On Pushi Jiazhi (Universal Values)


In my last piece I touched on the issues of political reform and democratization in China, and subsequently, because the literary critic and democracy campaigner Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the argument over pushi jiazhi, (universal values), for which there had originally been much debate, was further cranked up. As is well known, Mr. Liu, on top of having affirmed that freedom, equality, and human rights are common human universal values, is a central figure who drew up “Charter 08” (proclaimed in December 2008) which called for the establishment of a nation founded on democratic, constitutional government. In addition to the content of the charter itself, calling via the internet for the participation in the campaign of a wide-range of the Chinese people across generational and class lines, Mr. Liu has been accused of the crime of inciting subversion of state power, and is currently in prison.

Since immediately after the announcement of the awarding of the prize the leaders and media of Western countries called on the Chinese government demanding the release of Mr. Liu and respect for human rights, considered the most basic universal values. For example the New York Times pointed out the Nobel Prize Committee’s “tacit message” of “The ‘Beijing Consensus,’ of economic liberty without political liberty, may have been a great strategy for takeoff, but it won’t get you to the next level.” and argued that this Nobel Peace Prize was a good opportunity for the Chinese government to tackle democratization and respect for human rights.1

However, if figures who are in prison in their own country are awarded the “Peace Prize” from abroad, then it is no wonder that animosity starts to grow. Not to mention that for the Chinese government, which is sensitive about keeping face and interference in its domestic affairs, it is all the more the case. The English-language version of “Global Times”, a People’s Daily-related newspaper of the Communist Party made criticism, saying “the Nobel Peace Prize has been degraded to a political tool that serves an anti-China purpose” and “It seems that instead of peace and unity in China, the Nobel committee would like to see the country split by an ideological rift, or better yet, collapse like the Soviet Union.”2

On the other hand in the Western media, while hailing the award of the prize to Mr. Liu, there was also the line of being concerned that it would have a negative effect within China. The Financial Times pointed out the possibility that even if Premier Wen Jiabao, who had been mentioning the necessity of political reform, is serious, with this Nobel Peace Prize its execution would be difficult.3 Furthermore, in the Guardian online, an article was also posted that in China, within NGOs and academia, and also in the Communist Party and the official government media, there are unsung heroes and true peacemakers who are working for political reform, and increased “public participation” and greater economic and social equality.4 The article pointed out that their avoiding an adversarial approach is because they feel that there are more constructive methods to achieve change peacefully in the social, cultural and political context of China, but this Nobel Prize will legitimize the confrontational tactics vis-à-vis the government, that will strengthen the authorities’ surveillance of reform-minded academics and NGOs, and that will further inflame the confrontational stances.

What kind of influence this Nobel Peace Prize will have on the Chinese government’s stance on universal values is a point drawing attention, and this was partly revealed on President Hu Jintao’s visit to the United States at the start of the year in mid January 2011. President Hu was asked about the recognition of human rights at the press conference after the leaders’ meeting on 19 January, and answered: “China recognizes and also respects the universality of human rights. And at the same time, we do believe that we also need to take into account the different and national circumstances when it comes to the universal value of human rights.”5 Then, while acknowledging that China still faces many challenges in economic and social development because it is a developing country at the reform stage with a huge population, and that a lot still has to be done on human rights, he also didn’t forget to mention mutual respect and the principle of non-interference in each other’s internal affairs.

As called for in “Charter 08”, if human rights are based on the fact that they are rights that each individual possesses from birth, and are not just things the state confers, a developmentalist government of China—a dictatorship in the name of economic development—cannot but go on transforming swiftly. Last year, the speech by Qin Xiao, the Chairman of China Merchants Bank, at the graduation ceremony for the School of Economics and Management of Tsinghua University, became a talking point in part, and called for going from the China Model viewpoint of “the people are to be subordinate to the government, the government is to control assets, and priority is to be given to local construction rather than to the benefit of individuals”, to, based on universal values, “the government is to serve the people, assets are to belong to the community, and urbanization is to be for the happiness of the people”.6 I wonder how this sounds to the ears of China’s young elite who will shoulder China’s future.

Nevertheless, according to a poll of the world’s leading countries by the Pew Research Center in the United States, the percentage of people who were satisfied with “our country’s direction” as of 2010 had a commanding lead in the case of China, amounting to 87% (Brazil was in second place with 50%).7 In the earlier Guardian discussion too, it points out that even many young educated Chinese people (who are capable of thinking for themselves) are skeptical of Western prescriptions, and will probably have a feeling of discomfort about anti-China sentiment regarding this Nobel Prize. At the current time, the fragrance of jasmine that has begun to float in from North Africa and the fragrance of China’s jasmine tea may be different.

  1. Friedman, Thomas L., “Going Long Liberty in China”, New York Times (NY edition), 17 October 2010
  2. “2010 Nobel Peace Prize a disgrace”, Global Times, 9 October 2010:http://opinion.globaltimes.cn/editorial/2010-10/580091.html
  3. Dyer, Geoff, “China awaits deeds to back talk of reform”, Financial Times (London edition 1), 14 October 2010
  4. Young, Nick, “Liu Xiaobo wins Nobel, reform loses”, guardian.co.uk, 8 October 2010: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/oct/08/liu-xiaobo-china?INTCMP=SRCH
  5. “Press Conference with President Obama and President Hu of the People’s Republic of China”: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/01/19/press-conference-president-obama-and-president-hu-peoples-republic-china
  6. Qin Xiao “Bingcheng pushi jiazhi kaichuang Zhongguo daolu” [Creating a Chinese Way in Accordance with Universal Values]: http://www.chinareform.net/2010/0728/19515.html
  7. “Satisfaction with Country’s Direction”: http://pewglobal.org/database/?indicator=3&mode=map

 [Translated by ERINA]