture. However, the intrinsic origin or motivation of Chinese culture should be duly credited. Liang Qichao pointed out in History of Pre-Qin Political Thought that, “In essence the most powerful political ideal of our country consists in practicing the philosophy of people as the foundation of the state without undermining the monarchy. Although this ideal cannot be fully realized, it has been so deeply entrenched in the minds of our people as to be invinci-ble despite repeated onslaught by autocracy. Those from Europe and the US saw the sudden establishment of the Republic of China as inexplicable because they had been ignorant of Chinese history”.14
Ⅳ. The Overall Requirements of Traditional Chinese People-Based Thinking on “Governing the Country” and “Government”: Peo-ple-Oriented
“People for the country” is the theoretical basis of the people-based politics and the protection of people’s rights. Proceeding from the basic recognition of “people as the foundation of state”, the ancient people-based thinkers proposed to the admin-istrators that “state governance” and “ruling” should be “people-oriented”. Leafing through the Chinese history books, one finds traces of people-orientation in not only the fundamental organization of the political system and in the political system of all branches of government”. “Nine Categories” in the Book of History and “Nine Clas-sics” in Doctrine of the Mean have both served as the foundation for reform, institu-tionalization and administration. However, they have essentially been adopted because of the people. Ancient rulers had to not only “‘hold the people in awe”, but also “cherish the people”; not only “treasure the people”, but also “achieve peace for the people”; not only “support the people” but also “educate the people.” Analysis of past political systems with these criteria can be illustrated with many examples. For instance, “in-stating remonstrators for the monarchy” and “introducing stringent service rules for officials”. “All those have been based on none other than the people-based thinking”.15 If the policy maker “disregards the people as the foundation” in “ruling the country” and “exercising government”, the people-based thinking will be reduced to empty talk and the politicians will lose the people and consequently their own legitimacy.

A. The basic content of people-oriented administration
There were many expositions on how “state governance” and “ruling” should ac-cord with the principle of “people orientation” by political thinkers in ancient China. Here, “governing by virtue” and “people orientation” are cited as examples.
1. “Governing by virtue”
Traditional Chinese people-based thinking highlights the moral restraint on the ruler. According to “Classic of Yao” in the Book of History, Emperor Yao “can pro-mote great virtue and enhance familial solidarity. With the family in harmony, and the affairs of other ethnic groups understood. After discerning the political affairs of the ethnic groups, he has all nations and kingdoms coordinated. Consequently, people of the world also become friendly and kind.” That constitutes the initial expression of the Confucian idea of upholding morality and “cultivating moral integrity, harmonizing the family, governing the state and bringing peace to the world”. In “Kang’s Decree” in the Book of History, there are such requirements as “upholding virtue and protect-ing the people” and “clarifying virtue and implementing punishment with prudence”. In “Cai Zhong’s Decree” in the Book of History, there is the exhortation that “heaven has no preference; it supports virtue alone”. During the Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period, Confucius believed that “a ruler governing the state with moral principles will rally popular support, in the way the stars surround Polar-is”. (“Government,” Analects). Mencius criticized a ruler’s “failure to share the weal with the people”, saying that, “[The ruler] sharing the weal of the people will have his weal shared by the people. The ruler worrying the worries of the people will have their worries handled by the people. A ruler empathizing with the people cannot fail to achieve government” (“King Hui of Liang, Part 2” in Mencius). Dong Zhongshu of the Western Han Dynasty said, “Therefore that with enough virtue for the people to live in peace will be entitled to heavenly benevolence; that with vice enough to victimize the people will lose heavenly favor” (“No Abdication by Yao and Shun and No Regicide by King Tang of Shang and King Wu of Zhou”, Rich Dews of the Spring and Autumn Period). Therefore, “heavenly support” or “heavenly disgrace” depends entirely on the moral status of the monarch.
Traditional Chinese people-based thinking has high requirements on the individ-ual moral cultivation of the “ruler” and “state governor”. Confucius said, “All will be benevolent, righteous and just like the monarch. With a virtuous monarch, the state will be secure.” (“Yan Yuan,” Analects of Confucius); Xun Zi said, “The monarch is like the benchmark for telling time. If the benchmark is upright, its shadow will also be upright. The monarch is like a plate. If the plate is round, the water in it will also be round. The monarch is like the water pot. If the water pot is square, the water in it will also be square” (“The Way of Kings”, Xun Zi). In short, the monarch should first of all “cultivate virtues and harmonize his family earnestly”. Only after that will he be able to “rule the country and bring peace in the world”. In other words, he has to achieve “inner sainthood” to become “the king”. That is also the origin for the “sage ruler” and “sage edicts”.
