A Defense of the Right to Life and Health and the Thoughts on Human Rights
October 14,2020   By:CSHRS
A Defense of the Right to Life and Health and the Thoughts on Human Rights
— Six notes on the Human rights During the Fight Against COVID-19 pandemic
LI Junru *

The COVID-19 pandemic, a crisis never seen before in human history, took the world by surprise, and pandemic prevention and control measures therefore become a common feature of the social and political lives of all countries, including China. Obviously, prevention and control of the pandemic is a public health issue, yet it is more than just a public health issue as it also involves state governance, diplomacy, and values, particularly human rights. The fight against COVID-19 is an extraordinary war in defense of the right to life and health, and also offers an opportunity for us to further think about, study, improve and develop human rights thought. During the battle against COVID-19, I wrote some notes on human rights that I wanted to keep for my studies. I decide to publish six of these notes in hopes of promoting discussion on the development of human rights thoughts.

I. The COVID-19 Fight Demonstrates China’s Superior Thoughts on Human Rights

The novel coronavirus ravaged Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province, and threw China into a major crisis. China’s guiding thought on fighting the outbreak has been clear and definite — people’s lives and health come first, 1 an important instruction given by General Secretary Xi Jinping that means people’s right to life and health should be put before any other rights. From the human rights perspective, China’s war against the pandemic is an extraordinary war in defense of the right to life and the right to health.

The Chinese people have been united in their resolve to prevent and control the pandemic, all decisions and measures adopted by the Communist Party of China and the Chinese government, including “hospitalizing and treating all suspected and confirmed cases” in the middle stage and “preventing imported cases and an epidemic relapse at home” in the later stage, demonstrated this important thought on human rights. There are plenty of examples: When cases of “pneumonia of unknown cause” were first detected, China not only organized experts to determine what the pathogen was, but also whether there was “human-to-human transmission.”

— To prevent the spread of novel coronavirus in Wuhan, Hubei and the whole country, China resolutely decided to “lock down” Wuhan, a city of over 10 million residents, while isolation measures were adopted in all communities both in Wuhan and nationwide for joint prevention and control.

— In view of the dire situation that Wuhan and Hubei province were running short of medical supplies and many local medical workers were themselves infected, patients couldn’t be diagnosed and treated in a timely manner, and people’s lives were at great risk, the CPC and the national government immediately mobilized more than 40,000 military as well as medical personnel and experts in other parts of the country to help the city and the province.

— To mitigate the serious shortage of medical supplies such as masks, protective suits and ventilators across the country, particularly in Wuhan and Hubei, and so protect the lives and safety of medical workers and people nationwide, China mobilized relevant enterprises to work extra hours to produce those materials while urging other enterprises to switch production to those materials immediately.

— To ease the strain on hospitals and sickbeds, treat confirmed and suspected cases separately and save more lives, China resolutely decided to build the Huoshenshan and Leishenshan hospitals in the shortest time with the highest speed and build a batch of cabin hospitals based on the idea of military field hospitals.

— Knowing that medical workers worked tirelessly around the clock to fight the virus and treat the patients, the whole country, from central authorities to local Party organizations and governments, expressed gratitude and support to these “white angels” in various forms, caring about their health and their families and helping them overcome their difficulties.

— To ensure the living necessities for residents in quarantine, community workers and volunteers not only made door-to-door visits, but also provided various services to ensure their normal life.

— When China was at the height of the COVID-19 battle, the State Council Information Office organized media briefings every day to keep the Chinese and foreign media updated and so ensure that people had authoritative information.

— Regarding issues people were generally concerned with and public complaints and tips, China organized relevant departments to investigate and verify facts in a timely manner and report the results in an open and transparent way.

— On the basis of investigation and verification, the discipline inspection and supervision departments punished officials committing formalism, bureaucracy and failure to fulfill their duties, and not taking the situation seriously.

The list goes on. The decisions or measures in at least the aforementioned ten aspects revealed an underlying guiding thought — the human rights thought of putting people’s rights to life and health first.

It is not by accident that we are able to consistently and comprehensively implement this thought. First, the CPC is armed with historical materialism, so it understands that “the primary precondition for the whole of human history is without any doubt the existence of living human beings.” 2 Second, the CPC’s fundamental tenet is to serve the people whole-heartedly, so it adheres to the philosophy of human-centric development in the new era of socialism with Chinese characteristics, and understands that life and health are the immediate interests of every resident. Third, the CPC has inherited the fine cultural traditions of the Chinese nation, so it values human life greatly as it understands that “people are the basis of a state” and “human life is paramount”.

