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The Basic Direction of China’s Human Rights Development
June 27,2022   By:CSHRS
The Basic Direction of China’s Human Rights Development
 
ZHENG Zhihang*
 
Abstract: In 1991, the State Council Information Office released the white paper Human Rights in China, which promoted China’s progress towards an era of protecting rights. The Chinese government has always believed that human rights development is compatible with economic development, and on this basis has continuously adjusted the level of human rights protection and practices. In terms of goals, China has developed from meeting people’s basic needs to delivering a better life; in terms of role positioning, China has transformed from an active participant to an active promoter; in terms of development mode, China has shifted from balanced development to coordinated advancement; in terms of discourse expression, China has changed from political discourse to law-based discourse.
 
Keywords: Human Rights White Paper · value goal · the role of the government · development model · rhetorical discourse
 
Since the State Council Information Office published the white paper Human Rights in China in 1991, the practical and theoretical circles have become increasingly open about discussing and advocating human rights, which has promoted China’s progress toward an era of protecting rights. Individual subjectivity and the discourse of rights have come to the fore. The Chinese government is making greater efforts to protect and realize basic human rights through institutional means. Through its white papers, the Chinese government introduces its attitude toward human rights and human rights protection in China and summarizes fresh progress in this regard. As of August 2021, the Chinese government has published 24 white papers with “human rights” in the title. Although other white papers do not have this term, their content frequently encompasses human rights and their protection in China. By reviewing the white papers over the past 30 years, we can summarize some basic pathways for China’s human rights development.
 
I. The Change of Goal: From Meeting Basic Needs to Delivering a Better Life
 
From the development history of the “human rights” concept in China, it can be seen that it was translated and introduced in the context of China’s national salvation before being combined with traditional Chinese culture. Therefore, it first expresses and affirms a basic need for political independence and subsistence.1 After the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), although China secured its independence, Western countries always employ double standards on human rights to accuse China and by so doing, interfere in China’s independent development. In addition, although China’s economic development has made certain progress, “its relatively low level of economic development, the people’s living standards far behind that of developed countries, the pressure of its huge population and the relative shortage of per capita resources still restrict its socioeconomic development and the improvement of people’s lives.”2 Therefore, for a long time, China has regarded safeguarding the people’s right to subsistence and improving people’s living conditions as the primary human rights. The 1991 white paper Human Rights in China ranks the right to subsistence first in the human rights system.
 
With the improvement of composite national strength and economic development level, the Chinese government’s view of the connotation and denotation of the right to subsistence has changed, and the standard of the right to subsistence is no longer defined as “having basic needs met”, but emphasizes living a quality life. This development is mainly reflected in the following aspects: First, the probability that “the right to subsistence” appears in the title is getting lower. Second, the term “meeting basic needs” no longer appears in white papers after 2013.3Third, the concepts of “the right to an adequate standard of living” and the “right to food,” “right to housing,” “right to health” and “right to care” appear more frequently in the white papers.
 
The transition from the right to subsistence to the right to an adequate standard of living places more emphasis on the improvement of the material quality of life, which is still far from the all-around development of human beings. Achieving the all-around development of human beings is not only an important responsibility that socialist countries should perform but also a basic goal pursued by them. Therefore, General Secretary Xi Jinping put forward the political and moral discourse that “the People’s wish for a good life is our goal”, and took “a good life” as the current standard for judging and measuring the happiness of people’s lives. The so-called good life emphasizes that people can be satisfied in three aspects: material, social and spiritual. It is a concept integrating material, social and spiritual interests.4 Under the guidance of this thinking, the Chinese government actively promotes the realization of rights in political, economic, social, cultural, environmental and other fields. In this regard, the white paper Seeking Happiness for People: 70 Years of Progress on Human Rights in China pointed out that “living a happy life is the primary human right” when summarizing the great achievements of China’s human rights cause, and proposed that China’s human rights development has entered the third stage whose biggest feature is to satisfying the people’s wish for a good life the goal of the country’s struggle, and effectively enhance the people’s sense of fulfillment, happiness, and security.5
 
