The Chinese Conception of Human Rights

16 July 2012


Last Valentine’s Day Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping made some remarks at the US State Department that were widely reported at the time as “defending China’s human rights record. There is a transcript of the Vice President’s remarks on the website of the US Embassy in Beijing, and from those remarks I will quote a couple of the crucial paragraphs in which Vice President Xi Jinping explicitly discussed human rights:

“…China has made tremendous and well-recognized achievements in the field of human rights over the past 30 plus years since reform and opening up. Of course, there is always room for improvement when it comes to human rights. Given China’s huge population, considerable regional diversity, and uneven development, we’re still faced with many challenges in improving people’s livelihood and advancing human rights.”

“The Chinese Government will always put people’s interests first and take seriously people’s aspirations and demands. We will, in the light of China’s national conditions, continue to take concrete and effective policies and measures to promote social fairness, justice and harmony, and push forward China’s course of human rights.”

Chinese leaders usually avoid explicit remarks on human rights, but there are a few times when I have read accounts of remarks made in Western countries by visiting Chinese officials who do their best to make a strong case for human rights with Chinese characteristics. After all, when Chinese officials come to Western nation-states they cannot avoid the protesters who would not be able to protest in China. But the official Chinese government line on human rights, though not often explicitly formulated, when it is articulated is unapologetic on those issues that most provoke international outcry.

I wrote above that the Chinese “do their best to make a strong case” for the Chinese conception of human right, and I realize that this could sound condescending or patronizing, but it is not intended as such. I think it would be fair to say that the Chinese have a very different conception of human rights than that which informs the thought and policy of Western peoples, and that many of the disagreements over human rights issues are individuals talking at cross purposes because they do not understand each other.

Moreover, and no less importantly, what I am here calling the Chinese conception of human rights is in no sense confined to China, and can often be found given forceful and eloquent expression by Western thinkers. …

What, then, is the Chinese conception of human rights? And if there is any such thing as a Chinese conception of human rights, how does it differ from Western conceptions of human rights? Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping formulated the Chinese conception of human rights in terms of “improving people’s livelihood” and promoting, “social fairness, justice and harmony.” This is a good summary. When I began to write this post I looked for a different speech with even more forceful formulations, but I wasn’t able to find exactly what I was looking for, since my memory preserved too little the that example to find it again.

In other speeches by PRC officials I have come across explicit contrasts between the Chinese effort to improve standards of living across the board for 1.3 billion people — which is, admittedly, a daunting task — with Western ideas of individual liberties and ensuring the rights of minorities. This is the crux of the issue: the individual vs. the social whole. The Chinese tendency is to prioritize the social whole over the individual; the Western tradition has been to ensure the inviolability of the individual, although this is a tradition that has been honored more in the breech than the observance.

Since the individual is a minority of one, the tradition of safeguarding minority rights can be folded into individual rights, though I know that many would disagree with me here. And I am sure that some will see what I have called the Chinese conception of human rights not as an alternative to the Western conception of human rights, but as a smokescreen behind which to hide their actual contempt for human rights. This is where Western formulations of the Chinese conception of human rights become important — important, at least, for Westerners to understand a point of view different than their own, because Western thinkers will argue for a non-individualistic conception of human rights according to Western norms of political and moral thought.

I recently found a good example of this in Robert Kaplan, who has lately been contributing to Strategic Forecasting. In a piece titled Defining Humanitarianism, Kaplan wrote:

“The very amoral and abstract reasoning behind the preservation of the balance of power in maritime Asia, through the deployment of warships and fighter jets, actually is as humanitarian as intervening in Bosnia or Libya was.”


“Nixon’s diplomacy gave China implicit security guarantees regarding the Soviet Union, Japan and Taiwan. Thus, when Deng Xiaoping came to power a few short years later, he had the option — because China was now externally secure for the first time in more than a century — to concentrate on internal capitalist-style development. China’s economic growth would dramatically lift the living standards and expand the personal freedoms of more than a billion people throughout East Asia. That’s humanitarianism!”


“…realism in the service of the American national interest is the most humanitarian approach possible.”


“…the issue is not idealism versus realism, for realism can sometimes save lives more than idealism.”

Kaplan isn’t explicitly stating the contrast between two conceptions of humanitarianism, but the distinction informs his essay throughout, and he argues strongly that foreign policy “realism” is more humanitarian because it saves a greater number of lives and improves standards of living to a greater degree for a greater number of people. This is a straight-forwardly utilitarian conception of humanitarianism: the greatest good for the greatest number — and this utilitarian conception of humanitarianism corresponds to a utilitarian conception of human rights: human rights under this conception is best defended by way of utilitarian humanitarianism.

So the Chinese conception of human rights is simply a utilitarian conception of human rights, and it can be contrasted to any number of non-utilitarian theories, such as consequentialism, deontology, or the Kantian kingdom of ends.

As I stated above, there are any number of Western defenders of utilitarian conceptions of humanitarianism and human rights. There are passionate defenders of communitarianism who essentially privilege the community over the individual, and while I don’t think many conscientious communitarians would want to explicitly defend China’s human rights record, on the level of principle they are advocating essentially the same thing as the leaders of China say when they claim to have improved the lives of more than a billion people.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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