Richard C. KAGAN

Xi’an students protesting. The rallying cries of activists echoed throughout China’s turbulent twentieth century.

Scholars, politicians, and activists—inside and outside of China—have long debated the theories behind and the application of human rights in the world’s most populous country, and Western media thrives on stories denouncing China’s human rights record. This debate probably causes more misunderstanding between China and the West than any other.

The history of human rights in China divides into three parts: the rallying cries of human rights activists, the political and academic arguments of the government and foreign scholars, and Beijing’s suppression of human rights. The activists do not concern themselves with the intellectual or historical origins of human rights or with their Western relationship to China. They are engaged in the application, not in the historical legitimacy of the rights. The cultural theorists argue whether China is exceptional and thus not part of the universal code of human rights, or whether China has a historical background that fostered human rights ideas. Beijing’s actions have created a vast response of critics both inside and outside China.

Political Leaders and Movements

The earliest known discussions of human rights in China’s context began in the late 1890s. Since the Chinese terminology was not standardized for several decades, the terms natural law (tianfu) and human rights (renquan) were used arbitrarily, just as they were in the West when Thomas Paine introduced the term in 1791 in The Rights of Man. Revolutionaries such as Zou Jung (1885–1905) used a call to human rights to drive out the Manchu rulers and bring political freedom to the Chinese. Others changed their name to announce their new allegiance: Feng Zi-you means Freedom Feng; Liu Yazi, a lifelong advocate of human and women’s rights and constitutionalism, became so infatuated with Rousseau’s views that he changed his name to Liu Jenquan, or Human Rights Liu, when he was only sixteen in 1902.

The acceptance of human rights for China was not universal. Radicals and reformers like Liang Qichao (1873–1927) adopted a Darwinian and Spenserian view that denied the existence of human rights because all rights were considered to be created by the powerful. From this point of view, only the strongest survived. It was necessary for the state to become strong in order to protect the people, even if the people’s rights were denied. What is significant in the criticism of human rights doctrine is that the argument is not based on Chinese values but on Western criticism of human rights theory. The debate within China about human rights was a pragmatic one: would they strengthen or weaken China, not whether they were foreign or domestic.

The founding of the Republic of China in 1911, the collapse of the Qing dynasty, and the subsequent abdication of its emperor in 1912 ushered in a period of domestic and international chaos: warlords, Japanese intervention, the rise of nationalist reformers, and Communist revolutionaries. Sun Yat-sen, the founder of the Nationalist Party(Guomindang), disparaged the concept of human rights. All rights and power came from the political party or the state. People’s rights were valid as long as they supported the state. Citizens who opposed the state lost their rights. These ideas were shared by the leaders of both the Nationalist government under Chiang Kai-shek, and the current Communist leadership.

Conversely, many early Nationalists and Communists supported the rights of the individual. Gao Yihan (1885–1968), a Guomindang leader, advocated for political and civil rights: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of assembly, and rule by law. Chen Duxiu (1879–1942), one of the founders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), initially argued for civil and political rights in the tradition of the American and French revolutions. Li Dazhao (1888–1927), another founder of the CCP, stressed the socialist rights of economic and labor rights over the civil and political rights of the individual. But he did not renounce the traditional nineteenth-century definition of individual rights. His stress on people’s rights (min ben) was related more to the ideas of socialism than to the Confucian stress on the people’s livelihood.

From 1915 to 1923 (a period generally named the May Fourth Movement for demonstrations in Tiananmen Square held on 4 May 1919), many journals debated the nature and the pros and cons of human rights. The most vigorous debates were published in New Youth, New Tide, and Human Rights. Freedom of thought and of publication dominated the concerns of these editors. Human rights were necessary not only to protect the individual from the state but, even more important, also to provide for the dignity of the individual. Without rights people would lose their human dignity and collapse into a state of slavery. It was the duty of both the citizen and the state to provide for the common good of all people.