The core of “governing by virtue” consists in “benevolent government”, “kind governance” or “virtuous governance” on the part of the monarch and opposing tyr-anny. Traditional people-based thinking holds that “virtue” is superior to sovereign power and that the monarchy’s administration must be bound by morality. The “com-petent and sage monarch” is different from the “incompetent and tyrannical monarch” because he “governs by virtue.” Confucius held that “tyranny was fiercer than a tiger” (“Tan Gong, Part 2”, Book of Rites). Mencius developed the thought of “benevolence” and “governing by virtue” proposed by Confucius and advocated “benevolent gov-ernment” centered on “love for the people”. Mencius told King Hui of Liang, “If your honor could exercise benevolent government, curtail the penalties, reduce taxes and levies, and encourage intensive efforts in farming, the young will cultivate personal virtues in their spare time. Treating their father and brothers with respect at home, and serve their superiors with respect, they can be expected to wield weapons and defeat the well trained army of Qin” (“King Hui of Liang”, Mencius). Wang Anshi said, “Treat them with benevolence and refrain from exacting their food, wealth and strength, and the people will not have to worry about necessities to support their families” (Collected Works of Wang Anshi: Vol. 49).
“Governing by virtue” highlights the political significance of “virtue”, indicating that Confucianism considered virtue more important and effective than law in state governance. The basic approach of government advocated by Confucianism is virtue. For thousands of years in China, “virtue complemented with punishment” was a ba-sic principle for governing the state. Confucianism advocated that politicians should strive for popular support by taking measures in line with the interests of the people and that no coercive legal measure should be taken unless no other alternative was available.
There is a certain connection between “governing by virtue” and the Confucian “differentiation of righteousness and benefit”. “Differentiation of righteousness and benefit” involves the relationship between morality and material benefits. Confucius pointed out, “Gentlemen are rallied for righteousness and villains for benefits” (“Li Ren”, Analects of Confucius). Mencius told King Hui of Liang, “Why should your ex-cellency emphasize benefits, when righteousness suffices?” (“King Hui of Liang, Part 1”, Mencius). “Avaricious rulers” bent on seizing the material benefits of the people “invite banditry, benefit the enemy, lose the state and expose themselves to danger. Wise kings should refrain from their bad examples” (“Kingly Approaches”, Xun Zi). Seen from the relationship between self-discipline in private and state governance as the ruler, a monarch prioritizing righteousness over benefits, cherishing the interests of the people and refraining from contending for benefits against the people, is obviously instrumental for safeguarding the basic rights of the people.
Integrating politics and virtue, “governing by virtue” is an important feature of ancient Chinese politics. In 1773, Herbart — an representative of the French Encyclo-pedia School — pointed out in his book The Social System that “China can be regard-ed as the only country in the world known to combine fundamental laws of politics with morality. This historic empire is undoubtedly sending the message to the rulers that state prosperity must depend on virtue. In its vast land, morality is the only reli-gion of all reasonable people. Subsequent further study of moral science becomes the only secret to attain offices or career in the officialdom.”16 “The appeal for virtue has enabled eternal vitality for people-based thinking.”17
2. “Popular benefit as the starting point”
“In state governance, one thing is constant, and that is upholding popular benefit as the starting point” (“Interpretation of Silun,” Huainanzi). “Benefiting the people” means doing things for the benefit of the people and refraining from harming them. “Benefiting the people” may carry the connotations of loving the people, supporting the people, benefiting the people, enriching the people, achieving peace for the people, protecting the people, entertaining the people and educating the people. The monarchs of ancient China had long realized “only by protecting the people can the throne be handed down forever” (“Zicai,” Book of History). Confucius pointed out, “In state governance of the past, loving the people is foremost.” (“Lord Ai Seeking Advice on Government,” Book of Rites). Mencius believed that the “throne attained through pro-tecting the people is invincible” (“King Hui of Liang, Part 1,”Mencius). Mo Di said, “Ancient emperors had acceded to the throne and managed the princes because they loved the people and benefited them” (“Jieyong”, Mozi). Jia Yi pointed out, “those in the ruling position take rich and happy people as meritorious and impoverished people as shameful” (“Major Politics, Part 1,”New Book).
