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"Mian Shan" by Julie Laurent CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Human Dignity, Religion, & Rights in Contemporary China

The reader should take away from this special issue the sense that the basic dichotomy of “the West” versus “China” needs to be reformulated. While the West has much to learn from listening to non-Western voices, the work of actually listening reveals that such sharp distinctions do more harm than good.

Joshua Mauldin’s essay first appeared as the guest editorial for 20.5 of our journal Political Theology.

The objective of the special issue on Human Dignity, Religion, and Rights in Contemporary China is to introduce a western audience to a dialogue occurring in China today. These essays provide a window into that multi-faceted conversation, bringing theologians, ethicists, sociologists, and legal scholars together around fundamental questions of political order in a rapidly changing society.[1] Drawing on a wide range of issues and methodologies, these articles illuminate current debates over dignity, religion, and rights in China. Far from providing a comprehensive picture, the goal is to provide a set of portraits which frame how debates about dignity, rights, and religion are formulated in the Chinese context. Political theology in China raises many questions that western readers will find familiar, but the Chinese context often requires different answers, so that gaining familiarity with the Chinese discussion can broaden our view of the available options at the intersection of religion and politics. At the same time, seeing familiar questions from a Chinese perspective can illuminate implicit disagreements within the western context that would otherwise remain hidden.

These essays take for granted decades of debate regarding the status of human rights in Chinese politics and in Chinese political thought. These conversations ebbed and flowed throughout the twentieth century, coming to a head in the 1990s debate over “Asian values,” in which it was claimed that the idea of human rights is a distinctly western concept alien to Chinese culture, which needs to be radically reformulated for the Chinese context. Building on these debates, the papers in this special issue examine how Chinese thinkers across various fields are working at the intersection of human dignity, religion, and rights.   

Much of the germane discussion is animated by the question whether China’s long cultural traditions either support or work against human rights. On the one hand are scholars like Marina Svensson, who see the discourse around human rights as being a novel appropriation into Chinese society in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Svensson focuses on how Chinese thinkers accommodated and deployed western human rights thinking into their own political concepts and arguments.[2] Whereas Svensson tends to downplay the influence of the classical Confucian tradition on China’s appropriation of human rights, Stephen Angle focuses in detail on this Confucian background.[3] In both cases, the overarching question has to do with the extent to which human rights concepts can be reformulated in “Chinese” terms, however problematic the idea of a distinctly “Chinese” understanding might be. Svensson emphasizes how China’s appropriation of rights talk was in many cases caught up in an explicit repudiation of Confucianism, with its hierarchical social framework that subordinated women to men, subjects to rulers, and the young to their elders. Angle contends that the question remains open as to what extent Confucian ideas continued to permeate Chinese political thinking through the modern period, and up to the present day. Discussing the development of human rights in Chinese thought in the late nineteenth century, for example, Angle writes, “Confucian values and terminology loom large in the writings of many figures, even those most explicitly antagonistic to Confucianism.”[4] Lurking behind this discussion is the deeper question of whether human rights discourse is a foreign ideology being imposed on China or are a set of ideas that can be reconciled with important aspects of Chinese political and philosophical traditions.

This debate has evolved in important ways even since the beginning of the twenty-first century. Svensson’s and Angle’s books on human rights in China were published at the high-water mark of western hopefulness that China was moving toward liberal democracy, with the concomitant respect for human rights.[5] China watchers of the 1990s often predicted that the country was moving inexorably toward democracy. China was admitted to the World Trade Organization in 2001 in large part on the assumption that economic integration with the rest of the world would lead the nation toward democratic modernization. This has not come to pass, and under Xi Jinping, China has become more authoritarian than at any time since the Mao era. More recent studies of human rights in China paint a much darker picture than what analysts hoped for in the late 1990s.[6] The concept of human rights has again become highly sensitive and contentious in China. For these reasons, it is important to reexamine how Chinese scholars are thinking about human rights and human dignity at the present time, across a range of disciplinary backgrounds.

Historical background of human rights in China

Discussions of human rights in the history of China have at times highlighted the fact that China did not have a word for “human rights” until the nineteenth century.[7] In response, some scholars have downplayed the importance of this fact, suggesting that the lack of a concept does not entail the lack of a set of commitments from which the concept can be inferred.[8] If the citizens of China assume that all people deserve to have certain of their basic needs met, such as basic subsistence befitting human dignity, perhaps one can say they hold implicitly to an idea of basic rights. Or perhaps the belief in basic duties implies a concomitant set of rights. If I have a duty to render some good to you, we can say that you have a right to that good, even if we never put this point explicitly in those terms. Some scholars thus claim that even prior to contact with western conceptions of human rights, Chinese were committed implicitly to a notion of basic rights, grounded in an understanding of human dignity.[9] For others, the history of human rights language in China is reducible to the colonial legacy. Decolonizing that legacy means considering Chinese political thinking outside the human rights framework, which is indelibly tied to the colonial legacy of domination.

