The Tension Balance Structure of China’s Human Rights Development Path
June 27,2022   By:CSHRS
The Tension Balance Structure of China’s Human Rights Development Path
QI Yanping*
Abstract: The human rights white paper has in it the basic concepts of human rights, the form of the human rights system, and the mode of human rights practice in modern China. It is based on the tension balance structure between the historical feature and rationality, the cultural feature and similarity, the realistic feature and the common feature of human rights. Adhering to the historical nature of human rights rather than abstract rationality, and the cultural diversity and equality of human rights rather than one dominant model, and the particularity of human rights rather than universality is the pillar of China’s human rights philosophy, system, and practice. The human rights development path that combines the top-down leadership of China’s ruling party, the capability of the Chinese government in taking a holistic approach and the bottom-up driving force of the people is very different from the natural evolution path of the West.
Keywords: human rights in China · historical feature · cultural feature · realistic feature · tension balance structure
In 1991, the Chinese government issued the white paper Human Rights in China(hereinafter referred to as “the human rights white paper”), which was, first of all, a declaration of the Chinese government’s human rights policy to the international community. But its domestic and international implications and theoretical, practical, political, and legal significance far exceed the policy declaration, as it was a strategic move in China’s reform and opening-up and the first government white paper released at a critical juncture for adjustment and restructuring of the international order after the end of the Cold War. Based on the inherent tensions between historical aspects and rationality, cultural specifics and similarities, and unique national characteristics and the commonalities of human rights, modern China’s basic concepts of human rights, the form of human rights systems, and mode of human rights practice conveyed in this human rights white paper have, in the 30 years since its release, led to the profound development of China’s human rights theory, served as the spiritual impetus for China’s all-round reform and opening-up and the building of a moderately prosperous society, and provided a purpose for the shaping and upgrading of China’s political values and institutional civilization. Therefore, when considering the release of the white paper, we should not only see its significance in shaping the discourse on human rights but also pay attention to its role in inspiring thinking, providing a theoretical source, and catalyzing the practical role that it has played and will continue to play. The innovation and development of modern China’s human rights concepts and theories as well as the progress of its human rights system and practice all depend on the support of human rights based on the inherent tensile balance structure outlined in the white paper.
I. The Tension Balance Between the Historical Feature and Rationality of Human Rights
Whether human rights are a social and historical phenomenon or beyond social and historical imagination is one of the key propositions of human rights philosophy. The different answers to this question have given birth to different schools of human rights philosophy, created different versions of the human rights system, and opened up human rights development paths in different directions. On this issue, China’s human rights white paper had to give a clear answer. Thirty years after its release, when we look at the text of the white paper, we can see that Marxist historical materialism constitutes the historical and philosophical basis of this document and runs throughout it. The white paper states in the opening part of its preamble: “Human rights development is constrained by the historical, social, economic, cultural and other conditions of a country, and is a historical development process.”1Human rights therefore, are a product of history and a social phenomenon in a specific stage of history. This judgment is proved by the history of the Chinese people’s unremitting struggle for human rights. The white paper starts from the long-term oppression of imperialism, feudalism, and bureaucratic capitalism in old China when the people had no human rights at all. It objectively looks back on the arduous efforts and historic achievements of the Chinese people in their fight for human rights for more than 100 years before proceeding from China’s history and national conditions to clarify the basis of China’s human rights claims and its laws and policies in this field, which reflects the distinctive historical feature of this white paper.