The trend toward social utility was reinforced by the visits of John Dewey (1859–1952) and Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) to China and the writings of English idealists such as T. H. Green (1836–1882) and David George Ritchie (1853–1903), social liberals such as L. T. Hobhouse (1864–1929), and socialists such as Harold Laski (1893–1950). The popularization of terms such as freedom, democracy, and human rights made them part of the rhetorical framework of the 1920s. They were not always defined in academic terms because they were familiar and considered norms that were applicable to China’s crisis.

The May Fourth Movement was not monolithic in its analysis of why human rights did not exist in China. The New Tide group felt that the tradition of Confucianism had caused the Chinese to repress their feelings and their sense of dignity. The New Youth writers Chen Duxiu, Li Dazhao, and Gao Yihan blamed the government and the warlords for violating what they claimed were their rights of freedom of thought, assembly, and representation in government.

During the Nanjing Decade (1927–1937) and the War of Resistance against Japan (1937–1945, known outside China as the Second Sino-Japanese War) many of these debates became moot. The commitment to national salvation against the Japanese and the civil war between the Nationalists and Communists created a military campaign mentality. The debate transformed to questions of dictatorship versus democracy. Nonetheless, liberals and scholars such as Hu Shi (1891–1962), Luo Longji (d. 1965), Zhang Junmai (1886–1969), and Zhang Pengqun (1892–1957), also known as P. C. Chang, and organizations such as the Xinyue Group, the China League for Civil Rights, and the China Democratic League vigorously argued for the adoption of human rights, though from very different, and often contradictory, perspectives. Hu Shi argued for both civil and economic rights. For him human rights were universal and were to be established in the legal and constitutional system of the Republic of China, a stance that created a backlash in the Guomindang, which attacked him for his views and passed laws that were even more authoritarian.

Luo’s views were directly related to Harold Laski’s argument that human rights were historical and contextual. Rights and laws reflected the needs of the social and economic system. They should be used functionally to create a safer and more wholesome society. At times the individual’s freedom may need to be curtailed. Zhang Junmai attempted to synthesize the humanism of neo-Confucianism with the philosophical perspective of human rights. He believed that China’s traditional ethics, which were based on conscious and promoted human dignity, were not only the best approach to legitimizing human rights and democracy but also, in fact, China may have been the real source for the West’s views of human rights.

P. C. Chang was China’s chief representative to the Commission on Human Rights, which created the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He is given credit forArticle 1, which refused to claim that rights were based on natural law or divine inspiration. Faintly echoing Zhang Zhunmai, Chang stressed the innateness of dignity and conscience.

Human Rights with Chinese Characteristics

The establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 resulted in a total rejection of the legitimacy of human rights arguments. Human rights were a product of the bourgeoisie and were thus used to maintain the rule of the capitalist and imperialist class. With a few, but startling, exceptions in 1957 and 1978, any mention of human rights was taboo and resulted in imprisonment.

But just before and after the suppression of prodemocracy students in Tiananmen Square (4 June 1989), the Communist authorities began to engage in the human rights debate to justify their authority and their rule. In 1991 a government “white paper” on human rights declaimed: “Since the very day of its founding, the Communist Party of China has been holding high the banner of democracy and human rights.” This stunning declaration was followed up with academic conferences on human rights and the creation of several institutes especially devoted to human rights, such as the China Society for Study on Human Rights. From 1995 to 1998, the Confucius Foundation in Beijing sponsored a series of international forums with the purpose of discussing Confucius and human rights. In the late 1990s, Beijing signed the two covenants on economic, social, and cultural rights.

The study of human rights in China is initiated and managed by the CCP and the government. It has not included meetings with Chinese citizens or with local nongovernmental organizations active in human rights. The official position is that China has developed a socialist system of human rights with Chinese characteristics. Stages of economic and industrial development determine the scope and quality of human rights. Liu Huaqiu, head of the Chinese delegation at the Vienna World Conference on Human rights in 1993, defined the Chinese view succinctly:

The concept of human rights is a product of historical development. It is closely associated with specific social, political, and economic conditions and the specific history, culture and values of a particular country. Different historical development stages have different human rights requirements. Countries at different development stages or with different historical traditions and cultural backgrounds also have different understanding and practice of human rights. (cited in Svensson 2002)

From this point of view, the most basic rights are those of subsistence and shelter. These economic rights are considered superior to, and of greater priority than, political and civil rights.

