Chinese Ethics and
Universal Human Rights

Chong Ho Yu

August 7, 1990


Today the perceived lack of human rights in China has attracted international concern. The Chinese government has expressed its standpoint on human rights through various media. Basically, Beijing denies the existence of universal human rights.

In the West, there are many books and articles concerning universal human rights. Kant, Hobbes, Rousseau, Locke, Rawls, as well as many other philosophers, are frequently quoted in the discussion. However, very few Western philosophers attempt to analyze human rights with the exploration of Chinese philosophy. Many Western scholars simply deny any seed of human rights and democracy within the Chinese tradition.

For example, Eastman holds a gloomy view that due to the character of Chinese society and its political tradition, the attempt of establishing a democratic system in China has been and would be a tragedy (cited in Chow, 1990, p.1).

U.S. News Journalist Mortimer Zuckerman (1990) stated in the article China Myth. China Reality that China has no tradition of democracy and Americans' expectation of a free and strong China would end up in disillusionment.

According to Feinerman (September 1989), a professor of law at Georgetown University, Confucianism and traditional Chinese hierarchy stressed obedience to authority and therefore individual human rights has been de-emphasized (p.274).

In short, many Western scholars contended that the concept of human rights has a root in the West only, but not in the East. Equating human rights to the Western values was observed during the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1946-48. At that time the executive board of the American Anthropological Association warned of the danger that the Declaration would be "a statement of rights conceived only in terms of the values prevalent in Western Europe and America." (cited in Nickel, 1987, p.68)

Chang Peng-chun, the Chinese representative for the Commission of Human Rights, repeatedly stated that the Declaration should not be based on Western thoughts solely. Rather the Chinese philosophy should be taken as a reference. Chang suggested to John Humphrey, the American political and legal expert, that before he started to draft the declaration, he should live in China for half a year in order to understand the Chinese philosophy. But this proposal was refused (Wang, 1989, p.119).

There is an exception. John Copper et al. (1985) admired the Chinese humanist tradition:

"Traditional Chinese Society was humanist. Nothing is more erroneous and misleading than the often heard idea that the Chinese Communist system of totalitarian control is simply an extension of imperial despotism ...The Confucian tradition is compatible with the modern notion of human rights as founded in the well being of the people as individual moral beings" (p.9, p.l2).

Obviously, the researches of the Chinese tradition and human rights fall into the either/or polarities. In this paper, I attempt to analyze the universal human rights within the context of Chinese philosophy and history -- to examine what the Chinese say and what they actually do. Unlike Copper or Feinerman, I would not give a simple "yes" or "no" answer. Rather I would admit that the Chinese tradition carries elements that are both compatible and incompatible with the modern concept of human

Universal Truths and Universal Human Rights

The Fallacy of the Evolutionist

The Chinese government asserts that human rights are evolving due to social and historical factors. Thus, there are no universal human rights. As John Copper et al. (1985) says:

"(In China) rights are not endowed by nature but depend on class status and are granted by leaders whose interpretation of society's interest determines what rights can be given at any specific time and to whom. Rights given today can be taken away tomorrow in accordance with changing circumstances and a changing party line." (p.5)

In an article in People's Daily on April 13, 1982, entitled The History and Present Condition of Human Rights, the author labeled all human rights documents from the Declaration of Independence and the French Revolution up to the Covenants of 1966 as "capitalist documents" dealing with the "rights of the capitalist class." Only the "right to development" of the formerly colonial and dependent countries can "translate human rights on paper to real human rights." (cited in ibid., 1985, p.5)

Yi also argued in Beijing Review (1989) that different ideologies and social systems have different understandings of the basic concept of human rights. From the Marxist standpoint, all rights emerge historically and are based on economic relations in society.

Fairly speaking, Liberalism in the beginning was the bourgeois revolution of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It is also fair to say that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the main stream of Liberalism, both in theory and in practice, tended to lose its initially revolutionary character and to solidify into a new form of privilege, inequality, and oppression based on property rather than on birth (Donnelly, 1989, p.l05).

However, the above does not imply that human rights are not universal and subject to historical progress. If we look at the ancient alchemy and claim that the scientific rules discovered by modern chemists are not universal and subject to historical change, and go further to apply the same logic to other disciplines, then we will come to a dangerous conclusion that all things in the world are unknown and human efforts of seeking knowledge and truths would be in vain.

The evolutionist view may lead to a contradictory result. For example, Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the founder of Republic of China who to some extent agreed to Social Darwinism, stated that "the rights of people is not from nature, but from the historical development." In his view, the trend of government was from theocracy to monarchy. At his time, the trend was towards democracy. Regardless of obstacles, democracy would be long lasting (cited in Chou, 1979, p.415). If rights are relative to social and historical development and in history one types of rights under a political system replaces another, then how can Dr. Sun predict that democracy will be long lasting or irreplaceable in the future?

Marxists assert that Socialist rights are the final stage of the social evolution and replaces bourgeois rights, just like Capitalism wiped out Feudalism. On one hand, the Chinese government disregards the principles of human rights as absolute. On the other hand, China insisted upon the Four Cardinal principles, namely,

These doctrines are considered absolute. Actually, it is the same fallacy as that of Sun Yat-sen.

When Charles Darwin introduced the model of biological evolution, he hypothesized that the evolution is based on the natural selection and the survival for the fittest. If rights are also evolutionary, they have to base on a principle. The quest for a principle for social evolution inevitably becomes a search for universality. If the evolution of different periods bases on different principles, these periods would not be associated as several stages and history would not be considered as a continuous process. In this sense, it would not be an evolution at all.