The judgment that human rights are a product of history also accords with human rights development in the West. The concepts and phenomena that embody rights claims can be said to have existed since ancient times, but the concept of human rights as the basis for philosophical and social science argumentation, the systematic human rights thinking as the basis for political legitimacy, and the human rights system and practice as the main axis of political and legal activities are products of Western bourgeois thought entering the stage of history. The so-called “view of natural rights” that the West considers to be universal is nothing but a product of the history of the West. They have played a historical revolutionary role in opposing religious theocracy, autocratic kingship, and feudal aristocratic privileges, but once the legitimate ruling system of the capitalist class was formed, these theories lost their explanatory power and no longer played a constructive role, which is why they were abandoned by mainstream Western human rights scholars and replaced by various new theories such as “legal rights” and “welfare rights” based on the needs of historical development. This shows that the West cannot be free from the law that “human rights are a historical concept,” so the West can't go beyond Marx’s assertion: “Rights can never go beyond the economic structure of society and the cultural development of society constrained by it.”2 The human rights theories that transcend the socioeconomic structure and the social and cultural development constrained by this structure can play a role in enlightenment and even revolutionary mobilization in a specific period of history, but in the actual process of human rights system building and human rights practice, abstract human rights theories can hardly have much constructive effect.
Of course, human rights are a product of history and are a judgment based on historical practice and experience, but this does not deny that human rights require philosophical speculation and rational guidance that go beyond practice and experience. Modern Chinese human rights are based on the historical and rational tension structure of human rights. The human rights white paper begins by affirming that human rights are a great term and that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights plays a role in laying the foundation for international human rights practice. The main body of this white paper is also mainly based on the combination of concepts, views, categories, and theories of human rights agreed upon by the international community and China’s history, culture, and national conditions. Human rights in modern China are not closed in concept or practice but are inclusive and open. They not only do not oppose but also actively absorb the rational achievements of human rights in the world and are based on the common values of human rights in the world. Their difference is advocating that human rights rationality must be rooted in the practice of human rights rather than abstract idealism, let alone the theory of the superiority and inferiority of civilizations and Occidentalism that have haunted this field for so long. What China unswervingly opposes is not the rationality of human rights itself, but the pursuit of double or multiple standards of human rights for realizing political purposes and national self-interest, and the manipulating of abstract terms such as “natural human rights” that have lost their historical and practical value, and using them as tools to contain China’s development and human rights advancement. 
Human rights development in various countries cannot be based on the same transcendental “rational architectural” drawings but must proceed from their own histories and national conditions. The balance in the tension between the historical feature and rationality of modern China’s human rights not only reflects the dialectical system feature of China’s academic tradition and theoretical works that are different from those of the West but also reflects the inclusive wisdom of China’s political practice and modernization that distinguishes itself from other countries.
II. The Tension Balance Between the Cultural Feature and Similarity of Human Rights
Whether human rights are universal or particular is not only a political-philosophical question but also a cultural philosophical question. In the process of the human rights game between the East and the West, the Western human rights culture is labeled as “universal”, while the non-Western human rights culture are “specific”, which hides the logic of Western hegemony and the culture of “West-centrism with Non-West being the Other”. It also hides what Zhao Tingyang pointed out as “an ontological hierarchy of values, that is, the universality is higher than the particularity.”3 The essence of this proposition is that the West rejects different civilizations, and it is the continuation of its colonial strategy for hundreds of years after the war. The human rights white paper responds to it on three levels: breaking the myth that “power is truth,” advocating “cultural diversity rather than one dominant model,” and establishing the notion that “particularity precedes universality.”
“Power is truth” is a principle created by the Western society since ancient Greece and Rome, which is not only reflected in the theoretical systems of many Western sages and ideological giants, but also in the discourse paradigm of Western political figures (including the current outspoken political figures advocating proceeding from “national strength”), and even more in the entire Western history — especially in the history of Western colonization and plundering and the fact that they launched wars of aggression after World War II. Western civilization has been tempered by war. The Chinese civilization tradition underpinned by Confucianism never believes in “power is truth,” but takes “benevolence, righteousness, good manners, wisdom and credit” as the five constant virtues, “gentleness, kindness, respectfulness, thrift, and modesty” as the way of conducting oneself, and “etiquette and virtue” as ways of dealing with international relations. Modern Chinese culture is characterized by overcoming difficulties in solidarity, pursuing common development in harmony, sharing the same future, and promotes sharing the best of what all have to offer. Power politics and a hegemonic mindset are the “cancer” of world civilization. The Chinese nation will never succumb to foreign aggression, which is evidenced by modern Chinese history, a history of fighting for justice. On the basis of reviewing China’s history of being colonized, oppressed, and humiliated by Western powers since the Opium War in 1840, the human rights white paper makes a clear assertion that the right to subsistence becoming the priority human rights issue that the Chinese people must solve is decided by history from the perspective of the continuation of the Chinese civilization, national salvation, national independence, and people’s safety, firmly opposes any country manipulating human rights issues in a metaphysical sense to promote its values, ideologies, political standards, and development models, and effectively criticizes the West’s intention to continue its cultural hegemony and cultural colonization under the guise of the abstract universality of human rights.