(1) Governing by inaction. “Governing by inaction” does not mean ruling without doing anything. Instead, it means avoiding meaningless governance. Confucius said, “Is not Shun a paragon of governance by inaction? What else did he do except sitting in propriety towards the south?” (“Duke Ling of Wei,” Analects of Confucius). Xun Kuang said, “The way of the benevolent features inaction and that of the sage avoids imposition.” (“Jiebi,” Xunzi). Laozi requested inaction on the part of the monarch, “at no time in the world will a man who is sane over-reach himself, over-spend himself, over-rate himself” (Chapter 29, Laozii). Concrete measures to achieve “governance by inaction” include being thrifty, approaching war with caution, reducing taxes and levies and relax penalties.” To achieve “rule by inaction,” the ruler should follow the laws of nature, reduce the interference with people’s production and life, and reduce the burden on them.
(2) Sustaining the people and pursuing peace for them. Traditional Chinese peo-ple-based thinking advocates “sustaining the people through farming.” According to “Stratagem of Yu the Great” in Book of History, Yu the Great said, “The greatest virtue is kind government, which consists in sustaining the people”. Fan Zhongyan in the Song Dynasty said in Memorials for Ten Issues, “The virtue of the saint consists in benevolent governance, which in turn rests with sustaining the people. In promoting people-based government, the people should be encouraged to take to farming first. With favorable agricultural policies, the people will not suffer from want in food or clothing. Then they will cherish their body and shirk penalties. And theft and robbery will naturally disappear, and chaos be eradicated. Therefore, under the rule of saints, chaos was eradicated by benevolent governance and popular acculturation nurtured by farming”.
Under the influence of the traditional people-based thinking, many emperors ad-opted careful timing in enlisting the service of the people, levied taxes on the people with moderation and took non-interference with agricultural power as the way of state governance. “Burning the forest and netting birds,” “exhausting the ponds for fishing” and other insatiable “tyrannical policies” were avoided, so that the people could recu-perate, live and work in peace. According to “Quanxiu” in Guan Zi, “If the degree is properly controlled in taking from the people and enlisting their service, even a small country can be secure. Otherwise, even a major power will be in danger.” In Ana-lects of Confucius, Mencius and other Confucian classics, there are demonstrations of “choose the timing for enlisting the service of the people,” “exercise discretion in taking from the people” and “reduce conscript labor and taxes.” When admonishing emperors, Xunzi said, “If the commoners are afraid of the government, the throne will not be secure… it is more advisable to benefit the people than to terrorize them. Choose the virtuous and competent, elect the dutiful, highlight the filial, support the orphans and widows, and help the poor, so that ordinary people will be content and the throne secure. Historically there is the saying, ‘The monarch is like the boat and the people are like water. The water can carry the boat and overturn it.’ That is a co-gent simile. Therefore, nothing befits a monarch more than benevolent government and love for the people” (“Kingly System,” Xunzi).
(3) Enriching the People and Educating the People. According to “State Gov-ernance” in Guanzi, “A competent ruler enriches the people first and then exercises government.” The chapter “Mu Min” of the same book holds that, “Etiquette springs from well-stocked warehouses and a sense of honor rises from sufficient supply of daily necessities.” According to Zi Lu in Analects of Confucius, Confucius believed that enriching the people must be the first step in state governance and that the people should be educated after they are enriched. He advocated preceding utilization with benefit, education with enrichment and penalties with virtues. Only when people’s livelihoods ceased to be a problem could education and government decrees be ex-pected to work.18 Xun Zi said, “Popular sentiment could not be nurtured without en-richment; nor is popular rationality possible without education. Allocate five acres of housing land and 100 acres of farmland to each household, encourage them to pursue their line of trade without interfering with agricultural timing, and the people will be enriched. Establishing imperial colleges and local schools, highlighting six proprieties and encouraging education in ten aspects are approaches intended to guide the people. According to the Book of Songs, “Feed them and teach them, and then the imperial cause is about to succeed.” (“Major Stratagem,” Xunzi). In ancient China, “enriching the people” meant guaranteeing the basic material needs of the people. “Educating the people” was mainly aimed at raising their moral standards through education, so that they may know proprieties and honors. From the perspective of political practice in ancient China, the monarchs did adopt the Confucian proposition of “enrichment before education,” that is, prioritizing the material needs over moral or etiquette edu-cation aimed at solving problems at the intellectual level.
