China’s Achievements, Position and Proposition on Human Rights

By Liu Huawen

October 24th, 2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations (UN). As proclaimed in preamble of the UN Charter, “we the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small.” 70 years on, great changes have taken place in the world. The socioeconomic development and especially the breakthroughs in science and technology, transportation and communicationshave created unprecedented conditions and made it possible for countries to guarantee and realize human rights. There have been achievements, challenges and opportunities.However, the pace of progress varies from country to country.Over the past 40 years of reform and opening-up, the Communist Party of China (CPC) has led the Chinese people in blazing a trail to successfully promote human rights and made world-acclaimed achievements.

I. Historic achievements in China’s human rights cause

On August 22nd, 2016, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Development Research Center of the State Council jointly released the China Human Development Report 2016 (hereinafter referred to as the Report). As detailed in the Report, China had made progress in human development across a broad range of areas, including income, poverty reduction, health, education, and political and social participation.

The economic reforms launched in the late 1970s removed the constraints of the planned economy, unlocking the potential in growth and bringing about more than 30 years of high-speed growth at an annual rate of nearly 10%. This is crucial for human development in China.In 1980 when reform and opening-up began, China was at the low level of human development as calculated by the UNDP. Thanks to the reform and opening-up, China joined the ranks of medium human development in 1995 and surpassed the world’s average in 2010. Since 2011, China has been in the group of high human development. Among the 47 countries of low human development identified in 1990, China is the only one that has made it to the category of high human development.As the largest developing country,China has achieved rapid development. 

The passing years stand as a record of the improved speed and quality of human rights development in China. The year 2020 will be remembered as another extraordinary year in history.

2020 is a crucial year in China’s efforts to win the battle against poverty. Poverty is a fundamental obstacle to the protection of human rights.According to the poverty standard in 2010, the number of poor people in rural China had decreased from 770 million in 1978 to 5.51 million in 2019.China is about to lift all the rural poor out of poverty, and all the impoverished counties will be poverty free. The elimination of absolute poverty for the first time will be a great contribution to the global cause of poverty reduction and a historic achievement in the history of human rights in China.

2020 is the year to realize the goal of building a moderately prosperous society (a xiao kang society in Chinese) in allrespects.The word “xiao kang” first appeared in the ancient Chinese classic the Book of Songs.Deng Xiaoping, the chief architect of China’s reform and opening-up, evoked the vision of “xiao kang” in setting the goals of China’s socialist modernization, according to the reality of China.The 18th CPC National Congress drew a blueprint for building a moderately prosperous society in all respects and laid down specific targets. These include: doubling GDP and per capita income on the level of 2010, basically realizing industrialization, turning China into a country of innovators, and establishing a mechanism of coordinated development among regions; fully implementing the rule of law and building a law-based government; putting in place a system of public cultural services and making the cultural industry a pillar of the national economy; ensuring equal access to basic public services, modernizing education, and providing social security for all;basically establishing a pattern of main functional areas and a system for resources recycling.Building a moderately prosperous society in an all-round way is the first centennial goal set by the CPC and will be a historic achievement brought about by reform and opening-up. It means that the Chinese people’s well-being will reach a new height.

2020 will see the completion of the 13th Five-Year Plan (FYP). A five-year plan is a long-term plan for China’s economic and social development. The completion of the 13th FYP is another milestone in China’s development and will lay a solid foundation for the formulation and implementation of the 14th FYP. Starting from the 11th FYP, the protection of human rights has been an important part of the FYP. China began to implement the National Human Rights Action Plan (2009-2010) in April 2009. Since then, the Chinese government has delivered three national human rights action plans. And 2020 will also witness the completion of the third one. In recent years, there have been many highlights in the development of human rights in China.In 2019, China’s per capita GDP rose to US$10,410, exceeding US$10,000 for the first time, which was higher than the average US$ 9,074 in upper-middle income countries. In fact, China’s per capita GDP in 1978 was only US$200.In 2019, the Engel’s coefficient of the Chinese people was 28.2%, 35.7 percentage points lower than that in 1978.In 2019, the average life expectancy in China increased to 77.3 years, ahead of most developing countries. Andthe Chinese peopleare generally healthier than the average of their counterparts in middleand high-income countries.Social security capacity is an important indicator of a country’s human rights situation.China has put in place the largest social safety net in the world, with nearly 1.3 billion social security card holders.Behind these figures are China’s real achievements in the field of human rights.China is making fast progress in human rights in a planned and step-by-step manner.

