Stanley's blog

The paper written by Prof Li Junru for EU-China Observer Issue 6, 2009 is worth closer examination, bearing in mind the importance of the author. Prof. Li Junru is former Vice President of the Party School of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. He is now Vice Director of the China Reform Forum and Vice Director of the China Society for Human Rights Studies.

Luo Haocai, the Society’s President, outlined the Chinese approach at a BICCS seminar on 21 September 2009. Top priority is given to protecting the people’s right to subsistence and development. China strives to achieve “four coordinations” in its human rights protection – the coordination of national sovereignty and human rights; international and domestic considerations; human rights and society; and theory and practice. .

There are more than 160 Human Rights Councils across China, but
Western observers have the impression that protection of human rights has weakened in 2008 and 2009, and in particular, press and internet freedom has been curtailed.

That China has a human rights problem is accepted by many Chinese officials and scholars, but that does not give the West the justification to publicly criticize China’s human rights record. Constructive advice privately given is welcome – particularly where it shows that changes are in the country’s own interests. It is within this spirit that one should look at what Li Jinru has to say.

Professor Li aims to find a consensus between the EU and China on understanding human rights, in order to further promote the healthy development of EU-China relations. He is not certain whether the Europeans would understand this. The thrust of Professor Li’s argumentation is as follows:

• Human rights include political, economic, cultural and social rights.
• The assessment of human rights (in particular, fundamental political rights such as freedom of belief, freedom of the press) by Chinese and Europeans are totally different.
• People with different value orientations will have different value judgements.
• Only in modern times has a theory of human rights developed. It took time for human beings to recognize their human rights. The realization of human rights is relative to historical development, especially societal progress.
• The only criterion to assess human rights is whether or not a society can satisfy the demand for human rights.
• We should not compare the human rights conditions in China with that of developed countries, but examine whether nowadays the realisation of human rights satisfies the demand for human rights in China.
• To study the realisation of human rights in a state, we need to consider what progress has been achieved in realizing human rights and which human rights principles have evolved into practice.
• To judge the human rights conditions in a state, we should first examine the demands its people have made during the historical development process, and then examine whether the policies, laws and their practices have satisfied these demands.
• Thus, Chinese think that their country is in its best historical period with regard to human rights, but Europeans hold that the human rights situation in China has not fundamentally changed and that many problems remain.
• The Chinese argue that after 60 years’ development of the PRC, especially after the last 30 years of reform and efforts in opening-up, the Chinese people have enjoyed the rights to subsistence, development and other rights, which would have been impossible in the past. The Europeans, based on their demand for human rights and their demand for human rights in China, emphasize that the Chinese people do not enjoy basic political rights.
• The demand for human rights continuously develops. We cannot exceed the actual stage of development, neither can we ignore the rising demand for human rights that result from social progress.
• Demand for human rights in China, has been very different in different historical periods. Before the founding of the PRC in 1949, China was a semi-colonial and semi-feudal society. At that time, the demand for human rights was to gain collective rights on the basis of national independence and to realize the basic political, economic and social rights on the basis of individual liberation.
• 60 years ago, the policies adopted and the reforms implemented at the founding of the New China, satisfied the demand of its people. After such basic rights were realized, the Chinese people eagerly wanted to change their backward economy and culture, to eliminate poverty and to realize rapid industrialization. This has become, since the 1950s, the Chinese people’s new pursuit. In order to realize this and eliminate poverty, the Party led its people to engage in large-scale economic development. However, due to the mistakes in the party guidelines, this historical mission was not able to be completed. Not until the end of 1978 did the focus of the party turn from class struggle to economic construction. Reform then began, and the rights to subsistence and development were gradually be realized.
• In the 21st century, the Chinese people’s demand for human rights has again changed. China needs to continue to focus both on economic growth to protect the rights to subsistence and development, to guarantee a harmonious economic and social development, and to lead and support the Chinese people’s pursuit to obtain more social welfare rights.
• The demand for political rights requested by the Chinese people in recent years, for the rights to information, expression, participation and supervision, were originally put forward in order to guarantee the rights to subsistence and development.
• The demand from the majority of Chinese people for human rights, in particular, people from lower classes, mainly focuses on economic and social rights. Their demand widely diverges from those of international society. The demands for human rights are evolving, changing at different stages and rising in accordance with economic and social development.
• In order to examine and assess the human rights situation in a state, we need to look at the specific demands of the citizens for human rights within the state, especially the changing demand of the people in different historical periods. We should also find out whether the state satisfied the demand of its people, in particular, whether the state adapted itself to the rise and development of the demands made by its citizens in regards to human rights. .
• The Universal Declaration of Human Rights published
61 years ago, both followed the traditional human rights theory and its principles, and summarised the successful experience of anti-fascism and the achievements of human rights in democratic states. This thus added new substance to the human rights theory. On the other hand, in the post-war period, especially in the last two or three decades, the Western democratic system and its human rights principles, promoted in some states of Latin America and Africa, has not had many positive impacts.
• Since the Universal Declaration came into being, a series of important historical events occurred. Among them, were the trend of national independence and liberation after WWII, followed by the collapse of the colonial system, leading to the creation of a large number of developing countries. Socialism developed in the post-war period in a number of countries, but encountered a serious setback in the late 20th century. In the meantime, China, with one-fifth of the world’s population, selected the socialist path, based on Chinese characteristics and attained remarkable achievements in the 30 years’ reform period.
• Human rights are not only rights in relation to individual liberation and development, but also collective rights that a nation or a state should enjoy. Human rights are not only political rights developed against the control of feudalism and religion, but are primarily the rights to subsistence and development of the people. These are new questions that appeared in the post-war era and should, without doubt, be added to the theory of human rights.
• Therefore, when we study human rights, we also need to
summarise carefully the new experiences, and ideas collected concerning human rights practice, improve and develop traditional human rights theory and make new contributions to the development of human rights causes worldwide.

Li Junru rightly stresses the importance of economic rights and that the West tends to focus on political rights, and that the degree of human rights protection is influenced by the stage of economic and social development of the country.

He argues that the human rights conditions in China should not be compared with that of developed countries, but be examined to see whether nowadays the realization of human rights satisfies the demand for human rights in China.

However, is it right that the only criterion to assess human rights is whether or not a society can satisfy the demand for human rights? How do you operate such a test relevant to 1 300 000 citizens? And is ‘demand’ to be subjectively or objectively assessed? Must the demand be reasonable? If so, in whose eyes? and what happens if citizens fear to make their demands known? Is there a universality of fundamental rights or is this only a ‘western’ construction?

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  1. Dear Stanley,

    the basis of the entire human rights catalogue really is the dignity of each and every human being, that is an inalianable human property – and remains so even if it gets trampled on by states or other individuals or social and economic conditions. How from there on different cultures weigh the relative importance of the more specifically formulated rights may differ – but this central assumption and right, I think, is indeed universal and cannot be altered by circukmstances in specific societies.

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