Looking at the Multiple Difficulties of “Universal Rights” from International Political Practice

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This article was published in Seeking Truth today.

Zhang Weiwei

Over the past few years, the West has promoted the realization of so-called “universal values” in international politics, which led to a huge debate. A number of Western countries have said that some of their own unilaterally defined values are “universal”, and peddle them through all kinds of methods, they even do not stint to resort to military force, bringing much new unrest to the world. From the angle of international political practice, the result of the Western promotion of “universal values” basically lacks anything good to discuss, it has even been disastrous. “universal values” today face many difficulties.

From procedural difficulties to conceptual difficulties

As the term implies, “universal values” should be value concepts that the majority of countries and peoples in the world can accept, but exactly with regards to this question, no consensus has been obtained in international society. Western countries’ governments and mainstream media often say that democracy, freedom and human rights are “universal values”, but people can ask one simple question: apart from democracy, freedom and human rights being “universal values” recognized in the West, which values are there in the world that can be “universal values”? For example, the absolute majority of people in the world would identify “peace” as being a “universal value”, but major Western countries, and especially the US, do not accept this. Another example, the Chinese people pay high regard to values such as “harmony”, “benevolence”, “responsibility”, “removing poverty” and other values, could these become “universal values”? If they can, the next step is how to go about this. If they cannot, what is the reason? This first involves a procedural question: with so many countries in the world, and so plural cultures and value system, which values may become “universal values”? Which values may not become “universal values”? There should at lease be a procedure for selection or rejection that everyone can accept, and every country should at least be permitted to express its own opinion. If such a big thing can only be decided by a small number of Western countries, what justice and morality worth talking about is there in this world?

In other words, for “universal values” to be “universal”, the question of “procedural legitimacy” must be resolved first: to say that a certain thing is “universal”, or to say that all countries and peoples accept it, requires that it undergoes some procedure for determination universally accepted in international society, for example the convention of an international conference to discuss or even negotiate on it, where international consensus is formed in the end, and it is determined which values belong to those enjoyed by all of mankind, and which don’t. Only in this way can “universal values” be accepted, and can it be prevented that a small number of countries starting from their own political, economic and strategic interests and needs, say that some values they defined themselves are “universal values”, forcibly push it onto the whole world afterwards, and do not even stint to resort to military force and warfare to bring huge disaster to the interests and welfare of peoples in other countries.

“universal values” face another difficulty which is the difficulty of the concept itself: Western countries say that democracy, freedom and human rights are “universal values”, but this concept seems to be unable to stand too much discussion. There is no harm in people asking: even in Western societies, where all kinds and varieties of democracy, freedom and human rights exist, which kinds of democracy, freedom and human rights are “universal values”? For example, should the US-style democracy where so much money is spent count as a “democracy” or a “moneyocracy”? The US advocates free speech and at the same time supervises and controls so much of the online discourse and communications domestically and in other countries, should the example of this free speech with US characteristics be followed globally? As for human rights, the Iraq war that the US started, was this for the sake of promoting human rights in Iraq as the US said, or did it gravely violate the human rights of the Iraqi people? I’m afraid that the absolute majority of people globally would believe this to be an illegal war that led to tens of thousands of deaths among the population, with millions becoming destitute and homeless, this should be one of the gravest incidents of violation of international law and armed violation of human rights this century.

Furthermore, within quite a few areas, such as democracy, freedom and human rights, international society has not formed a consensus. Even if there are some areas in which a basic consensus has been formed in international society, a number of Western countries have hitherto not accepted this consensus. One example in human rights is that the absolute majority of countries in the world have accepted and acceded to the “International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights” and the “Convention on the Rights of the Child”, but the US refuses to accede to them. In terms of concrete human rights, the Swedish social welfare has been established on the basis of high taxation, in the US, this would be believed to infringe the right of private property; the UK until today still has a national religion and it is a mandatory course in schools, in France, this would be intolerable; the French government’s monopoly powers on television stations were maintained until 1982, this would be difficult to accept in the US.

