China has a long political tradition. Before the nineteenth century, Chinese people thought that they had the best political philosophy and system in the world. China’s name, literally “Middle Kingdom,” not only points to China as the political center of the world, but also as the most developed civilization. Today Chinese scholars are still debating whether traditional Chinese political thought includes the concept of human rights. Since the May 4 movement of 1919, enlightened intellectuals have argued that Confucian thought, including its inhumane elements, must be responsible for China’s backwardness. But New Confucians1 have striven to conduct a new analysis and interpretation of Confucianism, and to explore its significance for human rights.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 did not discuss the basic theory of human rights, but set forth a series of norms to deal with important political and social problems faced by humanity. It has been said that this approach allowed some leeway for the concept of human rights to be linked to the world’s principal philosophical traditions. An expert on traditional Chinese thought who attended the General Assembly session that adopted the Declaration affirmed that its principal articles were in accord with traditional Chinese thought. Nevertheless, affirmation of fundamental human rights concepts in 1948 was the result of nearly a century of creative reinterpretation of traditional Chinese thought, in particular research and education relating to the Western and Chinese traditions during the Republican era (1911–1949).The integration of modern political ideas with Chinese tradition indicates that by the end of the 1940s, mainstream political thought in China affirmed the principal human rights concepts of the time.
Regardless of whether traditional Chinese thought was in harmony with human rights concepts accepted by modern societies around the world, or whether mainstream political thought in the late 1940s accepted the main principles of human rights upheld by humanity, the fact is that under post- 1949 Communist rule, fundamental human rights values were almost totally repudiated in China. During the most extremist period, even the term “human rights” was banned. Except for the early days of the foundation of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), when a few intellectuals debated Marxism, the Party essentially adopted Leninism and Stalinism as the guiding revolutionary ideology. Its key point was that the dictatorship of the proletariat would suppress all dissident political forces and ideas and force all of society to accept Communist brainwashing and thought reform to bring about the ideal society to which Communist theory aspires.
However, during the fierce struggle to overthrow the Nationalist government in the years leading up to 1949, the CCP strove to garner all the support it could in China and abroad. In the process, during the War of Resistance against Japan (1937–1945), the Party adopted the political line of Western human rights advocates who were critical of the Nationalist government. If we were to read the essays published at the time by the CCP’s Xinhua Ribao in Chongqing without knowing who wrote and published them, we would think they were written by the most theoretically sophisticated dissidents in mainland China today. After the CCP founded the PRC in 1949 and gained control of the whole of China, it transformed the economic system and began to purge supporters of liberal democracy. The Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1957 and the various political campaigns that followed it completely eliminated all independent political, economic, social, cultural and intellectual forces outside the CCP, including people and groups that advocated liberal democracy and human rights. During the Cultural Revolution, the very terms “liberal democracy” and “human rights” became synonymous with criminal conduct, and those who advocated these principles saw their families broken up or destroyed.Hu Yaobang, general secretary of the CCP Central Committee from 1981 to 1987, estimated that during the persecutions of the Cultural Revolution, approximately 7 million people perished, 200 million were directly implicated and everyone in China was intimidated.
Mao Zedong’s initial purpose in launching the Cultural Revolution was to steel those who were to take over the revolutionary enterprise. But all this political upheaval achieved was to utterly destroy the faith of the Chinese people, and even Party members, in the Communist revolution. Mao’s death in 1976 triggered a dramatic transformation in Chinese politics. At the end of the 1970s, the cohort of CCP veterans led by Deng Xiaoping that had been purged by Mao and now controlled China, began to reassess the Maoist revolution and make amends for its consequences. Even today, the 1980s are considered a golden age of reform. In fact, the 1980s witnessed a complete repudiation of political persecution. Although in the early 1980s there was still some persecution against Democracy Wall activists, and in the mid-1980s there were several attacks on intellectuals and reformers, this political persecution cannot be compared in either scale or intensity to what had come before. It enjoyed no support among ordinary people, and was hotly debated even among those in power. Legislation and the administration of justice served to constrain and standardize the instruments of dictatorship. The brutality of the dictatorship of the proletariat of the Maoist era became illegal.