There is more to the definition than a mere enunciation of domestic policy. China argues that America and the West use the invasive argument that human rights are universal to force China to peacefully evolve into a colony of Western economic and political control. Beijing does not argue that Chinese cultural (e.g., Confucianism) values prevent it from accepting Westernization. Rather, it is China’s anti-imperialist stand and its desire to create its own national identity in the twenty-first century that makes it refuse to accept standards that serve the interests of Washington, D.C.

Beijing’s Repression of Human Rights

The Chinese government has maintained that its sovereignty excludes foreign powers from interfering in its affairs. It has adamantly refused to allow independent agencies to investigate openly and report on its alleged human rights abuses. According to its critics, China has engaged in massive abuse of human rights. With regard to political and civil rights, it has tortured and executed prisoners of conscience, repressed religious organizations, prohibited democratic organizations and meetings, arrested and detained people without trial, and engaged in widespread abuse and repression of women, the unemployed, minorities, and the poor. The Chinese leadership has been accused of long-term genocidal practices against the Tibetan people. Contrary to the Beijing’s claim that itfavors economic and social rights, it has been accused of destroying the environment, censoring the educational system, exploiting workers, and engaging in organized official corruption.

The Tiananmen Square riots resulted in a massive amount of attention to human rights conditions in China. The call for human rights became widespread, though underground, in China, and was openly publicized by Chinese groups abroad. Wang Dan, Wuer Kaixi, and other leaders of the student movement found exile in America and Europe, where they organized resistance groups and published journals such as China Spring. American human rights organizations joined forces: Amnesty International and Asia Watch were joined by the online sources Tibet On Line Resource Gathering and Asia Observer. The U.S. government’s pressure on China to adhere to human rights standards was most visible in the arguments surrounding the congressional review of China’s most-favored-nation status and the arguments over entry to the World Trade Organization. The most sensational and informative moment for the Chinese citizenry came on 30 June 1998 when President Bill Clinton spoke on the “Shanghai Radio 990” call-in show. Broadcasting to China’s largest city, the president declared, “whatever differences of opinion we have about what human rights policy ought to be…we still have a lot in common…I believe that the forces of history will bring about more convergence in our societies going forward.”

Beijing’s response to these overtures was generally negative. A diatribe entitled The China That Can Say No best expressed the voluminous official reactions to the human rights movement. It countered the arguments by exposing America’s human rights abuses and the hypocrisy of the leadership. In the United Nations Commissionon Human Rights, Beijing’s diplomats claimed their right of sovereignty and denounced what they depicted as fallaciousness of the attacks on their integrity. Human rights activities in China were considered to be antigovernment in nature and result in harsh punishment. China also considered the United States’s campaigns and support of human rights to be an extension of America’s imperialistic attitudes.

What are Asian Values?

In the early 1990s, “Asian values” became a hot topic in the international human rights debate. Several countries, with Singapore among the most prominent, accused the West of imposing its human rights standards on Asia without regard for Asia’s specific culture and history. The proponents of Asian values argued that their countries had a different understanding of human rights due to their specific culture and history. While they did not completely reject universal human rights, their cultural relativism nevertheless represented a major challenge to an international consensus on human rights. References to culture and to national conditions (guoqing) have become more prominent in Chinese human rights discourse since the 1990s, but the Chinese government itself has placed much less emphasis on cultural arguments than have nations like Singapore. As a socialist country, China is more wont to argue that different economic systems and levels of economic development influence the understanding and realization of human rights. China’s official position is to identify itself with the Third World as a whole, rather than with Asia alone…. Despite the relatively small importance of cultural arguments in official discourse, several Chinese intellectuals and dissidents have written explicit critiques of Asian values. Liu Junning (b. 1961) is one of those who strongly refutes the view that Asian people would have different views from Westerners on human rights and democracy. He believes that the Asian values advocated by Asian political leaders only serve to defend their hold on power and suppress people’s genuine demands for human rights and democracy. Writing in 1998, Liu blamed the leaders particular concept of Asian values for both the recent Asian economic crisis and the attacks on ethnic Chinese in Indonesia in May of that year.

