Friday, April 1, 2011

Universal Values

A topic that has come up again and again in Sinophile discussions is the question of whether China is an exceptional case (note: Americans also like to see themselves as exceptional, exempt from international norms), or whether the Chinese people also ascribe to "universal values". There are important questions to ask: Are "universal values" as established in such documents as the UN Declaration of Human Rights truly universal--or merely Western? Do these universal values gel with the values that Chinese civilization aspires to? If human vices are--seemingly--universal, shouldn't human aspirations be as well?

For those who would like a wall of text that I did not produce, now turn to the China Media Project (run out of Hong Kong University), which has provided a truly beautiful comparison of two views, both from authentic mainland Chinese, on this subject:

The first, clearly, is the view which the Chinese government wants promoted: that the China Model is exceptional due to China's exceptional circumstances as a continuous civilization-state; this view is that Chinese exceptionalism (also known as "_______ with Chinese Characteristics") can explain away all of the China's policy differences and frictions with the developed democratic countries of the world.

The government makes its arguments well. They should do: they've got numerous academics in numerous government think tanks whose full-time job is to come up with fig leaves for controversial government policies and practices. Their strongest point is that economic rights are human rights, too. China has indeed made a U-turn on economic rights, so I can understand why they wish to focus on the importance of Deng Xiaoping's policy reversal which has raised millions of Chinese citizens from utter poverty. I wonder, however, if the government understands that their greatest contribution to this has been their inaction (the Chinese philosophy of "wuwei", action of inaction), allowing private enterprise to bloom, rather than their actions--continuing support for numerous government monopolies in the form of easy loans from state banks, preferential policy, and preferential policing--which so often have the effect of squelching private innovation and enterprise.  

The greatest error the authoritarian apologists have made in this project is in trying to suggest that this is simply a tug of war between "The West" and the rest (or maybe just that exceptional case, China). Are there not Chinese who ascribe to different points of view from those sanctioned/funded by their government? My own five year stint in China suggest that there are many:

Many who do not accept zealous state paternalism (much less authoritarianism) as an essential "Chinese characteristic"; many who do not accept a shackled and uniformly state-sponsored press as an essential "Chinese characteristic"; many who do not agree that a one-party government without checks and balances on its powers or accountability for its responsibilities is an essential "Chinese characteristic". It may be very hard to argue about what Chinese exceptionalism even means when the Chinese people as a whole have not been able to engage in a national conversation about which Chinese characteristics are essential to preserve as well as which Chinese characteristics are actually Chinese characteristics rather than common characteristics of most pre-industrial, pre-literate, pre-modern states.

Let me end with this: it is not a bad thing to discuss our assumptions about what constitutes "universal values". We must value the input of voices from developing countries which may be skeptical. Can the conversation have truly begun, however, when the greater diversity of views from countries like China has been suppressed? The powerful, of course, prefer to hide behind the excuse of exceptional national characteristics and circumstances whenever they have done ill--and that applies equally to how America and China have each used their "exceptionalism".

1 comment:

DJC said...

I've had some thoughts on universal values and I think they come form our human desire for life see : from this seed we can grow benevolence. but if we are constrained by hierarchy we value security and power. I'd liek to know your thoughts.