To be sure, in the China of the 1980s, human rights were not widely accepted. Despite ongoing reform and opening up to the outside world, during the 1983 campaign against “spiritual pollution”2 and numerous campaigns against capitalist liberalization, even the mention of humanitarianism and human rights was to be avoided. Political persecution did not stop, and judicial brutality became more and more severe. The dissident movement focused mainly on theory and reform of the political system, and the question of human rights was never a rallying point or a key topic of debate for the opposition. This was in part because the most influential elements in the dissident movement were people whose Communist Party background left them leery of the feasibility of the dissidents’ demands, but also because Chinese society as a whole had yet to accept the principle of individualism.
The first major opposition movement after the Communist takeover of power emerged in the 1970s, but until the democracy movement was crushed in 1989, human rights were never a focal point of Chinese politics. The Tiananmen massacre of June 4, 1989, galvanized the cause.
June 4th was a turning point during which the dissident movement and the Chinese people completely severed their emotional and intellectual ties with the Communist regime. Before June 4th, people still hoped to change China by transforming the CCP, and for that reason the dissident movement framed its debates within the boundaries of what was possible under the Communist regime. The Tiananmen massacre made most Chinese people feel utter disgust with Communism, and inspired a general longing for the overthrow of the regime. Although by the mid-1990s many people in China and abroad came to support the Communist government because of its economic achievements, their support was not unconditional. People dissatisfied with the Communists made repudiation of the ideology and theory of Communist rule a rallying cry and guiding principle for the construction of a new China—a principle that included human rights.
Human rights entered the mainstream of Chinese political thought within a broader historical context. China’s policy of reform and opening up to the world brought about new social structures, including independent individualists. In the late 1980s, after more than a decade during which China’s social sciences and the humanities absorbed Western ideas, new theoreticians influenced by Western thought began to debate and disseminate the basic ideas of humanitarianism, individualism and human rights. The events of 1989 shattered the legitimacy of the CCP and the ideology upon which its rule was founded. As people began to explore a post-Communist political system and the question of political legitimacy, they could not avoid the issue of human rights. In addition, the international norms adopted as part of international exchanges also helped Chinese professionals learn more about human rights.
Although the factors discussed above created the conditions that allowed the concept of human rights to enter China, the main channel was political struggle, particularly the resistance to political oppression after June 4th. Because the June 4th crackdown aroused resistance in China and political pressure abroad, human rights became the most important rallying point. What I experienced is a case in point.
I was born into China’s top military academy. From childhood, I received a standard education in Communist ideology. But as I was confronted with social realities, I discovered a huge gap between the poverty of the people and the ideological promises made to me, and I began to have my doubts about Communist rule. In 1976, when Mao launched the greatest political movement of his life, I was one of a million citizens who took to the streets of Beijing in protest. For this I was imprisoned at the age of 17.When Mao died I was released from prison, and resolved to devote my life to working for the democratization of China. During the Democracy Wall period, I founded Beijing Spring together with some people I had befriended during the Tiananmen Incident of April 5, 1976. Later I tried to establish Peking University as a center of the democracy movement, organizing elections there in 1980. In the late 1980s, Chen Ziming and I and some other friends tried to establish an independent nongovernmental research and cultural enterprise trust. With the support of numerous individuals and organizations, in 1989 I founded the Capital Patriotic All-Sector Joint Liaison Group for Protection of the Constitution, which promoted comprehensive reform to break the political deadlock at the time. In 1991, after 16 months in detention, I was sentenced to 13 years’ imprisonment with four years subsequent deprivation of political rights.
Following my arrest in October 1989, I was kept in solitary confinement and could not engage in any activities other than trying to protect my own rights and interests. Before this, I had always tried to explore new ideas and mechanisms within the totalitarian system, and promoted China’s democratization. Since this was impossible in prison, I resolved to press for the application of international norms in Chinese prisons and to establish minimum standards of treatment for political prisoners. Hunger strikes were my most effective method of struggle. But a hunger strike is a form of resistance fraught with danger. It was tried on many occasions in the past without success, even by Liu Shaoqi, the former chairman of the PRC. While I was in prison, a visitor told me that my case had become an international cause célèbre, and I became hopeful of success through a form of resistance that had failed in the past. From the day of my arrest in August 1991 to my release in April 1994, I went on hunger strike on 21 occasions. My third and longest hunger strike lasted 58 days, during which I was force-fed twice a day to keep me alive. But thanks to my family’s efforts to bring attention to my case and to pressure from the international community, I achieved my aim every time I went on hunger strike.