The notion of Marxist economic determinism cannot pass the empirical verification. When West European countries established democratic political system for enforcing human rights, their annual GNP per capita was around USD $300. Today, many Third World nations, including China, have exceeded this amount, but they are still far behind to the Western standards of democracy and human rights (Chow, 1990, p.15). Interestingly enough, economic factors are frequently used as an excuse to slow sown or even to avoid the realization of Western-style democracy and human rights. For instance, Shen Baoxing et al. Stated in Beijing Review (1982) that the annual GNP per capita of China was approximate USD $400, and therefore it is unsuitable for China to practice democracy (p.101). How much China’s GNP per capita should increase so as to reach the ripe economic stage for democracy? $500? $600? $700? Or more? At which level would it be considered adequate?

Moral Universe

Human rights need a universal and philosophical foundation, rather than an evolutionist and economic one. From the very beginning, the Chinese philosophy affirmed the existence of universal truths and morality. French thinker Foucault (1970) asserted that in the past century Western scholars started to apply the macro cosmic order to the study of micro subjects. But thousands years ago Chinese thinkers had compared the cosmic order to the societal structure. Before the establishment of any philosophic school, the Chinese regarded Heaven as a moral universe. According to the classic Book of Change (I Ching), the origin of the universe is "Ta Chi," which divides itself into "Yin" (negative) and "Yan" (positive). Then "Yin" and "Yan" transform themselves into various forms and matters. In short, "Tai Chi" is considered the ultimate universal principle.


Mencuis, the second greatest master of the Confucian School, further developed the principle of universal morality by introducing "Ho Yan Ching Hay" (mighty and just vital force). In Mencuis' philosophy, a man is born good and capable of cultivating the internal vital force, which is given by Heaven. When we fully cultivate the vital force, we fully realize our human nature. This doctrine, indeed, was implemented by many Confucians. For instance, when the Mongolians overthrew the Sung Dynasty and established the Yuan Empire, the former Sung official Man Tin-cheung refused to co-operate with the new oppressive regime at the expense of his freedom, and at last, his life. Before he was executed, he wrote: "Heaven and the earth have the 'Ching Hay'. It is embodied in various forms. In the earth it takes the form of rivers and mountains. In Heaven it takes the form of the Sun and stars. In humans, it is called 'Ho Yan'."


In Taoism, "Tao" (Way or Word) is the metaphysical law that governs the universe. There are different interpretations of Taosim. According to Munro (1969), Taoists did not accept natural law. They denied that nature revealed any social and ethical qualities. All value and ethical judgements, Taoists maintained, were only human inventions. In contrast, Tong (1985) asserts that Taoists emphasized natural law or the Way of Heaven more than Confucians did. I adopted Tong’s position. Lou Tzu, the founder of Taoism states: "Man learns from the earth. The earth learns from Heaven. Heaven learns from Tao. Tao learns from the nature." This passage should not be interpreted literally. The essence of the message is the emphasis on the subordination of man to the natural law, which manifests itself through Heaven and earth. When we put the natural law into words, it becomes "Tao."


The Legalist School also respects natural law. While observing the complexity of the nature, Kun Chung, the politician of the kingdom of Chai during East Chou period, concluded that human world is as complicated as the nature. There must be some laws guiding their operation. Thus, he regarded the validity of moral law as that of natural law.

Chinese Rationalism

In the Sung Dynasty, some branches of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism fused together to form Rationalism. The Chinese Rationalists were interested in ethics rather than epistemology. They classified knowledge as knowledge from the moral nature ("Ta Hsing Chi Tzu") and knowledge from sensory perceptions ("Kin Man Chi Tzu"). The latter is value-free and empirical knowledge. The way of acquiring this kind of knowledge is simply by learning. However, moral knowledge, Rationalists maintained, is not learned, but by introspection and cultivation of our instinct.

Rationalists did not stop at the point that human nature is ethical. They went further to ask how it is possible for humans to introspect the moral nature? Following the concepts of "Tai Chi" and "Tao," Sung philosophers introduced a new concept--"Le" (reasoning). "Tai Chi" and "Tao" governs the order of the external world, but "Le," which is a built-in mechanism and a condensed version of "Tai Chi" and "Tao," directs our internal mind. Chu Hay, one of the great Master of Chinese Rationalsim, stated that human nature is rational. A man acquires reason from the "Tao". Hence, human reason and "Tao" are one, and cultivation of human moral nature becomes possible.

If people share the common moral nature, how could Chu Hay explain the differences of norms and values among various times and places? Chu Hay stated that the form of the reason is one but the contents can be different. If one examines carefully, one can observe that all people and things in the world appear to be different but still carry the same "Le" as oneself. And thus, it is reasonable to respect every one. This type of fraternity is called "Mui Yee Man Bao."

The underlying assumption of universal human rights is the equal concern and respect for every human-being. Chu Hay's philosophy certainly constructed a ground for mutual respect. However, the assertion of moral and rational human nature would be resulted in the over-estimation of human ability. The humanistic character of Confucianism will be evaluated later. Moreover, over-emphasis on universality of human nature would smash individual ego and lead to collectivism. Another weakness of Rationalism is the absence of definitions of the world and human. Before the Westerners had encountered the Chinese, the Chinese considered China and the surrounding tribes as the entire world and only Chinese as authentic humans. These two points will be discussed more in later sections.

Natural Law

Confucianism's assumption of a moral universe is similar to the natural law theory suggested by John Locke. As Edwards et al. (1986) says, the Confucian view was parallel in a broad sense to the Western concept of natural law in that it believed in a moral order independent of the laws of state, but the moral order in the Confucian system was created by man, not nature.

John Locke (1690) argues that human rights are based on natural law. "Natural law" is a term originally introduced by Stocis. It was adopted by Catholic scholars such as Aquinas. At the time of John Locke, the discovery of scientific laws strengthened the faith of natural law. Locke asserts that because the study of the universe shows that laws are operating throughout nature, it follows that there must be moral laws governing the conduct of men. Science, says Locke, shows that laws are universally operative. Therefore, he concluded, science demonstrates the existence of natural law.