The cultural structure of “West-centrism with Non-West being the Other” is deeply ingrained in the DNA of Western civilization. Since its emergence in history, Western civilization has continuously conducted attacks, wars, genocide, colonization, and plundering against other countries, all of which is ingrained in this DNA. This kind of confrontational nature and tradition in Western civilization is embodied as Occidentalism in philosophy and culture. The biological basis of this ethnocentrism and moral chauvinism is the theory of racial superiority which was popular in Europe before World War II. “The West has formed ‘Occidentalism’ due to its overemphasis on the historical process of its human rights development, but this may lead to errors and confusion in its combination of human rights discourse system, and even obscures the essence of human rights to some extent.”4 Historian Arnold Joseph Toynbee made a critique of the studies controlled by Western industries and sovereign states from the perspective of historical study and proposed the “Greece-Chinese Civilization Model” which divides the world civilization into independent and semi-independent civilizations, and satellite civilizations and lost civilizations from the perspective of the evolution of the world as a whole and global civilization. Although his views are debatable, his research method was a breakthrough in the Western-centric view of history.5 The human rights white paper advocates that countries should not view history and culture separately in observing human rights and designing human rights development models; the international community should take into account the different understandings of human rights in countries with different historical, religious, and cultural backgrounds, and calls for seeking common ground while reserving differences. Mutual respect, cultural diversity, and equality are the cultural and philosophical features of the white paper.
Behind the proposition that “the universality of human rights is higher than the particularity” hides the logic of “Western hegemony is truth” and “Western culture is superior to other cultures.” Disguised by metaphysics, it seems to occupy the commanding height of “philosophical” truth. As Zhao Tingyang pointed out, “universality” in the metaphysical sense is equivalent to inevitability, eternity, certainty, and even perfection. In other words, it is ever-present and omnipresent.6 As a product of human history, human rights obviously are not “universal” in the sense of Western metaphysics. If human rights were universal, it just means the commonalities of human rights formed through equal cultural communication and dialogue by countries upholding their cultural diversity based on their own historical, cultural, and practical particularities. Such commonalities are the “common values” advocated by General Secretary Xi Jinping. The particularity of human rights precedes their universality; the universality of human rights derives from their particularity, and the particularity of human rights reflects their universality.
On the premise of affirming the common values of mankind, countries should uphold the concept of cultural diversity and equality rather than one dominant model. The preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in the Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, gender, language, religion, political or other opinions, national or social origin, property, birth or other statuses.” The essence of this principle is that people should not be differentiated based on cultural differences. International human rights documents after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights such as the Tehran Declaration, the Resolution on the New Concepts of Human Rights, and Declaration on the Right to Development by the United Nations, and the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action also reflect this cultural philosophy of human rights. Only by completely eradicating the Western-centrism DNA in human rights and adhering to the cultural nature of human rights, can the human rights development of non-Western countries be sustained. “Plants with strong roots grow well, and efforts with the right focus will ensure success.” General Secretary Xi Jinping has emphasized many times that China has firm confidence in its path, theory, and system, and its essence is cultural confidence built on the foundation of China’s more than 5,000-year-old civilization. Different from the Western cultural DNA that focuses on individuals and is keen on confrontation and constant expansion, the reason why the Chinese civilization has existed and thrived so long is thanks to its sense of community with a shared future throughout its history and the tradition of “winning the hearts of the people by virtue.” It upholds the doctrine of the mean and advocates balancing the interests of all parties and appreciating the values of others as well as one’s own to achieve a grand harmony and universal cornucopia. This is the cultural root of the 5,000-year-old Chinese civilization and the cultural spirit of human rights in modern China.
