Saturday, January 22, 2011

China and "Human Rights"

In an article on the BBC website this week, China’s president Hu Jintao stated that, “a lot still needs to be done in China over human rights” when speaking at a conference with President Obama. Seeing those key words, “human rights” while browsing the website, I naturally clicked the link. However, I was slightly surprised at how vague and general the discussion was when talking about these “human rights” that supposedly need to be worked on in China. The only time that these human rights were expressly talked about in the article was when President Obama stated, “I believe part of justice and part of human rights is people being able to make a living and having enough to eat and having shelter and having electricity.” Furthermore, President Obama went on to say that, “We just want to make sure that [China’s] rise occurs in a way that reinforces international norms, international rules, and enhances security and peace, as opposed to it being a source of conflict.”

My question when reading the article was is this actually a human rights issue? When thinking about “human rights” I usually default to ideas of torture or the right to life. I guess I do not readily think that poverty is a human rights violation, in the way that the article seems to be making it out to be. However, as we read in “The History of Human Rights,” “Article 22 of the Universal Declaration stipulates that each human possesses ‘economic, social, and cultural rights… indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality” (Ishay 35). If the human right in question is a right to be lifted from poverty, then this could potentially fit into an economic right. However, I was hesitant to believe that these people in China do not have the ability to “pick-themselves-up-by-their-bootstraps,” if you will, and change their economic standings. Granted, I do not know enough about China’s economy to suppose a definitive statement on the matter, so I would rather ask you guys. Do you think this issue of the rise from poverty in China is actually a human rights issue? Furthermore, are there really limitations being put upon these citizens that hinder them from attaining this “right”? Moreover, is it acceptable that the United States Government has stepped in on this issue? I find it curious that our country feels the need to watch over China, which is such a powerful country in itself, as if it were a child in need of reprimand. Are we actually justified in our interests here?

Here's the link to the article.


  1. In my mind China as a government violates human rights on many levels and though it is not necessarily the rest of the world's responsibility to pressure them to follow the global standard it can be beneficial. Currently the Chinese government deals with unfree countries and dictatorships, to gain the raw materials. Its not different the United States, we make huge trade agreements with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia for economic benifits, but at least the US tries to promote a policy of greater democracy and funds many international Organizations. When China becomes the world's largest economy somewhere in the 2020s it have more sway in global politics. Imagine the potential paradigm shift that will follow if China brings it apathy towards human rights to the global community, growing the economy will continually overshadow individual rights. Look at the countries that are punished for being human rights violates, places like Israel, but only because their economy is so small, the EU can sanction them. Even so an overly heavy handed international community towards Israel causes them to become more isolated and thus less prone in the future to implement international law. The West has the potential to reward countries that promote true human rights, but to get China to actually implementing widespread human rights, we will have to give them huge incentives. Realistically only internal actors could really change the society.

  2. Hannah- I think that you have stumbled upon an extremely interesting and very relevant question in regards to our class. That being broadly; the question of where we draw our lines in understanding what human rights are, and what are the appropriate measures to be taken to rectify human rights violations and by whom. These are extremely important issues and none of them have a clear-cut answer [in my opinion].

    Your initial idea of human rights, being in relation to torture and the taking of life, I think is a very common and reasonable understanding of human rights, however I do not think that this understanding contains the exhausted list of rights included in human rights. I understand your desire to differentiate between economic rights and human rights, however I can't help but to believe that in living within our various social contracts there must be some overlap of these rights. I also feel that we should be weary of the fact that we, as Americans, are raised with a historical conscious that causes us to believe that everyone can “pick-themselves-up-by-their-bootstraps,” however I would argue [after having lived in 西安 China for two months] that some places, China included, in fact do not have that option due to the various governments and social constructs that govern these people. The difference that I find, especially in the case of China, is that these are people who are living in a country practicing, in all truth, a very skewed form of capitalism [although they still consider it communism]. Under this system, the people can work their whole life, gradually attaining their various goals [houses, cars, land, etc.] just as we in America do, and the government can essentially take it all away without consent leaving the person/family/people in a state of utter poverty. This sort of action, I would argue goes beyond basic economic violations and begins to violate human rights.

