Confucianism, Democratization, and Human Rights in Taiwan

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Fetzer, Joel. Fetzer, J. American Political Science Association. Political Research Online. All Academic Inc. Fetzer and J. But the doctrine of tyrannicide, which developed so early in China, emerged only much later in Europe. The late sixteenth-century treatises by an anonymous Huguenot author and by the Spanish Jesuit Luis Mariana were either publicly burnt or condemned, although they were to wield enormous influence In China too, some of Mencius' teachings were considered inflammatory.

This was the opinion of the fourteenth-century founder of the ming dynasty, who sought to delete from the Book of Mencius those passages that approved of tyrannicide Implicit in the political teachings cited above is that government rests on popular consent. More explicitly, the fourth century B. Confucian thinker Xunzi Hsun-tzu speaks of human beings coming together in society to achieve the strength and harmony without which they cannot conquer other beings, presumably, the birds and beasts Before him, the fifth-century B. A fourth-century B. Then a sage appeared who fashioned nests of wood to protect men from harm.

The people were deigned and made him ruler of the world calling him the Nest Builder The seventeenth-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan came much later , in which he describes everyone as at war against everyone else in a state of nature. Hobbes discerned in this the basis of natural right in the human desire to live.

Aided by reason, which he calls the law of nature, human beings would agree to relinquish much of their sovereign right to all things in a contractual relationship to a state, while reserving certain individual liberties having regard to self-preservation. Thomas Hobbes cites inter-human conflict as what human beings wanted to avoid in joining together in political society, and so did Mozi. But the other ancient Chinese thinkers go back to a more remote past, and conceive society to have begun in the human struggle with the non- human species. Implicitly, they are saying that the human family is one, and that human beings in a state of nature had rights and liberties that they freely surrendered for the good of the whole.

But if incipient ideas of human equality and popular sovereignty arose very early in Chinese thought, they did not lead to a political structure which protects human rights.

Chinese ethics and universal human rights

The twentieth century has not seen the proper development of the institutions of participatory democracy which could assure human rights in China. Unfortunately, the danger remains that only another violent revolution could "rectify" the situation, and so far, revolutions have only replaced one set of ruling elite with another set. In modern times the Chinese language also had to coin a word for "freedom" ziyou , literally, self-determination. The closest classical term was ziran literally, the natural , connecting more a fascist sense of harmony with nature than of Promethean self-assertion.

But this was more an interior, spiritual freedom to improve one's own moral character. The concept of freedom as a right, such as the right to freedom of thought and religion, to freedom of speech and assembly, was never clearly articulated until modern times, and then under Western influence. Leading twentieth-century Chinese philosophers living outside China, where they breathe fresher air, have agreed that traditional Chinese culture contain "seeds" for concepts like science and democracy which have come more directly from the West.

Mou is still alive and very much respected Besides, Chinese observers of the West have also pointed out what the West could learn from the East. For example, there is excessive individualism working against so-called family values, a litigious spirit promoting conflict rather than harmony, and especially in the United States, an unacceptably high crime rate.

There is also an increasing gap between the rich and the poor in capitalist societies, a monopoly of political election campaigns by those who could afford them, and the social deprivation of various minorities, including native American and Canadians. But even within China, while coping with repression, the population has been able to maintain a high degree of self-discipline. And the peaceful, disciplined, and thriving societies in East Asian countries outside of China with very dense populations demonstrate the people's sense of social harmony and family virtues.

East ASiasn value what they call humaneness, or human warmth, which they find lacking in a system where human relationships have lost a personal touch. The West may yet have something to learn from the East here. The Confucian society was governed by li literally, ritual, or ritual law , a term rooted in ancient religion, and presuming a distinction between nobility and commoners. Li may be described as customary, uncodified law, internalized by individuals, and governing gentlemen in their personal and social lives, in their behavior toward the spirits as well as the rest of the world.

For that reason, li has the extended meaning of "correct behavior. A classical education was an education in the rites, one that prepared the young nobles for life. The evolution of law in China may be described as the devolution of ritual li into law fa and of law into punishment xing For this reason, law is regarded as having played a mainly penal role in Chinese society, protecting the rights of the rulers and enjoining passive obedience on the part of the subjects. Until today, the Chinese fear the law, because law has been an arbitrary instrument in the hand of the rulers.

Besides, traditional Chinese political thought has always assumed that human beings would be governed by monarchies. Confucianism obviously preferred benevolent monarchs and had no use for tyrants, but Confucian ministers did not always have the power to make sure that tyrants were kept from the throne. There were changes in the dynastic cycle, but the individual who acquired power were often the wrong kind, even if they did so in the name of the Mandate of Heaven. Unfortunately, in the light of historical events, this doctrine became understood as a kind of historical determinism governing the rise and fall of political dynasties.