2020 is the year when China goes all out to safeguard people’s right to life and healthby taking a people-oriented approach to fight COVID-19 and protect life. As the UNHigh Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said at the meeting of the Human Rights Council on February 27th, the epidemic has seriously threatened the right to life and health of all people in the world, this health crisis is a test of the resilience of society, and the human rights framework is an important benchmark. In the face of the new virus, which mankind has little knowledge about and has caused the most extensive damage since the end of World War II, the Chinese government has taken decisive measures and united the whole society in a science and law-based response to the epidemic.China scored a victory in quickly controlling the epidemic and savinglives, and has actively engaged in international cooperation, shoulderedits international responsibilities, and actively provided public products in the international health field.China’s decisions and actions have stood the test of time, as it has properly tackled the epidemic and effectively safeguarded human rights.

2020 witnesses new breakthroughs in the legal protection of human rights in China.After achieving initial success in fighting the epidemic, China convened the sessions of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), more than two months later than scheduled. As an important outcome of this major political event,the Third Session of the 13th NPC passed China’s first Civil Code on May 28th.This is a milestone in China’s rule of law and will go down in history.The Civil Code is the first law named asacode in the People’s Republic of China. Fundamental in China’s legal system, it is a basic law governing the market economy. At the same time, as an “encyclopedia of social life”, it involves the protection of rights in different fields such as marriage, family, social and economic activities.It can be said that the Civil Code is the basic code for the protection of human rights and has far-reaching influence.

II. China’s position and proposition on human rights

China’s development is the unity of economic development and social progress, and a successful practice of people-centered and sustainable development. The protection of human rights is the mainstream value and basic goal of China’sdevelopment.Respecting and protecting human rights is not only enshrined in the CPC Constitutionand the Outline of National Economic and Social Development Plan, but also codified in China’s Constitution. It is a basic philosophy in China’s national governance and an important constitutional principle.
Holistic thinking figures prominently in the Chinese culture. We do not jump into a simple conclusion that a country or a region has or does not have human rights, or that it has good or poor human rights record. Instead, we put human rights in historical perspectives and examine them in the broader context of national conditions and practices.Human rights are not isolated, but closely connected with the rule of law and social development as three basic dimensions of a country’s development path.

On November 1st, 1991, the State Council Information Office published the first White Paper on Human Rights in China. In light of China’s history and national conditions, it, for the first time, stated that “the right to subsistence and development are the primary human rights in China”.Both the right to subsistence and the right to development are “umbrella rights”, which are dynamic, evolving and rich in substance. They should not be viewed as low-level economic and social rights protection, but are comprehensive human rights protection, covering economic, social and cultural rights, as well as civil and political rights. They only highlight the unique perspective and historical characteristics of human rights protection in developing countries. As it continues to develop, China is protecting and realizing broader rights to subsistence and development at a higher level.In order to increase their say in human rights and promote their political ideals and systems, some Western countries are reluctant to recognize or talk about the right to development, and even deny its legality.However, the Declaration on the Right to Development adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1986 confirmed that the right to development is an inalienable human right. Since then, the UN has committed itself to promote the right to development.