Locke also suggests that in the state of nature, people lived in a pre-political condition, later people formed a political society because they wanted to overcome the "inconvenience of the state of nature." This inconvenience consists solely and exclusively in the lack of an authoritative judge between and above parties to disputes. The formation of this political society is called the social contract. Under the social contract, the state is a judicial body, interpreting the law of nature for individuals who have not surrendered their natural rights, but who have by their own consent created that state simply and so it may, without favor to any man or group, and without bias against any man or group, interpret objectively those rights and use the collective authority to enforce their observance (Ibid.).

Cranston (1973) commented that natural law is a bad argument. For the laws discovered in nature by scientists are not laws in the sense in which moralists and lawyers speak. A scientific law is an observed regularity in nature, and it embodies some degree of replication and some kind of prediction. It is not something that can be obeyed or disobeyed at will. A law of conduct, on the other hand, can be obeyed or disobeyed; and it would not be a moral law if someone could break it (p.12).

Indeed, Cranston’s argument is problematic. Even if a moral law could be broken, it would still be a law. Does the commendent "Thou shalt not steal" remain a moral law in spite of theft and robbery? Further, a person also can try to break the scientific law, but like breaking the moral law, he will suffer the consequences. If a person ignores the law of gravity and jumps from the roof of a house, he will be injured or killed instantly. But if a person ignores the medical finding of the correlation between smoking and cancer, he may get the lung cancer thirty years later. By the same principle, if you act immorally, you may face the consequence immediately or later. The Chinese tradition indicates that moral laws are predictable. There is a famous Chinese proverb: "Generosity will be returned by generosity. Evils will be returned by evils. If there is no return, just because that's not the time." "Karma" is a Buddhist term denoting the same philosophy. According to the "Karma" doctrine, every action would lead to a chain effect. Good seeds grow good results and vice versa.

The Ways of Heaven and Man

However, Peerenhoom (1990), a Sinologist at the University of Hawaii, argues that the Confucian ethic is not trying to apply such an abstract universal principle as natural law, but to assume people's responsibility for constructing their own just society. Peerenhoom quoted a saying by Confucius to support his argument: "It is the person who is capable of broadening the Way. It is not the way that is capable of broadening the person." Thus, for Confucius, there is no pre-determined order. Peerenhoom also says that Confucianism is a challenge to inalienable human rights because humanity is an achievement instead of a given. One must earn the rights granted to him and guaranteed by society by achieving some minimal level of personhood of humanity. In short, one becomes a human being, a humane person, by virtue of participation in society.

On the other hand, modern Chinese philosopher Tong (1985) holds the opposite view that in the Confucian tradition, metaphysics and ethics are mutually dependent--the Way of Heaven Tien Tao") is also the Way of Man ("Ren Tao") . The Way may have five meanings:

The last two are considered the Way of Heaven while the first three, the Way of Man. Ancient Confucians and Taoists often used the single term "Tao," instead of specifying "Tien Tao" or "Ren Tao". During the Sung dynasty, Rationalists preached the doctrine of a moral and rational human nature. The maximization of this doctrine would lead to an interpretation of human responsibility as Peerenhoom's theory. However, Rationalists tended to fuse the two Ways and suggested "reunion between Heaven and Man."

In the Chinese tradition, people are required to "learn hard in the earth in order to upgrade themselves towards Heaven." Because Heaven is impersonalized--silent and passive, humanity is an achievement. However, the statement quoted by Peerrenhoom does not imply the insignificance of natural law. In Confucius view, when people make effort to build the Way of man--a just and ethical community, they need a frame of transcendental reference--the Way of Heaven. Confucius says, "Without recognizing the ordinances of heaven, it is impossible to be a superior man." (cited in Munro, 1969, p.56)

The view of Peerenhoom may lead to a dangerous conclusion: Rights are conditional and one must become a particular kind of person that can fit the political norms, otherwise rights will not be given. One some occasions, the People's Republic of China grants right to "people," whose behaviors prove themselves as patriotic but deprives "people's enemies" of rights. As the Workers' Daily put it with respect to freedom of speech:

"(Freedom of speech) is not an innate right which can exploited even after the proletariat succeeds in seizing power.... In order to protect Socialist public ownership and consolidate its political rule, the proletariat must give political rights and freedoms, including freedom of speech, to the masses instead of to the antagonistic classes or their remnants." (cited in Edwards et al., 1986, p.131)


The Chinese tradition did not leave any room for evolutionist models until the birth of the Republic and People's Republic. The Chinese traditional thinkers emphasized universal truths and universal morality. The former is considered the external law governing the universe while the latter is considered the internal reason regulating our behaviors. Peerenhoom regards Confucianism as a challenge to inalienable human rights, but indeed the moral and rational human nature, in Confucians' view, is the projection of the moral universe. The assumption of moral universe is very similar to the natural law suggested by John Locke, and most Western philosophers and theologians prior to the 19th century. In this sense Chinese moral philosophy is compatible with the Western concept of human rights.

Sovereignty, Law and Morality

International Intervention

In February of this year the U.S. State Department issued a detailed report charging that the Human rights climate in China has deteriorated dramatically since the Tibet and Beijing crackdowns. In the same month, Amnesty International issued a list of 650 Chinese political prisoners and demanded the Chinese government to release them based on humanitarian consideration (Sing Pao, June 17, 1990, p.1).

The Chinese government strongly reacted to these international interventions. In the November 6-12 1989 issue of Beijing Review, Yi tried to disprove the existence of universal human rights by citing the fact that many countries have reservations about international conventions on human rights. Ho wrote that not a single international convention or agreement passed by the United Nations had been accepted without reservation by member states. In the case of the two most important international documents on human rights--the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, more than 30 countries expressed reservations about the former and more than 209 countries about the latter. Therefore, these documents do not supersede the laws of any country.

