human rights


human rights
For much of the post-1949 period human rights was a taboo subject in the PRC, or dismissed as a bourgeois slogan irrelevant to a socialist society. Towards the late 1970s, however, as a result of both domestic changes and China’s increasing incorporation in the world community, human rights surfaced in political debate. Participants in the Democracy Wall movement of 1978–9 were the first to challenge the official view of the class nature of rights, which led some establishment intellectuals to begin elaborating on a Marxist conception of human rights. China’s position on human rights gradually became more affirmative during the 1980s; it became a member of the UN Human Rights Commission in 1982 and signed several conventions.
Calls for human rights were heard again in the much larger democracy movement of 1989. The crushing of the movement provoked strong criticism from the West, and human rights now became an important and contested issue in China’s international relations. To counter the criticism the political leadership launched its own human rights policy, mainly in the form of official White Papers, and encouraged academic research on the topic.
This official blessing has resulted in an impressive number of academic works. The majority of these are still confined, however, within a Marxist theoretical framework that builds upon a historical and relativistic approach according to which the level of economic development determines the understanding and realization of human rights in a given society. Many argue furthermore that the right to subsistence is more important to the Chinese people than civil and political rights. But some works have appeared that propose a more liberal understanding of human rights, stressing the importance of civil and political rights and affirming their universality.
In contrast to other Asian countries, there are few references in either the official or the academic discourse to cultural distinctiveness or attempts to ground human rights claims in traditional values. Xia Yong is one of the few scholars to have attempted to relate Confucian ideas to the concept of human rights. Although official spokespersons often refer to ‘national conditions’ (guoqing) when defending China’s position on human rights, their emphasis is more on economic constraints than on cultural distinctiveness. It is important to note that the idea of Asian values never became a cornerstone in the official Chinese human rights policy. Chinese intellectuals and dissidents are generally very critical of Asian values and the view that universal human rights would be foreign and inapplicable to China. For example, Liu Junning, a prominent liberal, has argued that Asian values only serve to defend and justify the power of despotic and authoritarian political leaders.
Angle, Stephen C. (2002). Human Rights and Chinese Thought. A Cross-Cultural Inquiry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Angle, Stephen C. and Svensson, Marina (2001). The Chinese Human Rights Reader. New York: M.E.Sharpe.
De Bary, Theodore W. (1998). Asian Values and Human Rights: A Confucian Communitarian Perspective. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Svensson, Marina (2002). Debating Human Rights in China: A Conceptual and Political History. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
MARINA SVENSSON

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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