There had been critics of absolute power among traditional Chinese intellectuals. For example, student protests were known nearly two thousand years ago, in the second century A. Eventually, the state learnt from such experiences to give more importance to civil service examinations for which China became famous than to imperial colleges with large enrollments. But the year once more saw student petitioners at the Song-dynasty palace gates in Hangzhou, protesting the removal from office of a much loved figure at a time when the country was threatened by outside invaders.

A riot ensued when their sympathizers conflicted with soldiers, but the students achieved their political shims and were pardoned for making trouble. In modern times, student demonstrations on May 4, , in support of "Mr. Science" and "Mr. Democracy" are especially remembered for having brought about national consciousness of needs and problems On April 18, , student representatives recalled history when some of them made "petitions" to the government on their knees at the entrance to the Great of Hall of the People in Beijing, on behalf of the thousands gathered during an all-day demonstration.

After sixteen hours, the written petition was accepted, although nothing came of that Unlike Thomas Hobbes who believes that the people have no right to rebellion, another seventeenth-century English philosopher John Locke asserts in his Second Treatise of Government , that the subjects, like their rulers, have important and even absolute rights, such as to life, liberty and property In the late eighteenth century, the idea of natural rights eventually helped to overthrow two governments: George III's over the American colonies, and Louis XVI's in France, and became articulated into the statements proclaimed after these events The situation in pre-modern China long after the time of Mencuis was quite different.

Increasingly, critiques of power wars made obliquely or in secret. A seventeenth-century Chinese thinker, Huang Zongxi, well known as a philosopher and intellectual historian, wrote a critique of despotism, mingyi daifanglu "Plan for a Prince" which was not published until the early twentieth century.

In it, he condemned the rulers for regarding their domains as their private property, and their subjects as their servants and slaves. He proposes that law fa be established for the interest of all rather than of the few, and that government be by laws rather than men. And he denounces those laws that enslave the people as "unlawful laws" There is no reason to think that he had been influenced by the West.

Editorial Reviews

An important thinker and an influential teacher, Huang was a philosopher of the school of the sixteenth-century thinker Wang Yang-ming, who was partly influenced by Buddhism, and placed emphasis on the human mind-and-heart xin as the seat of wisdom and goodness, the source, we may say, of human dignity and of potential sageliness. With time, political power became more despotic in pre-modern and modern China, as the voices of criticism and protest were increasingly stifled.

This process continued under Communist rule, as a Western imported ideology -- Marxist - Leninism -- was used as a theory and practice of power at a scale hitherto unimagined, and by men often less competent and more ruthless than some earlier emperors. True, certain trappings of power surrounding court ritual, as well as institutional abuses inherited by the absolute monarchy, were discontinued. But decisions affecting the lives of the entire population continued to be made by the few, or rather, by the "one man" be this Mao Zedong or Deng Xisoping, and without the benefit of traditional institutional balances as that of the imperial censorate, which was empowered criticism the exercise of power in the days of the monarchy.

As the media are strictly controlled by the government, journalists have complained in May, , that here had been more liberties before the Communists took power, such as under the warlords. And it was for lack of a vehicle to communicate their complaints that the people made use of big wall posters, such as in the late seventies, but these have since been outlawed. Why was it that the Chinese had very early articulated ideas about human dignity and equality, but were unable to establish a political system that would protect this dignity and equality?

This question has been troubling the minds of many contemporary Chinese intellectuals. The disintegration of feudalism in Western Europe was eventually followed by the empowerment of the propertied classes, whose assertions of their own rights eventually contributed to the extension of like rights to the whole population. In China, however, a system of feudalism started very early and was disintegrating by the time of Confucius and Mencius. It came to a formal and when the country was unified by the sword under the First Emperor, a hated despot who burnt books and buried scholars c.

In contrast with Western Europe power in China became increasingly centralized in the hands of the monarch, rather than shared. A titled aristocracy was strong during the classical period, at the time of Confucius and Mencius, when the country was divided in feudal states. Its powers and privileges were then dissolved by a suspicious absolute monarchy, never to be successfully restored. A government controlled education system and a civil service examination promoted the principle of merit, while monopolizing the supply of bureaucrats, who where mere advisors and administrators, and, as the propertied class, never threatened rebellion.

Eventually, even the position of the prime minister was abolished in the fourteenth century, so that power-sharing at the top occurred more often with eunuchs than with competent ministers. There was never an independent judiciary, although a Censorate served to channel policy criticisms. The Confucian doctrine of benevolent government from above was not sufficient to guarantee the rights of the subjects below, and the population was instructed more to serve social harmony than to assert their own rights.

