A new approach to human rights (and China)

The focus of dialogue with Beijing about human rights should shift from enforcing universal laws towards building a shared moral identity, says William A Callahan.
William A Callahan
24 February 2010

The Dalai Lama visited Barack Obama at the White House on 18 February 2010, just has he has visited every sitting United States president since George HW Bush in 1991. What is different this time is that China’s condemnation of the Tibetan spiritual leader’s welcome at the highest level of American government has to be taken more seriously.

It is another sign of China’s new assertive foreign policy, that challenges the west economically, politically - and culturally. The big question is what will Beijing do with this new global power? How will it order the world as it shifts from being a rule-follower to a rule-maker?

China’s intellectuals are answering this question by promoting indigenous concepts - such as Tianxia (“all-under-heaven”), Datong (“great harmony”), and “harmonious world” - to set the stage for a post-western world order.

Human rights is a subject conspicuously absent from these discussions - except when it is framed as a problem of western cultural imperialism that a Chinese world order would solve.

Why isn’t human-rights discourse popular in the People’s Republic of China? Most people in the west take the meaning of human rights for granted; this is not the case in China.

While in the PRC human-rights advocates like Liu Xiaobo are routinely censored, there also needs to appreciation among outside observers of China’s active debates about human rights and identity. A common criticism voiced in them is that human rights are not universal moral laws, but merely a parochial product of European political and cultural history.

Chinese leaders thus describe global politics as a battle between nationalist state sovereignty and interventionist human rights.

Sovereignty here is not only territorial, but also cultural. Chinese intellectuals talk at length about China’s national character, especially how it differs from the west: different civilisation; different national conditions; and even a unique Chinese DNA-line. 

The party-state thus has been able to reframe human rights from universal rights that are held by everyone, to be another example of western meddling in China’s internal affairs, as imperialist powers did in the 19th century. This is how Beijing understands the Dalai Lama’s visit to the White House.

A different debate

How can this division between China and the west be overcome? One way is to shift the discussion away from 19th-century history - which the Chinese call the “century of national humiliation” - towards addressing the detailed mechanisms enshrined in the PRC’s legal system.

The Chinese constitution actually enshrines all the human rights that western democracies enjoy, and more: including the right to work and even the right to rest. 

While the west should support Chinese dissidents, it is also necessary to do the less glamorous task of working with Chinese judges and lawyers to hold the PRC up to its own standards – just as the US or European countries are challenged to maintain theirs.

But the law is not enough; the west needs to think about human rights in a different way.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) is based on a particular understanding of humans as rational animals who have abstract moral obligations. Yet for many this argument is unconvincing - as the Chinese critics say, human-rights discourse is a product of a particular time and place: the European Enlightenment.

The implication is that rather than arguing about rights as part of some “essential human nature”, the focus should shift towards asking questions such as: “what sort of world can we prepare for our great-grandchildren?”

This approach, guided by the ideas of the American pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty, would involve moving from debates about universal rationality to understanding human rights as a culture, a shared moral identity that extends sympathy to others. Here the reason to support for human rights is not because they are true, but because they are “good” - and more importantly, because violating human rights is bad.

This is a tough argument to make right now; with its economic success, Beijing is promoting illiberal global norms. But rather than get sucked into a “clash of civilisations” that pits China against the west, the focus in the west should be on building interpersonal relations with Chinese friends and colleagues. The goal here is not so much to create shared understanding, but shared sympathy that is both critical and self-critical.

This is very different from the dominant legalistic approach to human rights; but there are (as even the PRC constitution shows) enough human-rights laws.

In the effort to expand human-rights culture, it is not possible just to rely on conversations among (for example) Hu Jintao, Barack Obama, and the Dalai Lama. There must be more transnational conversations in all sectors of society, including people who work in education, business, and NGOs.

Human rights used to be an issue of how the rich west could save “backward” people in the poor world. But with the shift in global power to Asia, China is increasingly exporting censorship and promoting illiberal global norms.

In any event, human-rights violations are no longer just the problem of people “over there”; now those in the west too have to think about how to protect their own human rights. A globally assertive China creates the opportunity as well as the necessity for a rethink.  


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