The Chinese appropriation of human rights language developed along various trajectories throughout the twentieth century. The Chinese Communist Party deployed the language against the ruling Nationalists before the Communist victory in 1949. After they came to power in 1949, the Communists began to dismiss human rights language as the ideology of the bourgeoise. By the 1990s, it was more common to argue that China had its own version of human rights appropriate to its culture, rather than to dismiss the concept entirely. To the present day, Chinese leaders as well as scholars continue to emphasize economic rights over against civil and political rights, for reasons reaching back into Confucian traditions as well as under the influence of Marxist thought.[10] This basic structure of economic rights is implicitly evident in legal scholar Shuang Xu’s article in this special issue. In discussing the predicament of disabled persons in China, Xu assumes as a basic presupposition that welfare benefits are central to the rights of Chinese citizens.

A further question involves the extent to which a concept can be represented by different formulations in different contexts while remaining in some sense the same basic concept. During the Asian Values debate of the 1990s, some apologists for the Chinese government argued that while China respects human rights, it has a different understanding of human rights than that of western countries.[11] This raised the question of how different such an understanding can be before it is more accurate to say that the two sides are really talking about completely different things while misleadingly using the same term. It might be more appropriate to say that two different societies have differing conceptions of justice, whereby they think differently about what is owed to whom. Perhaps we can call that basic conception of justice, regarding what is owed to whom, “human rights,” but we should also recognize that the label would, in this case, have little determinate content.  

At the same time, one can argue that just because Chinese thinkers understand human rights differently from westerners, we need not conclude that Chinese thought is at odds with human rights. For one thing, there is no monolithic understanding of human rights even within the West. Some scholars in the West think of human rights as limited to negative liberties such as freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of religion, and freedom from torture. Others include more positive liberties, such as a right to education, housing, and health care. Perhaps differing conceptions between the west and China do not signify a lack of a conception of human rights any more than differing conceptions within the West do so.[12]

Human Dignity

This cross-cultural exploration of dignity, religion, and rights helps illuminate areas of contestation and disagreement that might otherwise remain implicit in internal discussions of such topics in the West. For example, a key question raised by the debate over human rights and dignity in China going back to the turn of the twentieth century has to do with the question of whether dignity and rights are innate in human beings or are forms of political status that must be fought for and established in law in order to exist. Central to the Confucian tradition is the idea that in order to gain the dignified status of “humaneness” (ren), individual persons must undergo moral cultivation through the inculcation of virtue. Without such moral cultivation, human beings quite simply lack dignity. The western tradition has tended to argue, by contrast, that dignity and the rights attached to it are innate aspects of human nature. At the same time, with the move to create legal instruments enumerating human rights and conceptions of dignity, there has been a move in the West, and especially in western Europe, to see human rights and even dignity as requiring a legal basis in order to exist. When the German Basic Law announces that “human dignity is inviolable,” the question can be raised whether that statement is a description of a pre-political reality attaching to human nature, or whether on the contrary, that claim only becomes true through its promulgation under the Basic Law. On such questions, fundamental theories of jurisprudence part ways and deep fissures in the Western tradition emerge.  

The issue can also be framed around the question of whether dignity and rights are human universals which obtain irrespective of the laws individual governments enact or fail to enact. The idea of a social contract and of the concomitant right to resist unjust governments is based on such an idea. But this classically liberal political philosophy is increasingly questioned even within the West. There is growing openness to revisiting something like the traditional Confucian idea that human dignity and rights have to be achieved or attained, rather than something innate in the human person.

Debate continues as to how influential the Confucian tradition remains in Chinese political life today.[13] In any case, the adoption of Marxist ideology in China further distanced the country from western liberal conceptions of human rights and dignity. The Marxist emphasis on economic equality meant that China would come to see economic rights as more fundamental than civil and political rights, the focus of the western liberal tradition. Summarizing a complex array of historical and political developments, the adoption of Marxist tenets alongside the perdurance of Confucian sensibilities meant that the idea that rights and dignity are statuses which must be achieved through the political process, rather than pre-political realities, came to hold considerable purchase.[14]

