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Common ground and preserving differences

Xiaoyu Pu responds to strong arguments from David Schlesinger and Hugh Shapiro who have both challenged Pu's views on whether China could one day be a normative power. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate on Emerging Powers and Human Rights.

Xiaoyu Pu
24 July 2013

The responses from David Schlesinger and Hugh Shapiro to my essay on China’s human rights diplomacy are especially stimulating and insightful. While sharing much common ground with them, I take this chance to clarify my argument.

The principle of “seeking common ground while preserving differences” could be used or misused for different purposes. As described by David Schlesinger, this principle as a slogan could be misused as a “code for simply telling others to mind their own business.” However, this is not necessarily the only way the principle should be interpreted. In political dialogue, the principle could be largely viewed as an open-minded approach to encourage multiculturalism and mutual respect.  

I agree with David Schlesinger that deeds are crucial to evaluate human rights in China or elsewhere. That said, we should not underestimate the impact of words. While words are conventionally viewed as being cheap, this is not always the case. As Robert Jervis, a leading American scholar of international politics said, “Words can carry significant evidence of their validity. Indeed if this were not so, it would be hard to explain why actors who mistrust each other bother to listen---or talk---at all.” In other words, if talks are always cheap, why do politicians and diplomats talk to each other? There has been a gradual change of political rhetoric in China’s human rights policy: three decades ago, the word “human rights” (renquan) was almost a taboo in China. Now the Chinese officials often use the human rights terminology in international dialogue. Admittedly the real human rights situation in China is far from ideal. However, the positive change through China’s signing of international treaties and modification of legal regulations should be identified and recognized. The ideals, embedded in statements and legal regulations, are crucial because these words will shape policy choices and serve as a roadmap for future actions.

Hugh Shapiro largely agrees with my analysis of China’s relationship with the western-dominated international order, and he also argues that the advantage of the West is temporary.  His discussion of the concept of “the West” is insightful. While scholars in Europe and elsewhere have abandoned ethnocentric terms such as “the Far East,” why should China continue using the term “the West”? In my essay, I use the term “the West” conventionally as it is commonly understood in China.  But I agree that China should rethink its position in the world, including its relationship with “the West.”  Wang Jisi, dean of School of International Studies at Peking University, proposes that China should accurately identify itself as being a “Middle Kingdom” (Zhongtuo) instead of an Eastern country or a Western country.

At the end of the day, how should we deal with the common ground and the differences? Individuals in different nations and civilizations are both the same and different. It would be wrong to ignore the common ground or to ignore the differences. Some elites in China seem to overemphasize the cultural uniqueness of China, and their Chinese exceptionalism might have frustrated the dialogue between China and the outside world. However, some elites in the West might overestimate the universal validity of a particular Western political framework, and they do not recognize the particular cultural and civilizational tradition of some non-Western societies. The tension between uniqueness and universality has often been a barrier in international dialogue. Sociologist Erving Goffman provided a middle-ground solution, “Underneath their differences in culture, people everywhere are the same . . . And if a particular person or group or society seems to have a unique character all its own, it is because its standard set of human-nature elements is pitched and combined in a particular way.”Similarly, the common elements of human rights are the same everywhere, but a human rights movement could be organized differently in different contexts. It is a challenge for us to recognize both our common ground and our differences. In this sense, “seeking common ground while preserving differences” is not merely a diplomatic slogan, and it might be a fruitful approach for global human rights dialogue.   

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