A Brief History of the Modern Human Rights Discourse in China

Human Rights Dialogue 1.3 (Winter 1995): "International Human Rights and Asian Commitment"

Before the founding of the People s Republic of China in 1949, the term "human rights" was used by the Chinese Communist Party to oppose rule by the Kuomintang. The Communist Party adopted more than ten legal documents to guarantee human rights. After the founding of the PRC, the words "human rights" disappeared. They were replaced by "citizen s rights" and "people s rights" in order to make more explicit the socialist nature of the Chinese state. Given the logic of communist ideology—that the working people are the masters in society—human rights did not make much sense. After all, the logic went, from whom do you want rights? The implicit contrast between citizen s rights and human rights underscored the foreign nature of human rights.

In the 1970s, when people started to reflect on their experiences of the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, the term "human rights" reappeared in connection with highly publicized tragedies, such as the death of Liu Shaoqi, the vice chairman of the state, and the persecution of Deng Xiaoping. People began to realize that they needed something which could protect them against arbitrary mistreatment.

But at that time the Chinese people did not relate their experience of human rights to international human rights standards. Closed to the outside world, there had been no opportunity in China to learn about international standards. However, when Deng Xiaoping assumed power and implemented the "open door" economic policy in the late 1970s, human rights ideas and the knowledge of the international human rights movement reached the Chinese grassroots population. Then the question of how to think about one s human rights and relate them to a broader context became an issue for everyone. The campaign to "emancipate the mind" in the early 1980s aimed to cast off the old dogma and opened the way for reform, thus providing space for spreading human rights ideas.

But, in 1984 and 1987, the government launched two political campaigns that attempted to repudiate human rights. In the first campaign, human rights was labeled as "spiritual pollution"; in the second "bourgeois liberalization." The attitude these campaigns promoted was that we in China are doing fine without human rights. Viewed as something capitalist and foreign, "human rights" elicited suspicion against the user of such language. In 1988, during the international commemoration of the fortieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the discussion of human rights in China was limited and was used for the purposes of justifying Chinese state policies.

The present-day human rights discourse in China was sparked by the Tiananmen Square Incident in 1989, as the outside world suddenly increased its pressure on the Chinese regime. In response, the government published the Human Rights in China white paper in 1991. This was an attempt by the government to interpret Chinese laws in terms of human rights. The white paper is an expression of the government s view of human rights, which places a high priority on the right to subsistence and economic development as a precondition for the full enjoyment of human rights. Having been prompted by international pressure, the official Chinese discourse on human rights can therefore be characterized as reactive, rather than proactive.

By 1991, with the release of the white paper, "human rights" once again became an acceptable subject in China. For the first time human rights was viewed as something all human beings share in common. From this point on, China has been able to communicate with other countries in the region more fully on human rights, as seen in its active participation at the Bangkok Asian Regional Meeting on Human Rights, a preparatory session to the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights.

Compared to Western societies, China places mch less emphasis on individual rights and significantly more emphasis on the value of the individual in terms of his or her contribution to harmony in society. In fact, there is a strong reaction against the younger generation which thinks more about their "selfish" rights than the good of society. This is deeply rooted in Chinese culture. But today, in contrast to the past, human rights is not perceived as a threat to China s cultural identity. Rather, engaging in the international human rights discourse is seen as a way of resisting foreign influence and keeping Chinese culture distinct.

A people's awareness of their rights comes from their own experience, not from universal standards. That is why I mentioned earlier Deng Xiaoping, whose sense of human rights is derived by his own personal experience of family persecution. Domestic events interact with international pressure to shape a nation s understanding of human rights. While the imposition of universal standards of human rights will not by themselves alter the political landscape, they can sharpen a people s awareness of human rights. Furthermore, the rapid growth of China s economy may lead to greater access to information about human rights which will give way to continuously evolving views of human rights in China.

*1* This article draws from Professor Xin's paper delivered at the Hakone Workshop entitled, "East Asian Views of Human Rights."

Read More: Human Rights, Human Rights, Asia, East Asia, China

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