On the one hand, the human rights white paper upholds China’s cultural spirit of human rights; on the other hand, it fully recognizes the purposes and principles of the UN Charter to protect and promote human rights, speaks highly of the historical status of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and balances the relationship between the cultural nature of human rights in China with their commonality and the common value openly and inclusively, which has laid a cultural and philosophical foundation for the theoretical innovation and practical progress of human rights in China 30 years after its release.
III. The Tension Balance Between the Realistic Feature and the Commonality of Human Rights
“Human rights are the stipulations of real social relations,”7 and are a concentrated expression of people’s qualifications, conditions, abilities, interests, welfare, and needs on the basis of specific historical, social, economic, cultural, and other factors, so they are actual. But human rights are also ideals. “History determines the existing form and content of human rights, and ideals guide history to meet people’s higher human rights demand.”8The human rights white paper carries the tension balance between the reality and commonality of human rights in modern China. Upholding the reality of human rights is embodied in respect, protection, promotion, development strategy selection, and promotion implementation. Specifically, it refers to balancing the relationship between “equal empowerment” and “capacity building” for subjects, balancing the relationship between “passive human rights” and “proactive human rights” in terms of content, and balancing the relationship between “respect and protection” and “development promotion” in terms of technique.
The traditional human rights philosophy of the United States and Western countries takes individual rationality and individual freedom as the logical starting point; their economic system takes laissez-faire as the basic concept; their political system takes the separation of powers as the operating mechanism; and their traditional human rights system and human rights protection path focus on equal constitutional and legal empowerment in the form of judicial assistance based on individual requests after infringement. With the development of civilization and the super-complex and high-risk evolution of society, the failure of traditional political systems in the United States and the West and the idling of human rights protection mechanisms have become increasingly serious. Ethnic divisions, political polarization, and failure of epidemic prevention and control in the United States in recent years are the powerful illustrations of this. China’s modernization process embodies the unity of individual rationality and collective rationality, and modern China’s human rights are people-centered. “A people-centered set of principles” for the subject of human rights determines that the design of modern Chinese human rights is based on the unity of form and substance, equal empowerment in the Constitution and law, and equal access in reality. The state provides equal protection and support to everyone in economic, political, social, and cultural fields, especially the disadvantaged. Even in terms of civil rights and political rights that are used to define “defensive passive rights” in the theoretical circle, if there is a lack of scientific political plans, legal support, and policy support, especially the lack of active government supply in the economic, social and cultural fields, it will also be reduced to a right in name only. Many Western scholars are aware of the fundamental flaws of being obsessed with political human rights. The British scholar T. H. Marshall pointed out that the development of civil rights, political rights, and social rights represents a sequential evolution in history; social rights mean “a series of rights ranging from a certain degree of economic and security to the right to the full enjoyment of a society’s heritage and a civilized life by taking into account the standards of peers.”9 To realize the great ideal of full enjoyment of human rights for all, we need pragmatic top-level design and scientific strategic choices. Modern Chinese human rights apply holistic thinking and uphold the concept of “respect and protection” and “development promotion.”
The above concepts embodied in the human rights white paper are not only a summary of China’s experience in human rights development but also charter the course to a new chapter for modern China’s human rights. The endogenous development path of human rights in the West features slow self-evolution.10 Western human rights thought originated from the ancient Greek concept of justice and the ancient Roman concept of rights, and then through the Enlightenment, when the individual and society were separated, a set of rights system with abstract individuals as the main subject was formed. After the bourgeois revolutions on the European and American continents, human rights were written into constitutions and became the institutional cornerstone of modern Western civilization. Unlike the West, China is not an initiator but a late-comer in terms of its modernization drive. Due to its historical lack of self-consciousness awakening inherent in the economic structure of private ownership, China’s human rights development cannot follow the same evolutionary path as Western countries. Also, this logic is not in line with human development. Human rights in modern China need to proceed from China’s national conditions and social reality, absorb the achievements and wisdom of the human rights civilization of all mankind, and systematically coordinate economic, political, social, cultural, environmental, and other factors necessary for human rights development. The development path of human rights, which combines the top-down leadership of the Chinese ruling party, the Chinese government’s overall planning power, and the bottom-up driving force of the people, is very different from the evolutionary path of human rights in the West.