What’s really valuable is that this human rights thought has been extensively recognized by the 1.4 billion Chinese people during this major test of the pandemic. On balance, it is by relying on the firm leadership of the CPC Central Committee with Xi Jinping at the core, on the superior socialist system with Chinese characteristics and state governance system, and on the solidarity and synergy of 1.4 billion Chinese people that we have successfully brought the pandemic under control within such a short time before a vaccine was developed. Regarding human rights, it’s safe to say that the Chinese people’s war against COVID-19 has eloquently proven the superiority of China’s thoughts on human rights.

II. The COVID-19 Fight Offers a Testing Field for the Study of Human Rights Thought

The war in defense of people’s right to life and health is a test to the human rights thought of China and all other countries.

Unlike a natural science experiment conducted in an environment established to avoid interference. Social activities involve thinking and passionate people, including groups with differing views, so it’s very difficult to reveal the laws of social activities. The fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, is not a life-or-death struggle between man and man, but one between man and the novel coronavirus. A medical worker who went to Wuhan to help fight the pandemic said, “this disease has completely overturned our past clinical experience and medical expertise. It’s like you are defeated by an enemy before even seeing his face.” People and the virus are the opposing parties in this war, which is a more objective environment to study human rights.

“Everyone is equal in front of the virus.” This not only reminds us that human beings live in a community with a shared future, but also that the ultimate goal of respecting and protecting human rights is respecting and protecting people. The COVID-19 pandemic has provided a social testing field for us to study human rights where we can carefully observe and deeply study human rights issues and thought during the prevention and control efforts. Compared with World War II, the pandemic is a more suitable event to open our eyes to why we should respect and guarantee human rights and what the basic human rights really are.

From China’s nationwide prevention and control efforts to the support it has extended to countries around the world, members of the international community have spoken highly of China’s role in fighting this global crisis. However, voices doubting China’s human rights practice have been continually heard. During this test of human rights thought, we should not keep such voices away from the testing field and form a vacuum like in a natural science experiment, as they may lead us to the fatal defects in human rights thought. When the novel coronavirus first broke out, some people, instead of rallying to fight this common enemy, stabbed the Chinese people in the back while they were doing their best to grapple with the virus. From the lockdown of Wuhan to the prevention and control measures in all communities in the country and the fast construction of Huoshenshan and Leishenshan hospitals, China scored a phased victory in controlling the virus within a relatively short period of time. But every step of the way, there were people smearing the human rights situation in the country. They called China the “real sick man of Asia”, made all kinds of stigmatizing remarks, and churned out such absurd conspiracy theories.

The world is so big and complicated that some absurdities and fallacies are not unusual. But what’s certain is that the novel coronavirus won’t show any leniency to those people who don’t fight it hard. Rather, it prompts us to think much deeper than ever about what human rights mean and how to fundamentally respect and guarantee them. Human rights thought has matured through disasters, and we must use the COVID-19 pandemic to further mature human rights thought. Otherwise, we will betray the heroes that have made tremendous contributions and sacrifices in the fight against the pandemic.

III. A Fatal Flaw — a Choice between Right to Life and Right to Liberty

While fighting COVID-19, should we put people’s life safety and health first, or should we put personal liberty first as advocated by the traditional liberalist outlook on human rights? This is a question that countries have grappled with when making decisions on battling the virus. The long-standing disputes in the field of human rights and the underlying ideological and theoretical divergences are thus presented to us in the most direct and acute way.

Putting people’s life and health first has been the guiding thought for China’s anti-epidemic efforts, under which the CPC and Chinese government have resolutely adopted a series of substantial measures that shocked the world. Two measures were the most conspicuous, locking down Wuhan, a city with over 10 million residents, and carrying out community isolation and quarantine measures for joint prevention and control both in Wuhan and in every other city and town across the country. Chinese experts on infectious diseases pointed out that the best way to curb the spread of infectious disease is cutting off the source and path of transmission by isolating people. This is pure science and a move that protects human rights. Sending large amounts of medical workers to treat and save patients is protecting people’s right to life and health, so is isolating those infected. But some people have continually accused China of violating citizens’ right to free movement on the excuse of such measures. Here comes the question then, when a deadly pathogen such as the novel coronavirus is playing havoc with the human world, should we put people’s rights to life and health or their right to liberty first? The answer given by the CPC and the Chinese government was that guaranteeing and safeguarding people’s right to life and health should come first, which has proven to be the right choice.