    So I would say that indeed although these are obviously economic rights being discussed, I think that it is fair to also classify them as human rights. Following that, I would like to propose that there are varying degrees of human rights, and accordingly various degrees of human rights violations. The difference between not providing someone adequate shelter and torturing and/or killing civilians or prisoners of war, I think is obvious, however I would still classify them both as human rights violations.

    My argument for this inclusion of economic rights into human rights [along with other rights beyond the right to not be tortured and life] is based under the basic understanding that through living under a social contract people have the right to be protected from certain things by this society. Ideally I would argue, that human rights would allow everyone to have equal rights universally and everyone would be free to the same sort of ability to “pick-themselves-up-by-their-bootstraps,” but in the world in which we live, being governed by so many varieties of cultural norms, political entities, and social constructs, I posit that we must be more pragmatic. My initial idea in regards to such a problem would be to set our understanding of the breaking of economic-human rights based by the standard of living in a certain area or country [Sort of like how we in America have set mandatory minimum for wages].

    As for the enforcement of these rights, I can only imagine that the world in general must come together [in a non-lazy UN style I suppose] to govern and pass judgment in an understanding that even beyond our cultural, political and social differences, we still all hold basic rights that MUST be acknowledged. A bit unrealistic, but it would be nice.

    Sorry for the length! I just really found this post to be interesting and I had a lot to contribute on the subject! Let me know what you think!

  3. Within the idea of economic human rights, I assume that you both include some notion of property rights. Your example of the Chinese government coming in and taking away someone’s house, car, etc. is an example of a violation of that person’s property rights. However, as we see in America, the idea of property rights can also hamper an individual’s ability to ‘pick-themselves-up-by-their-bootstraps’. In fact, I would argue that rising out of poverty is much more difficult than we [people who don’t] would imagine. If we take a closer look at the metaphor, it is in fact impossible to actually pick yourself up by your bootstraps. What does this say about the possibility of elevating one’s social and economic status? Perhaps nothing, but the reality in the United States is that while we think that we have social mobility, we in fact don’t:

  4. Thanks for sharing this article, Hannah. I agree with you; “poverty” can be difficult to imagine as a human rights violation, especially since there is no singular actor on whom we can place blame. Not only is poverty a manifestation of current structural issues, but it is also deeply embedded in history. For example, current situations of poverty in Africa arguably can be traced back to European colonial influences that have left people unable to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, or simply without a pair of boots. Because of the historical forces locking people into cycles of poverty, it seems difficult to motivate current governments to change policies since they can counter that ‘poverty is a natural and inevitable part of society.’

    I also think that the current working definitions of “poverty” are problematic. People are labeled as living in poverty if they fall under a certain income level that prevents them from attaining basic needs. However, an increase in wages does not always translate to an uplifting from conditions of poverty. Furthermore, the bar set for minimum wage levels remains contentious. Some people advocate for living wages, arguing that current minimum wage standards are too low:

    Perhaps if we avoid the blanket term of “poverty” and focus instead on the conditions associated with it (lack of shelter, difficult access to health care, limited educational opportunities, etc.), then it will be much easier to address those specific issues as human rights violations.

  5. I enjoyed this post quite a lot. Honestly, though, what Obama had to say about reinforcing "international norms" somewhat bothered me. I feel as though part of recognizing the rights of other human beings in other countries is respecting the other culture, and I feel that while Obama may have had the best of intentions with his statement (as we all know, the road to Hell was paved with them), how does one reinforce international "norms"? Sorry, I tend to get caught up quite frequently in the particularities of language. And for the same reason, I absolutely agree with Shannon had to say above me on the definition of the term "poverty". A country plagued by poverty is not necessarily lifted from its grip simply through economic uplifting; a multitude of factors must go into an entire economic upheaval.

  6. Interesting post and comments!
    The UNDHR asserts that, "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services..." It seems to me that the existence of poverty is in direct violation of this right.

    I like Shannon's idea of shifting our human rights discourse away from the word "poverty" (and all of its baggage) and instead address the presence of absense of the individual components of an "adequate standard of life."

  7. I don't know if moving away from the term poverty solves our problems here. Instead of defining poverty, we now must define 'adequate standard'. What constitutes adequate? Perhaps the problem is more holistic. We cannot focus solely on economic or political rights. Maybe we have to keep in mind the interdependence of different factors.


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