The concept of human rights with Chinese characteristics emphasizes the unity of individual and collective human rights.Take COVID-19 for example. The Chinese government’s response manifests the strengths of China’s governance system and ability, and reflects the characteristics and advantages of collectivism in the Chinese culture.The right to health and the right to life are often seen as individual human rights, but when epidemics strike, they are manifested as public health issues and display the attributes and characteristics of collective human rights.In the process of science and law-based prevention, restricting individual freedom and rights as appropriate can guarantee the right to life and health for a whole community or an entire city. This is a typical example of taking a balanced and holistic approach to human rights, and truly promoting and protecting human rights. Such a finetradition of altruism and collectivism is also seen among overseas Chinese communities.On April 14th, 2020, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that the Chinese community played a role in protecting Australia, and that the Chinese are disciplined, cooperative, and active in saving lives, which should be commended.COVID-19 is a pandemicrarely seen in a century. The Chinese government puts people’s life first and does not give up any person, man or woman, old or young.Regardless of the severity of conditions and nationality,all patients in China will receive full treatment.The Chinese government and people have made united effortsto achieve great victories against the epidemic, writing a new chapter in China’s human rights cause and highlighting the characteristics and advantages of the Chinese approach to human rights and its path to realize human rights.

China is the first developing country to achieve the UN Millennium Development Goals, contributing more than 70% to global poverty reduction.While running its own affairs well, China is taking an active approach to and participating in global governance, and promoting the building of a community with a shared future for mankind.China attaches great importance to the formulation and implementation of the UNdevelopment agenda. Itchampions and implements the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.On the basis of equality and mutual respect, China and other countries advance development through cooperation and promote human rights through development.China’s position and proposition are constructive. It calls for dialogue and cooperation and is committed to promoting human rights by laying a strong foundation for development.

That said, as a developing country, China’s development is still unbalanced and inadequate. While promoting the rule of law in an all-round way, China has made great achievements in providing strong legal safeguards for human rights.But there is still a long way to go.Human rights won’t be achieved overnight and once for all. It requires long and persistent efforts. As General Secretary Xi Jinping aptly put it, “There is always room to improve human rights.” This statement underscores our firm confidence in, facts-based approach to, and keen pursuit of the human rights cause.

III. China actively promotes global governance on human rights 

In 2020, in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, China did not only mind its own business, buthas instead displayed the selfless spirit of internationalism from the very beginning.It has actively maintained communication and collaboration with the WHO, sharing information and carrying out cooperation in a timely manner.

Within the shortest possible time, China detected and identified the new virus, completed its genome sequence, and shared it with the WHO and other countries. In the face of the unexpected outbreak of a new virus, China bore the brunt and came under tremendous pressure. Yet it took decisive actions and mounted an effective response, blocking the progress and spread of the epidemic in a timely manner. China was the first country to score a preliminary and overall victory against COVID-19. At the same time, China has been pursuing international cooperation. As it accumulates more valuable experience, China has not only provided manpower and material assistance for the international community to deal with the pandemic, but also shared expertise and experience in science-based epidemic prevention.The pandemic is a great challenge to human rights worldwide, and China is an active and key force to cope with this challenge, mitigate the threat of the epidemic, and carry out international coordination and cooperation. From the perspective of human rights, this is China’s important contribution to the life and health of mankind and the global cause of human rights.

The world is facing unprecedented difficulties and challenges caused by the epidemic in the fields of economy, politics and culture. Peace, development and human rights advocated by the UN are all confronted with historic challenges. Apart from wars and armed conflicts, natural disasters, and pandemics, the international system and international law itself are at risk of being ignored or destroyed.The US, the strongest developed country, is becoming more and more irresponsible, brazenly advocating “America First” and withdrawing from international treaties and organizations, including the WHO and the UN Human Rights Council. This is a clear example of the threat posed by hegemony to the normal international order, international economic development, as well as sovereignty and development interests of all countries. Moreover, the US has gone to extremes on unilateralism and bullying, directly threatening the security, development and human rights of the international community including China. It is acting against the historical trend. There is no denying that we are in an era of globalization where the world is interdependent and human beings are like passengers in the same boat. China supports the provision of more international public goods to strengthen global governance that the world is in urgent need of. And China’s position and proposition on promoting a community witha shared future for mankind prove to be not only well-conceived and far-sighted, but also consistent with the reality and future development trend of the international community.

