Relates to human rights
The phrase is composed of two characters:
人 – rén – people, human being
權 (权) – quán – to weigh, to consider, to balance; rights; authority and power; strategy; expediency; in an advantageous or favourable position
人權 – rénquán – literally means ‘people’s rights’. In other words, it means ‘human rights’.
In the two main reference dictionaries, Xiandai Hanyu Cidian and Hanyu Da Cidian, ‘human rights’ is literally defined as human beings’ rights and democratic rights. It is also defined as the equal rights that persons and a group of people enjoy in a society, including the rights to survive, personal rights, political rights and other economic, cultural as well as social rights.
Although Confucianism and humanitarianism have a long tradition in Chinese culture and society, the term rénquán (human rights) originated from the West and came into usage in China at the end of 19th century. Rénquán is regarded by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as ‘bourgeoisie rights’. After the CCP established the communist regime in 1949, rénquán was not highly valued and not even discussed at the end of 1950s when ‘Left-leaning’ thinking started to be prevalent in China and its subsequent period of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). After former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping led Chinese economic reform in 1979, which also liberated thinking in China, the CCP began to review the concept of rénquán and began to develop its own theory and official interpretation and statements on the thinking of rénquán.
The types of rights included in the CCP’s conception of rénquán are similar to that of other countries. The rénquán that China vows to ensure and protect include: rights in economic, social and cultural affairs, such as the right to receive education; the rights to live by the basic living standard at the very least; and working rights. Beijing’s rénquán includes political rights and civil rights as well, such as personal rights, rights during detention, rights to have due judicial process and religious rights. Beijing also claims to ensure the rénquán of specific groups of people, such as the rights of minority, women, children, disabled, and elders.
Nevertheless, the PRC’s fundamental assessment of the values that constitute rénquán, and their prioritisation, are quite dissimilar to Western conceptions of ‘human rights’. According to Article One of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.’ Political rights, civil rights and personal rights are the first priority in many Western nations’ protection of human rights. However, based on the principles of Marxism, Beijing does not believe that human rights are ‘born’ to people and neither are they ‘endowed with’ human rights. Rather, the PRC bases their concept of ‘human rights’ (rénquán) in Karl Marx’s maxim, that ‘rights can never go beyond the economic structure of a society as well as the social and cultural development, which are restrained by the economic structure’. Beijing’s upholding of Marxism explains the divergent priorities that China set in its implementation of rénquán, as opposed to Western priorities. The PRC believes that ‘in many developing countries, poverty and lagging behind are the biggest harm to their [people’s] human rights. As a result, developing the economy and solving the problems of survival and development rights, are always the most urgent and first prior tasks of these countries’.
Beijing released its first official white paper on rénquán in 1991, stating that the first priority in its pursuit of rénquán is the survival of the Chinese people. Eighteen years later, in April 2009 China released the National Human Rights Action Plan (2009-2010). In the action plan, rights to survive and develop remain the first priority in the PRC’s implementation of rénquán . In short, Beijing’s argument is that there can be no human rights if the Chinese people are still starving; since the Chinese people are still starving it is pointless to talk about having human rights. Civil rights, political rights and personal rights, which normally stand as the first priority in many Western nations’ protection of human rights, are simply of secondary importance to China. The purposeful sequence of the various types of human rights listed in China’s official documents reflects the precedence of the Chinese government’s thoughts on conventions of human rights.
In addition to human rights of every individual, the PRC states that it also values ‘collective human rights’. The subjects of ‘collective human rights’ are the race and the country. The manifestation of ‘collective human rights’ is the sovereignty of a country. Interfering in a country’s sovereignty is equivalent to encroaching on the human rights of all the people in the country. Beijing believes that ‘collective human rights are the prerequisites and the essential guarantee if an individual’s human rights are to be fully realised. If a country loses its sovereignty and cannot independently make decisions concerning its national affairs in freely seeking its economic, social and cultural development, human rights of individuals in the country will not be ensured’. This explains the PRC’s long-standing statements that human rights are undoubtedly a domestic issue, and that the sovereignty of a nations outweighs the value of human rights.
As the discussion of rénquán is no longer a taboo, there is an abundant amount of discussion and reports concerning the thinking of rénquán in China’s public domain, both in academia or in the media, Critical thinking on rénquán is allowed, such as calling on the government to protect the rénquán of litigants in judicial process, or promoting public education on rénquán. However, the ideas and general outlines discussed in the public domain are closely monitored by the CCP government. Beijing’s close attention to public comments regarding rénquán makes it difficult to for writers to publicise conceptions that go beyond the boundaries enforced by the Chinese government.
