1/30/2009

In translation: "Human Rights"

There is a lot that is worth saying about the situation of rights in China, but what is perhaps a fascinating and telling example of the public discourse of rights in China is writing the words "人权" (Chinese for "human rights") into a google search the results on both the uncensored international dotcom version of google and the China national google.cn both yield this result as the number one result. The website above is an article from Xinhuanet.com, the online version of one of the staterun news organization Xinhua. The opening sentance, which google displays for us, I'll translate as:

"So-called human rights: as is indicated within the preconditions of any society that according to the essence and basic dignity of every person they are or should be accorded some fundamental human rights. So-called human rights: it's full breadth of meaning covering the freedom of all people and right to equally survive and develop, or...." and it continues after the jump "from human existence and development emerges a need for the right to be free and equal."
My roommate and I have turned the beginning of the article into a bit of a joke ever since I first googled 人权 long ago. Anytime one of us brings up the topic of human rights in English or Chinese, the other jumps in to say "you mean 'so-called human rights'...". Good times.

But while there is something slightly sinister about the top Chinese language result for human rights on a google search starting with the words "so-called" it does say a lot about how this concept fits into a certain (government/media) Chinese mindset. It's something that we Westerners have to remember is that while we consider human rights to be a wholly universal idea, it is still seen in many part of the world as being quite foreign in origin. The discussion on the Xinhua page is not so bad of others I've seen, but it does go on to connect the birth of ideas of human rights to Marx and the Communist party, who enshrined the notion of human rights within the 1949 Constitution (perhaps the only modern constitution that allows the executive branches of government to overrule the constitution, thus making it pretty useless in many situations). The document continues though to grant credit (without references though) to Chinese international human rights agreement (the UN however, is unmentioned), the experiences of modern Chinese history, and the way in which culture and contemporary political situations inform upon rights discourses. It then lists human rights, a list that is too long and too much work to summarize, but I can make some salient observations:
  1. The concept of "human rights" are foreign in origin
  2. But they are becoming increasingly universal
  3. And we need to find our own Chinese concept of rights
  4. History and rights are intimately linked.
  5. The result is a "socialist human rights perspective with Chinese characteristics"
  6. Rights are not just something that nation-states must apply to their citizens, but should govern the relations between various nation states which leads us to...
Sovereignty, that cornerstone of Chinese foreign policy, comes from their idea of human rights. Sovereignty is an keystone of Chinese human rights ideas. It's part of that idea that rights emerge from historical context, and in China, that context is the domination of China by foreign powers, particularly Japan. It's the same "human rights" principle that Chinese diplomats use when they justify Chinese companies selling weapons to Mugabe. Sovereignty needs to be recognized as the ascendant principle in Chinese human rights discourses. And we also need to recognize that when Chinese leaders use the words human rights on TV, they mean something wholly different from what we expect.

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