Deeds, not words, on human rights give China moral authority in today's world

China can no longer hide behind slogans like ''seeking common ground while preserving differences", but needs to step forward and translate the idealistic values expressed in its constitution into concrete actions upholding human rights, writes David Schlesinger.

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 July, 2013, 1:13pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 18 July, 2013, 1:21pm

“Seeking common ground while preserving differences”, as Xiaoyu Pu sums it up , is a marvelous slogan for achieving diplomatic gains, until it becomes code for simply telling others to mind their own business – and too often in the field of human rights, almost all governments in the world become thin-skinned and defensive at any criticisms.

Having lived in Beijing in the 1990s, in the immediate aftermath of the Tiananmen Square protests and subsequent crackdown, I saw scores of principled western delegations come to China to discuss human rights, only to see those discussions get overshadowed and at times diluted over the years by economic negotiations as China’s growth potential teased.

The unstated, but clear, message was that there is a hierarchy of national goals for every country and that human rights must take a place in line, and not necessarily at the front. Sending that unstated, but clear, message lessened the moral authority of the messengers.

David Schlesinger

Moral authority for any nation stems from having the courage and confidence to make actions and live up to stated ideals.

America’s reputation in the world has been seriously diminished by reports of conditions at Guantanamo and, more recently, by Edward Snowden’s revelations about surveillance programmes given the imprimatur by secret tribunals. China’s reputation has been diminished by its imprisonment of a Nobel Prize winner, by its actions against those who criticise it, by its harsh control in Tibet and other areas where it fears separatism, by its crackdown on those perceived to be dangers to the State.

The problem is, these actions in China cannot be dismissed as mere “differences” to be preserved or even cherished as some key national characteristic. China has demonstrated that at the level of statement – and even active approval – it actually has ample common ground with human rights advocates. It is at the more crucial level of action, and making actions consonant with ideals, that there are serious problems.

China is signatory to many key international human rights conventions.

More importantly, China’s own constitution contains language, which, if only consistently followed through on, would put the country at the forefront of idealistic nations:

  • Chapter I, Article 4 “All nationalities in the People’s Republic of China are equal. … Discrimination against and oppression of any nationality are prohibited…”
  • Chapter II, Article 33 “All citizens of the People’s Republic of China are equal before the law. …”
  • Article 35 “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration. …”
  • Article 36 “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief. …”
  • Article 37 “The freedom of person of citizens of the People’s Republic of China is inviolable….
  • “The personal dignity of citizens of the People’s Republic of China is inviolable. …”
  • Article 39 “The home of citizens of the People’s Republic of China is inviolable. Unlawful search of, or intrusion into, a citizen’s home is prohibited….”
  • Article 40 “The freedom and privacy of correspondence of citizens of the People’s Republic of China are protected by law. …”
  • Article 41 “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China have the right to criticise and make suggestions to any state organ or functionary….”

These are ringing words and clear, praiseworthy sentiments.

China, of course, would argue that in its crackdowns, arrests, imprisonments or intimidations it is not violating any of these tenants, but in fact going after true lawbreakers who threaten the stability and primacy of the state. And, certainly, in prime place in the constitution, in Chapter I Article 1, are the words “Sabotage of the socialist system by any organisation or individual is prohibited.”

But where heavy-handed state action attacks mere expression of views, that is simply a manifestation of fear and weakness, not of the strength that the state, in fact, could present.

The changes in China over the decades since Tiananmen Square have been tremendous and profound. The changes have been in every field, in economics, certainly, but also in social mobility, in the press, in science, in creativity, in innovation and, yes, even in human rights.

Microblogging and widespread internet use have opened up discourse like never before, although there are still significant numbers of topics that will instantly get provocative posts deleted and daring posters harassed or worse.

Chinese journalists can push the envelope on investigations, although the instant they push too far they and their publications are yanked back.

Widespread overseas travel and study have exposed significant numbers of people to different ideas and ways of thought, although the differences between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ can still be stark.

Now is not the time for the west to lecture China or for China to lecture the west. Now is not the time, either, for anyone to hide behind a doctrine of “Seeking common ground while preserving differences” to allow the status quo to continue, no matter how far out of line with stated and sacred principles.

Now is the time, for China’s stature in the world to meet its economic power  - for China to bring its actions swiftly and manifestly in line with its words, ideals and its constitution. Allowing true and free debate online about key issues - from the economy to politics -  without fear of deletion or harassment would be a tremendous step forward. Setting Chinese media free to report on and challenge authority would in fact make the government so much better and stronger. These would be the actions of a confident country, and one worthy of world admiration.


This article was originally published in openGlobalRights. David Schlesinger is the founder and Managing Director of Tripod Advisors, a media and China consulting service based in Hong Kong. He is the former global Editor-in-Chief of Reuters and the former Chairman of Thomson Reuters China.