On February 22, the Chinese ambassador to the United States, Zhu Qiz-hen, lodged a strong protest against the human rights report issued by the U.S. State Department. Zhu stated that "the Chinese government and people express their utmost indignation at this act which violates the basic norms governing international relations, grossly interferes in China's internal affairs and seriously encroaches upon its sovereignty." (Beijinq Review, March 5-11, 1990, p.9)

Surprisingly, the Chinese pro-democracy leaders did not answer the preceding points. Although they mentioned the importance of human rights many times, they tend to take human rights as a postulate instead of a question for theoretical study. For example, Chai Ling, the Chinese student who fled from mainland China to France, criticized that the U.S.'s policy regarding China is far behind to the expectation of the Chinese students . She wishes the U.S. would take serious steps in handling China's human rights issue (World Daily, June 5, p.3). Five days later, Chai Ling asked Vice-President Quale of the U.S. to urge the Chinese government to improve its human rights conditions in exchange for the most-favored nation status (Sina Pao, June 10, 1990, p.1).

After China had released the well-known dissident Fang Lizhi and his wife Li Shuk-han, who had been protected by the U.S. Embassy in China for one year, Fang criticized in the interview with NBC News that the U.S. applied a double standard to the human rights condition in China. He also talked of the need he saw to push China into the international community (New York Time, July 7, 1990, p.2).

The People's Republic of China accused the U.S. of interfering in its internal affairs. On what ground can Chai Ling and Fang Li-zhi justify that U.S. have the right or obligation to push China on its human rights affairs? If they cannot construct a rationale for international interventions, their request would not be considered ethical. Interestingly enough, critics often accuse the US of being too interventionist (e.g. Latin America) as well as not involved enough (e.g. South Africa, China, and Ethiopia). Even if the US did what Chai Ling and Fang Li-zhi demanded, probably it would create more problems instead of solving them.

Chinese View to Morality and Law

Ultimately, international intervention is a moral issue, instead of a legal one. The rights listed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights are moral rights, rather than legal or positive rights. Positive rights are recognized by laws while moral rights are recognized by morality (Cranston, 1973). The power of the United Nations to enforce the documents and make a country stop violations of human rights is limited. Thus, the documents are moral persuasion. When we ask whether national sovereignty is higher than these documents, we are not questioning which law is higher. Instead, it is a question of whether morality is higher than sovereignty and local laws .

As a mater of fact, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has articles to deal with the relation between local laws and human rights. Although Article 29 permits a state to enact laws limiting the exercise of the rights proclaimed in the Declaration, a government's authority to impose such restriction is limited by Article 30, which provides that "nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any state, group, or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any rights and freedoms" proclaimed in the Declaration (cited in Buergenthal, 1988, pp.28-29).

The Chinese philosophy totally justifies that morality precedes law. Confucius is the most well-known moral philosopher of China. He advocated a community ethics of "jen" (generosity) and "I" (fairness or justice)--the care for others based on one's own integrity. Furthermore, he taught his student Chi Lui: "If the norms and rituals are not flourished, the punishment (by the law) will not be reasonable. The unreasonable law would make people normless." (cited in Chou, 1979, P.61). In the Sung Dynasty, Chu Hay further interpreted this Confucian idea: " Political procedure and punishment are the tools of administration. Morality and norms are the foundation of politics. Morality is the source of norms." Thus, Chu Hay concluded that "managing people must not be based on the tools, but on the foundation." (Ibid.)

Even in the early Legalist school, Morality ranks a higher priority than law. Chi Chan was a contemporary of Confucius. He is considered the pioneer of the Legalist School. Just before Chi Chan died, he concluded his philosophy as the following: "Only morality can make people obey. Next to morality is the tough (law)." (cited in Chou Shan-fu, 1976, p.99) Another pioneer of the Legalist School is Kun Chung. In his view, norms, justice, purity and conscience constitute the "net" of a nation. If all of them are not widespread, the nation will perish (Ibid. ,p.98) However, the Legalist School believed that laws are still an essential formal social control while morality is an informal control.

Two hundred years after the death of Confucius, Mencuis tended to give the legal system the equal status with morality. He said: "Kindness only is not sufficient in politics. Laws only are not sufficient to be implemented (reasonably)." (Chou Hung-jan, 1979, p.l06)

Westerners' View to Morality and Law

In the west, most rights holders would prefer to have parallel legally enforced rights as moral rights, but Donnelly (1989) asserted that the moral force of human rights will often be greater than legal rights. Legal rights ground legal claims on the political system to protect already established legal entitlement. Human rights ground moral claims on the political system to strengthen or add to existing legal entitlement. He went even further to announce that human rights claims are essentially extralegal; their principal aim is to challenge or change institutions, practices, or norms, especially legal institutions (p.14). Therefore, there are prisoners of conscience who disobey unjust laws all over the world. In ancient China there were many prisoners of "Hay Jai," (vital force and principle) the same meaning as prisoners of conscience. Man Tin-cheung, mentioned in an earlier chapter, is a good example.

Milnes (1986) found that morality is logically prior to law because there can be morality without law, but not law without morality. While law can create particular obligation, it cannot create the general obligation to obey law. Copper et al. (1985) regarded protection under law as a basic right because this had served the purpose of guaranteeing individual freedoms while regulating human relations. Milnes' view shares a common ground with the Confucian school's while Copper et al. made a similar point as the Legalist School’s. The Confucian concepts of "Jen" and "I" are clearly the foundation for respect of human rights. It implants an internal obligation in people's hearts. On the other hand, the Legalist School provided formal and external guarantees for the internal discipline.

