Rights Are Not Automatic

“In a modern society, we are the citizens and we have to constantly remind ourselves of the rights that the law bestows on us. The realizing of those rights is the guarantee for our living a normal and civilized life.” – excerpted from a Southern Metropolis article, written by 王學泰..

This is my translation of the full article:-

The “rights” referred hereto are civil rights. The meaning of “power” is defined as the public power vested in the government or the power that can control or affect an individual’s personal power. The reason that the 17th Party Congress placed emphasis on legal rights such as the right to express, the right to know, the right to participate and the right to monitor etc. is “to ensure that power is properly exercised, that its operation is conducted in broad daylight.” The aim is to prevent some officials from stamping on citizens’ rights.

Since the ancient times, there has been an absence of the concept of rights in Chinese traditional culture. There were laws in all the previous dynasties. But no laws have ever stipulated that people should enjoy rights. Our ancient laws were founded on people’s obligations; they only referred to what people must be obliged to contribute, and what rules they must abide by. As for what people are given in return for their contributing and law-abiding, there has never been any questioning or contemplating. In the eyes of the modern age people, those were the days when people only happened to be living and just bordering on survival. Under ancient Roman law, a natural human being should enjoy certain rights and shoulder certain obligations, with the two sets of values being in balance. The unheard of concept of “enjoyment of rights” only came to be better known following the import of European culture and Western thinking into China. In the last hundred years, more and more Chinese people have become aware of the concept.

“Rights” can be divided into two parts. One refers to the “inborn” part, like survival right and growth right. This is a “natural” right, to which every living human being is entitled. The second is the product of an organized society’s contract with its citizens, like all kinds of civil rights under a democratic system. I would call this the “human” part. When I said in the aforementioned paragraph that people in the ancient times did not have the concept of “rights”, I did not mean that the ancient rulers didn’t even acknowledge the “inborn” rights – they did acknowledge those rights, which were also extended to other species of beings. It’s only that the rulers did not allow the subjects to ask for human rights.

In a patriarchal society (imperialist power is an extension of patriarchal power), a child’s rights are included in the father’s obligations. A socially qualified father has to think of all aspects of a child’s welfare and thus the child should have no reason to ask for anything. If the child even dares to ask, it is committing an unfilial act. And thus a child’s rights are quietly robbed of in familial warmth. A nation, being an extension of a family, is run in much the same way. This is further confirmed in Confucians’ design of inter-personal relationships of different levels of community. But Confucians never said anything about how to deal with a situation where the ruler refused to care about the subjects’ inborn rights and decided to go against nature. There seemed nothing one could do except to wait. If they can slight “natural or inborn rights” which they acknowledge, what would happen to “human rights”? It is only natural that civil rights such as those that exist in a democratic society have never appeared in Chinese traditional thinking.

Due to the lack of support from domestic cultural sources, it would be very hard for the concept of “rights” to take root in people’s hearts. Ever since the revolutionary reforms, people’s increasing awareness of this concept has gradually evolved into a demand out of reality, which has been increasingly understood by those in power. However, in order for “rights” to act as an efficient balancing tool in our social life, there is a need for the rulers and the citizens to be proactive. In a modern society, we are the citizens and we have to constantly remind ourselves of the rights that the law bestows on us. The realizing of those rights is the guarantee for our living a normal and civilized life.

Hu Shi once said that rights were not something that could be had simply by means of their being written into the law or constitution; the only way to obtain rights was to actively demand for them. The reason is that, from the citizens’ point of view, people in power would always erect hurdles to prevent rights from being materialized; from the government’s viewpoint, it has to respect citizens’ rights and to administer according to law, because considering the protection of citizens’ rights under the law is equal to defining the limit to government’s power. If citizens in their daily lives do not care about or exercise their rights, those rights are nothing more than just a clause written in the law.

While rights would be reduced to nothing if citizens do not actively fight for them, on the other hand, power is solidly in existence - it is the trump card holder and is the controlling and directing authority in society. Everyday the public power is at work. Of course, the work is for the public good and to provide services to the public, however, those who wield this power are individuals, and there are inevitably personal interests involved. Just imagine why all those people are so eager to look for, compete for and even buy public office positions? Would personal interests not figure in these naked pursuits?

In a democratic society, public power originates from the people. But in the existing officials appointment system, some officials think that their power comes from their bosses’ trust in them, and this means the concept of “getting power from the people” is being ignored. If this kind of power is not curbed or controlled, it can easily become dictatorially bloated and hurt people’s rights.

That is why the 17th Party Congress has clearly directed: “There should be an effective

connection and proactive relationship between government administration and the public’s autonomy.” Based on this direction, there is hope that government’s scope of power be further defined, that government’s excessive, inadequate or lack of use of power can be further reformed, while social living and social affairs which fall outside of government’s administration scope can come under the public’s autonomy. Then this will be the beginning of an era of respecting rights and limiting power.