Human Rights Revisited

The value of human rights is universal and ancient. Many such values, though implicitly already there in Chinese culture, may be accounted within a modern Chinese cultural framework.

I believe and will argue that such a framework developed because of the distinct historical forces in the west vis a vis China and not primarily because of technological, educational and communicative advancement. It became an explicit and formal affair in the west because of the historical forces that necessitated it.

Many people in the west and often even in China assume that historical concerns for human rights are strictly a western development and that the explicit rights discourse and formal legal system of the west developed because of western cultural values (such as concerns with autonomy, freedom, individuality, etc).

I believe that this is a self-serving, revisionary rationalization.

The real reason why the west developed explicit and formal framework for human rights is because of its history. China did not develop such a framework because it did not have such a history, and if it had such a history, it would likewise have developed one. The historical trend I am thinking about is the drastically different pasts both major civilizations have had regarding religious, political, social oppression.

Throughout their respective histories, the west has been far more oppressive in regards to religious, political, and social persecution while China has been mostly relatively tolerant. I think that the explicit and formal framework of human rights developed in the west precisely because one was required to protect people from the systematic abuses of their society, their church and their state while no such explicit and formal system was ever required in China because such kinds and degrees of oppression of the many institutions of religion, politics and social practices rarely existed in China. The motivational impetus was simply lacking in the case of China. If necessity is the mother of invention, the explicit and formal framework of protecting human rights was necessitated by a history of systematic oppression that made such a framework inevitable.

That is not to say that the west has always been intolerant towards these institutions nor is it to say that China has always been tolerant towards them. For example, the west during the last 50 years have been the most religiously, politically and socially tolerant in its history while ironically, China, since having adopted a western political system (Marxism) have been its most oppressive regarding those institutions. But the west’s history has intolerance as the norm, not the exception. It was the systematic and brutal oppression of people’s religious and political beliefs and associated social practices that was a causal force. Conversely, however, religious, political and social tolerance has been the norm in China and it was only interspersed with certain periods staining Chinese history with intolerance. For example, the roughly fifteen years of political terror during the Qin Dynasty and in the modern period of the Cultural Revolution.

For most of western history through the last 2000 or so years, one may be burned alive for practicing a religion not sponsored by the state. Indeed, one may even be killed for having thoughts or beliefs not sanctioned by the official state/church doctrine like Socrates and Thomas More were. Hundreds of thousands of people died in brutal religious campaigns all across Europe throughout the Middle Ages and throughout the Renaissance and even the throughout the “Enlightenment” in religious purgings such as the Spanish Inquisition. Millions died in religious wars and religious Crusades.

Thousands of “witches” were tortured, burned or drowned alive for “crimes” of being “spinsters,” or of “gossiping” and of not going to church. Homosexuals were burned alive for what they did in the privacy of their homes. Philosophers and scientists who held views at odds with Biblical interpretation or official church-state doctrines (no separation back then) were also burned alive.

With a sordid history like that the question isn’t Why did an explicit and formal system of rights protection come into existence in the west? but Why didn’t one come into existence much sooner? Much of the rights framework (or Classical Liberal tradition in philosophical jargon) we know today didn’t even come into existence till between 1650-1800 in Europe and the US.

It was not because westerners valued “freedom” or “autonomy” anymore than anyone else. It was because their governments had made people’s lives so intolerable with brutal and intrusive policies that they had to formulate such systems to protect basic freedoms from gross infringement.

There is also a prevailing myth in both the west and in China that Christian values spurred on the Classical Liberal developments. But that is also wrong. One only needs to look at the philosophers who first developed and advocated such a framework. Thomas HobbesJohn LockeBaruch Spinoza and the American Founding Fathers were all what we probably would consider either atheists, agnostics or Deists (that is, non religious people who believed in an impersonal Creator). These Fathers of Liberalism lived in a time when almost everyone else was deeply religious. Many of these first Liberals were self-described “Christians” but they only described themselves so to protect themselves against persecution, social ostracization or for political gain. They did not believe in a personal God nor in the divinity of Christ or any number of Biblical claims. Hobbes and Locke had to escape to Holland (which together with Scotland was the only two major European nations that was moderately tolerant regarding religious and political beliefs and certain social practices). They were under threat of death had they stayed in their home country of England. It is no surprise that the creators of the Liberal rights model were the very people that needed such protections from their own societies.