II. The Change of Role: From Active Participant to Active Promoter
 
After the founding of the PRC, China has gradually integrated into the world structure and world pattern. The Charter of the UN, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and other relevant international human rights treaties play the role of supporting the world structure. The degree to which China recognizes and respects these charters and conventions is directly related to the degree to which Western countries accept China. Therefore, the Chinese government actively participates in the human rights-related activities of the United Nations with a serious and responsible attitude, and earnestly fulfills its obligations under these charters and treaties. In order to honor its solemn commitment to the international community and demonstrate its fulfillment of relevant human rights obligations, China has dedicated a chapter to China’s participation in international human rights cooperation in each of its human rights white papers. For example, Section 10 of Human Rights in China released in 1994 is entitled “Active Participation in International Human Rights Activities”; Section 7 of the Progress in China’s Human Rights Cause in 1998 is entitled “Foreign Exchanges and Cooperation in the Field of Human Rights”; Fifty Years of Progress in China’s Human Rights in 1999, the title of section 7 in Progress in China’s Human Rights Cause in 2000 is “Actively Carrying Out International Exchanges and Cooperation in the Realm of Human Rights”; etc.. In terms of specific content, they are mainly about which international human rights conventions China has signed and ratified, what measures China has taken to fulfill the obligations listed in these conventions, as well as reports on the implementation of submitted conventions and relevant institutional reviews.
 
The 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) ushered in a new era for socialism with Chinese characteristics. A major feature of this new era is that “China is moving closer to the center of the world stage and making greater contributions to mankind”. This also means that China is not only an active participant in the world structure and pattern but also should offer Chinese wisdom and Chinese strength to world development. In this context, China is not only an active participant in international human rights conventions, but also an active promoter of human rights development in the world, which is mainly manifested in the following aspects: First, promoting the realization of the right to subsistence of other developing countries through foreign aid. Poverty directly affects the realization of the right to subsistence in developing countries, especially the least developed countries. Moreover, Western developed countries attach political conditions to their aid, thus affecting the independence and autonomy of these countries. On the premise of no political strings attached, the Chinese government has provided these developing countries with a large number of office supplies, mechanical equipment, testing kits, means of transportation, daily necessities, medicines and medical equipment.6 Second, focusing on improving the development capacity of other developing countries. On the issue of human rights development, China has always upheld the idea of “teaching a man to fish is better than giving him fish.” In terms of domestic poverty alleviation, the Chinese government has gradually transitioned from “given” relief to “self-reliance” assistance. In the process of promoting the realization of the right to subsistence in developing countries, especially the least developed countries, the Chinese government has enhanced their development capabilities through human resource development cooperation, technical cooperation, promotion of agricultural development, and improvement of education. Third, participating in setting international human rights standards. If active participation in international human rights activities reflects the ratiocination of the requirement for action, then actively promoting the development of international human rights reflects the ratiocination for the development of action. The logic for the development of action promotes the setting, development and improvement of international human rights standards through the active actions of the state. For example, China has effectively promoted international climate negotiations and the drafting of the Paris Agreement and has set deadlines for realzing carbon peaking and neutrality in 2020. China has also actively promoted the formulation and implementation of the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Fourth, in recent years, China has not only focused on promoting the updating and development of international human rights standards, but also focused on providing new concepts for the development of international human rights law. For example, the building of a “community with a shared future for human beings” advocated by China has provided new concepts, new goals and new paths for the development of global human rights. This concept is presently mainly manifested in the joint development of the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s efforts to promote the building a fair and rational global climate governance system for win-win results, and China’s active promotion of the building of a global community of health for all.7
 
