China’s Declaration on Human Right Represented Universal Validity
The continuity of Chinese values is clear: quality of life; shared values and collective action; harmony of peoples and cultures.
Human rights are what we want out of life for ourselves and our loved ones.
The genius of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, co-drafted by Chinese diplomat Peng Chung Chang, is that it extends the enjoyment of dignity, justice, freedom and peace to everyone, even to people who could have been our enemy.
Article 1 of the declaration, which is imbued with Chinese thought, states: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Subsequent articles in the declaration also reveal Chinese sensibilities.
Chang, as vice chair of the drafting committee, was credited with providing “the philosophical backbone of the declaration” even by those who disagreed with him. He drew on the ideas of Confucius and Mencius not because they were Chinese, but because their ideas had universal validity. He advocated harmony instead of sameness and resisted metaphysics, ideology and theism to ensure that the language used was untainted and represented universal validity and legitimacy.
Vehemently opposed to colonialism, when many still saw empires as a means of spreading “superior” Western values, he successfully opposed a clause that would have seen human rights applied differently in states and in their dependencies. He fruitfully advocated that the right to life should extend beyond mere existence to embrace the good life, thus permitting the inclusion of socioeconomic rights within the declaration.
Today, the right to economic development is opposed by the majority of already developed nations. War crimes and indiscriminate bombing of civilians are increasingly being committed, supported and, even, advocated in defense of “national security.” Indeed, human rights themselves risk becoming weaponized, presented as something that likeminded nations support but others abuse. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is marginalized, even ignored.
In such depressing times it is refreshing to engage with the Chinese values that ensured the universality of the declaration. These are reiterated in Xi Jinping: On Respecting and Protecting Human Rights, one of the latest collections of statements and documents often known collectively as Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era. In this volume, 335 passages are assembled, drawn from more than 160 documents covering the period 2012 to 2021 and organized under nine themes.
While not written as a book with a linear argument, the passages within sections are in date order, thus revealing the development of Xi’s thoughts. These are the ideas that underpin Chinese policy toward human rights. Hence, they make essential reading for anyone interested in China’s role in the world.
The continuity of Chinese values is clear: quality of life; shared values and collective action; harmony of peoples and cultures. The opening chapter is devoted to accounts of how China’s system of multi-party cooperation and political consultation, led by the Communist Party of China, has successfully delivered rights following principles established in the Constitution. The chapter explains the ways in which development has enhanced people’s lives, increasing incomes and improving health and safety.
President Xi describes the progressive realization of rights, rejecting the Western notion that rights are invariant and prescriptive. In China, he explains, “we understand that human rights protection is an ongoing cause, and we are always striving to do better.”
This improvement is possible because of China’s socialist democracy. This comprises first, the people’s exercise of power by holding elections and voting and second, exhaustive consultations that strive for consensus before major decisions are made.
Non-Chinese readers will note with interest that the chapter on special groups includes both women and ethnic minorities. In its entirety, the chapter presents a template for social policy reform.
The final chapter, the longest, is on global rights and cultural diversity. “Only through development can we resolve conflicts at their roots,” President Xi said, underlining the need for the “common development of all countries.”