In short, whenever we make many abstract concepts appropriately concrete, we may discover that the problems become much more complicated. A number of Western countries like to use abstract concepts to dazzle people, but behind this, there often are considerations of strategic interests to benefit oneself at the expense of others. What we should be doing today, is that we make abstract concepts appropriately concrete, then ask a few whys again, and in this way, we will not be dazzled by Western words. The West propagates everywhere that democracy is a “universal value”, we can clearly respond: democracy may be a value with which a majority of people identifies, but the Western democratic system never was, is not and never will be a “universal value”. The Western democratic system is the product of the unique culture and history of Western societies, and resorts under “local knowledge”, non-Western countries and societies may draw experiences and lessons from Western democratic constructions, but if they indiscriminately imitate the Western democratic model, they will basically copy something, become disappointed, and be defeated. From the financial crisis and debt crisis that engulfs the West these days, it can be seen that the Western democratic system itself contains many flaws, that bad habits die hard, and that reform will be a heavy task over a long period ahead.

Practical difficulties: colour revolutions from “hope” to “despair”

If we say that the procedural and conceptual difficulties of “universal values” often involve what Western counties say in international relations, then the practical difficulties of “universal values” involve what Western countries do in international relations and the consequences emerging from these acts.

Under the name of promoting “universal values”, major Western countries have successively promoted colour revolutions in the three former Soviet republics of Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, which led to regime change in these countries. Looking at the situation from the eruption of the “colour revolutions” until today, these countries have undergone political turmoil and sustained economic decline, the living standards of the common people have basically not risen. The “colour revolutions” in these countries have rapidly faded,

In 2003, the so-called “rose revolution” erupted in Georgia. The US President at the time, Bush, said that the pro-US President Saakashvili who had taken power was a “hero of democracy”, he visited Georgia, and praised it for being a “beacon of democracy” in the Eurasian region. But the lives of the majority of the Georgian population did not change because of the “colour revolution”, and at present, 27% of the population lives under the poverty line.

In 2004, Western-sponsored polls challenged the official statistics of the elections in Ukraine, which triggered the so-called “orange revolution”, this was acclaimed by the Western world. But good times don’t last long. Because of currency inflation, economic hardship and an increase in corruption, Yanokovych, who had been toppled at that time, made a comeback and won the presidential elections of 2010, this cannot but be said to be a mockery. The attitude of mainstream popular opinion in Ukraine towards the colour revolution has transformed from “hope” into “despair”: a poll by the American Pew Centre in 2009 indicated that among the Ukrainian population, only 30% support “democracy”, which is a full 42 percentage points lower than in 1991. Until today, Ukraine remains deeply bogged down in political and economic crisis, incessant internal strife and thriving corruption, the living standards of the common people have not risen, and regional contradictions have intensified.

In 2005, the so-called “tulip revolution” erupted in Kyrgyzstan, which brought elation to US political circles and media, and was seen as the victory of “democracy and freedom”. But what the “revolution” brought was sustained and incessant social turmoil, political forces representing different regions in the South and the North have sunk into internal strive. After the revolution broke out, the development of the national affairs of Kyrgyzstan and Western expectations were fare from unanimous, the new government’s relations with Russia seemed to be even more friendly than their relations with the West. Before five years had passed, another revolution erupted, President Bakiyev was toppled, and armed clashes ensured. This turmoil has brought a huge negative influence on Kyrgyz politics, economy and society that continue to the present.

In short, the result of the “colour revolutions” can be described in four words: from “hope” to “despair”> This is not only the personal experience of the majority of people in these countries, it is even the sentiment of many Western governments and personalities who promoted the “colour revolutions”, they feel deep despair about the fading of the “colour revolutions”.

