Canada Must Do More To Advance Human Rights In China

To have a meaningful dialogue with our Chinese counterparts about human rights, we must do more than simply state the phrase.

12/20/2017 10:59 EST | Updated 12/20/2017 11:26 EST

Apparently Confucius was once asked what his first act would be if given power to rule an area. He responded: "My first task would certainly be to rectify the names."

Without having planned to in advance, I found myself referencing this anecdote a couple weeks ago during a discussion about human rights with foreign affairs officials in Beijing. I was there as part of a Canadian Foreign Affairs Committee trip, a week ahead of the Prime Minister's visit. The People's Republic of China is used to being asked questions about their human rights record; abuses include the denial of basic civil and political rights to all people, and the particular suppression of minority communities, human rights defenders, and unsanctioned faith groups.

One of the ways that Chinese officials parry human rights concerns is to refer to China's vast and unique history, and to appeal for 'understanding' across civilizational differences. With that in mind, I thought it would be helpful to refer to ideas that come from within their own tradition.

POOL New / Reuters
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang shake hands during a news conference meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Dec. 4, 2017.

But more importantly, when discussing human rights in China, it is particularly necessary to "rectify the names." In other words, one must clearly define the terms being used.

Chinese government officials are happy to respond to questions in the area of human rights by asserting that China has made substantial advancements in human rights. They argue that what matters most for people is living materially good lives; having secure access to food, clothing and shelter, and having a bit more if possible.

China's economic improvements have been advances in human rights in the way that the government considers important, and people who are warm and well-fed have no reason to complain. As one skeptical person put it to me, this approach treats people like pets: if my dog is barking, it can only be because he hasn't been fed.

This particular notion of human rights is what you might expect from a political class which, while rejecting economic Marxism, still believes in much of Marx's broader worldview, including his theoretical materialism. Materialism is the idea that all that is and all that matters is the material world. If your notion of human rights is purely materialistic, then the logic of these defenders of China's human rights record is sound. China has indeed progressed in material terms.

To be convincing, we must present an alternative non-materialistic account of human rights.

Importantly, this materialism, like Marxism in general, is very alien to China's own ancient and beautiful culture. Marxism came from Europe during colonial times. While China's officials speak of "socialism with Chinese characteristics", this reduction of humanity to the material would never have been considered Chinese before the communist takeover. Those of us who are concerned about the dehumanizing impact of Marxism in China must recognize ourselves as pro-China and anti-communist, not anti-China.

To have a meaningful dialogue with our Chinese counterparts about human rights, we must do more than simply state the phrase. To be convincing, we must present an alternative non-materialistic account of human rights. As human beings, it should be intuitively obvious that our minds are more important than our bodies. We need to survive in order to think, but it is the thinking as opposed to the surviving that makes us human. We have consciences, ideas, convictions, values and commitments, and we express those things in ways that may even run counter to our material interests.

When we speak of human rights, generally we are speaking about the rights that are particular to humans and that emanate from what is most important to us. These fundamental freedoms are not the gift of the state or government, but rather they are pre-existing and inherent: they exist by virtue of our humanity. As such, economic development is no replacement for protecting rights to conscience, religion, expression, and free association.

Thomas Peter / Reuters
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang attend a welcoming ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, on Dec, 4, 2017.

In dialogue with Chinese officials, Canada can make this point, and argue for it from within China's own philosophical tradition. When describing himself, Confucius also said "Confucius is a man driven by so much passion that, in his enthusiasm, he often forgets to eat and remains unaware of the onset of old age."

Perhaps, though, we are held back in our ability to make these arguments by the fact that our own approach to human rights more and more has elevated materialistic notions of "rights" over the more well-established rights of the mind (conscience, expression, etc.). We speak often in the West of rights to certain kinds of social services, recognition and freedom from physical discomfort. Asserting these notions of rights may serve a purpose, but it may also muddy the water a bit.

Asserting these more materialistic notions of rights may also make it harder to define what rights actually are and where they come from. I frankly doubt whether many of the people who assert human rights today in the West could venture to explain the origin of those rights, apart from merely identifying particular legal texts.

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It is quite common to say, when returning from China, that a politician has "raised human rights." Our foreign affairs committee did indeed discharge our duty and "raise human rights."

But, for this to be substantive as opposed to merely formulaic, we must do more than raise human rights — we need to discuss human rights. We need to emphasize the 'human' first and then the 'right,' as opposed to offering rights as some abstract, disembodied notion.

Political leaders seeking to advance human rights need to allocate serious time to meaningful philosophical exchange about human rights. And perhaps that also means having a deeper internal conversation in Canada and "rectifying the names" ourselves when it comes to human rights.

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