Unquestionably, human rights are good. However, as they are abstract and hold immense appeal, human rights can be easily used as tools to exert diplomatic pressure and achieve political purposes. There have been “human rights traps” whereby the normal economic and social development of specific countries and regions is interfered with in the name of human rights. During the 44th session of the UN Human Rights Council, which closed on July 17th, 2020, human rights were once again politicized for confrontational purposes. More than 20 countries, including the United Kingdom, made a joint intervention, unreasonably demanding that China reconsider enacting the national security law in the Hong Kong SAR. Unsurprisingly, the US permanent representative to the UN made false remarks and attacked China.The spokesman of the Permanent Mission of China to the UN made a stern rebuttal, and Cuba, on behalf of 53 countries, made a collective statement at the meeting, unequivocally supporting Hong Kong SAR on safeguarding national security. Such a prompt and forceful response overwhelmingly rejected the wrong actions of the US, the UK and other Western countries in politicizing human rights in the Council. Countries such as the UK and the US have violated the basic principle of non-interference in internal affairs enshrined in the UN Charter, and run counter to the purpose of establishing the Human Rights Council as a deliverable of the mainstreaming of human rights and institutional reform of the UN.The working rules and systems of the Human Rights Council emphasize non-politicization, non-selectivity and non-confrontation. However, some Western countries, such as the US, often take human rights as a political tool, practice double standards, and disrespect facts and international rules, which interferes with the work of the Human Rights Council to a certain extent and prevents international human rights mechanisms from playing their due roles. At present, there are many difficulties in how UN agencies, including the Human Rights Council, and other international organizations can effectively push forward the international human rights cause. As the pandemic continues, it is difficult for international human rights mechanisms to convene meetings physically, and the lack of budget has also made things worse. Some Western countries fail to show a responsible attitude toward international cooperation, which dampens the prospect of the international human rights cause.

Safeguarding human rights is the common aspiration of people all over the world. What is needed to realize this goal and ideal is by no means simple political slogans, preaching or arbitrary accusations against other countries as the US often did, but serious efforts to effectively maintain global peace and international economic and social development. In particular, the international economic, political and legal order that embodies equality, fairness and justice must be upheld. The aspiration for international cooperation embodied in the UN Charter should not be forgotten, and the international community should never change direction in its pursuit of peace, development and human rights.

Following the adoption of the resolution “Promoting Mutually Beneficial Cooperation in the Field ofHuman Rights” by the Human Rights Council in 2018, the resolution submitted by China was once again passed on June 22nd, 2020. This resolution advocates multilateralism and calls for building a new type of international relations featuring mutual respect, fairness, justice, and win-win cooperation and a community with a shared future for mankind. It emphasizes that all countries should conduct sincere dialogue and cooperation in the field of human rights and share good practices and experiences in promoting and protecting human rights, and strengthen technical assistance and capacity building to achieve win-win cooperation. China’s position and proposition reflect the common pursuit and aspiration of developing countries, conform to the trend of global governance on human rights, and will surely promote the healthy development of global human rights cause.

In short, as the largest developing country, China has embarked on the right path of development in keeping with China’s national conditions through reform and opening-up. China is entering a new horizon of all-round development and approaching the center of the world stage. In the midst of major changes unseen in a century, China is facing real difficulties and problems on its way forward, with unprecedented challenges and opportunities.The Chinese government and people still need to manage their own affairs well with confidence, determination, diligence and wisdom, and deliver a better life for the people. At the same time, China should stand firm for the reform and development of the international system with the United Nations as the core, support constructive international exchanges and cooperation on human rights, and make greater contributions to world peace, development and human rights.

Liu Huawen is Deputy Director of Institute of International Law and Executive Director of Human Rights Research Center, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.