III. The Change of Mode: From Balanced Development to Coordinated Advancement 
 
Conceptually, human rights are a class concept, which contains many sub-rights such as civil rights, political rights, economic rights, social rights, cultural rights, development rights and environmental rights. Because the realization of human rights requires the state to fulfill its proactive obligation of promotion and protection in addition to the passive obligation of respect, the state’s obligation performance would inevitably be affected by fiscal revenue. Therefore, in a country at a relatively low level of economic development, various sub-rights often develop unevenly. China’s human rights development practice is also affected by the level of economic development, which is why it prioritizes the development of the right to subsistence. Now that its economic and social development has reached a conducive level, China no longer only ensures the right to subsistence, but also pays attention to other rights such as economic rights, political rights, and development rights and emphasizes that these rights can be developed in a balanced manner. Therefore, the National Human Rights Action Plan of China (2009-2010) released in 2009 proposed a balanced promotion and development of rights. The white paper Progress in China’s Human Rights in 2009 made a comprehensive summary of the Chinese government's endeavor in promoting the rights to subsistence, development, civil rights, political rights, and equal rights for ethnic minorities, from which we can see many achievements and high lights.
 
Although China emphasizes the balanced and simultaneous advancement of these rights, due to various factors, China has not paid enough attention to the interrelatedness of these rights, and even separates them in some areas, resulting in issues of uncoordinated human rights development. For example, the economic rights of citizens versus their political rights, men’s rights versus women’s rights, and the basic human rights of the general population versus the human rights of relatively disadvantaged groups in society are all incompatible.8 In light of this reality, the Chinese government has shifted its path of human rights development from balanced development to coordinated advancement. The National Human Rights Action Plan of China (2016-2020) released on September 29, 2016, takes “pushing forward the work in a coordinated way, and promoting the comprehensive and coordinated development of the people’s various rights and interests” as an important principle of human rights development. In specific human rights practice, coordinated promotion is mainly reflected in coordinating the development of economic, social and cultural rights and civil and political rights and the development of individual human rights and collective human rights, balancing the protection of individual rights, and coordinating the protection of individual rights and public interests, and the three obligations of the state to respect, protect and promote human rights.9
 
IV. The Change of Discourse: From Political Discourse to Law-based Discourse
 
As a part of human consciousness, discourse states and characterizes specific things through words, sentence patterns, rhetoric, etc., and reflects the human mind and its attitudes and views on those things. Therefore, discourse is an important symbolic power in human interaction. These discourse expressions can provide insight into the mentality and thinking characteristics of the language speakers.10 The development history of China’s human rights white paper in the past 30 years shows that its human rights discourse has gradually transitioned from the expressing of political discourse to law-based discourse. This change reflects the development and improvement of the Chinese government’s way of thinking about the rule of law.
 
China’s 1991 human rights white paper intended to respond to the groundless accusations on human rights in China made by Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. In order to foil the US’ political attempts to discredit and slander China, Jiang Zemin issued an important instruction for the studying of human rights issues. Considering that the conditions did not suffice for issuing a declaration of human rights at that time, the State Council Information Office decided to issue a white paper to clarify the facts and China’s position as a countermeasure against the US’ provocative acts.11 In this white paper, the words used mainly included political discourse expressions such as “national independence,” “salvaging the country,”“imperialism,” “enemy,” “exploitation,” and “national oppression.” Moreover, at the time of drafting, the drafting group made a strong response to the accusations of the US about China’s family planning, “political prisoners” and other alleged human rights abuses. The 1994 white paper, Progress in China’s Human Rights, included “political stability” and “hegemonism.”
 