Debating Religion in China

The place of religion in Chinese society has changed dramatically in the past 40 years. The years of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) saw the near total eradication of religion in the People’s Republic of China. After the death of Chairman Mao and the beginning of the reform and opening period, religion began to be revived, despite the Party-State’s continued commitment to the Marxist assumption that religion would eventually wither away. The growth of religion, especially among unregistered Protestant groups, alongside the state’s strong regulation of religious practice, has led to what the sociologist Fenggang Yang calls a “triple market,” in which religion is divided into the legally permitted red market, the illegal black market, and a gray market with vague legal status.[15] Various religious groups, especially unregistered Protestants, continue to grow at a rapid pace, even while religious suppression has increased since 2012 under the leadership of Xi Jinping, who has now cleared a path to being ruler for life. Adherents of religions that are considered “foreign” (e.g., Christianity and Islam), currently find themselves in a particularly precarious position. While the growth of religion is unlikely to subside, increasingly it will take place in the illegal “black” and “gray” markets.

Crackdowns on religion in China are now reaching a level not seen since the Cultural Revolution. This has raised the question once again of whether Chinese citizens possess anything close to authentic religious freedom. The Chinese Constitution affirms that Chinese citizens enjoy freedom of religious belief. That freedom, however, is carefully managed by the state. The Constitution goes on to say that the Chinese government protects “normal” religious activities, reserving the right to regulate religious practice, and to suppress religions it deems “evil cults.” Along these lines, the Chinese government recognizes five religions as legally permitted: Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Christianity (Protestantism), and Catholicism. All other religions are technically illegal in China, including versions of these five religions which do not submit to the authority of the officially-sanctioned religious bodies.

Note that in the eyes of the Chinese government, “Christianity” and “Catholicism” are essentially different religions. This is partly a translation issue. The Chinese word (Jidujiao 基督教), which is used to refer to what we in the West would consider “Protestant” groups, just is the Chinese word for Christianity. Catholicism, by contrast, is referred to as Tianzhujiao (天主教). Jidujiao is not a blanket term which encompasses Catholic and Protestant forms of Christianity. Many scholars in China continue to assume that (Protestant) Christianity and Catholicism are different religions. This is interesting if simply to illustrate the power of the state to influence how religions are understood by the citizenry. Furthermore, it is important to note that this is not based on any sense of one or the other being heterodox or not “real” Christianity. It is a reflection instead of the politico-religious social imaginary, reflecting the differing missionary histories of Protestant and Catholic Christianity in China, as well as the power of the Chinese government to determine what counts as (legitimate) “religion,” and what counts as illegal, heterodox, and evil. The first is protected, while the latter is officially banned and often suppressed.  

Summary of Articles in Special Issue

The essays in this special issue illustrate how dignity, rights, and religion are discussed outside the context of western political liberalism. The contrasting social imaginary is evident whether the authors are writing from a theological or from a secular perspective. In the first article, “Karl Barth in Beijing: Towards a Political Ethics of Collective Rights in Neoliberal China,” Quan Li examines how Karl Barth’s theological ethics reframes discussions of human rights in China today. A scholar based at the School of Government at Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou, Li draws on the political and theological framework of Karl Barth to analyze the current political situation in China. Coming from a different methodological framework, sociologists Jieren Hu and Yang Zheng study the intersection of political protest by religious groups and the rising power of social media in China. Hu, a professor of law at Tongji University in Shanghai, and Zheng, a doctoral candidate in political science and public administration at the City University of Hong Kong, contend that despite the disruptive potentiality of social media in authoritarian states, religious groups have not been able to significantly change political structures, despite access to social media. Moving back to the theological sphere, theologian Lap Yan Kung examines the political theology of mainland China in its relationship to Hong Kong. A professor of theology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Kung provides a theological analysis of the political theology operating in China’s conception of Hong Kong. Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997 from colonial rule under the United Kingdom. By that time, however, Hong Kong had developed distinctive political traditions and cultural sensibilities. The question of how Hong Kong fits into the broader political realm of China is, therefore, a vexed one. The essays in this issue help shed light on this question, not least by showing how a distinctive political theology is central in this social imaginary. Kung argues that the current social imaginary of a “parent-child” relationship (with mainland China as the parent and Hong Kong as the child), needs to be replaced with a center-periphery imaginary. In the fourth essay of this special issue, legal scholar Shuang Xu discusses the legal and regulatory frameworks for protecting the rights of disabled persons in China. What is especially interesting for a western audience is the way Xu assumes that basic human rights include welfare protections and benefits. From a Chinese perspective, rights are often understood not only as negative liberties but more fundamentally as positive benefits which persons are entitled to enjoy. The focus is less on civil and political rights and more on welfare and economic rights. The fifth article is by Zhibin Xie, a philosopher and theologian based on Tongji University in Shanghai. Xie examines how understandings of rights in China are informed by Confucian assumptions as well as newer debates about the role of Christianity in Chinese public life. Robin W. Lovin explores how the dialogue between Chinese and Western conceptions of religion and politics brings into sharper relief basic questions of public moral discourse and civic virtue. Finally, Roland Boer responds to the special issue as a whole, emphasizing the role of Marxist thought in Chinese society up to the present day.