Experience taught me several things:
On April 23, 1994, I was finally released from prison and sent into exile in the United States. When Chinese government officials took me to Beijing Airport and handed me over to an American embassy official outside of a United Airlines airplane, I realized that I, my family and the people who had stood by me in my struggle had won. We had succeeded in making the international community protect political prisoners in China. This reality was hard to grasp for someone like myself who had been brought up under Maoism.
Although human rights became a rallying cry of the Chinese democracy movement after 1989, and the Chinese government has accepted the concept of human rights in theory and in legislation, we cannot say that much genuine progress has been made in this area. Recent developments give particular cause for concern.
The cause of human rights in China is part of a larger international human rights movement driven by globalization and fueled by international pressure and friction. Given China’s political tradition, after 1989 the Chinese government could have been expected to suppress and purge all dissenters with the utmost severity. But the way the government dealt with the aftermath of Tiananmen was far less brutal than had been the case in previous political crackdowns, mainly because of international and particularly American pressure. After all, the policy of reform and opening up to the world had been underway for 10 years. Suddenly cutting off contact with the world would not only have been inconceivable from the point of view of modernization, but would also have plunged China into an economic crisis. The regime could not have maintained such a policy, and when Chinese dissidents recognized this fact they adjusted their strategy. Whereas they had previously sought to mobilize China’s elite and ordinary citizens by focusing on longstanding problems in Chinese politics, they now turned to the issue of human rights to win support from the international community and to get it to exert pressure on the Chinese government.
The basic process for the advancement of human rights is this: Chinese dissidents challenge those in power; the power-holders respond by stepping up control and repression; Western human rights organizations, media and NGOs respond with indignation and put pressure on their own governments; Western governments begin to exert pressure on the Chinese government in bilateral relations and international forums; the Chinese government responds to this pressure and makes some human rights improvements. In the final analysis, the catalyst for the advancement of human rights in China is international rather than domestic pressure.
I made a point of introducing international human rights protection mechanisms into China to protect my own rights at a time when international pressure became the most effective guarantor of progress in China. My relatives and I therefore appealed mainly for international pressure. The two most important links in the chain were first, the activities of Western human rights organizations prompting their governments to formulate a human rights policy in their relations with China; and second, the Chinese government responding to pressure from the West. The second factor indicates how difficult it has been in recent years to promote human rights in China. But a closer examination of the first link in the chain—the impact of Western human rights organizations—can help us formulate more appropriate and effective strategies to advance the cause of human rights in China. In this essay I begin by discussing the second problem: the impetus for human rights progress within China.
Why and in what ways does the Chinese government respond to Western pressure by improving the human rights situation in China? One explanation often offered outside China is that China’s rulers have a sense of shame, and that they improve human rights in order to avoid international condemnation. An explanation more in line with East Asian culture is that the Chinese government wants to save face. The trouble with this explanation is that it assumes that that the Chinese government identifies with the human rights standards established by the West. The fact is that the Chinese government does not identify one bit with the theory of human rights, and therefore feels no shame or culpability. What’s more, when the situation permits, Chinese leaders often take shameless pride in Western efforts to improve human rights in China.
In a series of well-known articles, Graham T. Allison has argued that it is dangerous to interpret a nation or a government’s policies as if they were formulated by a rational person. Instead, Graham proposes a model of bureaucratic politics that sees foreign policy decisions as the result of complex political factors. This approach can also help us understand how the Chinese government makes decisions in response to Western pressure on the issue of human rights. Although Chinese leaders do respond to Western pressure, they do so based on their own interests and assessment of the situation. The first thing we have to understand is their perception.
In the 1990s the Chinese government was undergoing transformation. On the one hand, its leaders realized that the Communist ideology and system were things of the past, and that they needed new ideas and principles to build a new system; on the other hand, they remained constrained by old political interests and patterns of thinking that caused them to reject potentially destabilizing ideas and systems, particularly the democratization process expected by the West. They were guided by the imperatives of retaining power and their own moral principles. China’s rulers knew that since the Tiananmen crackdown had cost them all legitimacy in the eyes of the Chinese people, their political survival depended on maintaining economic development, which relied on Western technology, investment and markets. In addition, although brutal repression saved them in the short term from being overthrown by the indignant people, they knew that they had to take measures to reduce popular hostility and that they could not afford to recklessly increase political persecution.
