When Western concepts and Eastern cultures collide

BEIJING: In today’s global arena of interwoven and interdependent politics and business, it appears many a Western company is caught in a Catch-22 situation: They have their eye on the Chinese market, but are held back by political stigmata, as China is considered a “violator of human rights” in the eyes of some.

Swedish fashion retailer H&M saw its China sales plummet at least 40 percent in the third quarter of last year, following a 23-percent decline in the second quarter. It had earlier announced the refusal to use Xinjiang cotton, a move triggered by some Western governments’ groundless accusations of “forced labor.”

Human rights are the main handler that the U.S. has used to reproach and sanction China in recent years. However, when taking into account that China is a developing country with 1.4 billion people, is everybody positively sure there is no such thing as human rights? Or do they perhaps go by a different definition?

“Whilst Western human rights theories have become the most prominent and visible in international relations, this does not mean that other cultures have not developed their own conceptions,” Lucienne Bamford wrote in her essay on The New World Politics published by the University of Technology, Sydney, Australia.

Mindsets and mechanisms

Increasingly emerging as the central human right of advanced capitalist society is the right not to be “harassed,” that is to be kept at a safe distance from others, according to Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, who was featured on the Foreign Policy’s list of Top 100 Global Thinkers in 2012.

Karl Marx stated in the 19th century, “The right of man to freedom is not based on the union of man with man, but on the separation of man from man. It is the right to this separation, the rights of the limited individual who is limited to himself.” Both thinkers seem to emphasize the individualist correlation between humanity’s freedom and disconnection.

Agree with them or not, their words stand in stark contrast to the Confucian concept, rooted in the East, in which the connection between people is of the utmost importance. Consequently, when drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1947, Chinese philosopher and diplomat Pengchun Chang (1892-1957), then Vice Chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights, contributed the Chinese perception of human rights by employing aspects of Confucian doctrine to reach a compromise between conflicting ideological factions. He proposed to add “brotherhood” to the declaration, a term respected to this day.

Chang was deeply involved in the cultural exchange between East and West and he often stated that human rights were for everyone, not just those residing in the Western hemisphere.

For China, the legacy of Confucius lives on in both society and the policies that reflect the people’s will. What does the spirit of “brotherhood” signify in China’s mindset today?

Simply put, the rights to subsistence and development are top priorities to achieve common prosperity and we should act toward one another in spirit of brotherhood. As a developing country with metropolises like Beijing and Shanghai blazing new and revolutionary trails, the majority of Chinese people live in small towns. The entire nation just rose out of absolute poverty in 2020.

The pattern of developed regions assisting developing areas therefore prevails. Xinjiang Uygur and Tibet autonomous regions have both benefited from this policy put forward by the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. He encouraged the advanced regions to help the backward and through this well-oiled mechanism, step by step, society by large will realize the ultimate goal of common prosperity. Ensuring the right to a better life for all.

“Whether we are English, American, Chinese or whoever, be sure of our grounds when evaluating cross-cultural claims about human rights,” China human rights observer Stephen C. Angle with Wesleyan University, co-author of The Chinese Human Rights Reader, said.

“We see how the Chinese people’s lives have been improved, how, even during COVID-19, people were prioritized. Their life was prioritized. So we can see that this journey in China is consistent. It comes with a big theory and philosophy behind it,” Zoon Ahmed Khan, a research fellow from Pakistan who has been living in China for six years, said. She shared her experiences during a reader meet and greet for the book of President Xi Jinping’s thoughts on human rights on December 28, 2021. The book covers a comprehensive overview of what China has done to keep refining the country’s human rights conditions over the past decade.

Misbahul Ferdous, a Bangladeshi cardiologist active at Beijing Fuwai Hospital, dove deep into the medical exertions during China’s epidemic control efforts. “Every single person matters. No matter who the patient may be, everything (COVID-19 treatment) is free of charge. No other country has done this,” he said.

Amid all the public clamoring and headlines depicting China as an all-devouring demon, Ferdous prefers to go by his own experiences. “I have two eyes. I can see reality,” he told Beijing Review. “It’s visible. It’s not just words; it’s actions.”

“For far too long have human rights been treated as vague ideals, weaponized when needed, and used even to the detriment of entire countries and regions,” Khan added. “We do believe that in essence all human beings have the right to happiness and improved prospects.”

Pursuit of happiness

According to the 2008 Pew Global Attitudes Survey, 86 percent of Chinese polled were satisfied with their country’s direction. In 2020, a Harvard University survey found that Chinese citizen satisfaction with the government had increased across the board, with the central authorities receiving the strongest level of approval, increasing from 86 percent to 93 percent between 2003 and 2016, the period covered by the study.

On the other side of the world, in the U.S., a self-proclaimed beacon of democracy and human rights, a majority of young Americans believe that “our democracy is in trouble or failing,” according to a national poll of America’s 18- to 29-year-olds released on December 1, 2021, by Harvard Kennedy School, the public policy school of Harvard University.

The trend among young Americans today shifts to collectivist-oriented methods rather than pure individualism. “Right now, young Americans are confronting their worries on many fronts. Concerns about our collective future—with regard to democracy, climate change, and mental health—also feel very personal,” Student Chair of the Harvard Public Opinion Project Jingjing Shen, 23, said.

“Yet, amid all of this uncertainty, and especially coming out of the isolation imposed by the pandemic, young people have come to value their communities and connections even more deeply, not only in contending these crises but also in striving for a meaningful life,” Shen added.

“I believe that America’s focus ought to be on improving ourselves, fixing our own problems, overcoming the problems within our own society. This is what I think we should be focusing on,” said John Hamre, President of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies and former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense.

“Rather than having the conversation with China, people are all about ‘opposition’ in everything they say or do… That’s going to get us nowhere—in my view,” Hamre concluded during a dialogue with the Center for China and Globalization in December 2021. -The Daily Mail-Beijing Review News Exchange Item