Human Rights Dilemma

On June 30th, 2001, I had the opportunity to explore Tiananmen Square along with Professor Tang, several of my classmates, and Lisa Rose Weaver, the CNN-Beijing correspondent. As we crossed the square and discussed the history of the place, we came across a fellow doing tai chi with his eyes closed and a strange smirk on his face. Within minutes, two ladies ran out, unfurled little yellow banners, and began proclaiming the legitimacy of the Falun Gong. The guards wasted no time in snatching the banners. As this drama ensued, the fellow doing tai chi was seized and began shouting slogans. The three were bundled into a waiting police van and taken away.

In the eyes of the average Chinese person, this occurrence is common and acceptable. After all, the Falun Gong cult is illegal in China and perhaps a bit crazy as well, so why should they be allowed to demonstrate on Tiananmen Square? However, the very same arrest draws intense criticism from the West as a gross violation of human rights, particularly the rights to free speech and assembly. By examining the concept of human rights in China, the reason for this misunderstanding becomes clear. China and the West disagree significantly on the definition of “human rights.”

Using the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a basis for comparison, it becomes clear that the major difference between the West and China lies in the importance given to various rights. In the United States, civil and political rights are the key facets of human rights. The right to freedom of expression is the first article in the Unites States’ Bill of Rights. Freedom of assembly and religion are also held very highly. These rights are reflected in Articles 18, 19, and 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (see Appendix A). The rights to employment and social welfare (Articles 23 and 25) are not as important in the United States. Unemployment is important to maintaining mobility within the workforce under capitalism. Social welfare exists and holds an important place in the United States, but self-sufficiency is the foremost goal of most Americans.

During the past century in China, great emphasis has been placed on placing the well being of the group before the individual. As such, the importance of various rights is reversed as compared to the United States. The common view of human rights in China is not connected with political or civil rights. During a conversation with Chinese students, it was clear that the first goal of human rights in China is survival. Every person should have enough food, enough clothing, means to support a family, education, and a job. (Articles 23 and 25) The importance of such basic needs can be seen in the results of a national survey conducted between 1987 and 1991. More than half of those surveyed were dissatisfied with the level of price instability and threats to subsidized medical care and housing, while less than a fifth of those surveyed were concerned about political rights (Tang and Parish 108). As Professor Luo Yanhua explained, the level of economic development limits the expansion of human rights in China. Until the basic needs of the people are met and a solid system of social welfare is established, the government will be hesitant to permit open criticism.

What is the future of human rights in China? I feel that the status of human rights in China will not change significantly in the near future. Having discussed the issue with some of the top students in China, I do not feel that China will strive to conform to the Western version of human rights. Basic needs such as food, clothing, employment, and education take precedence. This is not to say that change is impossible. The post-Mao era has seen great strides in the development of human rights in China. Rights that were broadly trampled upon during the Anti-Rightist Struggle (’57-’58) and Cultural Revolution were mostly restored to the 1978 constitution. The persistent belief that human rights was the mark of the bourgeoisie changed through the ‘80s and ‘90s, and now China is willing to discuss human rights on the international stage. China is developing quickly both economically and diplomatically. As market reform succeeds and the current concept of human rights in China (food, employment, education) is widely met, it is possible that the government will be more open to consideration of political and civil rights.

On the international level, I feel that the United States and China can arrive at greater understanding by keeping in mind the very different political and economic situations of the two countries. Western criticism of the Chinese human rights situation should be tempered by consideration of the relatively low level of economic development in the country. On the other hand, China may do well to use human rights less as a political tool and more as a means to improve her domestic politics. Provided the basic needs of the people are met, more freedom of expression could help give the government insight into what matters need attention.

Any consideration of human rights between the West and China must be taken patiently. China is changing rapidly and as her policies succeed, the goals of Western international politics may be met with a minimum of tension. By keeping in mind the different ideologies of the United States and China, I hope that the two countries may succeed in reaching an understanding.

The Human Rights Dilemma
Philip J. Magistro
Pitt in China

Works Cited
Tang, Wenfang and Parish, William L. Chinese Urban Life Under Reform: The Changing Social Contract. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2000.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights., December, 1948.

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