Studies by experts indicated there would be a high mortality rate among those infected with the novel coronavirus if rigorous isolation measures were not adopted in communities at the onset of the outbreak. Even developed Western countries with more developed economy and better medical facilities than China have fallen prey to the virus if they didn’t take steps to cut off its transmission. Why were they reluctant to adopt resolute isolation measures like China did? This involves many factors, such as the perception of the coronavirus’ hazard (taking it as a kind of flu), the partisan entanglement in bi-party or multi-party system, and economic interests as well as the capitalist forces behind them. Of all these factors, the most deep-rooted one is liberalist values, including liberalist outlook on human rights, which played a significant role in the decision-making of Western countries on COVID-19 response.

Classical liberalism has a long history and played a positive role in opposing feudal autocracy. Although this thought has split into different schools in its long course of development due to the doubts of communitarianists and the competition from socialist outlook on human rights, its essential idea remains unchanged, which is the right to personal liberty. In the eyes of Western countries, individualism is the starting point for human rights and the cornerstone supporting other rights, and anything that obstructs personal interests and limits free action is a violation of human rights. During the fight against COVID-19, there have been heated debates in many Western countries, including within their leaderships, about whether people should wear masks, something that has gone without saying in China, because of the belief that such an order violates the right to personal liberty. But the consequence of their arguments and indecision was sharp rises in the number of infections and deaths. Putting personal liberty above human life is the fatal flaw of the liberalist outlook on human rights, or in other words, the liberalist outlook on human rights can be “fatal”.

IV. A Dialectical Understanding of People’s Right to Life and Health

Putting people’s right to life and health first was an important experience in China’s successful fight against the virus. Armed with dialectical materialism, we understand the laws of social development and the complexity of social problems. When studying the thought on human rights, we should also view people’s right to life and health dialectically.

When we talk about people’s right to life and health, the “people” is both singular and plural. When singular, it refers to each individual. If respecting and protecting people’s right to life and health is interpreted as each individual respecting and protecting his or her own right to life and health, who is to take up the obligation when other people need to be protected and saved? Obviously, we should respect and protect the right to life and health of both ourselves and others. Therefore, the “people’s right to life and health” should be construed in the plural sense including you, me and everyone. Each individual is a part of the “people”, so respecting and protecting people’s right to life and health is respecting and protecting the right to life and health of every one of us. Meanwhile, each individual is obligated to respect and protect others and the whole people’s right to life and health and, under certain circumstances, should be prepared to sacrifice his or her liberty or even life to save and protect the public right to life and health. The military and local medical workers rushing to help Wuhan were called “heroes in harm’s way” because they headed toward the epicenter after it was put on lockdown at huge risk of infection. In fact, apart from these medical workers, the local medical workers in Wuhan and Hubei as well as those fighting on the front line against the coronavirus all across the country were also “heroes in harm’s way” because they were in close contact with the virus every day at the risk of their lives.

These heroes’ right to life and health should be particularly respected and protected. They were ready to sacrifice themselves to save the patients, but we couldn’t let them sacrifice, and respectfully wished them peace and luck throughout the anti-virus battle. A report by Shanghai-based Jiefang Daily revealed some noteworthy details. Zheng Junhua, head of the first medical team assigned by Shanghai to help Hubei fight coronavirus, said, “while we were working in Wuhan, leaders of the CPC Shanghai Municipal Committee and Shanghai government communicated with us regularly via video link and inquired in great detail about progress in medical work, medical supplies and logistics services, and our everyday life.” Ma Xin, vice president of Shanghai Huashan Hospital, said, “We were away from home for a long time, but it felt like we never left home. We had no worries fighting on the front line in Wuhan thanks to the strong support given by the CPC Shanghai Municipal Committee and Shanghai government. They made the best arrangements for our families, so we could be focused on fighting the virus.” Hu Weiguo, vice president of Shanghai Ruijin Hospital, said that, “when we arrived in Wuhan, the city looked fast asleep. What we were faced with was insufficient medical equipment and supplies and a lot of serious and critically ill patients.” In the most difficult period when we were least confident, it was the CPC Shanghai Municipal Committee and Shanghai government that guided and cared about us through the front line command. When we were worried about the shortage of medical equipment and protective supplies, they sent us ventilators, monitors and protective suits; when we missed home and families, they sent us typical Shanghai dishes; when we got emotional because of the mounting difficulties in the virus-hit area, they sent us psychologists good at comforting and soothing our anxiety... 3 This report gave us a glimpse of how the local Party committees cared about the “heroes”, not only showing us more vividly and deeply what the Party’s leadership meant, but also easing the worries people worried about the “heroes”. Doing all we can to protect the right to life and health of both the patients and the medical workers, this is how we understand comprehensive right to life and health, or people’s right to life and health.

