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ZHENG Liang, GUO Ziyang: The Limits of Western Hegemonic Human Rights Concepts and Chinese Wisdom

2023-07-28 16:31·Forum on Global Human Rights Governance
by ZHENG Liang, GUO Ziyang

The Limits of Western Hegemonic Human Rights Concepts and Chinese Wisdom in Global Human Rights Governance

I.Presentation of the issue 

The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action clearly states that  inpromoting human rights, “the significance of national identity and regional characteristics, as well as different historical, cultural and religious backgrounds, must be taken into account”. However, in international human rights affairs, individual Western countries have ignored the human rights realities of other countries and forced their own “universal” human rights discourse as a monolithic criterion for judging the human rights situation in other countries, while the human rights discourse and governance paths developed by non-Western countries based on their own human rights realitieshave been repeatedly labelled as “authoritarian” and “backward”. In the process of advancing the cause of global human rights governance, the hegemony of discourse and the idea of unilateralism behind the above phenomenon deserve attention and consideration. This article aims to respond to the following questions: What are the limitations of the Western human rights discourse represented by “human rights over sovereignty”? What kind of hegemonic ideology and discursive arrogance is behind it? What is the spirit of the discourse and the human rights content of the international human rights governance scheme advocated by contemporary China, and how does it contribute to solving the “governance deficit” in the international human rights order?

II.The limitations of the Western discourse of “human rights over sovereignty” in global governance

The endogenous contradiction in the starting point of the discourse

The “human rights over sovereignty” discourse currently being chanted by individual Western countries is, first of all, difficult to reconcile with its own history of human rights development. The typical Western notion of “universal human rights” often takes naturalism as the logic of proof, and its basic idea is to derive human rights from the nature of human beings, arguing  that “human rights belong to human beings ‘in themselves’or ‘by their nature alone’. The basic idea is that "human rights belong to persons 'in themselves' or 'by their nature alone'."  Influenced by this naturalistic conception ofhuman rights, contemporary conceptions of human rights have often traced their origins back to natural law and the idea of natural rights in the ancient Greek and Roman periods, and with the famous “natural human rights” slogan, which represented the demand for a third class of human rights, in a series of declaratory documents,  the period of theAnglo-American bourgeois revolution has been cited as an important moment  in the emergence of the current concept of “human rights”. Thus, when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948,  responded to the post-World War II call for a utopian international political order with a list of  rights and provided a general normative basis for the guarantee of human rights for all worldwide, the status of the West as the “grandfather of human rights” seemed to be well documented, and the “human rights over sovereignty” thesis seems to be self-evident in the writing of an internationalism.

This “general historical” account of human rights is criticised in the book The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History by the scholar Samuel Moyne. Moen points out that a large number of scholars and experts look back on the history of “human rights” without distinguishing between the “droits de l'homme (rights of man)”, which fuelled the revolutions of the early modern period and the politics of the 19th century, and the “human rights” that were invented  in the 1940s and have only become so alluring in recent decades. From its beginnings, the modern Western discourse of human rights has been linked to the creation of nation states. The French Declaration of Human Rights and Citizenship, for example, states in its Article 3 that “the whole essence of sovereignty resides fundamentally in the nation (La Nation). No group or individual shall not exercise powers not expressly conferred by the nation”, thus declaring  the exercise of the rights of man under the subjectivity of the state, while the American Declaration of Independence was promulgated with the aim of establishing an independent “national” sovereignty, free from British colonial rule --On this basis, Moyne is right to point out that the emphas is on the“rightsofman”in this period is about“anentirecommunity (people) annexing itself to a nation, not some foreigners criticizing the injustices done by another nation. In other words, the “human rights” resorted to in theWest at this time were more about having an independent sovereign state, where the granting of citizenship was a prerequisite for  the enjoyment of rights, that is, “sovereignty is a prerequisite for human rights”, rather than the human right in the context of the current Western conception of human rights that transcends national borders.

So when and why did humanrights become a weapon of political discourse for some Western countries to denounce others? Moen points out that the current world human rights system is not a natural historical development or choice, but the result of international political and economic struggles since the 1970s, particularly the combined effect of dissidents in Eastern Europe, the right-wing authoritarian opposition in LatinAmerica and the Carter administration in the US. Following the international politicization of human rights,individual Western countries have repeatedly claimed that individual rights and freedoms take precedence over the sovereign authority of the state and that respect for and protection of human rights is the moral basis for the legitimacy of state sovereignty, thus interfering in human rights issues in a country at will, initiating human rights-related sanctions and even provoking state wars. However, behind such a lie of universalizing human rights, it is not to realize the fairness and integrity of human rights, but to use human rights issues to promote power politics and hegemony, with the ultimate aim of serving the geopolitical interests of individual countries. This has caused a major impact on global governance and multilateralism, creating a prominentglobal human rights governance “deficit”.