"Chai Pun, Chun Han" and the Allies

Yi (1989) argues that the invalidity of universal human rights is manifested by the fact that not all countries agree to the international documents on human rights. And thus, international intervention is wrong. It is a poor argument because you can find some ones object any idea at any time and any place. The ethical standard is not a matter of voting. For instance, after Iraq had invaded Kuwait on August 5 this year, the U.S. proposal of imposing sanctions against Iraq and occupied Kuwait was not supported by every member of the United Nations. Jordan's King Hussein even praised Iraq's leader Hussein as a "patriot." Moreover, the United Nations has no mechanism to enforce the sanctions-just like human rights-which had been promised by the member countries (Star Tribune, August 6, 1990, p.1A p.8A). However, China still joined the list of nations that have slapped sanctions on Iraq and occupied Kuwait. Obviously China's action is an international intervention for a moral world order.

Draper (1982) regarded the concept of human rights as a concept of world order. It is a proposal for structuring the world so that every individual's human worth is realized and every individual's human dignity is protected. Thus, it is immoral to let a country violate human rights in the name of its sovereignty and laws. For example, after World War II, when the Allied courts tried the Japanese and German military personnel, the military personnel replied that what they did was legitimate because they followed their national laws (Wang, 1990). Definitely, the Allies did the right thing to rescue the Jewish people in Germany. Richard Pierre Claude and Burns Weston (1989) pointed out that after the rise and fall of Nazi Germany, the doctrine of state sovereignty changed dramatically. Most commentators concluded that state sovereignty is not an absolute principle, but rather was subject to limitations in regards to human rights.

Ancient Chinese played the same role as the modern Allies. During the East Chou period, China was decentralized into many small provinces but dominated by several powerful princes, such as Chin Mui Kung, Chai Pun Kung and Chun Man Kung. When the ruler of a province maltreated his people by imposing unjust laws, the princes would ignore the ruler's sovereignty and sent troops to punish him. The Chinese people admired this practice as "the action of Chai Pun and Chun Man." During the early Tang dynasty, the emperor of China was "Tien Khan," a role of maintaining the order of Asia, by force or by moral influence. In a sense, China's role in Asia during the Tang period was like the "World Police" taken by the U.S. after World War II.


Chinese ethics insists upon the superiority of morality to sovereignty and law, in both theory and practice. Chinese Confucians emphasized the internal control by spreading codes of ethics while Legalists stressed on the importance of external control. However, both sides regarded morality as the supreme principle and the foundation of law. Both ancient and modern Chinese rulers, indeed, interfered with other countries' affairs when injustice occurred there.

Shortcoming of Chinese Ethics

The pre-supposition of human rights in the Chinese and Western philosophies are similar: They both accept the notion of the universality of morality; they both contend that morality supersedes sovereignty and law. Then, why didn't the ancient Chinese thinkers and politicians develop the concept of modern human rights?

Theoretically, the Chinese ethics are logical and reasonable, but as every ethical system, including the Western one, there are flaws in practice. Many Chinese and Western scholars evaluate the Chinese culture by reading what they say. Bias will be inevitable if one doesn't look at what we do.

The Double standard

One major flaw of Chinese ethics that hinders the realization of human rights is the double standard. The formation of the Chinese double standard could be traced back to its unique geographical characteristic. North china is cut off by mountains and deserts to the north and west. There are also mountain ranges running parallel to the coast in southern China, and oceans lie on the east and south. As a result, the Chinese culture was isolated from other well-developed civilizations such as Greece and Roman. China had remained the most developed nation without major competitors in Asia for three thousand years. Throughout these years, China regarded itself as the "Middle Kingdom"—the center of the world. Other tribes and countries near China were called "Yee", which means "non-human" or "nothing."

Very few ancient Chinese philosophers questioned the status of "Middle Kingdom. Chung Tzu is one of the few. In the last chapter headed Autumn Floods of his book entitled after his name, he asked: "Is not the Middle Kingdom, in comparison with what lies within the area bounded by the four seas, like a small seed in a granary?" Another unpopular ancient thinker suggests that the whole world consists of nine huge continents and China, the "Godly Continental" ("Zi Yuan Chun Chou"), is only one of the nine. But the majority of the Chinese people regarded themselves as the center of the universe and thought that they knew about morality the best.

Since the late Ching period, the Chinese people have been using a pejorative term, "devils," to label Westerners. They call Negroes "black devils," Native Americans, "red barbarians" and Indians, "Au Cha." Devils and barbarians are treated as immoral and the Chinese people boast themselves as moral. This attitude looks like that they treated other tribes as "Yee" in previous times.

Nonetheless, a love-hatred relationship to foreigners, especially to the West, had been added into the new ethnocentricism. Since the late Ching period, China had been facing failures when challenging by the West. Although the Chinese realized that the West had superior technology to their own, they still insisted that China was more civilized than the West for its three-thousand year tradition of culture and morality. On one hand they aspire to learn the Western technology and management. One the other hand they look down the "immoral practices" of the Westerners. Oksenberg (1987) named this mentality as "confident nationalism." Under "confident nationalism, the Chinese tend to practice self-moralizing.

The classification of First, Second and Third Worlds in the Chinese foreign policy is a typical example of "self-moralizing". China is behind to the West and Japan in economy. One way to resume the glory of the "Middle Kingdom" is by moral impact. China divides all nations into three categories. The First and Second Worlds are viewed as imperial and the Third, the oppressed. China places itself into the Third world and "morally" fights for their rights. Through this prism, the actions of China and the Third World are viewed as ethical and the First and Second Worlds are not. Thus, a double standard was developed.