In this nationwide battle against COVID-19, not only medical workers and experts, but also the police, community workers, volunteers and people engaged in other sectors such as transportation, medical supply production and finance have all worked day and night to cut off virus transmission and save patients, making tremendous contributions to protecting people’s right to life and health. Omissions and negligence were inevitable, so it would be unjust to criticize those responsible too harshly, even totally negate their contributions, just because some inconveniences were encountered. Much less can we negate the contributions made by the whole of society to respecting and protecting people’s right to life and health on the grounds of certain individuals’ misconduct.

In the long history of China, there have been people sacrificing themselves, including their lives, for the greater good, but there have also been people that were willing to betray their country and countrymen at times of foreign invasion. No one should be allowed to taint the lofty human rights thought of “respecting and protecting people’s right to life and health” with cowardly or treacherous behavior. When we talk about how to correctly understand the right to life and health, we cannot put the sole emphasis on individuals without heeding the people as a whole.

To sum up, we must have a dialectical view on “people’s right to life and health”, correctly understand the dialectical relation between “individual’s right to life and health” and “the people’s right to life and health”, and never deny the people’s right to life and health with individualistic values.

V. A Dialectical Understanding of People’s Right to Life and Liberty

Whereas the universal Declaration of Human rights states that “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”, how to handle the relation between the two basic human rights life and liberty has proved to be a difficult question to answer, and it has incurred intense arguments during the COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, we should dialectically understand not only people’s right to life and health, but also the relationship between life and liberty that they are entitled to.

Both life and liberty are basic human rights that we aspire for, and we respect and protect both of them equally. Therefore, we should neither catch the one and lose the other, nor focus on the one and neglect the other. In some conditions, we may emphasize one specific right, but that in no way means negating the other. China’s emphasis on “putting people’s life safety and health first” when fighting COVID-19 was not negating people’s liberty, but was aimed to ensure n a safe environment for the health and liberty of all, so they could live healthily and freely. Similarly, we respect other countries’ emphasis on and option for personal liberty, but these countries and their politicians should not smear our efforts to protect people’s right to life and health and ensure their free life.

In general, human life is the precondition when placed side by side with human liberty, although both are basic human rights, life is the precondition for liberty. How can there be any liberty without life? It should be obvious therefore that we should first and foremost guarantee human life. When China was confronted with the le- thal novel coronavirus, the top priority was to go all out to control the epidemic and protect the life safety and health of hundreds of millions of people, and ensuring an environment where people’s lives would not be at risk. That was the most responsible decision. As was true during the revolutionary war, CPC members put great value on human lives and made huge sacrifices to liberate the people. In that war, not only did CPC members try their best to protect the lives of their soldiers and the general public, but they also implemented the principle of “lay down your arms and we’ll spare your lives” to enemies on the battlefield. Chairman Mao said, “the purpose of war is no other than ‘preserving ourselves and eliminating enemies’”, but “eliminating enemies means disarming them, or ‘disabling them of resistance’, not eradicating them physically.” 4

When life is impossible without liberty, we must fight for liberty first even at the expense of our lives, that’s what countless martyrs have done. In the west, Petöfi Sándor wrote “Life is precious to all, but love is indeed more valuable; if, for the sake of freedom, I must pay, I would the above give away.” In China, Xia Minghan wrote “I would willingly my head give, for the truth I believe; I regret not my own death, for generations would continue the cause”. How noble and admirable the sacrifices for liberty are. As Chairman Mao wrote on the Monument to the People’s Heroes, “long live the people’s heroes who have devoted their lives in countless battles to opposing domestic and foreign enemies and fighting for national independence and freedom and happiness of the people.”

It must be pointed out that just as there is individual’s right to life and the people’s right to life, there is also individual’s liberty and the people’s liberty. The liberty that Petöfi Sándor and Xia Minghan died for was liberty for the people and the nation, not for individuals. It goes without saying that people’s liberty should not be protected at the cost of personal liberty, and guaranteeing personal liberty should not harm the liberty of others, much less the liberty of people as a whole. Yet more often than not, personal liberty may be sacrificed in order to safeguard people’s liberty as a whole. In short, the two basic human rights of life and liberty are both very important, and their relation should be correctly and carefully handled according to different situations.