Power was more commonly wrested from one party by another, through wars and rebellions, started in turn by the military elite or by the socially deprived who had nothing to lose. It was not properly distributed and structurally balanced. Of course, democratic Western Europe is in many was an exception on the geopolitical land mass of Eurasia, and in the world as a whole, in achieving democratic institutions after a mere period of nearly two thousand years.

Even there, it did not happen overnight. And the process evolved from the struggle for the rights of the nobles and propertied, to that for the rights of all. If China did not develop like institutions earlier, could she at least, accept the importance of human rights as a concept and develop the necessary safeguards? I think that philosophers like Mencius and Huang Zongxi demonstrate that the Chinese intellectual tradition was well prepared for accepting Western ideas regarding the legal protection of human rights. Witness the efforts of intellectuals in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century who sought to secure a constitutional form of government, first under a monarchy, and then under a republic.

Their efforts failed not so much because they were introducing ideas considered alien, but rather because the country was not permitted by the outside powers, both the West and Japan, to evolve peacefully. I cite as support for my assertion the final failure of the monarchical idea, after the fall of the Manchu dynasty , and in spite of efforts to restore it or to start a new one.

It would seem that the population was no longer wedded to the legitimacy of a dynastic idea -- after all those millennia of history. Even Mao Zedong was not succeeded by his own issue, and while Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan was eventually followed in office by Chiang Ching-kuo, the latter would initiate the democratization process that makes the one-party government no longer a certainty in Taiwan.

True, the idea of despotism was never uprooted, and it continued under other banners of Republic or People's Republic. But I feel assured by the recent disclosure of popular dissent in China during the last decade that despotism, under whatever form, whether in Taiwan before the eighties, or in China as the dictatorship of the alleged proletariat, is not loved.

Human rights, on the other hand, have been very much in the consciousness of a people deprived, at times, even dehumanized. It was also testimony to the deeply felt sentiments of the people at large, accustomed to persecution and long suffering. There have been many smaller demonstrations in Beijing: demonstrations, or petitions, of individuals or groups, such as poor peasants, who went to the capital in search of justice and protection, as did their ancestors before them, in the days of the monarchy.

That they did so was proof that they believed in certain entitlements--even if they received no Western education. To Table of Contents Human Rights and the Chinese Constitution Our discussion of the relevance of human rights in the light of Chinese culture might appear superfluous granted the fact that the government of the People's Republic has recently declared itself in favor of human rights, explicitly in the White Paper of , and certainly implicitly in it Constitutions, especially that of In the West, human rights reflects the growth of individualism in the theory and practice of society.

Socialists have criticized its development, and asked explicitly for economic and social rights. But presumably, Communists China followed the precedent of the Soviet Union as well as of the Republic of in eventually giving itself a constitution. China has promulgated several constitutions, three times , , before This reflects an effort to find a suitable instrument for legitimation, since each constitution lost credibility through the nonobservance of the party in power.

The impression is that a government should exist for the protection of the people's rights, so the constitution gives due regard to the "citizens' freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association" and even describes such freedom as "inviolable. Citizens of the People's Republic of China have the freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession yuxing and of demonstration shiwei. The freedom of the citizens of the People's Republic of China is inviolable Unlawful deprivation or restriction of citizens' freedom of person by detention or other means is prohibited The problem is the supremacy of the Communist party, enshrined in the constitution as the "dictatorship of the proletariat" and resulting in a lack of harmony between the constitution and the laws that circumscribe it.


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  • My brother Frank, who served in China as a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal , told me the story of how he was once briefly detained by Chinese security. While walking by their office on a city street, he chanced to see a notice of certain decrees and decided to note them down.

    This apparently attracted sufficient attention for him to be summoned inside for questioning. He was asked what he was doing, and why. He replied that he was taking notes of the published rules and regulations, which he found interesting because they limited the constitutional rights of freedom of speech, of assembly, of association, of demonstrations. When confronted with the fact of these laws and decrees, which could be found unconstitutional in a Western society, his interrogators were not amused. They even questioned his motives in noting things down, as though this itself might be an act of sabotage.

    If he was permitted to leave after an hour or so, it was because he was an American citizen, not a Chinese. In this situation, it is amusing that a non-Chinese citizen could better exercise his rights than a Chinese, as the constitution specifically speaks of the freedom of the citizens. This is also indicative of the government's attitude that civil liberties are political privileges bestowed by the state rather than natural rights, and this, in spite of the assertion in the constitution that all power comes from the people.