The most recent example is, again, the human rights issue. The Chinese government often rejects the application of international human rights documents by raising the banner of sovereignty and local laws. However, with regard to the internal affairs of South Africa, the Chinese government supports the principle of human rights as stated in international documents. For example, Shen et al. (1982) asserted that the most important task of the international community was to oppose the large-scale violation of fundamental human rights by some countries such as the racism in South Africa. On another occasion, Wang and Cheung (1990) asserted that to "firmly and completely wipe out racism and apartheid is the urgent mission of South Africans and all people in the world." (p.5). On June 12, 1990 China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs urged South Africa to "release all political prisoners and adopt practical policies to abandon apartheid in all aspects completely." (Sing Pao, June 12, 1990, p.1). How can the Chinese government harmonize the dilemma that its own human rights record is questionable while it condemns South Africa? In fact, this self-moralizing action is a modern version of the attitude of "Middle Kingdom."

Regarding to international documents, sovereignty and local laws, there are more examples of contradictory proclamations and double standard by the Chinese: In 1986, legal advisor Li Ho-man announced that "the treaties signed by the Chinese government are higher than the domestic laws, regardless of whether the laws were established before or after the agreement of the international treaties. If there are conflicts between international treaties and domestic laws, the international treaties must be followed." However, in 1987 when the Japanese Supreme Court decided to return the property of Kwong Wai Lui to the Nationalist government, an article in China Legal Daily commented that "any country must not use domestic laws as an excuse to disregard the obligation derived from international laws." (Wang, and Cheung, 1990)

More interesting is that the Chinese Communists have the "double standard of double standard." The Chinese officials always criticize the practices of other nations, especially the U.S., as using a double standard, but they never mention their own same practices. The "double standard argument" was highlighted by Jiang Zemin, the general Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in an interview with the U.S.News. Jiang said,

"The U.S. repeatedly talks about democracy, freedom and human rights, but Chinese find it very difficult to understand why the U.S. sent troops to Panama...another example is the ethnic riots in Tibet. We sent our troops to put an end to the riot, and suddenly there was a big uproar and a lot of criticism that China had violated human rights. But recently when there were riots between two ethnic groups in Azerbaijan and Armenia in the U.S.S.R., and the Soviet Union sent troops to put an end to riot, the U.S. expressed its understanding about this." (Zuckerman, 1990, p.50).

However, some Americans also find it difficult to understand why China supports and expressed its understanding to Palestinian terrorists, and sold Silkworm missiles to Iran. To China it is easy to explain because Iran is a Third World country, which fights against the imperial America, and Palestinian people are oppressed by Israelite army backing up by America. The origin of this double standard could be found in the polarization of "Middle Kingdom"-"Yee," Chinese-"devils," and Third World-First World.

Regarding to internal politics, categorization and the double standard are also used to explain away violations of human rights. The Chinese government stated that it gives right to the people, but not to the enemies of the people such as the "counterrevolutionary."

Naming as Doing

Some feel that the Chinese people care very much in regard to politeness and rituals outside, but lack inside sincerity. In other words, Chinese people tend to pay more attention to form than to content.

In the Chinese tradition, naming is the primary job of establishing codes of ethics and the political system. Confucius preached a doctrine of "right naming" ("Cheng Ming"): "If the name is not right, your speech will not be respected and your mission will not be accomplished." (cited in Chou, 1979, p.61). "Cheng Ming" had both ethical and logical applications. Its original intent was ethical, based on the belief that names have firm meanings and they will almost magically serve as effective standards of conduct (Munro, 1969).

Hsun Tzu, whose philosophy is considered a side track of Confucius-Mencuis orthodoxy, even declared that one of a ruler's main responsibilities is to maintain the standardization of names by seeing no unauthorized distinctions between words are made, and that no new words are created. The Legalists concurred with this, and also with Hsun Tzu's plea for the use of direct unflowery language by officials in discussing rules of conduct (Ibid.).

This doctrine has been dominating the Chinese thinking for more than two thousand years. In the Han period Tung Chung-sue, the academic advisor of the Emperor Han Mui, expanded the doctrine to "Kwong Shan Ming Cau," which means to establish a comprehensive social and political order by correct naming. In the Sung and Ming dynasties, this notion was further extended. At these periods, the definition of morality was that behaviors must fit in the right names. The intrinsic value of behaviors was considered irrelevant.

Munro (1969) comments that in the Confucian tradition, the right names stand for the ideal function. The Confucians, with their excessive concentration on the ideal functions, had hardly mastered the practical problems of enforcement. Chow (1990) mocked that the Chinese people always focus on the name of the political system but neglect the content. For more than half a century, the Chinese people have been wasting their effort in various "isms." And therefore the pursuit for human rights and democracy by the Chinese did not succeed.

This Chinese practice confused Western scholars. When the Western intellectuals saw all the correct names in the Chinese political and legal system, they praised the achievement but overlooked the fact that behind the names there is not the expected content. For example, Copper et al. (1985) highly appreciated the promulgation of Chinese modern laws in the early 1930s. A civil code, patterned after the Continental European law-the Code Napoleon and the Swiss and German Civil Codes-was adopted at that time. Copper et al. said that it contributed to the basis for a modern Chinese society and modern human rights.

In this constitution, all the legal terms are right. However, according to Chow (1990) the promulgation of modern laws in the '30s was a regression from democracy to autocracy. Sun Fall, the son of Dr. Sun Yat-sen and the legislature official proposed that the Chinese constitution and laws must be based on two principles:

  1. The new constitutional government must be reorganized according to the instructions by Sun Yat-sen.
  2. The Legislature Council must be the central power of all governmental organizations.

Wang (1986) criticized that the will of Sun Yat-sen was arbitrarily used and the legislature body was overempowered. As a result, the political and legal systems were used by Chaing Kai-skek as a rationalization for his self-serving policies instead of ensuring human rights and democracy.