The US scholar Stephen C. Angle pointed out that although it was impossible to find the term “rights” in the Analects of Confucius, “the humanistic ideal consistent with the ideal expressed in generalized terms in Universal Declaration of Human Rights could be found in some of the text on people orientation.19 Human rights impli-cations can also be found in assertions by other humanistic thinkers other than Con-fucius.
B. People-oriented administration promoted the protection of human rights in ancient China
The people-centered policy weakened the autocratic system. Chen Guyuan point-ed out, “The democratic system was instated in China since the Republic of China. Seen from the history of thousands of years, it was the evolution of divine power and monarchy. However, it was divine power rather than witch politics, and monarchy rather than dictatorship. The reason was that a tremendous flow of people-oriented ideology in politics had washed away the potential harms of actual politics, making it different from the divine right or monarchy of other ethnic groups.20 Regarding this distinction, Hu Qiuyuan pointed out that without religion, China’s despotism was domesticated by Confucianism. Under the condition of reunification, it became re-stricted despotism. The Chinese emperor was no better than his Eurasian counterparts. However, since China did not have the Roman theory of “emperor’s will as the source of law,” or the British theory of “the divine right of the monarch,” the emperor of China never dared to claim to be “synonymous with the state” as the French emperor Louis XIV did. Therefore, although China was an autocratic state, it was much milder than its Eurasian counterparts.21 The assertion was held true by historian Jin Yaoji. He believed that “it wouldn’t be a grave mistake to say that the main spirit and contribu-tion of the Confucian political thought is people orientation. The reason is that since the Qin and Han dynasties, the authoritarian situation of a monarch had always been strongly influenced by people-based thinking, which alleviated the harms of autocra-cy.22 It can be concluded that the traditional Chinese people-based thinking reduced the disadvantages of monarchy in endangering the people and infringing upon human rights.
Some scholars pointed out that the traditional Chinese people-based thinking was “a wise and ambitious monarch-based theory”,23 a kind of statecraft, a suggestion for rulers to govern the people and a way to manage the people, to make them ignorant, submissive and controllable. Others hold that in ancient times, the rulers approached “people orientation” in a manner different from people-based thinkers. What the rulers meant was essentially “people as the foundation of monarchy,” not “the foundation of state.” Such analysis may make sense, but it cannot negate the historical status and contemporary value of the traditional people-based thinking. Even if the monarchs advocated “people-orientation” for emphasis on the “monarch as the foundation of the state” or for the purpose of safeguarding the monarchy, they had actually promoted the status of people as the foundation of state, so long as objectively measures had been taken. The traditional Chinese people-based thinking is compatible with the monar-chy. In ancient times, it was hard to find a better alternative to “people orientation” or “state governance” and “administration.” Being objectively people-oriented, the peo-ple-based thinking and the people-based politics should not be negated because of the ancients’ motives. It deserves recognition since there were “people-oriented” facts.
Traditional Chinese people-based thinking nurtured wise emperors, competent ministers and local officials who benefited the regions under their jurisdiction. During the reign of Emperor Kangxi in the Qing dynasty, Gao Yiyong, the governor of Neix-iang county, Henan province, wrote a couplet for Sansheng Hall, the county hall. It says to the effect that “Gaining office does not entail honor, nor losing it dishonor; no office is useless, since the entire region depends on it. Supported by the people in dai-ly necessities, officials should refrain from thinking of the people as targets for bully-ing, since they are your kin”. In the reign of Emperor Qianlong, Zheng Banqiao wrote a poem in his tenure as the magistrate of Weixian county, Shandong province. It reads, “Lying in my official residence I heard rustling bamboo outside; I suspected that it was the murmur of the suffering masses; for grass-root officials like me, the slightest detail concerning the popular benefit matters”.24 This couplet and poem both exude the people-oriented spirit. The records of sage emperors and ministers in Chinese history books and local annals present a brilliant picture of people-centered politics in ancient China.
