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Human Rights in China: The Search for Common Ground

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A Film By Raymond Olson
Sacred Mountain Productions
VHS. 50 Minutes. Color. 2004
DVD. 114 Minutes. Color. 2004
English Only (No Subtitles, Occasional Translations as Voiceovers)
Distributed By Sacred Mountain Productions, PMB 157,
16420 S. E. McGillivray, Suite 103, Vancouver, VW 98683-3461

Sociologist Raymond Olson uses recorded interviews and striking video footage from contemporary China to take the viewer inside one of the most fascinating intellectual arguments and most frustrating political conundrums in modern China studies. The question at the core of this video is whether human rights are “universal” as defined by the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the nascent human rights regime being developed under international law, or whether the very concept of human rights is a Western conceit imposed on a culturally diverse world where the value systems that undergird human society and social order are sometimes quite different from those that shaped the rights-based American and French Revolutions. The Confucian moral order, based on right relationships within the Chinese community, becomes the test case for this intellectual premise that argues a kind of cultural relativism; the often lamentable human rights record of the Peoples Republic of China and the Communist Party leadership becomes the counterpoint that argues for the universal application of absolute principles of human rights.

The source of this debate is the “Asian values” argument put forth most forcefully by Lee Kuan Yew, the first Prime Minister of Singapore and now “Minister Mentor” to that state’s leaders.

“Asian societies are unlike Western ones. The fundamental difference between Western concepts of society and government and East Asian concepts . . . is that Eastern societies believe that the individual exists in the context of his family. He is not pristine and separate. The family is part of the extended family, and then friends and the wider society. There is a little Chinese aphorism which encapsulates this idea: Xiushen qijia zhiguo pingtianxia. Xiushen means look after yourself, cultivate yourself, do everything to make yourself useful; Qijia, look after the family; Zhiguo, look after your country; Pingtianxia, all is peaceful under heaven.”1

This statement of Confucian values leads to an Asian expression of communitarianism that argues for the place of the individual in the context of multiple obligations to family, community, and state, and by contrast sees the Western concept of the morally autonomous individual (what one voice in this film calls the “Lone Stranger” model) as social pathology. In such a context conformity may be a

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