The same history appeared in Communist China. Learning the history of Communist China is like learning a new Chinese language. Because for fourty years, the Chinese government have launched numerous movements and invented plenty of slogans and terms. You will come across many terms such as "anti-three and anti-five," "three red banners," "five concerns and four beauties," "three disciplines and eight highlights," as well as many others. It is a reflection of the "naming as doing" tradition. The Chinese government hopes to build a civilized and moral nation by immersing people into the pool of "right names."

Because the lack of the content, under the name of morality and laws political persecutions are justified and institutionalized. The constitution of People's Republic promises many civil rights. However, many Chinese Constitutions had been ignored in practice by party and government officials (Nathan et al., 1986). Feinerman (1989) said that the most obvious casualty of the Tiananmen Massacre was the grant, in Article 35 of the 1982 constitution, of freedom of assembly, of procession and of demonstration. By opening fire on Chinese citizens demonstrating peacefully, Chinese military forces acting under government orders clearly violated these rights. At the same time, they violated Article 41 of the constitution, which grants citizens the right to criticize and to make suggestions to any state organ or functionary (p.276). People's Daily proudly announced that developing countries can "translate human rights on paper to real human rights." (cited in Copper et al., 1985, p.5) In fact, Communist China translates real human rights to human rights on paper!


The theory of moral universe in the Chinese philosophy is a double-edged sword. On one hand it provides the basis of equal concern and respect for every human. On the other hand, its overemphasis on universality is a road to collectivism.

Woo (1980) found that the universal unity is the only noticeable motive for the combination of three essential philosophical schools: the Confucian, the Taoist, and the Buddhist. In the view of the acceptance of universal unity and harmony, the issue of individual rights among men did not take the shape of a problem, nor did any form of struggling for rights become recognized as a legitimate activity. The general view of life, for a Chinese person, is to submerge his ego, to disappear, and to be absorbed into the universal harmony. As a result, "deviants" may face social rejection and political persecution and are deprived of their human rights.

Since the thirteenth century before Christ, China developed a doctrine of the Mandate of Heaven. Mencuis expressed this doctrine concisely in two sentences: "Heaven sees as people see; Heaven hears as people hear." (cited in Copper et al., 1985, p.12) The Mandate of Heaven reveals whether the emperor is supported by the majority of the people.

Again, confused by the "right name" and the Mandate of heaven, Copper et al. (1985) romanticized the Chinese history. They say that the founders of this political philosophy fully accepted that their own dynasty was eventually bound to fall, as would other coming dynastic rules in a system of rising and falling dynasties that has characterized Chinese imperial history; this concept served as a basic safety valve for imperial governments in China and assured that governments did not exist for their own sake, but for a moral purpose.

In reality, there was virtually no peaceful transfer of power and dynastic change in the Chinese history. No Chinese dynasty, no matter how corrupt it was, gave up its rule without bloodshed. Moreover, the Chinese people were treated as a community rather than individuals. When the individual opposition was disregarded or punished, people were scared away from voicing honest opinions. Therefore, the Emperor never knew what the people really thought of the government. The government always claimed that it maintained nationwide support and the Mandate of Heaven. As a result, the Mandate of Heaven was always used as an excuse for status quo and political persecution.

Collectivism is not necessarily destructive. Pen Man-yee, a social critic of the Hong Kong journal Nineties, states that the economic success of Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore proves that collectivism is the key for the rapid development. Collectivism is considered an obstacle of modernization by Western intellectuals. Peng challenges that Westerners might be wrong because these five collective societies influenced by Confucianism have been well-modernized. In contrast, the decline of America may be irreversible because the American people are too individualistic. Peng (1990) asserts that the People's Republic of China must utilize collectivism for its pursuit of modernization.

The five Asian countries and region that Peng mentioned are no doubt very successful in economy. However, their political systems are still very authoritative. In fact, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore have a bad record in human rights. The notion that economy would be better-off while collectivism is practiced has been used by many developing states as an excuse to violate human rights. After reviewing the development of Brazil and South Korea, Donnelly (1989) concluded that in most cases persecution is nothing to do with economic development. Collectivism directs Japanese to strive for company and national economic goals but in China collectivism pulls people devoting themselves for political goals. China has been practicing some kind of economic collectivism since 1949. People Commune and state-owned corporations are two well-known examples. However, Chinese economic collectivism was superseded by political collectivism. The production and individual inventiveness are always disturbed by political movements (Sheng, 1989). Perhaps economic collectivism independent of political collectivism can improve China in material sense, but I doubt if political collectivism would do any good to human rights.

Confucian collectivism can contribute to the development of human rights by its emphasis on social justice and moral courage. Cross-cultural psychologist Schwartz (1990) found that individualism and collectivism do not necessarily conflict. For example, an assertion that social justice is important is taken to mean that the person wishes benefit for others--for the weak or exploited. Actually social justice in ancient China was fulfilled by individual morality. Edwards et al. (1986) argues that Confucianism also emphasizes individualism. In Confucianism, the ideal moral man is the "great man" (Junzi). The selfish "small man" has neither the power nor the right to influence events. By contrast, the "great man" has immense power to change the world. Such a person is an individualist in the sense that he follows his own moral beliefs. Confucian heros are men like Qu Yuan, who dared to remonstrate with his prince and willingly accepted the penalty of exile. In short, the Chinese stressed individuality while facing a moral decision. Schwartz (1990) found that in both collective and individual types of society, personal maturity such as broadmindedness, appreciation of beauty, wisdom and mature love are admired. Thus, I believe that by encouraging moral courage and personality growth, which have been fruitfully developed by the Chinese philosophy, even such a collective society as China can develop human rights.