It was in consideration of their own interests that the Chinese rulers shifted from their unyielding attitude during the Tiananmen crackdown to an attempt to accommodate Western demands for an improvement in human rights in China. But the Chinese government’s response was subject to three restraints: First, there remained within the CCP some very stubborn conservatives who for ideological or nationalistic reasons opposed compromise with the West. Second, the concept of face is important in China, and prevents Chinese leaders from following the Western model too closely. Face also explains why they need to maintain prestige and authority in China. Third, they could not allow concessions to go so far as to threaten their own rule. More human rights could encourage the opposition movement and give it more room to maneuver. Thus it can be seen that in pursuit of their interests, China’s rulers designed their post-June 4th foreign policy to maintain and renew cooperation with the West while preventing the development of the democracy movement in China.
A closer examination of China’s ruling elite reveals that some leaders are more supportive than others of a positive response to human rights diplomacy from the West. Some even call for political reform and a comprehensive solution to the problem of human rights. There have been three periods when the CCP has embraced the concepts of democracy, freedom and human rights. The first was in the 1920s, when the Party founders accepted many ideas regarding liberal democracy and individualism. The second period was the 1930s and 1940s, when the Communists were fighting the KMT and professed that they would build China on a foundation of freedom and democracy, thereby attracting to the Party many leftwing students who believed in liberal democracy. The third was in the 1980s, when the government pursued a policy of reform and opening up to the world. During the 1980s, many people who had joined the Party in the 1920s,‘30s and ‘40s but had subsequently been purged were finally rehabilitated, and the reassessment of the Cultural Revolution made most Party veterans aware of the importance of human rights. These veteran Party members did not support political persecution, but advocated leniency, human rights and political reform.
These complex mechanisms within the Party prompted the leadership to respond in a positive but limited way to Western demands for human rights progress. They tried a new gambit designed to ensure that stability and their hold on power would not be challenged and to relieve Western and domestic pressure to maintain economic growth and reestablish their own legitimacy. The positive response to demands for human rights progress included improving the condition of prominent political prisoners and even releasing them; engaging in human rights negotiations; enacting Western-style legislation that serves as little more than window dressing in China; and allowing the West to monitor human rights in a limited way.
Western diplomatic pressure regarding human rights and the carefully balanced response of China’s rulers thus became an important element in U.S.-China relations in the 1990s.This interaction produced some heartening results. The release of political prisoners was the main focus of international attention, but the Chinese government also seemed to signal its integration into the international human rights system by entering into diplomatic negotiations, signing international treaties and enacting relevant legislation.
It should be noted, however, that the background and mechanisms of this interaction are currently changing in ways that seem detrimental to human rights progress in China. First of all, even as China was formalizing these relations, it restricted their influence to a specialized circle, thus limiting their political impact. Second, the release of prominent political prisoners is an increasingly isolated and ritualized phenomenon aimed at currying favor or reducing pressure from the West. While such gestures give Westerners hope, they have no constructive effect in China. They certainly are not indicative of genuine change, as is generally supposed. Third, the PRC links economic and security interests, provoking divisions between and within governments. International lobby groups representing Western business and professional interests also lobby their governments to pursue a more “balanced” China policy that furthers their interests and plays down human rights diplomacy. Fourth, the PRC adopts international human rights concepts and norms in a way that brings some aspects into contradiction with others, thereby provoking debate among
human rights advocates. Lastly, the CCP has successfully turned the issue of human rights into a seesaw-like international relations game. As a result, the human rights situation in China is no longer improving.
The reasons for these changes are political factors that contribute to a weakening momentum for localization of the international human rights game, while giving the Chinese authorities more latitude in playing the game. First of all, mainstream Chinese public opinion is focusing less on human rights. After their initial indignation at the June 4th massacre, with the passage of time people have gradually lost interest in the issue. Young people who have grown up under deceitful government propaganda don’t even know what really happened. Nationalism has also made many young people and members of the elite hostile toward Western human rights diplomacy. The rapid development Deng Xiaoping called for during his southern tour in 1992, although characterized by corruption, has provided the economic and intellectual elites with tangible benefits that have prompted them to forge an alliance with the political elite to maintain political stability.
Second, neo-conservatism is very much in vogue among China’s elites. Neo-conservatives are on the one hand concerned about the possibility that rapid Westernizing reform will result in collapse, and on the other believe that a great country like China ought to follow its own development model without imitating the West. They are all very suspicious of human rights and other revolutionary Western ideas.