“People orientation” was the guiding principle used by the rulers of ancient Chi-na to govern the state and bring peace to the country. By implementing people-orient-ed policies, they reduced the disadvantages of the autocratic system and promoted the protection of fundamental human rights.
Ⅴ. The Contemporary Influences of Traditional Chinese Peo-ple-Based Thinking
A. The contemporary interpretation of “people as the foundation of a state”
Popular will is underpinned with considerable strength. The feat of the Commu-nist Party of China leading the Chinese people to become independent, rich and pow-erful by joining hands with the people is a vivid interpretation of the truthfulness of “people as the foundation of a state.”
The victory of the Chinese democratic revolution and the birth of New China are the victory of the Chinese people’s revolution. In 1945, Chairman Mao mentioned in his article titled the “Old Fool who Moves the Mountain” about the overthrowing of two big mountains—imperialism and feudalism. Mao said, “the Chinese Communists have long resolved to move those two mountains. We must persevere and continue to work. Eventually, our efforts will touch our god, who is none other than the Chinese people. When the people of the whole country join us in excavating these two moun-tains, how can there be much difficulty”?25 The founding of New China indicated that the Chinese people were on their feet.
The successful practice of China’s reform and opening-up and poverty alleviation for prosperity is inseparable from popular support. In 1985, Deng Xiaoping pointed out in a talk about the comprehensive reform of the economic system: “We must seize the current favourable opportunity for unswerving and bold exploration. Meanwhile, we must discover problems and solve them in time, and strive to bring about reform within a relatively short period of time. I believe that whatever concerning the fun-damental interest of the greatest majority of the people and with support of the broad masses will always succeed however great the difficulties on the road ahead”. 26 In a 1989 talk, Deng Xiaoping pointed out that “The people want to see the actual re-sults”.27 In 1992, Deng Xiaoping said in his “southern tour talk” that, “The people pass judgment on the practical situation. When they see that socialism is advantageous and that the reform and opening-up is beneficial, our cause will last forever.”28 Those expositions of Deng Xiaoping are a full affirmation of the status of the masses as the subject of history and a cogent explanation of “those in popular favor win the world.” Those who “actually think of the broad masses of people as gangsters will inevita-bly lose confidence in socialism as the historical choice of the masses, nor can they genuinely feel the need to respect, believe in and depend on the masses.” “In short, it can be said that the understanding of the principles and values of socialism is actually one of roles of the people ... The key here consists in understanding and grasping the status of the masses as the subject of history... Socialism can only be a product of the unity of historical necessity and the value choice of the people... Without such an un-derstanding and consensus, it is impossible to truly embrace Deng Xiaoping Theory. Nor is it possible to consciously grasp the direction of socialism with Chinese charac-teristics.”29
In his speeches, Xi Jinping has carried forward the traditional Chinese peo-ple-based thinking. He said that “The people are the greatest political power and jus-tice is the most powerful force. Just as the saying goes, “How should governance be achieved in the world? With popular support! How can chaos reign in the world? By loss of popular support”.30 “The longing of the people for a better life is the objective of our struggle”.31 “Upholding the mass line entails embracing the ideal of the people as the fundamental force determining our destiny and outlook”. “Policies conforming to popular desires should be advocated and those against popular desires should be abolished”. “Serving the people wholeheartedly is the starting point and aim of all actions by our party”.32 “Respecting the status of the people as the mainstay and en-suring that they are the masters of the country have been the consistent argument of our party”.33 We must “uphold as the fundamental criteria the support, approval and satisfaction of the people for all our work”, “so that our party will always have an inexhaustible source of strength”.34 Xi Jinping also pointed out that “There is an old saying in China, ‘Those with popular support win the world’. So, how should Chinese Communists win popular support? Integrity and wholehearted service for the people! This is a truth that has been proven by both the revolution and socialist construction”.35
The people’s support has been the foundation for the Communist Party of Chi-na’s governance. At present, upholding the organic unity of the party’s leadership and the people as masters of the country and governing the country according to law are the inevitable requirement for the development of a socialist democracy and a reliable guarantee for the development of human rights in China.
