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Human rights in China had its origins at about the same time that the Ching dynasty collapsed and again in 1911 as part of Sun Yet Sing’s program. Eight years later in 1919, a new iconoclastic movement took over and the appeal of human rights for the radicals of the time came about because it gave them the antithesis of Confucian values, the self. This antithesis aided them in their quest to escape the imperialism of the time and modernize China. Confucian teachings urge the government to rule humanely and with virtue. The ultimate goal of helping the common-people to become educated and thus prosper. Harsh laws and severe punishments, which were common in Confucius’ day, should be abolished. In short, his theories of governing were in complete contrast to those in power at the time. The solution to these problems was to awaken the people to the necessity of reason, and reinforce the thought of morality and harmony. One of the reasons that many Chinese do not formally object to human rights violations is that the collective wellbeing and not the self has been part of their culture for hundreds of years. Confucian teachings are so revered that elements are intertwined with communism throughout the economy and legal system.
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As part of the communism that has existed throughout China for the last half-century or so, Marxist thought also held that the collective is vastly superior to the self. In Karl Marx’s surveying of society he critiqued the issue of human rights as part of his ideal society. His writings made clear the proletarian attitude on the subject and he established a revolutionary, scientific and systemized theory. The point of Marx’s analysis was to break from the capitalist version of human rights and replace them with a communist interpretation. He maintained capitalist rights were those of the bourgeois and, as such people become alienated from one another due to the existence of private ownership . As a result Marx cited that material interests becoming the defining element of existence and ultimately the community. The end result is an egoistic society disengaged from the community and such an attitude means the people are not working for the common good, but rather in self-interest at the expense of someone else. Marx sees that capitalist human rights are not naturally endowed and innate, but rather stem from things like blood lineage. The individual rights of the capitalists, gained under the guise of human rights, held nothing for the proletariat; these human rights became merely a tool for the greater enslavement of the workers. This, Marx believed, represented the major social inequity of the modern world and the token measures of raising living standards and increasing wages does not go far enough to fill the gap between the two classes and enable the proletariat to gain the truest form of human rights .
The society, that people like Mao Zedong attempted to create with the help of communism, would be liberated and with equity amongst the people fully realized. This liberation would occur because communism is designed to eliminate the class system as well as private enterprise, replacing it with ownership by the public where all members of society collectively used and governed the means of production. Marx held that human rights in this situation would be better off as there is no uneven possession of property and hostility and alienation take a back seat to free alliance and voluntary labour. The way to obtain this society, Marx wrote, was to educate new communists of the wonders that were achievable through communism. Communism is a method of government that seems viable in theory, yet throughout history has not shown itself to be capable of creating the successful society it claims it can. When China implemented this system into their country, they brought with it the Marxist ideas on human rights. While these arguments appear to be for the good of the people, the population of countries that have instilled communism seem to be worse off, a direct result of the brutality and paranoia of the leaders. Communism does not allow dissent and anybody who departs from the official line is crushed. This is yet another reason that China has a shocking human rights record, the party that claims to work for the people does not give the basic freedoms it promised. Add to this the fact that Confucian ideology has fundamental differences to the west and the result is a population, that apart from students and activists, are either unaware or are too scared to speak out.
The Chinese Human Rights Alliance was founded in 1979 with the idea of stressing the importance of better living conditions for all Chinese people. Just after their founding on January 1st, they posted a document on Democracy Wall in Tian An Men Square known as the Chinese declaration of human rights. Although it is unofficial it still attracted widespread attention and lively discussion, however, apart from students and those interested in reforming China, the majority of people did not universally accept it. The document contains nineteen articles and includes clauses such as the freedom of expression and the release of all political prisoners. It demands that party leaders come under scrutiny and be evaluated by the constitution and that Chinese society be firmly built on democracy. Further to this it asks the leaders of China acknowledge that China is a multi-national country and as such allow representation in the National People’s Congress for all parties. This paper was written and published in 1979 and a decade later these demands had not been fully met.
In 1989, students demonstrated against the Chinese Communist Party with regard to the way the people were being treated. The government called in the army and although this caused many thousands of people subsequently left the demonstration, many stayed on. These students from a range of universities took a stand against the appalling human rights record of the government and came face to face with the might of tanks and machine guns. Although the students eventually left, the government tracked down those involved and incarcerated them on the grounds of being counter-revolutionaries. Reports suggest that many people were killed in the demonstration, however, the official party line rejected this. Anybody who spoke against this was also jailed. This is a prime example of the brutality of the government, any dissent whatsoever is met with harsh penalties showing that freedom of speech and association is not part of Chinese society as it is in the West.
A further example of the differing ideologies of the two became apparent in March of this year. The United States launched a scathing attack on China’s human rights record that they claimed had simply not improved at all, and according to the Clinton administration has sharply deteriorated . The foundations of the US claims were the increase in political prisoners being arrested and incarcerated. The criticism will take the form of a resolution that will go before the United Nations Human Rights Commission. The US has shaped seven other resolutions since their first in 1991; however, the United Nations has adopted none of these. The attack comes during a period where relationships between the west and China have soured with allegations of Chinese espionage in nuclear laboratories. A US spokesman claimed that the resolution is in response to China’s crackdown on political opposition over the past years, where dozens of activists have been jailed and members of the Chinese Democracy Party have been handed tough sentences at secret trials. Yu Shuning, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, denounced the resolution,
“This is what we call seeking confrontation, and seeking confrontation will lead to nowhere, we think the differences between the two countries should be dealt with through dialogue on the basis of equality and mutual respect”
However even critics of the western countries tough stance against China seem to be in favour of the resolution with some labeling it,
“Highly appropriate” .
And others such as Mike Jendrzejczyk of the Washington Asia Division of Human Rights Watch who says,
“We welcome the US decision to hold China accountable for its international human rights obligations” .
The support from a variety of areas illustrates the fact that when the west hold talks with regard to human rights, the Chinese government is not listening or show a blatant disregard for the welfare of its people. With some up in arms over the introduction of China’s one-child policy claiming it represents perhaps the greatest violation of human rights and the shocking conditions of the prisons, the situation in China does not appear to be improving.
The western countries are seemingly becoming more and more disgruntled with the state of affairs in China. The philosophies of both are completely contrasting; the Chinese come from the background of Confucianism and Marxism, whereas the west hold above all else the freedoms of the person. It is clear that they are generally not talking about the same thing. Although there are elements in China that continue to oppose the government and demand better conditions, those in power generally crush any derision. One of those jailed for taking part in the 1989 demonstration summed it up when he claimed that if it had been possible to pre-meditate and organize a protest of that magnitude in China, the communist party would have been overthrown years ago.
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2. Kent, A (1993) Between Freedom and Subsistence: China and Human Rights, Oxford University Press
3. Loeb, V et al. (1999) “U.S will criticize Chinese human right record” The Detroit News
4. Zhu Feng, (1993) “An Outline of Marx’s Theory on Human Rights”, Social Science in China, No. 2