The reader should take away from this special issue the sense that the basic dichotomy of “the West” versus “China” needs to be reformulated. While the West has much to learn from listening to non-Western voices, the work of actually listening reveals that such sharp distinctions do more harm than good. The internal diversity of a country as vast as China can be as deep as the difference between any single Chinese thinker and a western thinker. The same holds true of “the West,” which is much more internally complex than the very trope of “the West” would suggest. Overcoming our parochialism is not only about learning about the “other”; it is also about coming to understand our own political traditions for the first time. One step in this task is coming to see how diverse, complex, and even self-contradictory our own traditions can be. It is thus my hope that by engaging in discussions of political theology with Chinese scholars, readers can better understand the contours of political theology in their own contexts, in addition to deepening their understanding of political theology in China.

[1] This symposium on Human Dignity, Religion, and Rights in Contemporary China began as a conference held at the Institute of Sino-Christian Studies in Hong Kong in November 2017, led by Daniel Yeung, Director of ISCE, and Zhibin Xie (Tongji University). The topic was dignity, morality, and rights in China and the essays included here draw from the work of that conference while adding new voices as well.

[2] Marina Svensson, Debating Human Rights in China: A Conceptual and Political History. (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002).

[3] Stephen C. Angle, Human Rights and Chinese Thought: A Cross-Cultural Inquiry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

[4] Angle, Human Rights and Chinese Thought, 117.

[5] For an example of a similar sense of hopefulness at the time in the field of law, see Randall Peerenboom, China’s Long March Toward Rule of Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

[6] See, for example: Pils, E. Human Rights in China. Medford, MA: Polity Press, 2018, and Biddulph, S. The Stability Imperative: Human Rights and Law in China. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2015.

[7] Eva Pils thus writes, “There are many ideas resonating with that of rights as a particular conception of justice in China’s long moral tradition; but the contemporary Chinese words for ‘rights’ and ‘human rights’ were only coined in the second half of the nineteenth century, when China was in the declining years of the Qing Dynasty.” Pils, Human Rights in China, 17.

[8] This is Stephen Angle’s strategy in Human Rights and Chinese Thought.

[9] As Svensson notes, some Chinese thinkers have suggested that the West in fact borrowed the concept of human rights from Chinese thought, rather than the other way around. Writing in the 1940s, for example, Zhang Junmai “put forward the view that the concept of human rights originated in China and only later [was] exported to the West.” Svensson, Debating Human Rights in China, 195.

[10] Interestingly, economic rights were present in the 1948 Universal Declaration, and more recently scholars like Samuel Moyn have emphasized that human rights language is inadequate to the extent that it fails to acknowledge economic rights as central to human flourishing. See Moyn, Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World.

[11] More recently, the Chinese Communist Party in 2013 “issued an official document renouncing ‘so-called universal values,’ including ‘western democracy and human rights.’” Pils, Human Rights in China, 94; see also ChinaFile, “Document No. 9: A ChinaFile Translation,” August 11, 2013, available at http://www.chinafile.com/document-9-chinafile-translation.

[12] Maria Svensson argues for such a view. See Marina Svensson, Debating Human Rights in China: A Conceptual and Political History. (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002). It is also important to note that there is a wide variety of understandings of human rights in China today. As Eva Pils notes, “it is not possible to identify one coherent position [on human rights] taken by the Party-State; rather, the authorities employ arguments that seem convenient in the moment without recognizing any need to provide a coherent account, and without having to adopt a coherent position in the disciplining setting of a judicial process.” Pils, Human Rights in China, 6.

[13] For more on the current revival of Confucian political thought in China, see Jiang, A Confucian Constitutional Order; Bell, China’s New Confucianism; Chan, Confucian Perfectionism; de Bary and Tu Weiming, Confucianism and Human Rights;Møllgaard, “Political Confucianism and the Politics of Confucian Studies.”

[14] The role of Marxist thought in the governance of China today is exceedingly convoluted and vague. As Eva Pils writes, “While it remains committed to maintaining its own authority, it would be hard to claim that the Party-State today was still clearly committed to coherent socialist principles.” Pils, Human Rights in China, 84.

[15] Yang, Religion in China.

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