Third, the opposition or dissident movement in mainland China is becoming increasingly divided. Some groups and individuals refuse to compromise with the regime and continue to appeal to the West to exert pressure on the Chinese government. Their challenges to the regime provoke persecution, which prompts the West to exert pressure on the Chinese government to make policy and systemic changes. But the consumerism and nationalism prevalent in Chinese politics is causing this type of opposition to become increasingly marginalized and to lose the interest and support of the common people. An oasis of conscience, it is becoming mainland China’s single, solitary outpost for an international movement.
In the 1980s, dissidents and professional elites of a traditional cast began to distance themselves from the opposition movement that was openly turning to the outside world, and cautiously began to develop new political and legal mechanisms to mobilize support within China (including among the leadership), and to promote China’s reform by means of their professional activities. These divisions have weakened the capabilities of the democracy movement. If people operating within the system and the forces of opposition are to come together in a united cause, a change must occur in PRC politics. To enlist locally rooted political support and win greater operating room within China, we must avoid sensitive issues that generate intense political confrontation without leading to substantive political progress; we must instead address new issues—issues that strike a responsive chord among the Chinese people by appealing to their conscience and self-interest.
Ultimately, openly Western-oriented opposition activists have become marginalized and isolated from mainland Chinese politics and the mass of the people, and as a result, the West has begun to lose interest in them. Some interest groups and governments think that opposition activists in China who seek to mobilize Western pressure on China are just troublemakers who have neither influence nor a future in China, who provoke debate and division in the West, and who make it more difficult for Western governments to govern or to formulate a China policy that accords with their own interests.
I earlier described a basic mechanism for the improvement of human rights in China in which dissidents challenge the regime, Western human rights organizations and media put pressure on their governments, Western governments exert pressure in the diplomatic arena, and the Chinese government responds in a positive way. During the 1990s this mechanism became a formalized diplomatic game that no longer produced real improvement in the human rights situation. Although mainland Chinese dissidents have become virtual professionals and specialists at challenging the regime, they have also become marginalized and enfeebled in the Chinese political context. The debates in Western societies about the benefits and value of a China policy have reduced the pressure coming from the Western media and human rights organizations. As internal pressures have reduced the significance and effectiveness of human rights in the foreign relations of Western governments, human rights have become less and less of an issue in their China policy. Western governments consciously play the international relations game with China to keep various domestic conflicts in check and to pursue their national and political interests even more aggressively than before. Under these circumstances, human rights organizations are just about the only impetus left for genuine human rights progress in China.
In the 1990s, human rights organizations were the main driving force for the advance of human rights in China. They exerted pressure on Western governments to demand an end to the persecution of dissidents in China as a key element of foreign policy. In recent years, human rights organizations have sparked renewed debate on human rights issues. But if these organizations fail to adjust their strategy to the current political realities of China and the West, they will not be able to stop the reversal of human rights in China.
Stepping up international pressure on the Chinese government is not the most important effort that can be undertaken. As long as there is not enough pressure within China, such efforts are unlikely to find sufficient resonance in the international community to increase human rights-based diplomatic pressure from the West. Furthermore, even when pressure is exerted, it cannot produce a substantial improvement in human rights; it is just a Western political game. A substantial improvement in the human rights situation is only possible if there is real pressure and action for it within China, and if mainstream Chinese public opinion sees the benefit of human rights and demands them. Therefore, international human rights organizations should not only consider how to put pressure on China in the international arena, but also how to promote human rights mechanisms within China and how to link international human rights mechanisms with the Chinese political system. A strong impetus within China for human rights progress would greatly facilitate the efforts of Western governments and the international community.
In fact, the changes that have taken place in China since the late 1990s have in many respects created favorable conditions for the advancement of human rights. First, as stated above, there is support for human rights improvement within the regime. Second, globalization and international human rights agreements tend to promote debate on human rights in China. Third, Chinese academics and policy analysts are currently conducting extensive investigation and research on questions of development and government policy that tends to promote the advancement of human rights. Fourth, China’s rapid development has produced conflicts of interest, government corruption and abuses of power that have led to popular dissatisfaction and insecurity in daily life. Lastly, as China opens up further to the world, international human rights groups that plan their strategy carefully ought to be able to enter and operate legally in China.
Translated by Paul Frank
1. Literally, “Third Era Confucians.” ^
2. “Spiritual pollution” was a tag for contamination by Western ideas. This campaign was launched in October 1983 by Wang Zhen, Politburo member and director of the Central Party School. ^
3. In 1989 Qiao Shi was the third-ranking member of the Politburo Standing Committee. His portfolio included the areas of personnel and security work. ^