Discursive arrogance in a linear view of time

In his book The Rise of the Global Left, Portuguese sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos (2006) suggests that hegemonic knowledge systems will construct a minimalistsocial epistemology that aims to create a binary opposition between backward and advanced, inferior and superior, local and global, unproductive and productive, while heterogeneous system of knowledge is then “declared unqualified and rendered invisible, incomprehensible or must be discarded”. Among other things, Sentos distinguishes between the hegemonic logic of production based on “the monoculture of linear time”, i.e. on a particular “progress”, “modernization”, “development” and other concepts that place the core Western countries at the forefront of world history, thus assigning to the West the status of “advancement” of dominant forms of knowledge, institutions and sociality in the world system. In the current international human rights order, the Western liberal concept of human rights also reflects this linear view of human rights time, which is underpinned by a strong sense of Western centrism and arrogance in human rights discourse.

Specifically, some Western countries have long claimed thatthey have the most “advanced” and “civilized” human rights values, even claiming that their own level of human rights is the “only criterion” for judging the status of human rights in other countries, while “everything that is not recognized or consideredlegitimate by this criterion is declared non-existent” and those countries and regions that pursue a different human rights path are labelled as “authoritarian” and “backward”. As early as the 1950s, when the international human rights arena was in a storm around self-determination and anti-colonialism, the representative of Belgium expressed his country's continued resistance to decolonization, suggesting that the right to self-determination must be “conditional on the degree of political maturity prevailing in the country concerned”. When the Western capitalist camp ended the Cold War through the offensive of “human rights diplomacy”, the famous “end of history theorists” represented by Fukuyama even asserted that the evolutionary process of historyhad come to an end, and that the so-called “liberal” and “democratic” systems of the West are “the best option for human politics” and are about to become “the system of all mankind”. This much-criticized paternalism of the “civilizational standard” still lingers today, as when on 17 February 2005, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld openly stated in the Senate that “China is a country that we hope and pray will enter the civilized world in an orderly way.”The linear view of time promoted by the hegemony of Western human rights discourse is a projection of this notion of “Western superiority” in the field of human rights, reflecting a modern Western colonialism -individual Western countries use their own hegemony of human rights discourse to forcibly label the human rights status quo of non-Western and less developed countries as the “residue” in the history of human rights advancement in the international human rights order led by them. However, the spread of western human rights discourse and sanctions launched by them in the name of human rights are glorified as a kind of “rescue” to the “uncivilized” countries. This is no doubt to disregard and erase the exploration and achievements made by other countries in the field of human rights.

III.Out ofthe hegemony of discourse:Chinese wisdom in global human rights governance

At present, global human rights governance is challenged by poverty, war, conflict, regional instability and political interference, etc., and the politicized manipulation of human rights and unilateralism of individual countries have undoubtedly aggravated the “governance deficit” of global human rights. To maintain the international order of human rights, a new governance path and an effective innovation in concept are urgently needed. The “community with a shared future for mankind” and other Chinese human rights governance concepts have been put forward at the right time, contributing new solutions and injecting new vitality into the cause of human rights development.

Sharingand Negotiating: The concept of a world community is more in line with the historical reality of international human rights governance

Faced with the international reality of parallel opportunities and risks under the wave of globalization, the Chinese proposal for global human rights governance, unlike the unilateralism pursued by individual Western countries, advocates dialogue and cooperation, which is a better fit with the current major historical reality of global human rights governance. In the context of globalization, people have already entered a “risk society” with intertwined interests, and as scholar Zhang Kangzhi points out, in the risk society, the relationship between people has left the domination and control of the previous industrial society, and has instead ushered in mutual recognition and tolerance, i.e. “the powerful have lost their conditions of existence”. Under such circumstances, any actor who pursues the logic of unilateralism and power politics in international governance is bound to face constraints in its actions.

China's concept of “building the community with a shared future for mankind” demonstrates a global outlook and vision, once again emphasizing the spirit of mutual respect and cooperation among all actors in global governance. In his speech with foreign experts, General Secretary Xi Jinping pointed out that all the countries in the world are highly interdependent on each other where humanity is in fact a community with a shared future. Therefore, in the face of the complex situation of the world economy and global issues, no country can stand alone, but all countries should work  together in the same boat and in harmony, take into account the legitimate concerns of other countries while pursuing their own interests, promote the common development of all countries while pursuing their own development, establish a new global development partnership that is more equal and balanced, promote the common interests of mankind and jointly build a better global home. In such a context, China's concept of human rights governance is different from the alienated human rights theories held by some countries, and breaks through the shackles of the traditional concept of individual or collective human rights in human rights governance,making the well-being of all human beings the main goal of human rights realization, thus showing the world the advanced nature of China's concept of human rights governance.

