Human rights became an important global concept after WWII with the institutionalization of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

This acknowledged a set of universal values due to all humanity ‘without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status’.  The classic view of human rights was seen as a dialectic: rights on the one hand, and the violation of those rights on the other.

UN United Nations Human Rights
UN human rights room in Geneva. File photo: Ludovic Courtès via Wikimedia Commons.

An earlier concept of human rights made its appearance in China during the Qing Dynasty, in the 19th century, when the nation was desperately seeking to modernize along the lines of a Western European model.

Chinese literati of the day were persuaded of the benefits of granting political rights to citizens, but their understanding was based on the Confucian model in which rights were conceived of as a means of enhancing state power. This was the opposite of Enlightenment-era theories which saw political rights as a way of curbing state power, not strengthening it.

With the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, a mix of Marxism and Maoist ideology resulted in human rights being shaped by Mao’s views on ‘class struggle’. The proletariat (workers, soldiers and peasants) were entitled to full rights due to their class pedigree as ‘the People’. Landlords, counter-revolutionaries, rightist bourgeois elements, imperialist running dogs, and so on, lost all rights and dignity.

People in these categories, if spared summary execution, were deprived of any form of civil justice until they had been reformed through re-education, which involved the degrading process of public criticism, forced labour and imprisonment.

Placing collective or state interests above those of the individual inevitably leads to dissent. The Chinese Constitution promulgated in 1982 (and revised four times since) articulates values such as ‘the protection of private property and human rights’.

mao zedong statue
A statue of Mao Zedong. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

But (in Article 51) citizens’ rights may be rescinded if at odds with the ‘interests of the state, of society and of the collective’. The notion of human rights is very flimsy indeed if communal interests are superior to individual ones.

Article 51. The exercise by citizens of the People’s Republic of China of their freedoms and rights may not infringe upon the interests of the state, of society and of the collective. (Chapter II, The Fundamental Rights and Duties of Citizens. Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, adopted on 4 December 1982)

For Chinese, human rights have become an elusive idea which can be interpreted and manipulated by the CCP. In Hong Kong, human rights  appear ‘conditional’. It has become increasingly clear that Beijing defines itself as the ‘collective good’ and will revoke any rights that conflict with its interests.

This concept is at odds, not only with democracy as espoused by the world at large, but also with the ideas held by many Chinese, as noted by Liu Xiaobo in Charter 08. He wrote that many Chinese, after a long history of “human rights disasters and uncountable struggles”, understand that “freedom, equality, and human rights are universal values of humankind and that democracy and constitutional government are the fundamental framework for protecting these values”.

Liu Xiaobo chair no enemies
File photo: In-Media.

Noted dissident artist, Ai Wei Wei said, “When a society lacks a democratic consciousness and a space for free thought, it is just a barren land”.

A ‘patriotic’ resurgence is happening in China, in the emerging neo-Left movement, causing a nationalistic backlash against pro-democracy activists. At the core of this struggle is the elusive value of dignity, for which both sides say they are fighting.

Journalist Helen Gao describes this as a scale which measures love of country, not by degrees, but by intensity of patriotic motive. “At one end”, she sees the “traditional form of chest-thumping nationalism that builds on resentments based on the era when China was pushed around by foreign powers”. At the other end, “a more introspective form of patriotism, one deeply critical of the frustrating realities of life in the PRC”.

Those who hold the latter view are largely middle-class urbanites led by intellectuals, such as Li Chengpeng, who writes “we cannot narrowly interpret patriotism as the bravery to fight external enemies. It is also about confronting domestic woes”; and, “more important than the territorial integrity of our nation is living with dignity and integrity in our daily life”.

Human rights originally developed as a “response to specific violations of human dignity, [the] moral source” of human rights. ‘The appeal to human rights”, Habermas says, “feeds off the outrage of the humiliated at the violation of their human dignity”.

The link between dignity and human rights is the citizen’s innate longing for self-worth and recognition. Dignity is the ‘catalyst’ in the struggle for human rights.

white paper protest
A woman protests Beijing’s White Paper on Hong Kong at the July 1st pro-democracy march, 2014. Photo: HKFP.

When Mao announced that China had finally ‘stood up’ in 1949, it did so collectively, as a nation. At the same time, it unintentionally sowed the seeds for private individuals to also ‘stand up’.

By demanding the respect of other nations, China inadvertently fostered the same aspiration among its citizens. The notion of national dignity has generated the longing for private dignity. What good is national dignity if the individual’s dignity is not recognized?

China’s insistence on its own need for respect has supplied citizens with a kind of ‘popular language’ necessary for their own rhetoric of emancipation.

This is not mere theory. Look no further than recent human rights contradictions in Hong Kong. The abduction of the four Causeway Bay booksellers; the insistence on loyalty to Beijing for Chief Executive candidates (resulting in the Umbrella Movement); the demand that Legco contenders declare HK is an inalienable part of China; interference in the Legco oath-taking controversy; the imposition of new rules on singing the national anthem; the backtracking on the promise of universal suffrage; and most recently, the sentencing of peaceful young activists, Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow, are only some of the most visible violations in the incremental dismantling of Hong Kong autonomy.

Hong Kongers are ruled by a power that has refused to concede them their due dignity. They have been shamed and even criminalized in the attempt to stand up before their own state. The future of Hong Kong cannot be scripted by Beijing. Peace and prosperity depend on the authorities working to uphold – not reduce – our civil and political rights.

joe Alvaro

Joe Alvaro

Joe Alvaro has worked at various academic institutions in the greater China area for nearly 20 years, including six years at City University of Hong Kong. His published research focuses on the critical analysis of China's political discourse as it appears in the state-run English press. He holds a PhD in discourse studies and is currently a faculty member at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies in Qatar.