A Summary of the Forum “Human Rights and Democracy with Chinese Characteristics?”

On November 10, 2015, ISDP hosted a forum focusing on the topic “human rights and democracy with Chinese characteristics” with Dr. Phil C.W. Chan, Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the University of Lapland, and Professor Tony Fang from Stockholm University. China’s system of government, domestic human rights record, its obligations in adhering to international human rights law, as well as differing perceptions and values were all at the center of discussion.

Dr. Chan noted that the Chinese government, while becoming increasingly consultative, remains authoritarian in nature. The resilience of Chinese authoritarianism is facilitated by the pervasiveness of the Confucian model, which permeates the relationship between the individual and the state, and favors social stability over personal freedom. This helps explain China’s ambivalent approach to the applicability of a rule-of-law model, which is seen as necessary for economic development but inevitably clashes with the country’s structural problems and history. Dr. Chan then focused on the 1982 constitution, its features, and its failings. The question of whether the Chinese Communist Party is accountable to the legal system was a topic of debate that invited discussion on domestic politics.

Finally, Dr. Chan addressed the country’s engagement with international human rights law. China has signed and ratified a number of human rights treaties over the years, clearly signaling that the country no longer denies the validity of international human rights law. However, many international observers denounce China’s opportunistic approach to human rights, characterized by occasional concessions and limited protection granted to special categories of citizens—namely, the elderly, youth, and women. In general, China tends to prioritize economic, social, and cultural rights over civil and political rights, and it still considers human rights to be a matter of national jurisdiction.

Dr. Chan concluded his presentation with a provocative question. Since the “orderly society” model seems to be working well in China, might this become an alternative paradigm for the interpretation of democracy and human rights?

Prof. Fang offered his final comments and remarks, noting that the legal framework for human rights protection and its application are constantly developing, both in the West and in China. Western models of democracy and legal systems are themselves imperfect and by no means the ultimate measure of progress, he argued. Fang has further suggested an organizational decision-making approach to understanding the dynamics of human rights and democracy. Organizations, especially large organizations, make difficult—even paradoxical—decisions to achieve their short-term and long-term goals. As a cross-cultural educator, Fang is confident and optimistic that the younger generations in China are engaging and leading discussion on matters that were once taboos.

ISDP wishes to thank Dr. Chan, Prof. Fang, and our audience for their participation.