Sacred Mountain Reviews

Asian Studies In America:
Newsletter of the Asia Studies Development Program

Issue No. 20, Fall 2006

*Published here with permission of the Asia Studies Development Program

Asia on Film — Human Rights in China: The Search for Common Ground
The new documentary film, "Human Rights in China: The Search for Common Ground" by Ray Olson, provides a comprehensive survey of diverse issues pertaining to the human rights debate in relation to China. It is divided into six sections: In the first section, entitled "Background," it provides a brief history of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (henceforth, the Declaration) by the UN's General Assembly in 1948. China did not take part in the agreement on the Declaration, as it became a member of the UN only in 1971, replacing Taiwan as China's representative. However, changes and additions were made to the Declaration as Bangkok and Vienna Declarations, drafted in 1993 at the UN World Human Rights conference, recognized cultural differences. These changes were endorsed by China.

IN teh second section, "The unique Chinese culture in the human rights debate," opposing views on whether the notion of human rights is consistent with the Chinese culture are surveyed. The universalists, such as Jack Donnelly, insist that the kinds of human rights included in the Declaration are universal, regardless of cultural background, while those whom we may call the particularists, such as Roger Ames, assert that the kinds of human rights contained in the Declaration are "not culturally innocent" but rather reflect a certain cultural viewpoint, namely the Western perspective.

In the third section, entitled "Human rights vs. social order and stability," the official position of the Chinese government that social order and stability are prior to human rights is considered in depth. Many universalists think that this logic hides an ulterior motive for maintaining power by the Communist Party. The particularists, on the other hand, emphasize the difficulty of running and maintaining order in the most populous country in the world and the serious consequences of failing to keep stability in China.

In the fourth section, "Rapid economic change and its potential for human rights," the remarkable emergence of China as an economic powerhouse and its implications for human rights are considered in depth. Here an interesting distinction is made between "first generation" rights and "second generation" rights. The first refers to political rights such as freedom of expression and religion and the second refers to social, economic and cultural rights. The particularists defend the Chinese government position by claiming that China has respected Chinese people's second generation rights by providing for their basic needs, although first generation rights may have been neglected. The universalists, on the other hand, assert that in the process of rapid economic transformation this claim can no longer be supported. The migration of peasants into the cities has created the "floating population" who are effectively demoted to second-class citizens, unable to benefit from the government assistance to meet people's basic needs. Those who are left behind in rural areas, mostly women and children, are also experiencing the deterioration of the quality of life as they lose support from their male counterparts. The particularists, however, are optimistic that this is just a transitional downturn that may eventually lead to a more stable society as a robust middle-class is established.

In the fifth section, "The persecution of the Falun Gong," the human rights violation of the Falun Gong followers are considered. It provides a historical overview of how a religious group, which is known for peaceful practices of meditation, became an object of systematic political persecution. Many interviewees agree that the major source of fear for the Chinese government was not the religion itself but the potential of this group to serve an alternative source of authority. The case of Falun Gong illustrates the precarious state of human rights in China.

The film ends, in the concluding section of "Seeking common ground," by suggesting a possiblity of the two countries, the US and China, reaching a middle ground in the human rights debate: China may come to endorse democracy that shows mor respect for individual members, while the US may move away from the "excessively" liberal democracy in which individual freedom reigns supreme toward one in which the safety of the community also becomes important.

I think the film has much to be recommended for viewing. Public debats in the U.S. concerning human rights in China have been raging for years iwthout much notable attempt to understand the issues systematically by placing them in their proper historical context. Therefore, I thin kthe film's release is very timely. Secondly, the topics covered in the film are well-chosen, especially in this era of hte remarkable Chinese ascent in the global stage. Thirdly, bringing the theoretical distinction between first generation rights and second generation rights is illuminating. The tendency of universalists to focus unduly on liberal political rights as the most basic human rights and to condemn cultures that put more emphasis on cultural and economic rights is problematic, indeed bordering on "imperialistic." As a philosopher interested in cultural issues, I believe more theoretical investigations must be conducted on the question of which human entitlements should count as human rights. Fourthly, the fim's well-balanced inclusion of diverse views on the state of human rights in China is also commendable.

This well-balanced inclusion, however, can pose a problem, if not accompanied by an overarching framework to tie these diverse views. One problem I find in the film is the lack of a consistent thread to unify the diverse and opposing viewpoints, as it tries to maintain neutrality. Hence, the viewer is likely to be left somewhat disoriented in the end. Another problem is theoretical, which ahs to do with the omission of a crucial distinction in the debate concernign human rights and cultural difference. This is the distinction between ideal and practice. The cultural core of China is to be found in the ideals embedded in its historical cultural perspectives, such as Confucianism or Daoism or Buddhism, or a mixture of these. The possiblity of China developing its own perspective on human rights should be assessed by taking these cultural ideals into account. No such attempt has been made in the film. Alhtough philosophers and theorists of culture have been interviewed and consulted, the view to which the film consistently returns is the official position of the Chinese government. Governments are not always the best proponents or interpreters of cultural ideals. Ulterior motives, such as the desire for power, intervene to distort their interpretation of cultural ideals. However, the film pays too much deference to the official position of the Chinese communist party, at the expense of China's rich intellecual and cultural legacy.

Relatedly, the advocacy of a uniquely Chinese defense of human rights is not necessarily equivalent to the advocacy of the policies of the Chinese government. Most governments commit blunders, even human rights violations. Chinese government's persecution of its minorities, such as Falun Gong, is of course extremely problematic. However, even liberal governments have been committing such violations. The historical persecution of African Americans and other people of color in the US comes to mind. The Patriot Act still allows the persecution of certain Amercians of color. Still, a fair judgment of the human rights culture of America can be attained not by focusing solely on its government's practices, but also by considering its eminently beautiful liberal ideals, which have been violated by various administrations, and how these ideals have infused the whole society. The same should be done with other cultures, whether Chinese or otherwise. That is, the possibility of a culturally specific regime of human rights of any culture has to be assessed by examining the ideals of its cultural heritage and their manifestations in various social dimensions, not by merely reviewing governmental policies. A government of any culture that violates human rights deserves criticisms and condemnation for its atrocities. Still, the failure of the government within a culture to uphold human rights does not demonstrate that a comprehensive culture and its people are unable to develop a culturally specific defense of human rights by reviving and reinterpreting their cultural ideals.

Professor Ranjoo her teaches Philosophy at Bentley College, Waltham, Mass.

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