Are there Sources for Human Rights Policy in Chinese Tradition?

About a year ago the China News Agency announced that it would unveil a national plan for implementing human rights in 2009. Admitting that there had been mistakes in the past, and that China still faced challenges to an adequate human rights environment, Hu Jintao and other officials invited dialogue from the international community. The plan, which was published in April, emphasized the following human rights principles: people first; people’s right to livelihood; people’s right to better their circumstances; and the equal right of all citizens to participate in government and society.

To some degree, international response to the plan, which to date has been slight, depends on our understanding of China’s history. In the past, two views have pervaded Western thought and dominated discussions of human rights in China: that arguments promoting the value of life, equality, or freedom of speech are lacking in Chinese history and therefore people in China are fundamentally incapable of understanding Western values; or, alternatively, that despite its lack of a history of human rights, these values are universal and therefore people in China can learn to embrace them. Both of these views radically narrow options for negotiation.

In 2004, Orville Schell advanced a third view that suggested that China has a history of human rights that its leadership should look to for guidance. The value of human life, for example, is taken as a given in most classical writings and was codified in a law of 35 C.E.: “It is the nature of heaven and earth that mankind is noble; whomever shall kill a male or female slave shall be punished to the full extent of the law.” In Han times, a law was passed requiring capital cases to be reviewed by a higher court because “people’s lives are valuable.” Under Confucianism, which held the government responsible for the people’s welfare, China’s social spending (famine relief, orphanages, prison inspections) typically outstripped that of any premodern European state.

Equality as a principle also underlies the critique of hereditary privilege in classical China. When Han Feizi advocated equality under the law, it became a staple of classical bureaucratic theory. The term bianhuqimin appears early and says that all registered citizens are equal under the law. In fact, there are cases in which slaves brought imperial relatives to court and won.

The expansion of political participation during the Song dynasty, when the civil service examination system allowed men of ordinary birth to pursue a career in government, was made possible by the principle of equality. By that time all taxpayers, including women, could bring civil suits to court, and petition bureaus permitted anyone to lodge complaints against government policy or officials.

Nor were Chinese taxpayers strangers to dissent. The public need to voice dissent was recognized in many classical texts. China witnessed the world’s first organized student demonstrations during the second century CE; they were not suppressed. Published social criticism was a regular mode of political action, and most major poets were admired for their trenchant exposés of social injustice.

Many more examples of human rights precedents exist in China’s history and were its record better known by China and the West, the possibilities for dialogue might well improve, with both sides as potential beneficiaries.

Martin Powers, Sally Michelson Davidson Professor of Chinese Arts and Cultures at the University of Michigan, was the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation Member in the Institute’s School of Historical Studies in 2008–09 (additional funding for his Membership was provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation). This article was inspired by a talk Powers gave at the Institute as part of After Hours Conversations, a program of informal talks organized by Caroline Walker Bynum, Professor in the School of Historical Studies, and Piet Hut, Professor in the Program in Interdisciplinary Studies, to promote inter-School conversations. A schedule of After Hours Conversations for the 2009–10 academic year is available online at