Unlike many other nations, China has formally recognized cultural rights, having ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. The government also claims to protect dozens of ethnic minorities and, since the end of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1970s, has gradually allowed Taoists, Confucians, Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians to resume worship within limits. As a December 2004 article in the government-run Beijing Review explains, such limits prohibit “endangering state or public security” and “obstructing the administration of public order or encroaching upon public or private property.” This, however, is the same pretense under which the government has long crushed pro-democracy movements and imprisoned dissidents. While China’s Marxist-Leninist legacy promises a gentler treatment of ethnic minorities than of religious believers, both groups have been considered a threat to the state, particularly in the cases of Tibetan Buddhists and Hui Muslims in Xinjiang and other Autonomous Regions.
In practice, then, China’s acknowledgment of cultural rights is at best selective. The government actively suppresses distinct cultural activities it deems to be “evil cultish” or “separatist,” and it censures the practices of Tibetan Buddhists loyal to the Dalai Lama and of members of the Falun Gong, a quasi-Buddhist sect, because they are viewed as a threat to the government’s hold on power. It pointedly avoids describing these groups as “cultural communities” and does not recognize their practitioners as possessing cultural rights.
Besides limiting the scope within which ethnic and religious culture can be enjoyed, the government also tries to control the definition of the majority “Chinese culture”—a definition that it has changed over time. Initially the Communist regime rejected all “feudal residues,” including Confucianism. The anti-Confucian campaign reached a climax during the Cultural Revolution when Mao denounced those threatening his power as “Confucian dogs.” The tide turned during the 1980s and 1990s, however. In defiance of international criticism about the region’s anti-democratic practices and poor human rights record, South-East Asian governments laid claim to distinctively “Asian values” as legitimizing a different approach to human rights. In the face of international scrutiny for its rights violations, particularly during the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and its aftermath, the Chinese government eagerly joined the bandwagon. The Confucian tradition was officially “rehabilitated,” and declared China’s authentic cultural tradition.
The government’s particular reading of Confucianism, supported by some scholars, emphasizes the family and society’s collective interests over the interests of the individual, which are associated with social instability, disorder, and the undermining of collective national pursuits. This construction of “Chinese culture” rejects “individualistic” civil and political liberties. (Conspicuously, the Chinese Government has yet to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.) In this way, by determining what counts as “Chinese culture,” the government promotes a narrowly circumscribed and politically self-serving application of collective “cultural rights.” Despite its professed concern for cultural rights, the government’s actions make clear that it is not interested in promoting the country’s internal cultural diversity, which it casts as socially and politically dangerous.
In fact, however, the official rehabilitation of Confucianism has inadvertently revitalized other religious traditions— a process facilitated by China’s increased engagement with economic globalization. Chinese authoritarian leaders have responded by jailing Tibetan Buddhists, driving unofficial Christian churches underground, and actively persecuting practitioners of the Falun Gong. They violate the rights of individual members of these groups through torture, secret trials, and arbitrary detention. They heavily police the Internet, forbid public gatherings to express dissent or to practice a banned religion, and punish sympathetic intellectuals, writers, and journalists. Together these actions amount to a systematic infringement of civil and political rights. This infringement, in turn, undercuts any protection of their cultural rights.
But the government’s oppressive actions have a silver lining. Government persecution and suppression have turned many Tibetan Buddhists, Christian churchgoers, and members of the Falun Gong into sympathizers and supporters of China’s human rights and pro-democracy movement. In fact, Falun Gong members have organized the most effective and sustained campaigns against torture and arbitrary detention seen in PRC history.
These groups seem to understand that the protection of civil and political rights is a precondition for the meaningful exercise of cultural rights. Promoting the “right to culture” and protecting a society’s intra-cultural diversity involves granting “exclusive” immunities or privileges, if necessary, to members of distinct cultural communities. Exclusive immunities might mean allowing time off from work to pray, facilitating teaching of local languages, permitting the practice of alternative medicine, or tolerating public expression of beliefs such as the Falun Gong practice of mind-body exercises. Institutional safeguards—including protections for freedom of religion, expression, assembly, and association—are necessary to protect exclusive privileges to engage in distinct cultural practices, to express alternative (non-official or unpopular) cultural identities, to creatively develop culture, and to benefit from the unique products of one’s culture. If these safeguards are not put in place, the survival of China’s distinct religious and cultural communities will remain threatened.
Some Chinese pro-democracy reformers and liberal intellectuals are suspicious of cultural claims, which has left them working with only a partial picture of the extent of the problem. They find evocations of “cultural traditions” suffocating, and blame the country’s lack of democratic progress on the long dominance of old traditions. (And many of their counterparts in the West agree.) Others worry that tolerating diverse religious expressions is tantamount to endorsing particular faiths or visions of “salvation.” In this way, like the government, these reformers have failed to appreciate the indivisible relationship between demands for cultural rights by members of traditional cultural communities and demands for protection of civil liberties and political freedom.
Political suppression, as China’s own recent bloody history vividly demonstrates, can no more rid people of cultural identities and faiths than it can aid healthy debates in the marketplace of ideas and beliefs. In part because the language of cultural rights has been usurped by the state, a unified struggle for greater tolerance and better protection of civil-political liberties, which includes religious-ethnic groups and liberal reformers, has yet to materialize in China.