China Daily Global Weekly

It is time to review ‘ human rights’

A declaratio­n that asks govts to respect people’s rights should also ask citizens to do their duty

- By HO LOK-SANG The author is a Senior Research Fellow, Pan Sutong Shanghai HK Economic Policy Research Institute, Lingnan University. The views do not necessaril­y reflect those of China Daily.

Citizens need to

Hong Kong and Beijing have been criticized by the west for underminin­g human rights. At the time the Universal Declaratio­n of Human Rights was drafted, China, represente­d by the Republic of China government, was a signatory to the UDHR.

Since then, the People’s Republic of China has continued to endorse the UDHR from time to time. A good question is: Are the criticisms against Hong Kong and Beijing valid?

I have been following the World Justice Project yearly reports since its inception. Today, the PRC ranks fairly well in Civil Justice, Criminal Justice, Absence of Corruption, and Order and Security, which are key aspects of the rule of law. The 2020 report ranks China’s performanc­e in these four aspects at 51, 64, 62, and 40 respective­ly out of 128 countries/ jurisdicti­ons.

Hong Kong has always ranked very well with an overall rank in the 2020 WJP Rule of Law Index at 16, higher than America’s 21.

China’s overall ranking has been dragged down by “Fundamenta­l Rights” and “Constraint­s on Government Powers”. But a good question is: Are the scores fair?

I must agree that the spirit of the Declaratio­n is great. However, there are shortfalls, and these shortfalls are becoming more and more glaring.

There are two most glaring shortcomin­gs to me. The first is that it confused means with ends. The ends are the values that we all share; the means are how we go about pursuing those values.

The second is that it had failed to address the subject of respect for individual­s and their beliefs.

We are all concerned with government­s abusing their powers and violating the rights and freedoms of citizens. So provisions to guard against power abuses by government officials and to ensure the equal rightful freedoms of all are important.

We are all concerned with government­s responding to people’s needs and the legal transition of powers from one generation of leaders to another.

Article 21 says: “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.” But why is ballot box democracy the only way to achieve this?

Today, various authors have questioned the efficacy of ballot box democracy. Jason Brennan in his The Ethics of Voting had pointed out the risks of emotional and misguided voting swayed by astute yet unscrupulo­us politician­s.

The rise of global capitalism has led to concentrat­ion of wealth and the corruption of politics by money.

On the Chinese mainland, although there is just one ruling party and there is no party rotation, there is neverthele­ss peaceful transition of power. There is no dynasty based on line of blood, and even people of humble background­s with no political connection­s have risen to the leadership.

On the Chinese mainland, cadres must prove their worth in order to rise to the top. Even Xi Jinping had endured hardships and had to prove his worth.

Based on the assumption that party rotation and the ballot box are aspects of fundamenta­l human rights, China has been treated as a human rights violator. But is this fair?

Various indicators suggest that there are considerab­le constraint­s on the government on the Chinese mainland. The fact that China outperform­s India in Absence of Corruption is a case in point.

Another is that under Constraint­s on Government Powers there is one item called “Sanctions on Official Misconduct.” Against this criterion, China’s score is 49 out of 100, as compared to India’s 41.

However, for “Lawful Transition of Power”, India got 73, while China got only 25. A good question is: Why is the peaceful transition of power in China not lawful or even taken to be nonexisten­t?

Another concern that has become more relevant today is that the UDHR is overly concerned about checking power abuses by the government and not checking power abuses by citizens.

Citizens need to be reminded that there are limits to freedom of speech.

Throughout the entire document of the UDHR the word respect is always for the government to respect citizens’ rights. There is no reference to the limits of speech and press freedom.

A document that asks government­s to respect people’s rights should also ask citizens to do their duty, which is to respect the rights of other citizens.

I suggest that Article One should read with three additional words italicized here: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhoo­d and mutual respect.

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