The concept of human rights has long been the cornerstone of life in China. It influences everything from governmental policy to the daily lives of 1.3 billion people. For the Chinese, human rights are rooted in the values of communitarianism and subsistence. However, internal struggles and pressure from international forces have influenced changes the lives of the people. Today it is important to reflect on how these values have evolved in order to understand better the challenges that China faces as part of the international community. The evolution of human rights in China begins with Confucian philosophy, is then traced through political revolutions, and finally is examined within its current context of international pressures for liberalization.
When discussing Chinese human rights, first it is important to understand that the concept has evolved quite differently from the idea of human rights in the Western school of thought. In the West, the emphasis is placed on the civil and political rights of the individual. For the Chinese however, human rights began with Confucian philosophy, which is more communitarian in outlook and also focuses on socio-economic rights. This emphasis on the separation of Western human rights from Eastern human rights is important because any attempt to link the two involves a leap from the notion of the quintessential value of the individual to the collective notion of well-being of the people (Fung 2000: 53).
To understand traditional Chinese human rights, one must grasp three basic pillars of Confucian moral and political thought. First, it emphasizes that the human is a social being. Second, it places importance on the duties that person has to the common good of the community and the virtues needed for the fulfillment of those duties. And finally, it views social relationships as fundamental to communal flourishing and a shared vision of good (Twiss 1998: 40 – 41). Implicitly, this philosophy is saying that the human family is one and that it is of highest moral value to maintain its integrity and meet its needs (Ching 1998: 73). Society being the essential source of unity and harmony, the individual is subsumed and contributed through his own moral cultivation to the social betterment (Kent 1993: 31).
More specifically, the rights to which the community is entitled exist on a very fundamental level; in other words, they are rights to subsistence. Provisions of Confucian ethics include the right to life, freedom from starvation, the right to shelter and clothing, the right to an education, the right to employment, and a means of self-support (Koo 1998: 3-4 as seen electronically). Western philosophers would probably suggest this list of rights is missing important elements such as the right to free speech, the right to vote, etc.; however, there is an important reason why the Chinese did not include these civic and political rights. Confucianism logically reasons that when individuals are deprived of their basic rights of subsistence they do not care about voting and freedom to express their opinions because they are unable to sustain the basic necessities of life.
Historically, the political legitimacy of rulers was determined by their ability to secure these basic needs of the people while developing China in a way that benefited the empire as a whole (Twiss 1998: 41). To do this required a great amount of respect and loyalty from the citizens; therefor, the rule of law was traditionally centered around these Confucian values of human rights and emphasized a system of loyalties—a society in harmony with its rulers. Order and unity was of paramount importance and dissenters who sought to revolutionize this system were seen as parasites. They were considered a threat to the nation as a whole and the elimination of one, or even a few, individuals to maintain the values that promised prosperity was easily rationalized....(cont.)