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Human Rights, China, and Cross-cultural Inquiry: Philosophy, History, and Power Politics

From: Philosophy East and West
Volume 55, Number 2, April 2005
pp. 283-320 | 10.1353/pew.2005.0010

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Human Rights, China, and Cross-Cultural Inquiry:
Philosophy, History, and Power Politics

Stephen Angle's Human Rights and Chinese Thought: A Cross-Cultural Inquiry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002) is a wonderful book that combines philosophically sophisticated discussions of controversial human-rights issues with a detailed intellectual history of the evolution of human-rights discourse in China over the last several hundred years. I will use Angle's book as a platform for consideration of a number of issues regarding the role of philosophy, history, and power politics in relation to human rights in China and elsewhere.

Angle focuses his discussion on two claims: first, that countries have different concepts of human rights, and second, that we ought not demand that countries comply with human-rights concepts different from their own.1 These two claims (or something similar) are central to China's official position on rights and to humanrights debates more generally, including the debate about values in Asia.2

Angle's response, in short, is that there are distinctive concepts of human rights in China, and that "there have been both continuities and changes in the ways that rights have been conceptualized over the course of China's rich and distinctive rights discourse" (p. 250). However, the only way a community can unilaterally declare its values and practices immune from the scrutiny of others is through "parochialism," which, according to Angle, cuts off that community from making legitimate demands on others. Rather, he suggests, we "should seek an accommodation of differences with one another in the spirit of toleration, and on that basis engage one another on as many levels as possible" (pp. 250-251).

One of the many great strengths of this book is that Angle grounds his responses in an interesting and insightful discussion of contemporary philosophers, assessing along the way the contributions and limits of MacIntrye, Rawls, Dworkin, Raz, Walzer, and especially Brandom, among others, to this cross-cultural inquiry of human rights. It might seem, given this list of luminaries, Angle's own training in Western analytic philosophy, and his position in the philosophy department of an American university, that Western philosophy is driving the debate and dictating the fundamental terms and parameters of the inquiry.3 This, of course, is precisely one of the complaints of non-Westerners such as Liu Huaqiu, who argue that they are being measured by Western standards, that rights are concepts grounded in historically contingent modern Western philosophical traditions, and that the rights movement is biased in favor of secular liberalism, which is at odds with and may preclude states based on religious worldviews and communitarian or collectivist [End Page 283] points of view that do not privilege autonomy, choice, and individual interests to the extent that liberals do.

Angle's response is twofold. First, he argues, sensibly enough, that we cannot and need not set aside or escape our traditions and value systems. Cross-cultural inquiry must begin from somewhere. But we must remain open-minded and willing to continue the conversation, at least for a considerable while and in most cases indefinitely, even if in some cases we simultaneously must rely on coercion and repression.4 As discussed below, Angle endorses a limited moral pluralism that tolerates some differences while not providing an excuse for appeasing dictators or turning a blind eye to genocide and other atrocities.

Second, Angle is not out simply to measure China by the standards of contemporary Western philosophers. Rather, he wants to show that China has its own distinctive discourse on rights, and that this discourse is multifaceted and constantly evolving. According to Angle, "Chinese rights discourse should be seen as an ongoing creative achievement, rather than a reaction to or misunderstanding of Western ideas and institutions" (p. 2).5 He shows this by providing a detailed intellectual history of Chinese rights discourse, another great strength of the book. His primary focus is on several prominent Neo-Confucians and pre-1949 debates, although he also considers some contemporary debates.6 Angle is clearly successful at demonstrating that Chinese thinkers have advanced a number of different views and that rights discourse over the last century and a half has been...