On an interesting note, I have met one philosopher who argued that Locke was inspired to formulate his rights approach because he had read a newly available translation by the Jesuits of Mencius while in Holland. Mencius, being a Confucian, argued against intrusive state power and in favor of the interests of the people more than two thousand years before Locke. In the Confucian tradition, the state’s main responsibility is to provide social welfare (building roads, schools, hospitals, providing security, raising enough food, etc) and not sanctioning religion. The emperor’s basic role is role model and in the performing of rituals, not in the regulation of people’s personal lives.

For most of its history almost all religions, foreign or native were widely tolerated within China. There were no pogroms, no religious wars, no Inquisitions, no Crusades, no witch burnings, etc, etc in Chinese history. Christianity, Islam, Judaism all has had a history in China more than a thousand years old without any coercive state sanctioning or proscription of their practice or belief.

Chinese Christians, Jews and Muslims were made to observe laws other Chinese had to observe. They were never systematically singled out and persecuted like different religious adherents were throughout European history. Even during some periods in the Tang Dynasty when foreigners were expelled from China and foreign religious proselytizing made illegal, no attempt was made to prohibit religious practice by Chinese adherents.

Personal, social practices such as homosexuality was mostly widely tolerated in society. The government rarely if ever intruded in people’s houses or bedrooms. People, especially the Mandarin government officials openly criticized the policies of their government and even the Emperor himself (in fact, it was their jobs to do so).

It is no wonder that China did not develop an explicit and formal conceptual system to protect people’s speech, religious beliefs, and personal/social practices as no need was there to develop one. It is also no wonder that the west did develop one. It’s not that the Chinese don’t value the same things on an intuitive, moral level as westerners; it’s that there was a pressing need to make those basic moral intuitions into a more explicit and formal system so as to better protect people from violations in one society rather than the other.

I will say, however, the Chinese today may emphasize certain rights over others compared to most westerners. Americans, for example, may value the right to freedom of expression highly. While Chinese may value freedom from racism and economic freedoms and rights (access to health care, job security, etc) more than the freedom of expression but Chinese also value the freedom to express their religious and political views as well. The differences is a matter of relative degree in the hierarchy of scheme of values and how society ought to structure the laws so as to take into account those values. Any country that outlaws hate-speech may have a scheme like the Chinese over the Americans, say, valuing the freedom from racism over free speech but that does not mean that they do not value the later, just that when there is conflict, the higher-valued right ought to be the one that is prioritized over the lower-valued one in the law.

The rights framework was not conceived because of European High Mindedness as many westerners who love to engage in self-aggrandizement would like to believe. They are rather conceived by a reaction towards the rape of those rights by the religious, social and state powers that excessively and brutally controlled people’s lives. Many westerners also believe that the Chinese did not develop that tradition because Chinese culture or people do not value things like freedom and autonomy. But that is bigoted. It serves only to dehumanize the Chinese who are some of the most freedom loving people on earth.

It serves as no surprise, also, that Chinese people are now engaged in the discourse and legal codification making explicit what had already been valued such as protecting freedom of expression and so forth. Now the Chinese government is even further instituting the rule of law so as to protect people’s rights from unnecessary intrusion. This is a natural progression from the oppressive regime of the Cultural Revolution to the more relaxed environment most Chinese enjoy today to express themselves. Some westerners would like to take credit seeing this as influence of “western values” but this development is native much as the development of European and American Classical Liberal tradition was native to the west because it was a reaction against their own oppressive trends. China has far to go in this area but so do the west. Cultural centric and ethnocentric arrogance will not further the discourse but only hinder it.


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