On the 30th anniversary of the release of the human rights white paper, the Chinese government released the latest edition of the National Human Rights Action Plan of China (2021-2025). The basic principles in formulating and implementing the Action Plan are: incorporating the development of human rights into the legal framework; promoting all-round and balanced development of all human rights; integrating the general principles of human rights with the real conditions in China; fully guaranteeing the right of all members of society to equal participation and development; pooling the efforts of governments, enterprises, public institutions, and social organizations; and tapping the potential of digital technology in expanding the free and well-rounded development of every person. These principles are the embodiment of the late-mover advantage theory in China’s human rights development. “Putting forward ideas or propositions that are conducive to human rights protection in response to technological progress is an inevitable requirement for human beings to safeguard their dignity and reputation, and it is also an important option to enhance the discourse power of human rights.”11 At the same time, taking into account changes in the main social contradictions and the development of modern science and technology, the fourth edition of the National Human Rights Action Plan of China (2021-2025)has made some forward-looking and innovative adjustments, including dedicating a chapters dedicated to environmental rights such as economic, social and cultural rights, civil and political rights, etc., and dedicating a separate section to “individuals’ information rights and interests” in “civil and political rights” to build a solid institutional foundation for human rights protection in the digital era. All of these reflect the national human rights actions in various phases, and China’s consistent adherence to the spirit of balance between the historical features and rationality, the cultural features and similarity, and the realistic feature and the common feature of human rights established in the human rights white paper, and also reflect the distinctively open and inclusive characteristics of modern Chinese human rights theory and practice.
(Translated by TIAN Tong)
* QI Yanping ( 齐延平 ), Director of the Center for Science, Technology and Human Rights, Beijing Institute of Technology and Chair Professor at the School of Law, Beijing Institute of Technology. This article is the achievement of the Beijing Research Center for Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era and the major project of the Beijing Social Science Fund “General Secretary Xi Jinping’s Important Statements on Human Rights” (21LFXA051).
1. the white paper Human Rights in China, the State Council Information Office website, accessed August 6, 2021, http:/w.scio.gov.cn/zfbps/ndhf/1991/Document/1715811/1715811.htm
2. Central Compilation and Translation Bureau, Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 3 (Beijing: People’s Publishing House, 2001), 405.
3. Zhao Tingyang, “A Note on Universality and Particularity,” Dongfang Journal 1 (2021): 34.
4. Zhang Yonghe, “Comprehensive and Correct Understanding of Human Rights Concept, Human Rights Discourse and Discourse System,” HongQi WenGao 14(2017), 9.
5. Arnold J. Toynbee, et al., A Study of History, translated by Liu Beicheng and Guo Xiaoling, (Shanghai: Shanghai Century Press, 2009), 52-53.
6. Zhao Tingyang, “A Note on Universality and Particularity”, Dongfang Journal 1 (2021): 34.
7. Chen Zhishang, “Philosophical Reflections on Human Rights Issues,” The Journal of Humanities 5 (1992): 52.
8. Han Zhen, “On the Historical Feature and Common Feature of Human Rights — A Brief Comment on A. J. M. Milne’s Philosophy of Human Rights,” Social Science Journal 3 (1996): 16.
9. T. H. Marshall, Citizenship and Social Class, Guo Zhonghua and Liu Xunlian ed., (Nanjing: Jiangsu People’s Publishing House, 2007), 10-11.
10. Xu Xianming, “On China’s Human Rights Path,” Chinese Journal of Human Rights 1 (2020): 4.
11. Lu Guangjin, “The Building Dimension and Value Orientation of Human Rights Discourse on in Contemporary China,” Human Rights 4 (2020): 8-9.
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