VI. The Rights to Subsistence and Development are the Primary Basic Human Right — from a Principle to a System

Ever since the United Nations adopted the Declaration on the right to Development in December 1986, more and more people in the world have realized that the right to development is an inalienable human right by virtue of which every person and all peoples are entitled to participate in, contribute to, and enjoy economic, social, cultural and political development, in which all human rights and fundamental freedoms can be fully realized. Like many other developing countries in the world, China attaches great importance to the right to development and has repeatedly stressed that the rights to subsistence and development are the primary basic human right.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed China and all other countries to the new situation that our efforts to protect people’s right to life and health have seriously impeded economic development and affected people’s right to development. To address this problem, the CPC Central Committee with Xi Jinping at the core proposed to work on epidemic prevention and control and economic and social development in a holistic manner, and adopted effective measures to push for work and production resumption in an orderly way while scoring a phased victory in curbing the epidemic. This was a momentous decision concerning the immediate interests of all Chinese people and the overall situation of national development. The new situation and the decision on how to cope with it obviously involved human rights issues, which required people working on human rights theories to deepen the study of the relation between the “right to subsistence” and “right to development”.

At an international seminar marking the 70 th anniversary of the publication of the universal Declaration of Human rights held in Nankai University in October 2018, I gave a speech titled “Understanding the Rights to Subsistence and Development from the Origin of the universal Declaration of Human rights”. In the speech, I asked the question, on the first day when man became man what had to be guaranteed? It is man’s right to life. To sustain life, people need food, clothing, housing and travel, so they have to produce everything needed to make life continue — that’s the logical starting point for the thought on human rights. What human rights should be respected and guaranteed at the outset? It’s the rights to subsistence and development. All other rights, including economic, social, cultural, civic and political rights, stem from the preservation and protection of the human rights to subsistence and development. In that speech, I put forth the viewpoint that the right to life is the logical starting part for the entire thought on human rights, but I didn’t elaborate on the relation between the right to life and right to subsistence, or between the right to subsistence and right to development. For many years, we’ve emphasized on principle that the rights to subsistence and development is the primary human right, but have never lucubrated the relationship between these two rights. In the past few years, we’ve conducted some research on the right to development and the right to health, which is part of the right to subsistence, but studies of the right to subsistence are limited. The COVID-19 pandemic and our fight against it have brought to the fore the right to life and health as well as the overall right to subsistence, particularly the conflict between the right to subsistence and the right to development. How can we turn a blind eye to that?

Which topics should be further studied then?

The first is the connotations of the “right to subsistence”. General Secretary Xi Jinping asserted that “we should put people’s life, safety and health first.” This shows not only how important the right to life and health is, but also that the right to life and health is part of the right to subsistence, which makes the prerequisite for respecting and ensuring the right to development. Yet the right to subsistence doesn’t equal the right to development. In other words, the right to subsistence should have its own connotations. This is a topic we should delve deep into.

The second is the relations between survival and development and between the right to subsistence and the right to development. Generally speaking, survival and development are conditioned on each other, and the right to subsistence and the right to development are closely related. But the COVID-19 pandemic has told us that they stand against each other under certain circumstances. How to straighten out their relation is a topic we should study in depth.

The third is that as the primary basic human right, the rights to subsistence and development is not just a principle, but constitutes a theoretical system with its own ideological implications. Further study of this principle may lead to a hierarchical theory of human rights needs similar to Abraham Maslow’s hierarchical theory of needs (physiological needs, safety needs, need of love/belonging, need of esteem and need of self-actualization). In this way, we can break through the theory of “Three Generations of Human Rights” that has been developed over long years under the west-centered ideology, and develop a human rights theory entrenched in historical materialism with the right to life as the logical outset and the rights to subsistence and development as the center.
(Translated by XIANG Na)

* LI Junru ( 李君如 ), Vice President of China Society for Human Rights Studies and Former Vice President of the Party School of the Central Committee of CPC.
1. “Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of CPC Central Committee holds meeting on COVID-19 preven-tion and control, General Secretary of CPC Central Committee Xi Jinping presides over the meeting”, Qiushi
3 (2020): 14.
2. Central Compilation and Translation Bureau, Collected Works of marx and engels, vol� I (Beijing: People’s Publishing House, 2009), 519.
3. “You Bring Warmth to Jiangcheng”, Jiefang Daily, April 1, 2020.
4. Mao Zedong, Selected Works of mao Zedong, vol� 2 (Beijing: People’s Publishing House, 1991), 482.

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