Chinese theory and practice of human rights

I have just completed eight amazing days of filming for the ‘Chinese Marxism’ MOOC that will be ready early in the new year. We travelled by plane, hard-seat train, bus and foot to get to what are still relatively remote places: Shaoshan (Mao’s birthplace), Ruijin (centre of the first soviet) and Yan’an (where the government was based for more than 10 years before 1949). Plenty of good footage to use.

However, one topic in the course concerns human rights. This may be regarded as a ‘sensitive’ topic, especially if one takes the one-sided approach of ‘western’ human rights, which focus almost exclusively on individual political rights and then attempt to universalise those.

But is there a Chinese Marxist approach to human rights, coming out of the Chinese tradition and Chinese Marxism? There is. You may gain an initial idea from the annual human rights report on the United States, produced by the State Council Information Office. The report on 2o15 is here.

On the filming ‘red tour’ I have been writing the episode on Chinese approaches to human rights, so here it is, in draft form:

Are human rights part of Chinese Marxism, let alone Marxism itself? I suggest that they are very much part of this framework, but in rather unexpected ways. The most commonly known account of human rights focuses on political rights, freedom of expression and at times freedom of religion. These are claimed to be universal and largely individual. And they are usually connected with liberal or bourgeois democracies.

What about a Chinese and Marxist approach to human rights? Usually, this approach does not get much airplay. So let me outline the main points for the sake of providing some very useful information.

1. Collective and Individual. One response to the assertion of western human rights is to argue that they are focused on the individual. By contrast, ‘Asian’ human rights focus more on the collective or the social – as we find with the ‘ASEAN Declaration of Human Rights’ from 2012. The Chinese approach is somewhat more nuanced. It recognises that there should be a careful balance between collective and individual dimensions in human rights. This means that specific collective groups also have distinct rights: women, children, minority nationalities, classes and even whole societies. At the same time, individuals also have rights in relation to collective rights.

2. Sovereignty. Related to the previous point is the importance of sovereignty in the giving and exercise of human rights. This is based on the idea that human rights are given by a society and are not inherent in human beings. But if a country is colonised and subjected to another country, such human rights are not possible. Therefore, a sovereign country is crucial for human rights.

3. Universal and particular. One criticism of western human rights is that it asserts universal positions on the basis of the specific history and experiences of Western Europe and North America. In other words, these human rights attempt to push on the rest of the world specific concerns that arose in a particular context. The Chinese approach does not take this path. Instead, it agrees that there are universal human rights, but the emphasis on the most important ones depends on the specific history, culture and situation.

4. Economic rights. Thus, the western tradition of human rights tends to focus on political and civil rights, especially in relation to political expression, the press and religion. It neglects other central human rights. A Chinese approach sees human rights as a combination of economic, political and social rights. Of these the most important in a Chinese context is the right to economic wellbeing.

Let me put this in terms of a common example. In theory, all children are born equal. Or, rather, in an ideal situation, a child should be born equal. However, the womb of a rich, upper-class mother has more nutrients for the embryo, thereby creating a better physical environment for the development of the embryo. This is apart from the advantageous conditions in which the child finds itself upon birth. By contrast, the womb of a poor, working class mother has less nutrients and potentially harmful substances. Thus, the embryo is already disadvantaged before it is born, let alone the poor conditions in which it will find itself after birth.

For these reasons, in a Chinese situation the economic right to wellbeing is primary. This explains the consistent policy of successive Chinese governments in improving the economic level of the population. For example, today the emphasis is on developing the economic conditions of people in central and western China, who have lagged behind the eastern seaboard. It also explains a major plank of each of the five year plans, which set targets for how many tens of millions will be lifted out of poverty.

It is also worth noting that, in light of this emphasis, the Information Office of the China State Council releases an annual report on human rights in the United States. While this may be seen as tit-for-tat, in reply to the US State Department’s comments on China, it is worth noting the emphasis on economic rights. For these reports, the neglect of economic rights in ‘western’ countries is revealed through consistent abuses of such rights. The report for 2016 may be found at the Information Office of the State Council (full text here).

5. But is this Marxist? I suggest that it is. The reason is that a main factor of socialism has always been about improving the economic conditions of the poorest and most vulnerable. A version of socialism sometimes appears, in which everyone is equally poor. This might be called populist socialism. But actual socialism is based on the need to improve people’s lot in life. We find a good expression of this position already from the Jiangxi-Fujian Soviet of the early 1930s. Here a central ethos of the movement was articulated. The primary concern of every communist should be to ensure that people have enough food, adequate shelter and sufficient clothes. They should feel secure (anquan) in life – a fundamental feature of Chinese life. When people find they have such things through the communists, they will flock to join the movement and become revolutionaries.

Thus, the specific Chinese approach to human rights argues that the primary human right in the Chinese situation now is the right to economic wellbeing. This comes out of the intersection between the Chinese tradition and Chinese Marxism.


15 thoughts on “Chinese theory and practice of human rights

  1. “Thus, the specific Chinese approach to human rights argues that the primary human right in the Chinese situation now is the right to economic wellbeing. ” I don see why this is a specific Chinese approach. This is the core of philosophical (dialectic) materialism. As Bertold Brecht said, “First comes the eating than the morals”.

  2. Hello, a friendly request for you to edit this line–“A Chinese approach sees human rights as a combination political, social and political rights. Of these the most important in a Chinese context is the right to economic wellbeing.” I’m considering using this post in a class I teach, and don’t want to skew whatever meaning was intended. Loved your MOOC, enjoy your blog.

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