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  • The Discourse of Human Rights in China: Historical and Ideological Perspectives
  • Sor-hoon Tan (bio)
Robert Weatherley . The Discourse of Human Rights in China: Historical and Ideological Perspectives. New York and London: St. Martin's Press, 1999. ix, 185 pp. Hardcover $59.95, ISBN 0-312-22281-5.

Robert Weatherley traces the emergence and evolution of the Chinese conception of rights, outlining some of its main sources in Confucianism, Chinese Republicanism, and Marxism. He begins with a brief look at various theories of rights—as benefits or interests, as choices, as entitlements—in Western liberal thinking, and examines how human rights are the universal and absolute rights of individuals, founded on natural laws and the moral belief in the dignity of all human beings. Weatherley discusses disagreements by Western scholars over whether or not socioeconomic rights are human rights and what their relation may be to civil-political rights, and briefly summarizes some Western criticism of rights by Jeremy Bentham, Edmund Burke, Karl Marx, and Alasdair MacIntyre.

Weatherley argues that in contrast to liberal thinking, the Chinese state orthodoxy views rights not as a universal possession to which every individual is equally entitled, but as something granted by the state in return for a citizen's performance of her duties, according to class status as one of the people. Rights are not rooted in each individual's innate moral worth but have their sole source [End Page 559] in the state and its laws. They may be justifiably restricted or infringed upon by the state, or sacrificed by the citizens themselves, for the sake of the "collective good." Socioeconomic rights are preferred over civil-political rights, as achieving subsistence and economic prosperity for the entire nation is considered more important than individual freedom. Individual rights are means to collective (state) ends. The emphasis on collective interest is not considered to be at the expense of individuals since there is perceived to be a harmony between collective and individual interests.

While this orthodoxy has developed in response to China's modernization needs and its Marxist ideology, Weatherley believes that it has roots in more traditional Confucian thinking. Although there is no tradition of rights within the Confucian tradition, and while its dominant ideas and practices are incompatible with a notion of rights, Confucianism has nevertheless shaped the way that rights have come to be viewed in China.

Weatherley sees Confucian society and philosophy as based on "a system of moral inequality which evaluated human worth in accordance with familial and social status" (p. 37). Confucian society emphasized the correct performance of social and familial roles to such an extent that "the individual had very little (if any) freedom outside them" (p. 42). Confucianism also emphasized duties at the expense of rights. Weatherley denies that this implies any theories of rights because the stress on duties was "so overwhelming that it essentially negated any conception that individuals possessed such things as 'rights'" (p. 44).

Such was the overriding importance of duties to others that the junzi's distinguishing characteristic was his selflessness. Even though the individual self was consistently important in Confucian self-cultivation, "self cultivation was not meant to serve the personal ends of the individual. Rather it was encouraged for the sake of improving the moral character of others and for bettering the moral fabric of society as a whole" (p. 45). The main characteristic of Confucianism that is hostile to human rights is what Weatherley calls its "collectivism." In Confucian society, the individual exists for the sake of the collective, be it family, society, or state, and not vice versa. The attainment of collective interests was a prerequisite for the attainment of individual interests. Individual and collective interests are perceived to be in harmony, so there is no need for rights to protect the individual against the collective, of which she is a member.

Weatherley traces the emphasis on socioeconomic rights in Chinese thinking to the Mencian view of benevolent government: providing for the people is an important governmental role. However, Weatherley does not see this as implying a right to welfare, but regards "benevolent" government as inherently paternalistic, treating the people as only "a resource," an...


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