B. Contemporary sublimation of traditional people-based government
The ancient “people-oriented” administrative tradition has important contempo-rary values. In 2016, Xi Jinping pointed out in his keynote speech at the APEC CEO Meeting in Lima, “As an ancient Chinese saying goes, ‘Bringing benefit to the people is the fundamental principle of governance’. There is also a Peruvian saying, “The voice of the people is the voice of God’… We will intensify our crucial fight against poverty so that by 2020, all of the 55.75 million people in rural China living under the current poverty line will be lifted out of poverty. We will redouble efforts to build a healthy China by providing our people with full life-cycle health services. Clear rivers and green mountains are as valuable as mountains of gold and silver. We will continue to pursue the strategy of sustainable development, promote green, low-carbon and cir-cular development, and build a beautiful China with blue skies, green land and clear rivers so that our people can live in a sound environment created by development.” The current efforts of the Chinese government mentioned by President Xi in the “crucial fight against poverty”, “construction of a healthy China” and “the people living in a sound environment created by development” are all important human rights issues encapsulating the tradition of “governing by virtue” and “benefiting the people as the foundation”.
Only by winning the “crucial fight against poverty” can we guarantee the “right to a moderately well off living” for the poor. “China’s poverty reduction activities cover a wide range of areas, including constructing rural agricultural infrastructure, improving the income level of the poor, as well as providing public services like so-cial security, healthcare, education and culture. While ensuring full protection of the economic, social and cultural rights of the poor, those poverty relief measures also create conditions for further protecting other human rights. China’s commitment to eradicating poverty among the rural underprivileged by 2020 will be both a necessary condition for building a moderately well-off society in an all-round way and a major step forward in implementing the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Devel-opment, reflecting China’s historical duties as a responsible major country”.36
“To Build a Healthy China” will greatly promote the full realization of the Chi-nese people’s right to health. For a long time, the Chinese government has adopted the principle of “fair and inclusive benefit,” “insisting on universal coverage of health services and medical insurance, focusing on rural areas and grassroots units, gradually narrowing the differences in health level between urban and rural areas, regions and different populations, and ensuring basic public health service equalization.” The av-erage life expectancy in China increased from 35 years in the early days of New China to 76.5 years in 2016. In order to better protect the people’s right to health, China has formulated and implemented a series of plans such as Essentials of the Healthy China 2030 Plan and National Fitness Program (2016-2020). The goal of building a healthy China is suited to the status of China as a modern socialist country by 2050.
The rapid economic development in China gave rise to the unfavorable situation of the ecological environment continually deteriorating. Only by realizing sustain-able development without harming the environment can “the people live in a sound environment created by development.” The Chinese government in implementing the concept of green development and has focused on handling outstanding environmen-tal issues, and actively exploring the path of creating an ecological civilization with Chinese characteristics. China has initially established a mechanism for litigations involving environmental public interests. China’s ecological environment quality has witnessed continued improvement, with a favorable cycle of ecological benefits. The environmental rights of the Chinese people will be more effectively protected.
“People- oriented” administrative tradition formed in ancient China has been sublimated in contemporary China, demonstrating the harmony between traditional cultural resources and contemporary political values, showing major features of the history and reality of Chinese human rights and indicating the bright future of human rights theory and path with Chinese characteristics.
The time-honored traditional Chinese people-based thinking has rich implica-tions for human rights. It is an important cultural gene that enables the vitality of the Chinese political civilization. Affirming the fundamental political status of the people, it requires “people-oriented” administration on the part of the ruler. Its encapsulation of the theoretical foundation and basic requirements for the protection of human rights has promoted the protection of people’s livelihoods and civil rights in ancient China. It has been sublimated in contemporary China and can be expected to exert a far-reach-ing impact on the development of human rights in China.

* ZHAO Jianwen ( 赵建文 ), researcher at the Institute of International Law of Chinese Academy of Social Sci-ences (CASS).
1. Chen Guyuan, “The People-based Thinking in the History of the Chinese Political System,” in Chinese Cul-ture and Chinese Legal System—Collected Thesis of Chen Guyuan on the History of Law, ed. Fan Zhongxin (Beijing: China University of Political Science and Law Press, 2006), 410.
2. Liu Hanjun, Cherishing People as the Foundation (Beijing: People’s Publishing House, 2016), 283.
3. Ibid., 277, 337.
4. Xi Jinping, “Speech at the Forum on Literature and Art Work,” People’s Daily, October 15, 2015.
5. Editorial Department of the People’s Daily, Allusions Cited by Xi Jinping (Beijing: People’s Daily Press, 2005), 1-2.
6. Zhang Huanwen, “Traditional Chinese Culture and Human Rights,” in Human Rights in the World , ed. Xia Xudong, Ma Shengli and Duan Qizeng (Beijing: Current Affairs Press, 1993), 205.