Ethnocentricism in China makes the Chinese people adopt a double standard. It is not unusual to find inconsistency in speeches and policies of the Chinese government. Naming as doing is another major flaw. In other words, the Chinese people talk a lot but do a little. The worst is that the government tends to justify unjust actions by "right names." The so-called Mandate of Heaven was a "right name" used by Emperors to practice collectivism and suppress individual rights. Peng attempted to prove the merit of collectivism with the evidence of the economic miracles in Japan and "four tigers." However, political collectivism is a foe rather than a friend to human rights. In search of the ground of human rights, I found that the real advantage of the Chinese collectivism is its strong sense of social justice and personal morality.


Universal human right is still a controversial topic. A number of philosophers and many contemporary conservatives and libertarians have argued that economic and social rights are not really human rights (Donnelly, 1989). In addition, in 1983 at the University of North Carolina, the Frank P. Graham Conference on Human Rights invited a distinguished panel from a wide range of backgrounds to discuss this issue. However, there is little agreement as to what human rights really means (Holleman, 1987). In this paper, I did not attempt to prove the universality of human rights. Instead, I tried to examine the potentiality of Chinese philosophy for the development of universal human rights.

Chinese philosophy strongly suggests universal truths and morality. Woo (1980) pointed out that the Western idea of human rights has never been widely accepted in China because it is rooted in metaphysical concepts that had been foreign to traditional Chinese culture. On contrary to Woo's view, I found that the codes of Chinese ethics base on metaphysical concepts such as the Way of Heaven, "Tai Chi," "Tao," "Ho Yan Ching Hay," and "Le" are compatible to modern human rights.

However, there is a major difference between the Way of heaven and John Locke's natural law. Heaven is impersonalized. Fundamentally, China had philosophy, but no theology. In contrast, Polin and Dunn found that a religious conception lay at the bottom of Locke's reflections on the nature of man and the law of nature (cited in Thompson, 1987, p.160). Indeed, Locke accepts that man is a creature made by, for and in the image of a personal God. In his Essays on the Law of Nature, he says," all obligation leads back to God." (Ibid.)

Montgomery (1986) said that the source of human rights will ultimately require an appeal to the transcendent. Actually, the faith to a transcendental personalized being such as Christian God or Islamic Allah does not necessarily lead to the opposition against a tyranny and the recognition of human rights. It is a well-known fact that Muslim nations still maintain brutal tortures to prisoners. The Spanish Inquisition also violated human rights in the name of God. Furthermore, Thompson (1987) found that since the Reformation, the Church of England had officially preached the doctrine of passive obedience and non-resistance to the government, no matter how oppressive it is. The hope of many missionaries that the gospel can save China may be exaggerated.

However, Protestant theology could stimulate the Confucians to re-evaluate their humanistic tradition. The Chinese Confucians boldly claim to work upward to the impersonalized Heaven but overlook the limitations of human nature, in Christian term, the sinful nature. The Confucian ethical goal is simply too high. How many people are able to climb up to Heaven. Maybe Gandhi can live as a Saint, but not every one. If one is unsuccessful in internalizing the Way of Heaven into the Way of man, one would be shameful and the entitlement of human dignity and rights would be jeopardized. The personalized God who comes downward to people may relief the Chinese ethical burden. This "downward approach" is more likely to ensure dignity and rights for every one than the "upward approach," which would make a few outstanding Saints but devalue average human.

Chinese moral philosophy affirms that universal morality overrides law. In a Confucian text entitled Placing Laws, the legal and political system is defined as a "right" or "just" system (cited in Chou, 1976, p.l59). The word "right", in ordinary English usage, not only means a "lawful entitlement," but also means a "just entitlement" (Cranston, 1973). In this sense, the Chinese ethic is compatible with the Western concept of human rights.

Chinese philosophy goes on the right direction that law is the manifestation of morality and morality is the foundation of law. However, the humanistic orientation of Confucianism over-empowered Emperors, officials and other authorities who were "moral agents," to the extent that the procedural check and balance was entirely absent. There was only self-checking by the conscience of Emperors and officials. As I mentioned before, only a few superior people were capable of reaching the Way of Heaven, or claimed to be so. As a result, the average people just handed the fate of themselves and the nation to the hands of a few "moral agents." I believe that besides the separation of power, Protestant theology could also be a remedy to the above problem, in the sense that the grace of God is granted to every one, and no one can claim himself as a privileged moral agent.

Chinese ethics also suffer the weakness of the double standard, which is rooted in the Chinese ethnocentricism. Another weakness of Chinese ethics is the pattern of naming as doing, which leads the Chinese people to become hypocritical. The worst is that because of the act proper naming, violations of human rights in China are justified and legalized. Last but not the least, collectivism is a common excuse for the autocratic leadership. However, Milnes (1986) said that although collective responsibility is a principle of community life and therefore of common morality, it is applicable only where there is a genuine community or association. Humanity constitutes a genuine community. Without human rights there can be no communities. Having rights is part of what it is to be a member of any community, whatever its particular form. I am looking forward to see the Chinese collectivism, which stresses on individual moral courage and social justice to establish a genuine community.



This article was written in 1990. In 1997 President Jiang Zeming delivered a speech covering the human right issue during his visit to the U.S. The following are excerpts from his speech:

Human rights are of universal significance. Given the fact that there are so many countries in the world, the realization of human rights must be based on the efforts of the countries. Therefore, the issue of human rights is essentially a subject matter within a country's sovereignty. Human rights come as a product of history, and their full realization requires an evolutionary process which must tally with a country's economic and cultural development level. Collective and individual human rights, economic, social and cultural rights and civil and political rights are inseparable from one another. (China News Digest, Oct 31, 1997 Jiang Zemin Outlines China's Policy in Luncheon Speech, Global News, No. GL97-148)

Basically the Chinese official view towards human rights remains the same:

  • Human rights are tied to the cultural context and the economic status.
  • A country's sovereignty takes precedence over human rights.
  • Human rights are evolutionary.


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