Discussing the Chinese Perspective on Human Rights

China’s civilization, which includes its ideological system, has a history of 5,000 years, over the course of which it has created its own view of the world and of what an individual is entitled to.

What is the contemporary significance of the concept of human rights? How to grasp its implications? Does this concept still wield influence in safeguarding individuals’ fundamental needs?

Chinese and foreign scholars recently exchanged their ideas on and observations of human rights in China at a January 20 seminar hosted by the China International Communications Group Center for the Americas (CICG Americas) ahead of the fourth cycle of the universal periodic review of China which was launched by the UN Human Rights Council on January 23.

Many of them agreed that human rights are couched in abstract terms in recent popular Western discourse and that China should offer a comprehensive and culturally grounded perspective on human rights, taking into account each country’s unique historical, cultural and developmental context.

Experts and geopolitical analysts from China, the U.S., Southeast Asian countries and Brazil focused on human rights development in China and the United States with special attention paid to China’s Xinjiang Uygur and Xizang autonomous regions as well as gender equality issues.

Human rights guaranteed

John Pang, a senior research fellow at Perak Academy in Malaysia, who has also been studying governance from the perspective of philosophy for decades, believed human rights should serve as the guardians of human essence and dignity. However, he observed a deviation from this purpose in some nations, where the tool of human rights is wielded not for the protection of people but to establish dominance over sovereign states.

Pang advocated transcending the Western narrative and embarking on a reframing of the human rights concept. In an analogy, he likened this transformative endeavor to Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein’s revolutionary physics theories—both constituting profound paradigm shifts.

China considers the right to subsistence and development primary and fundamental human rights. It strives to improve the rights of its entire population in a coordinated way and works for their all-round development, he added.

“The best contribution you can contribute in the world to human rights is development and ending poverty,” Benjamin Norton, an independent American journalist and geopolitical analyst, echoed, emphasizing China’s lifting 800 million people out of extreme poverty over the past 40 years as well as the country’s extensive infrastructure development, an essential contribution to poverty alleviation.

“Additionally, China plays a role in fostering global economic opportunities,” he said. It launched the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013, an initiative to boost connectivity along and beyond the ancient Silk Road routes, which had been joined by 152 countries and 32 international organizations as of June 2023. According to the National Development and Reform Commission, China’s national economic planner, last September, since 2013, some 77,000 China-Europe freight train trips had been made, providing services for 217 cities in 25 European countries.

China’s poverty alleviation campaign triggered an interest in this country for Filipe Porto, an international relations researcher at Brazil’s Federal University of ABC and an editorial consultant at the Portuguese digital monthly magazine China Hoje under CICG Americas.

This aerial photo taken on Jan. 30, 2022 shows a relocation residential community for poverty alleviation in Kaili, southwest China’s Guizhou Province. (Photo/Xinhua)

Porto shared some of his personal experiences at the seminar. He admitted that for a long time, his impression about China mostly stemmed from the articles published by Western media he’d read. But when he first came to China in 2008, the opening ceremony of the Beijing Summer Olympics that year served as a demonstration of China’s capabilities for him. In late 2020, the news that China had eradicated extreme poverty in the country reaffirmed that belief.

The U.S. and Western media frequently address human rights issues in Xinjiang and Xizang mostly with a negative undertone. Xiao Junyong, Executive Director of the Center for Science, Technology and Human Rights at the Beijing Institute of Technology, emphasized that promoting high-quality development is crucial for ensuring the advancement of human rights. He said Xinjiang’s agriculture, new energy and tourism sectors have developed rapidly, and the region has become an important supply place for high-quality agricultural products in China.

Xie Maosong, a senior research fellow with the National Institute of Strategic Studies at Tsinghua University, provided a historical perspective on the rightful status of Xizang as a part of China’s territory. He countered the misrepresentation and negative narrative of boarding schools in Xizang by the U.S., highlighting the tendency of Western countries, notably the U.S., to politicize and weaponize the Xizang- and Xinjiang-related issues.

Women’s rights

Shen Guoqin, an associate professor at the Law School at the People’s Public Security University of China, discussed the development of human rights in China from the perspective of women’s rights protection, and especially noted the improvements and achievements in the related legal framework.

Shen noted that the Constitution, the core of China’s legal system, emphasizes women’s equality with men in all aspects, including economic, social and cultural. A report released by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s top legislative body, said the proportion of women having endured physical or psychological violence in marital relationships stood at 8.6 percent in 2021, a decrease of 5.2 percentage points compared to 2010.

The NPC Standing Committee in 2015 reviewed and passed the Anti-Domestic Violence Law, which took effect in March 2016.

In recent years, seven areas, including health education, economic decision-making and social security, have been included in the statistical monitoring of the development of women’s rights and interests, Shen stressed.

At the seminar, Li Fangfang, a Beijing Review journalist and a Xinjiang native, elaborated on the region’s development of human rights by sharing the improvements in the development of women’s rights as well as the continuous evolution of rural revitalization there.

In recent years, Western media have taken a special interest in Xinjiang, but the Xinjiang they portray is vastly different from the one experienced by local people, Li added.

Performers dance at the ancient city of Kashgar scenic area in Kashgar, northwest China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, Sept. 4, 2023. (Photo/Xinhua)

Shifting the focus

Pang said human rights are abstract in the Western discourse and that the West has “shaped the concept of human rights as a system of power and rule, separated from everything important to human beings—such as food, clothing and shelter.”

Norton traced the origins of the discourse on human rights. He said whereas the concept of human rights is centuries old, the discourse on human rights is relatively modern, having been popularized in the neoliberal era of the 1970s.

For the U.S., for instance, “the government’s protection of human rights is only about individual freedom, while erasing social services, healthcare and education, housing and the right to work from it,” he said, elaborating, “The role of human rights is only to justify neoliberal economic policy and American foreign policy.”

He compared the public safety situation of China and the U.S., and pointed out that whereas the latter sees gun proliferation, the former is one of the safest countries on Earth.

“Women can walk around at night and they’re not going to be afraid of being attacked, people are not afraid of getting shot, whereas the United States has more guns than human beings. The country has as many as 300-400 shootings every year,” he said. “Isn’t this a violation of human rights?” Norton asked.

“The comparison with the United States is stark: While China focuses on poverty alleviation and infrastructure, the United States, under the guise of safeguarding human rights, bombed Serbia and violated international law by invading Iraq. The U.S. military actions in Iraq resulted in the loss of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, showcasing a striking contrast in their approaches to human rights,” Norton noted.

The number of Iraqi civilians killed between 2003 and 2022 stands at 209,982, according to figures from Iraq Body Count, the world’s largest public database of violent civilian deaths in Iraq since the 2003 invasion. And the invasion of Iraq has uprooted at least 9.2 million, a report by Brown University’s Costs of War Project said in 2020.

Pang said China’s civilization, which includes its ideological system, has a history of 5,000 years, over the course of which it has created its own view of the world and of what an individual is entitled to.

During the human rights seminar, all speakers emphasized the importance of carefully considering each country’s unique national conditions and historical backgrounds when discussing human rights, recognizing that approaches to human rights can vary across different nations.