Moreover, China's concept of human rights governance, with its emphasis on international cooperation in human rights governance, does not mean that national sovereignty is placed on the back burner. In terms of the relationship between human rights and sovereignty, the concept of the community with a shared future for mankind has always advocated that sovereign equality is the basis for human rights protection, and that global human rights governance ultimately comes down to the fundamental issue of respecting the sovereignty of all countries. International human rights governance requires all subject countries to put aside stereotypes and the logic of power, and to jointly safeguard the international order and international system with the purposes and principles of the UN Charter at its core, not in opposition to the integrity and independence of national sovereignty, but in order to better exercise and safeguard sovereignty.

Pluralistic modernity: the idea of a world community breaks through the monolithic and linear view of human rights in time and history

“There is no best human rights protection, only better,”“Respect for the right of peoples to choose their own path of development ...... ‘Whether the shoe fits or not, only the wearer him(her)self knows.’It is the people of a country that are in the best position to judge the path of development they have chosen for themselves.” The above-mentioned principled human rights discourse is not only a high summary of China's experience in developing its own human rights and its practice of participating in global human rights governance, but also a dispelling of the Western-centric single time view of global human rights.

Specifically, in terms of China's local human rights development practice, China has always inherited the Marxist materialist view of history, and while discussing theuniversal principles of human rights, it has also taken into account the local context, “formulating problems and solving them in accordance with its own reality”, rather than “tailoring our practice and with the value system of western capitalism and measure our country's development with the evaluation system of western capitalism”. From the perspective of China's domestic human rights cause, China's contemporary view of human rights takes full account of the reality that China is still a developing country with a large population, and does not take the rights and wrongs of Western human rights into account, and always advocates that the people’s rights to survival and development should be placed in a more urgent and higher priority. At this importantmoment of the centenary of the founding of the Communist Party of China, China's comprehensive victory in the battle against poverty has vividly illustrated the human rights concept with Chinese characteristics of “the right to survival and development asthe first and foremost basic human right”. This proves that the contemporary human rights path pioneered by China, which is independent of Western human rights concepts and based on local conditions, is consistent with the development process of China andis both theoretically scientific and practically feasible.

In terms of human rights construction and governance in the international arena, China respects the pluralistic concepts and languages of human rights governance put forward by countries based on their different civilizational backgrounds and specific national conditions, that is, it advocates the return of the “temporality” of human rights development to each country, so that countries at different levels of development have the possibility of autonomous development and their human rights experience is no longer an underdeveloped remnant of the Western human rights discourse. In practice, as early as 1947, when the Commission on Human Rights began drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,Chinese delegate Zhang Pengchun, who served as Vice-Chairman, stressed that human rights should not be understood solely on the basis of a particular culture, but that it would be better to leave room for each culture to provide content for human rights based on its own philosophical interpretation; the Beijing Declaration of the first South-South Forum on Human Rights states in Article 1: “In order to ensure the universal recognition and observance of human rights, their realization must take into account regional and national contexts, taking into account political, economic, social, cultural, historical and religious backgrounds. ...... States should adhere to the principle of combining the universality and specificity of human rights and choose the path of human rights development or the model of human rights protection that suits their national conditions.”In recent years, China has put forward the groundbreaking concept of “building a community with a shared future for mankind”, which calls for human rights to be regarded as a common cause for all mankind, not just a value pursuit of Western culture -that is, Western modernity is only one kind of pluralistic modernity, and non-Western countries should pursue their own modernization when developing their own human rights cause. China has used a series of ideas and practices to emphasise that human rights should be a concrete, realistic and historical concept, going beyond the Western hypocritical “universal” human rights discourse and linear notions of development time. This is undoubtedly useful in leading the world's human rights discourse away from rigid and dogmatic understandings and towards the achievement of equity and justice for human rights in a broader context.


Global human rights governance is a multilateral governance, a governance of all, and a governance of cooperation. The series of “manitarian interventions” carried out by individual countries under the slogan of “human rights over sovereignty”have been increasingly criticized, and the hegemonic ideology of discourse and geopolitical purposes behind them are not only a violation of the ideal of fairness and justice of human rights, but also a continuous impact on and deconstruction of global human rights governance. China's own achievements in human rights and its participation in global governance reaffirm the independence of national human rights discourse and the possibility of win-win cooperation in the field of human rights, and the concept of “the community with a shared future for mankind” has contributed to a new path of governance and public goods for the global human rights cause in the new era, which is receiving the support and affirmation of more and more countries and people. In the follow-up of international human rights governance, countries should continue to actively explore new mechanisms for cooperation and dialogue, seek the greatest common denominator under the UN-led multilateral human rights system, and build a new global situation in which human rights causes are jointly promoted and developed by all countries.

(The author Zheng Liang is professor at the School of Journalism and Communication, jinan University; Guo Ziyang is postgraduate student at the School of Journalism and Communication, jinan University)