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Collective apathy: nationalism and human rights in China

Rooted in nationalism and fuelled by state propaganda, collective interests dominate China’s political psychology, making it hard for citizens to become interested in democracy or human rights. To overcome this apathy, the authors call for a new international human rights paradigm to help reorient the Chinese public’s views. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate on Emerging Powers and Human Rights. 中国语文

Jiangnan Zhu Tianzhao Yang
19 March 2014

Recently on openGlobalRights, several authors discussed China’s potential for becoming a global human rights player. The basic problem, in our view, is that Chinese citizens are still uninterested in a domestic or international human rights agenda, largely as a result of nationalistic propaganda. Without much domestic interest, in turn, the Chinese government is unlikely to start behaving as an international “normative power” concerned with the human rights of people living in other countries.

For a recent example of ardent Chinese nationalism, consider this. In December 2013, the Japanese Prime Minister visited a Shinto war memorial in Tokyo, triggering intense Chinese criticism. Chinese officials accused the Japanese leader of brazen disrespect towards all those who had suffered from his country’s historic aggression, and many members of the public supported those views. In the ensuring months, Chinese print and electronic media were awash in harsh criticism of the Japanese actions.

These views were reminiscent of the anti-Japan protests in many of China’s cities in 2012, when nationalist mobs, sometimes termed “patriotic thieves” (aiguo zei 爱国贼), smashed stores selling Japanese products.  

This kind of nationalist mob violence is not surprising, given that Chinese officials and opinion leaders regularly promote altruism and collectivism as a way of protecting collective rights. In the past few months, for example, an article named Without the Motherland, You Are Good for Nothing (没有了祖国你将什么都不是), has circulated widely on major Chinese social media sites, including those directly controlled by the government. It argues for the importance of keeping China unified and stable under the party-state’s leadership, citing instability and strife in the Middle East. The article defines nationalism as the need to “cherish oneself so as to prevent one’s country from falling into chaos” (知爱自己,不让自己的国家乱), and paints China’s international relations as a life-or-death struggle with the west. Aided by the provocative and resounding anti-Japanese demonstrations, this piece quickly spread online.

Unfortunately, arguments of this sort are all too common in Chinese public debates. Though fewer people today speak up publicly for collective interests than they did in Mao’s time, many still believe that “collective interests naturally come first.” For instance, the 2008 Asian Barometer Survey showed that 77.5 percent of the respondents agreed or strongly agreed that, “In a group, we should sacrifice our individual interest for the sake of the group’s collective interest.” Also, 82.4 percent agreed or strongly agreed that, “For the sake of national interest, individual interest could be sacrificed.” Notably, while proponents of this perspective do not directly attack the notion of individual rights, their intense interest in the collective inevitably undermine concern with the needs and rights of individual people.

To some extent, this approach is understandable. China is still a developing country, despite its formidable growth, and most of the country’s attention is still focused on domestic issues. Engagement with international human rights issues, under these conditions, seems like a second order priority.

Yet the Chinese government also faces increasing challenges to its authority because of corruption, social injustice, and domestic violations of human rights. Indeed, a handful of public voices have begun to deviate from state-mandated political correctness. Although economic prosperity was once sufficient to bolster the public’s support for the government, Chinese officials seems increasingly keen to find new ways of boosting their domestic legitimacy.

How, then, do we speed up the human rights process in China? As José-Manuel Barreto has argued elsewhere on openGlobalRights, the international human rights discourse needs a fundamental rethink. Chinese nationalism has resisted human rights language because it regards the term as a neo-colonial and western-centered concept. Contextualizing human rights and embedding it in Chinese history, by contrast, could be a big help. As Kerry Brown suggests, moreover, concern with the efficient “administration of justice,” rather than “human rights,” per se, could help the Chinese public find common ground with rights activists living elsewhere.

If China engages with a revised human rights discourse that draws on lessons from the developing world, and embraces both western and eastern classical philosophies and values, the whole world – and most significantly the global South – will benefit.

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