The 15th National Congress of the CPC identified law-based governance as the basic strategy for governance and included “respecting and protecting human rights” in the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, which enhanced the Chinese government’s thinking and awareness of the rule of law. This promoted the transformation of human rights discourse from political discourse to law-based discourse. First, China approached the concept of human rights not only from the perspective of maintaining national autonomy, but also from the perspective of people’s life. In other words, China’s vigorous efforts to strengthen human rights development are not due to external pressure, but are out of consideration for people’s dignity and rights. Second, China further emphasizes promoting the development and progress of human rights in China through institutional means, especially the legal system, and emphasizes the legal protection of human rights. In order to implement the clause of “respecting and protecting human rights” stipulated in the Constitution, the Chinese government has actively strengthened legislation and law enforcement in various fields and has continuously updated the statement on the relationship between justice and human rights in the white papers. Third, China promotes the legal protection of human rights from the perspective of modernizing the national governance system and governance capacity. As far as the national governance system is concerned, it mainly refers to the institutional system of national governance, and the national governance capacity mainly refers to the ability to leverage the national system to manage all aspects of social affairs.12 The legal system is the most important institutional system in national governance. Correspondingly, the ability to manage all aspects of society with the approach and thinking of the rule of law is the most important ability in national governance. Therefore, the improvement of human rights protection constitutes an important indicator of the modernization of the national governance system and governance capacity. In this regard, the 2017 white paper New Progress in the Legal Protection of Human Rights in China pointed out: “Since the 18th CPC National Congress in 2012, socialism with Chinese characteristics has entered a new era. China has completed the mission of eradicating absolute poverty as scheduled under the strong leadership of the Party Central Committee with Xi Jinping at the core. Decisive success has been achieved in the final stage of building a moderately prosperous society in all respects, and human rights protection has been brought to new heights.”13
 
(Translated by TIAN Tong)
 
* ZHENG Zhihang ( 郑智航 ), Deputy Director of Human Rights Research Center and Deputy Dean and Professor of Law School, Shandong University. This article is the achievement of a major project “Research on the Development of Traditional Chinese Culture and Contemporary Human Rights Discourse System” launched by the Human Rights Education and Training Base of the Ministry of Education, (18JJD820005).
 
1. Zhou Li, “The Narrative of Human Rights in China from Meeting People’s Basic Needs to Delivering a Better Life”, Modern Law 6 (2019). 
 
2. the white paper Human Rights in China, the State Council Information Office website, accessed September 2, 2021, http://www.scio.gov.cn/zfhps/ndhf/1991/Document/308017/308017.htm.
 
3. Zhou Qiang, “Analysis of Human Rights Discourse and Its Changes in Human Rights White Papers”, Journal of Guangzhou University (Social Science Edition) 3 (2015). 
 
4. Fan Jinxue, “On the Right to a Good Life under Xi Jinping’s Thought of ‘Community with a Shared Future for Human Beings’”, Law Science 5 (2021). 
 
5. the white paper Seeking Happiness for People: 70 Years of Progress on Human Rights in China, the State Council Information Office website, accessed September 2, 2021, http://www.scio.gov.cn/zfbps/ndhf/39911/Document/1665100/1665100.htm. 
 
6. the white paper China’s Foreign Aid (2014), State Council Information Office website, accessed September 2, 2021, http://www.scio.gov.cn/zfbps/ndhf/2014/Document/1375013/1375013.htm. 
 
7. the white paper The Communist Party of China and Human Rights Protection — A 100-Year Quest, the State Council Information Office website, accessed September 2, 2021, http://www.scio.gov.cn/zbps/ndhf/44691/Document/1707316/1707316.htm.
 
8. Zhao Shukun, “Viewing Human Rights Practice in China from Two Human Rights Action Plans of China”, Modern Law Science 2 (2013).
 
9. Chang Jian and Liu Yi, “Characteristics of China’s Human Rights Development Path from the ‘Five Promotion’ Principles”, Human Rights 1 (2017). 
 
10. Pierre Bourdieu, Language and Symbolic Power (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991), 15.
 
11. Jin Xiaotong, “The Publication of China’s First Human Rights White Paper,” Party & Government Forum 5 (2012).
 
12. Xin Chunying, “Local Legislative Power and National Governance System and Governance Capacity Building,” Local Legislation Journal 1 (2016). 
 
13. The white paper New Progress in the Legal Protection of Human Rights in China, the State Council Information Office website, accessed September 2, 2021, http://www.scio.gov.cn/zfbps/ndhf/36088/Document/1613510/1613510.htm. 
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