The boundaries set in place by the Chinese government regarding rénquán reflects Beijing’s development of a comprehensive and standard official interpretation and usage of rénquán. There are two official documents, which serve as the main authorities for people attempting to understand the PRC’s perspectives and the Chinese model of rénquán. One is the first white paper on rénquán, which was issued in 1991. The other is the National Human Rights Action Plan (2009-2010), released in April 2009, even though the U.S. State Department said in March 2010 that ‘the plan has not yet been implemented’. There is also an organisation called the ‘China Society for Human Rights Studies’, which claims to be the largest academic organisation in China which professionally studies rénquán.  The organisation’s website (in both Chinese and English) is well maintained with up to date information on rénquán. The information includes: the Chinese central government and local governmental agencies’ efforts to pursue and improve people’s human rights; cases of human rights abuses in other countries; governmental policy papers and announcements concerning rénquán; and commentaries on human rights issues. The website includes a special column with one hundred questions and answers on rénquán. The purpose of the column is to ‘strengthen the propaganda and education on the basic knowledge on human rights; enhance the consciousness in the whole society on respecting and protecting human rights; strengthen citizens’ awareness in protecting their own human rights and respecting other people’s human rights according to law’. A similar website attempting to promote basic knowledge among the general public concerning rénquán was established by China’s official mouthpiece, the CCTV. Beijing’s efforts via its extensive and comprehensive media establishment to have an official statement on Chinese views on rénquán reflects the government’s ambition and intention to propagandise China’s perspectives and values on rénquán, internally and externally. China does not like to see its official interpretations on rénquán challenged domestically or internationally.
No matter how China tries to improve its image on human rights issues, in the eyes of other countries and human rights groups in the international community Beijing’s attitude towards human rights is notorious. For example, the U.S. State Department’s annually released Country Reports on Human Rights Practice reveal many instances and kinds of human rights violations in China. However, cases of China’s clandestine detaining of political dissidents, cruelling suppressing protests staged by minority ethnic groups, or harassing, monitoring, or beating their targets, are heard mainly in media reports outside of China. As long as China’s fundamental values on human rights continues to stand in contrast to Western conceptions – including the belief that human rights is an internal affair; the ‘survival and development’ of all the Chinese people as the first priority of all kinds of human rights; and sovereignty, which are collective human rights and outweighs individual’s human rights – the confrontation between China and other nations as well as human rights groups on human rights issues will continue to persist.
 Xiandai Hanyu Cidian (Modern Chinese Dictionary, the 5th Edition), Beijing: Commercial Press, 2006, p. 1144. Hanyu Da Cidian (Comprehensive Dictionary of Chinese Words), Shanghai: Hanyu Da Cidian Press, 1994, Vol 1, p. 1032
 Xiandai Hanyu Cidian (Modern Chinese Dictionary, the 5th Edition), Beijing: Commercial Press, 2006, p. 1130. Hanyu Da Cidian (Comprehensive Dictionary of Chinese Words), Shanghai: Hanyu Da Cidian Press, 1995, Vol 4, p. 1359
 Xiandai Hanyu Cidian (Modern Chinese Dictionary, the 5th Edition), Beijing: Commercial Press, 2006, p. 1146. Hanyu Da Cidian (Comprehensive Dictionary of Chinese Words), Shanghai: Hanyu Da Cidian Press, 1994, Vol 1, p. 1056
 “The Historical Development of the Concept of Human Rights,” China’s Human Rights, http://www.humanrights-china.org/china/rqlc/C1200111790613.htm
 “National Human Rights Action Plan of China (2009-2010),” the State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, April 2009, www.china.org.cn, http://www.china.org.cn/archive/2009-04/13/content_17595407.htm
 “The Universal Principle of Human Rights Must Match with Every Country’s National Conditions,” www.xinhuanet.com, http://news.xinhuanet.com/ziliao/2003-01/20/content_698246.htm
 “National Human Rights Action Plan of China (2009-2010),” see above.
 “Individual’s Human Rights and the Collective Human Rights; Civil Rights, Political Rights and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Are Equally Important,” the website of the China Society for Human Rights Studies, http://www.humanrights.cn/china/rqzt/zt2002005728153436.htm
 “2009 Human Rights Report: China (includes Tibet, Hong Kong, and Macau),” the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor of the U.S. State Department, March 11, 2010, http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2009/eap/135989.htm
 “The Introduction of China Society for Human Rights Studies,” the website of China Society for Human Rights Studies (www.humanrights.cn), http://www.humanrights.cn/cn/zt/xwgzrd/2010/03/xg/t20100121_532808.htm
 “A Hundred Questions and Answers on the Knowledge concerning Human Rights,” the website of China Society for Human Rights, http://www.humanrights.cn/china/rqzt/rqzswd/index.htm