    The country's leaders who proclaimed the Constitution, had themselves suffered from random repression and lawlessness during the Cultural Revolution The public had therefore expected that they would set up a judicial system that keeps a proper distance from the political and the administrative. But the threat of loss of power in June -- accompanied perhaps by a genuine fear of another chaotic "cultural revolution"-- led to the enactment of martial law without due observance of the constitutional safeguards.

    And the military crackdown effectively trampled on the constitution itself. For all this, the system has once more lost its credibility. To Table of Contents Human Rights: The Chinese Record The world at large did not know, and did not appear to wish to know, the abominable record of human rights in the People's Republic of China -- at least before the Tian'anmen Incident of Perhaps, once more, it no longer wishes to know now.

    Mao Zedong has now a known record. We know that four million people, considered enemies of the People's Republic, but often on flimsy evidence and after kangaroo trials, were executed from to -- during the benevolent years of the Communist rule. Possibly thirty million people died of man-made famine in the three years following Mao's Great Leap Forward policy -- almost five percent of the entire population, an unprecedented event for the world and for China.

    And then, millions more perished during the Cultural Revolution again on account of his misguided policies which permitted innumerable abused throughout the system. Den Xiaoping also has a record, starting with the arrest of dissidents like Wei Jingsheng, who was sentenced to fifteen years in for having dared to ask for democracy, and continuing with the Tian'anmen crackdown on June 4, Recently, the West obtained documented information about just how dehumanized people were during the Cultural Revolution.

    I am referring to incidents of deliberate cannibalism, committed for ideological reasons, and I shall quote here from Nicolas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, China Wakes: The Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power : The documents suggest that at least people, and probably hundreds more, were eaten in the towns and villages of Guangxi Province in the late s.

    In most cases, many people shared a corpse, so the cannibals may have numbered in the thousands. While this apparently was one of the largest episodes of cannibalism anywhere in the last century or more, it is different from most other cases in that those who ate the flesh were not motivated by hunger or by psychopathic illness. Instead, the compulsion was ideological: The cannibalism took place in public, often organized by Communist Party officials, and people indulged communally to prove their revolutionary order Does this, however, belie the possibility that human rights can be a valid Chinese concept?

    My answer is that abuses, even gross abuses, could take place anywhere. Living in the twentieth century, we know that they occurred in such countries as Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, Communist China and Cambodia.

    Chinese Civil Society and Human Rights

    We have no assurance that they will not occur again anywhere--even in Western Europe and North America. But human rights has become an accepted concept in today's Germany and Japan, and even in for the former Soviet Union--despite the many problems there.

    The government has accepted to speak of human rights, whereas before, even the Constitutions only spoke of "people's rights" or "citizens' rights. But I do not accept the account given in the White Paper regarding the alleged improvements in China's record on human rights. I believe this is the reason why the Paper has not been taken seriously in human rights circles. Lip service is not enough. It is simply hypocrisy There are those who say that for China, collective rights are more important than individual rights.

    This has also been the argument of the communist government who claims to have liberated the country from colonialism and imperialism, as well as what it calls, the "feudalism" of past oppression. However, what is implied is often that individuals should be sacrificed when necessary for the collectivity, and that those in power should decide what is good for that collectivity. The record of the Communist government speaks for itself in this regard. While it claims to have fought for the people's economic and social rights, the price it has exacted is far too great for the limited progress made to date.

    Dissidents comparing the present to the past usually find that there was less repression and more liberty before the Communist liberation than afterwards.

    Transition to Democracy at the Expense of Justice: The 2-28 Incident and White Terror in Taiwan

    The millions of refugees from mainland China who made the prosperity of Hong Kong also demonstrate their preferences for enjoying guaranteed liberties under a colonial government to "legally possessing" those rights accorded by a government which does not owe its mandate to the people whom it calls its own. Before the Communists took over power, and in spite of great odds and many imperfections, the Republic of China had made halting progress with its judiciary system. Today, we can find encouragement in those East Asian countries and regions where the record has improved vastly, event if it is still not perfect.

    We have in mind the situations in Japan where the post-war Constitution is American-inspired , and more recently in South Korea and Taiwan, which have all been influenced by the teachings of Confucian humanism. These countries and regions have experienced rapid economic modernization, accompanied by democratization and the more conscientious enactment and observance of human rights legislation.

    Taiwan, which also calls itself the Republic of China, is a bastion of Chinese culture, distinct from Hong King which has been a British colony, and is only now experimenting with a democratic legislative structure which the mainland government has threatened to dismantled, and from Singapore, an ex-British colony which likes to claim its own form of participatory democracy under a one-party government.