Perspective on Human Rights in China: Michael Powles Urges the Need for Understanding in Assessing China's Approach to Civil and Political Rights

By Powles, Michael | New Zealand International Review, March-April 2011 | Go to article overview

Perspective on Human Rights in China: Michael Powles Urges the Need for Understanding in Assessing China's Approach to Civil and Political Rights


Powles, Michael, New Zealand International Review


Public opinion in the West takes a close interest in the state of human rights in China--an interest fuelled by Western media, conscious that dramatic headlines about individual human predicaments sell newspapers and television advertising. It is also fuelled by the attitude of the Chinese government itself, whose combative response to Western criticism inevitably draws attention to problem areas. The denunciation of Liu Xiaobo's Nobel Peace Prize award as a Western plot designed to subvert China's political system succeeded in underlining the gulf in perceptions between China and the West.

While sharing much of the West's concern about China's human rights situation, New Zealanders can also have a distinctive perspective on the subject. Added to that, there are sound practical reasons for us to take a close interest.

First, a New Zealand perspective. While obviously New Zealand culture and values are derived to a large degree from Western European roots, on this, as on so much else, we are a product of our own history. A short history it may be, but in the field of human rights it has been quite distinctive. In the country's early years, settlers fought Maori and stole their land. Later, when we needed additional immigration, the authorities of the day allowed in Chinese but only subject to cruelly discriminatory conditions. Only in recent years have we begun to right these wrongs. While the conduct of the New Zealand authorities in the early years of our history may have been no worse than that of authorities in other new world countries, the influence on our young country's psyche has been significant.

A different but possibly related trend has been the increasing New Zealand recognition of the importance of social and economic rights. Last century, beginning a distinctive emphasis oil social and economic rights, the Social Security Act of 1938 recognised a right to a reasonable standard of living and to healthcare. Social and economic rights remained important to New Zealand and, on the adoption of the famous Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, New Zealand argued that political and civil rights were incomplete without social and economic rights. Our delegate, the late Dr Colin Aikman, told the United Nations in 1948:

   Experience in New Zealand has taught us that the
   assertion of the right of personal freedom is incomplete
   unless it is related to the social and economic rights of
   the common man. There can be no difference of opinion
   as to the tyranny of privation and want. There is no
   dictator more terrible than hunger.

New Zealand's present Chief Human Rights Commissioner, Rosslyn Noonan, has said:

   New Zealanders' evolving understanding and protection
   of human rights has shaped our national identity and
   enhanced all of our lives.

Evolving understanding

New Zealand has repeatedly affirmed its support for the principle of universality--that human rights apply to all human beings, everywhere, regardless of nationality or culture or religion. But that does not preclude what Rosslyn Noonan has indicated could be a distinctive

   There is no single model of democracy, or of human
   rights, or of cultural expression for all the world. But for
   all the world, there must be democracy, human rights
   and flee cultural expression. ...

China has long insisted that economic and social rights are just as important, if not more important, than civil and political rights, arguing that lifting its populace out of poverty had to be its highest priority. However, underlining its acceptance of international standards relating to human rights, China joined a consensus at a Beijing international human rights workshop in 2005 which included this clear statement:

   Reaffirming the universality indivisibility,
   interdependence and interrelatedness of all human
   rights--civil, political, and economic, social and
   cultural rights and the right to development. … 

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