7. Hu Jintao, Selected Works of Hu Jintao, vol. 2 (Beijing: People’s Publishing House, 2016), 438.
8. Mao Zedong, Selected Works of Mao Zedong, vol. 3 (Beijing: People’s Publishing House, 1991), 1031.
9. Tan Sitong, Benevolence—Collected Works of Tan Sitong, (Shenyang: Liaoning People’s Publishing House, 1994), 73.
10. Cheng Minsheng, “Restraint of Scholar-Bureaucrat Politics on Sovereignty Power in the Song Dynasty,” Journal of Henan University (Social Science) 3 (1999).
11. Cui Xiangdong et al. Monarchy and Society-- Studies of Traditional Chinese Politics and Culture (Wuhan: Chongwen Press, 2005), 52.
12. Lin Hong, “The Historical Logic and Modern Values of the People-Based Thinking,” Journal of Renmin Uni-versity of China 3 (2017).
13. JinYaoji, The History of People-Based Thinking in China (Beijing: Law Press China, 2008), 12.
14. Liang Qichao, History of Pre-Qin Political Thought (Tianjin: Tianjin Ancient Books Publishing House, 2003), 7.
15. Ibid., 408.
16. Zhu Qianzhi, The Impact of Chinese Philosophy on Europe (Shi Jiazhuang: Hebei People’s Publishing House, 1999), 278.
17. Li Tianli, Study on Ancient People-Based Ethics (Beijing: Chinese Social Science Press, 2016), 226.
18. Zhang Fentian, People-Based Thinking and Ancient Chinese Ruling Concepts (Tianjin: Nankai University Press, 2009), 484.
19. Stephen C. Angle, Human Rights and Chinese Thought: A Cross-Cultural Inquiry, trans. Huang Jinrong and Huang Bin (Beijing: Remin University of China Press, 2012), 25.
20. Ibid., 407.
21. Xia Yong, “People Orientation and Civil Rights—Historical Basis of the Chinese Rights Discourse,” China Social Sciences 5 (2000): 11. Xi Jinping, “Speech at the Forum on Literature and Art Work.”
22. Liang Qichao, History of Pre-Qin Political Thought, 2.
23. Feng Tianyu, On Human Rights (Wuhan: Wuhan Publishing House, 1997), 279.
24. Editorial Department of the People’s Daily, Allusions Cited by Xi Jinping, 7.
25. Mao Zedong, Selected Works of Mao Zedong, vol. 3 (Beijing: People’s Publishing House, 1991), 1102.
26. Deng Xiaoping, Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping, vol. 3 (Beijing: People’s Publishing House, 1993), 142.
27. Ibid., 296.
28. Ibid., 381.
29. Li Deshun, Study on Deng Xiaoping’s Thought on the Value of the People as the Subject (Beijing: Beijing Press, 2004), 86-88.
30. Xi Jinping, “Speech at the Sixth Plenary Session of the 18th CPC Central Commission for Discipline Inspec-tion,” People’s Daily, May 3, 2016.
31. Party History Research Center of the CPC Central Committee, “Memorabilia of the Party since the 18th CPC National Congress”, People’s Daily, October 16, 2017.
32. Xi Jinping, “Speech at the Symposium to Commemorate the 120th Anniversary of Comrade Mao Zedong’s Birthday”, People’s Daily, December 27, 2013.
33. Xi Jinping, “Speech at the General Assembly Celebrating the 95th Anniversary of the Founding of the Chi-nese Communist Party,” People’s Daily, July 2, 2016.
34. Xi Jinping, “Speech at the Symposium to Commemorate the 130th Anniversary of Comrade Zhu De,” Peo-ple’s Daily, November 30, 2016.
35. Xi Jinping, Getting Rid of Poverty (Fuzhou: Fujian People’s Publishing House, 2014), 26.
36. Information Office of the State Council, “Progress in Poverty Alleviation and Human Rights in China,” Peo-ple’s Daily, October 18, 2016.
(Translated by QIAN Chuijun)
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