Tuesday, April 24, 2018

A New Chinese Discourse on Human Rights

If you think that I intend to introduce my analysis of current Chinese discussions about human rights, you are mistaken, or at least not entirely correct. Human rights are being discussed intensely in China these days and the title of those debates is: ‘A new Chinese discourse on human rights’. The motivation for initiating such a debate at this particular moment should be easy to figure out. China is attacked on its human rights record from Western governments virtually on a daily basis. Whenever top Western politicians, e.g. my own Prime Minister and King recently, prepare for an official visit to China, fellow politicians and the local media vie for expressing the expectation that, while those envoys are discussing economic relations to ensure that we do no miss out on business opportunities, they will ‘mention human rights’. Those statements themselves are interesting material for discourse analysis. China will soon be the world’s largest economy and all nations want to cash in on that. China is liberally sharing its newly acquired wealth with other nations. The One Belt One Road initiative in combination with newly founded institutions like the Asian Infrastructure Bank, are linking the world’s fast developing high speed rail network (China’s, in case you are guessing) with the infrastructure of China’s neighbouring countries. These are all win-win projects. They benefit China’s economy and the economies of the neighbours alike.
This is a good point to return to the new Chinese discourse on human rights. The so called Universal Declaration of Human Rights is rooted in Western thinking. The very word ‘universal’ already indicates that the document is a product of universalist culture. The first clauses keep referring to the rights of the ‘individual’, similarly clearly showing roots in individualist cultureAs a result of China’s economic success, the one fifth of the world’s population living in China has access to sufficient nutrition, health care and education. The Chinese discourse regarding human rights so far was positioning that achievement as evidence of concern for human rights in China. This growing economic and political influence of former developing nations, led by China, is generating an increased pressure for a discussion about the conflicting rights of the individual and those of the social groups to which the individual is a member.
Many emerging economies are former colonies. They now find themselves frequently criticised by their former colonisers for ‘violating human rights’. However, the same former colonisers usually reject responsibility for causing the development gap. The new Chinese discourse on human rights addresses that issue by positioning the ‘right to development (RTD)’ as a prime human right. The commemoration of the proclamation of the RTD in 1986 was celebrated with a forum in Beijing in December 2016. An interesting detail is that only one nation opposed the proclamation of the RTD. That nation was itself a former colony and its Declaration of Independence contains a statement that ‘all men are created equal’.
Individualist – communitarian is not the only dimension for measuring national cultures, but it one that is best known by non-specialists. However, for people whose culture is on one end of that dimension, it is not so easy to grasp the way people on the other extreme makes sense of the world and their position in it. People who give priority to the rights of the group, when those rights clash with those of the individual, will have a problem with several of the clauses of the UDHR. Nations are large groups of people, and sometimes individual citizens need to cede part of their individual freedom for the benefit of their nation. The will, however, be able to share in that communal benefit, being the good citizens that they are.
The new Chinese discourse does not propose to replace the UDHR with another declaration but enrich it by adding a number of rights rooted in the cultures of the emerging economies. This also asks for a fresh approach to human rights in the developed, Western, world. A conflict between individual and group rights will be solved differently in strong individualist and strong communitarian cultures. Western nations need to stop interpreting the other approach as a violation of the UDHR, and instead see it as another way of implementing the same basic rights. Regional implementation of human rights needs to fit in the local culture and social practice.
In the coming months, I intend to contribute a number of posts to this blog, each based on another dimension of Trompenaars’ Seven Dimensions Model.

Guest Post by Peter Peverelli (Peter Peverelli is affiliated with the Cross Cultural Human Rights Centre at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam)

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