Source: Source: Angle, S. C., & Svensson, M.. (2001). The Chinese human rights reader. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 409.

Twenty-First-Century Developments

Individual rights, judicial reform, and environmental justice continue to be subjects for academic discourse and also popular journalism in China. There are Chinese as well as Westerners blogging and discussing human rights online. Chinese people remain sensitive to unfair criticism by Western powers whose own record is not pristine. This sensitivity was marked during the Tibetan riots and the Olympic torch relay controversy in spring 2008. Instead of being swayed by Western protesters, many Chinese argued that Westerners were hypocritical, ignorant of history, and culturally chauvinistic in their readiness to impose their values and perspectives. This situation typifies much of the human rights debate, as neither side seemed able to understand and acknowledge the underlying convictions of the other.

Western clumsiness often reminds the Chinese of past intrusions and the long imposition of Western controls on Chinese society and economy, and suggests to many Chinese that Western nations simply want an excuse to keep China from taking its rightful place in the world. Discussion of relations with China changed in tone, however, after the global economic crisis began in late 2008. Both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and UK foreign secretary David Miliband have expressed a desire to develop a new spirit of cooperation with China, with a focus on theglobal economy and but also mentioning climate change cooperation and human rights as priorities.

A human rights manifesto 零八宪章 Lingba Xianzhang, known as Charter 08, was published on 10 December 2008, the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and signed by some three hundred Chinese intellectuals, scholars, and activists. Its call for free speech and free elections has support inside and outside China, but whether such an approach will lead to substantial change is uncertain. Awareness of individual and human rights issues is growing, in any case. While U.S. and international organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Human Rights in China continue to monitor activities in China, the Chinese government has established its own NGOs, the China Foundation for Human Rights Development and the China Society for Human Rights Studies. It has begun a new dialogue with the Dalai Lama, and showed more openness in the aftermath of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. There are also independent civil society organizations involved in this area, and the Internet creates new opportunities for individuals to express their views and to communicate directly with one another about human rights. The resurgent interest in Confucian values is also providing a way for China to define human rights on its own terms, but considerable challenges remain in bridging the real and perceived differences about what human rights are and should be in the twenty-first century.

Further Reading

Angle, S. C. (2002). Human rights and Chinese thought: A cross-cultural inquiry. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Angle, S. C., & Svensson, M. (Eds.). (2001). The Chinese human rights reader: Documents and commentary, 1900–2000. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

de Bary, W. T., & Tu Weiming (Eds.). (1998). Confucianism and human rights. New York: Columbia University Press.

Clinton, W. J. (1991). Remarks in a call-in show on Shanghai Radio 990. Retrieved February 5, 2009, from

Foot, R. (2000). Rights beyond borders. The global community and the struggle over human rights in China. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.

Government White Papers. (1991). The Chinese people have gained extensive political rights. Retrieved February 5, 2009, from

Hom, S. (1996). Commentary: Re-positioning human rights discourse on “Asian” perspectives. Buffalo Journal of International Law, 3(1): 251–276; Reprinted in Bell, L. S., Nathan, A. J., & Peleg, I. (Eds.) (2001). Negotiating culture and human rights. New York: Columbia University Press.

Kelly, D., & Reid, A. (Eds.). (1998). Asian freedoms: The idea of freedom in East and Southeast Asia. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Svensson, M. (1997). The Chinese conception of human rights in China, 18981949. Lund, Sweden: University of Lund.

Svensson, M. (2002). Debating human rights in China: A conceptual and political history. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Van Ness, P. (Ed.). (1999). Debating human rights: Critical essays from the United States and Asia. New York: Routledge.

Worden, M. (2008). China’s Great Leap: The Beijing Games and Olympics human rights challenges. New York: Seven Stories Press.

Source: Kagan, Richard C. (2009). Human Rights. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1110–1115. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Human Rights (Rénquán 人权)|Rénquán 人权 (Human Rights)

Download the PDF of this article