By William Jones Source: China Focus Published: 2019-9-25
The release of China’s White Paper on Human Rights comes at an important time when the world has been witnessing to the recent violence in Hong Kong, where many of the activists are claiming that their lawful rights were being endangered by a proposed draft law for extraditing criminals. In the course of this turmoil, time and again the claims were made that China was a “human rights violator” and this by the very people who were shutting down the Hong Kong economy and making it impossible for many Hong Kongers to even learn their livelihood. Not to speak of the awful destruction done to vital infrastructure and to the very bastion Hong Kong’s elected legislature by the rioters. Who gave the demonstrators the “right” to do that? This “right” they asserted themselves in their alleged fight for “democracy”.
Paper endorses “right to develop”
The White Paper gives the lie to these fraudulent accusations, but more importantly it asserts a principle which most “human rights activists” have never accepted, and that is the right of a people to develop. For what good is the right to vote if you are on the verge of starvation and no one is willing to give you a helping hand? Or the right to practice your religion when your family is faced with perennial poverty and with no future for your children? Needless to say, these “rights” are important, and as the White Paper makes clear, they are all in the process of development as China moves forward. You can go to the religious denomination of your choosing in China and you can run for office or participate in local elections. And while it may not meet all the expectations of Westerners raised in a different system, the procedure is still a work that is making progress.
But the notion of an inalienable right to development, which has been placed at the center of China’s human rights endeavor is a revolution in human rights thinking – and not readily accepted by all. How often do we hear the comments “We’ll always have poor people,” or “People are poor because they choose to be poor”? Such self-serving remarks are simply a convenient cover for those who don’t wish to seriously tackle the issue of poverty. For them, the Chinese position represents a significant challenge.
“Happiness” a primary human right
“Living a happy life is the primary human right,” the White Paper says. Not often is “happiness” a characteristic of human rights discourse. However, we remember our own Declaration of Independence, with the reference to “the right of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” And how did this interesting comment creep in to our founding document. The Britisher John Locke, who was considered at the time a major theoretician on the topic of government in the 18th Century designated the rights of Englishmen as “the rights of Life, Liberty and Property.” But our founding fathers changed all of this. I suspect it was the profound influence of Benjamin Franklin over his fellow author Thomas Jefferson in this matter, that led to enshrining the “pursuit of happiness” as a fundamental right in that founding document. For Franklin was acquainted with the great German thinker Leibniz, who wrote a famous thesis on the topic entitled “Felicity”, another name for happiness. Franklin, like Leibniz, was also an admirer of Confucius and things Chinese. But the implications of this for legislative or political actions have been largely ignored as a principle of action by our politicians.
And what does this mean, this pursuit of happiness? For different individuals, this will, of course, take different forms, but the underlying quality of happiness must be rooted in the notion of development. Our basic needs must be met. We must have access to food, to water, to education, to intellectual stimulation, to the artifacts of culture. One’s happiness can only be guaranteed by being able to develop one’s own talents to the best of his or her ability. But the social foundation for this must be provided by society or the state. And the White Paper makes very clear how this has developed in China: poverty alleviation, the creation of a network of communication, high-speed rail, fiber optics, e-commerce, even for the distant toiler of the soil, competent education, creating the means for people to advance no matter their “status” in society, proper and affordable housing, medical care for all citizens, and the creation of a major safety net for those unable or too old to work. And the speed with which these things have been developed in China has been absolutely breath-taking.
Development “at the heart” of human rights agenda
In a world torn by poverty, ethnic conflicts, religious upheaval and growing pessimism toward the future, the promise of development as an inalienable right of man can help light the way out of the darkness that continually threatens to engulf us. “Freedom from want” was one of the four freedoms coined by Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression, but it was the notion of freedom that one never hears about these days from those who puff themselves up with their “human rights agendas”. But it is the one freedom that is most fundamental, because without it, all the others are but empty shells. And having placed the concept of development at the heart of its own human rights agenda, China has undoubtedly made its greatest contribution to this important discussion.
William Jones is the Washington Bureau Chief for Executive Intelligence Review and a non-resident senior fellow of the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China.