Practical difficulties: from the “Arab Spring” to the “Arab Winter”

Starting in late 2010, a series of anti-government movements appealing for “democracy” occurred in the Arab countries in West Asia and North Africa, spreading to Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Egypt and other such countries, many regimes were toppled. This wave of regime changed was called “Arab Spring” by Western media, they cheered that “a new Middle-East will be born”. But after only two years of time, the “Arab Spring” has become the “Arab Winter”: after the civil war in Libya, the various tribes maintain armies and defy central orders, and the entire country has become mired in a state of loss of control; the Tunisian economy has been gravely harmed, domestic secularized and Islamicist forces continue to struggle; they have undergone tribal wars, religious wars (between Sunnis and Shias), wars between the government army and “base” organizations, and it is not impossible that a war for Southern independence may break out.

As a regional power in the Middle East, Egypt’s experience of continuous ups and downs has attracted attention. In the beginning of 2011, a wave of anti-government demonstration brought the President Mubarak, who had been in power for a long time, to step down. In the 2012 elections, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Morsi took power, but the tension between secular and Muslim factions had not reduced because of the elections, quite the opposite, contradictions between both side aggravated incessantly, and neither side was willing to compromise. The sustained turmoil that regime change brought has gravely harmed Egypt’s economy, not only has capital fled, enterprises closed and industrial production seriously slipped, commodity prices are flying up and the crime rate is skyrocketing. In July 2013, the military deposed the democratically elected President Morsi, leading to new chaos and turmoil, the struggle between secular and Muslim factions is growing in intensity, large-scale and bloody clashes have erupted, and the future brooks no optimism.

To sum up, the countries involved in the “colour revolutions” and the “Arab Spring” have all experienced political chaos, social turmoil and economic hardship. Furthermore, this sort of process from “hope” to “despair” could have been expected. First, the Western “universal values” model is fundamentally unable to resolve the profound issues of these countries; it can not resolve the ethnic contradictions, regional contradictions and economic difficulties of ex-Soviet countries, neither can it resolve the population explosion, poverty and economic structural issues in the Arab world. Promoting the “universal values” model instead has caused these countries to become bogged down in turmoil, to divide already divided societies even more, and make the various problems that they face more broad, more complex and more protracted.

Second, countries are organisms that include the three levels of politics, economics and society, “universal values” bring on political reforms that can, at the most, only touch upon some changes in this organism’s political area, and makes changes in the other two areas difficult to realize, this is also why the “universal values” model promoted by the West in all places in the world,  in the end “fails to acclimatize in the new environment”, and one defeat follows another.

Third, international political practice demonstrates that, in a country that is economically considerably backwards, if governments cannot concentrate a consensus in society for economic development and improving the people’s livelihood, and promote political reform on this basis that conforms to the conditions of the nation and the country, but the hopes to resolve all problems are placed on so-called “universal values” and “democratization”, their success rate will be zero. This sort of unilateral political change can only bring people to harbour unrealistic expectations, and the government will never be able to satisfy these expectations, the result being that hope turns into despair, and this despair is hugely destructive, consequently, society gets bogged down in turmoil, the economy marches towards hardship, and the entire country may match towards dissolution, so that in the end, it can only rely on large Western countries to pick up the pieces. This probably will be the original intent of these Western counties, and they may continue to support a faction or oppose a faction under the name of “universal values” to ensure that these countries remain bogged down in sustained internal strive, so that in the end, the entire country can only become their tributary, and can never rise again.

Fortunately, today’s China has explored its own path to success. We can confidently look at the various kinds of problems and difficulties brought on by the so-called “universal values”, this will help us to even more firmly march our own path to success, and at the same time, we can pray for the blessing of those countries and peoples that have become bogged down in turmoil because of their superstition in “universal values”, wholeheartedly look forward to their learning lessons and engaging in bold exploration after experiencing grave setbacks, and in the end, find a development path that conforms to their own national conditions, and realize the flourishing of the country and the happiness of the people.

(The author is a Guest Professor at Fudan University and the Director of the Shanghai Academy of Social Science Chinese Studies Research Institute)



One thought on “Looking at the Multiple Difficulties of “Universal Rights” from International Political Practice

    […] China Copyright and Media has published a full translation of the Seeking Truth article discussed above, as well as another article from the Party journal attacking the promotion of “so-called ‘universal&…. […]

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