Better than ours?

To put the world in order we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order we must first cultivate our personal lives by setting our hearts right. Confucius, Analects


America First

Before the 1970s, the US adopted some UN human rights standards but snubbed and even rejected many then, to the end of the Cold War, Washington practiced “human rights diplomacy,” using ‘human rights’ to attack the USSR. After 1991, the US has imposed its own interpretation of human rights on countries with different political systems in an attempt to maintain hegemony. 

In the 1940s, during the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the US insisted on making the 30 articles defining human rights as ambiguous as possible, and strongly objected to proposals to detail those articles and the obligations of member states. Since the UDHR was adopted, the US allowed only one article – Article 22 – to apply to the US, and gave only one sentence in Article 22 any value: that UDHR implementation depends on “the organization and resources of each State.” 

In 1953, Eisenhower announced that his administration would keep a distance from the UDHR and that its domestic and would not be bound by human rights obligations and either voted against or abstained from the 1960 Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, while remaining ambiguous about UN efforts to support South Africa’s apartheid struggle and overthrowing the democratically elected government of Guatemala, a pattern it would thenceforth use to interfere in the internal affairs of countries around the world.

In the 1970s, Jimmy Carter’ “human rights diplomacy” became the “cornerstone” and “soul” of America’s foreign policy as a new ideological weapon in the Cold War, while committing appalling atrocities in Vietnam, Chile, Guatemala, the Philippines, and Angola. The more these facts were exposed, the harder American politicians proclaimed their human rights ‘values’ to whitewash America’s image. 

In the 1980s, Reagan claimed that the US was a model of civil and political rights, needing no international standards, criticized Carter’s human rights ‘naivety’ and demanded priority for discussing communist human rights violation, turning a blind eye to human rights issues elsewhere, and remained passive about the UN’s Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

Post-Cold War, President Bush put human rights at the center of America’s foreign policy and, in 1996, President Clinton said, “I want to build a bridge to the 21st century that makes sure we are still the nation with the world’s strongest defense, that our foreign policy still advances the values of our American community in the community of nations.” Post-September 11 , the US DOJ rejected international law on human rights and adopted kidnapping, torture, and assassination as state policy while it tapped and collected the personal information of Americans and foreign politicians.

What About China?


The Chinese have no fundamental disagreement with our interpretation of human rights, says former Premier Wen Jiabao. “Science, democracy, rule of law, freedom and human rights are not concepts unique to capitalism. Rather, they are common values pursued by all mankind throughout history, the fruits of human civilization. It is only that–at different historical stages and in different countries–they are achieved through different means and in different forms.” 

Confucius insisted that rights begin with individual responsibility, “From the Son of Heaven down to the mass of the people, all must consider the cultivation of the person the root of everything else,” and Mao[4] explained, “By political human rights we mean the rights of freedom and democracy.” 

Our Western, Greco-Christian tradition is short on responsibility and long on personal liberation from worldly bondage. We thus prioritize abstract rights like impotent public speech but, says Randall Nadeau,

Christian-based Western values like radical autonomy of the individual, the soul in a transcendent relationship to the world, the prioritizing of the individual over the family and the prioritizing of the individual over the state are alien to the Chinese. 

The West defines human rights as ‘freedom from’ oppressive tendencies of the family and state, and grounds human rights in the fundamental equality of all persons. Thus, human rights are equated with human liberation–liberation of the autonomous individual from the restrictive community.  

Chinese liberation comes through fulfillment of communal responsibilities, as Xi Jinping observed, “I vowed to sacrifice my life for my country and when my term in office ends, there will be nothing left of me,” a practice Hindus call ‘karma yoga,’ self-purification through selfless service.

Not surprisingly, the Chinese prioritize responsibilities over rights, order over freedom, and harmony over conflict. They prize national well-being over individual rights and material well-being over public speech; the spiritual over the material; morality over law; this life over the next; community over individuals; family over individual and social class; the state above either; and civilization over impoverishment. From their point of view, the collective creation of a xiaokang society by 2049 will the greatest human rights achievement in history.

Odious Comparison

National priorities may differ. Treaty obligations do not.

In comparing China’s compliance with the UN Declaration, we begin with a reminder:

The United States is abandoning its role as the global champion of human rights. Revelations that top officials are targeting people to be assassinated abroad, including American citizens, are only the most recent, disturbing proof of how far our nation’s violation of human rights has extended. This development began after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and has been sanctioned and escalated by bipartisan executive and legislative actions, without dissent from the general public. As a result, our country can no longer speak with moral authority on these critical issues. President Jimmy Carter

The UN Declaration 

Preamble: The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights was voted into existence on December 10, 1948 so that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.

1. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. In a World Values Survey, more Chinese than Americans said they felt free. 

2. Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty. China’s policy of liangshaoyikuan–privileging minorities, preferencing their education, and showing greater leniency towards their offenses–contrasts with the treatment of America’s minorities.

3. Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person. Says Jimmy Carter, “Revelations that top officials are targeting people to be assassinated abroad, including American citizens, are only the most recent, disturbing proof of how far our nation’s violation of human rights has extended” (NYT). While we must judge China’s 1979 attack on Vietnam severely, America’s attacks on other nations are more numerous and destructive.   

4. No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms. Forced labor–slavery–is common in American prisons and on its farms.

5. No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Jimmy Carter again: “Our government’s counterterrorism policies are now clearly violating at least 10 of the Declaration’s 30 Articles, including the prohibition against cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” 

6. Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law. Prisoners are held in Guantanamo specifically to avoid recognizing them as persons before the law. As a result, Americans trust their legal system half as much as the Chinese trust theirs.

7. All are equal before the law and are entitled, without any discrimination, to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination. The US executes over one-thousand people pre-trial and imprisons two million without trial every year, but does not prosecute its criminal elite. All Chinese citizens charged with crimes receive a public trial, even if they plead guilty.

8. Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law. America denied effective remedy to Guantanamo prisoners, to Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, and Edward Snowden and imprisons more blacks than South Africa at the height of apartheid.  

9. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile. The US kidnaps and imprisons hundreds of people every year.

10. Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him. Pres. Carter: “Recent legislation has made legal the president’s right to detain a person indefinitely on suspicion of affiliation with terrorist organizations. This law violates the right to freedom of expression and to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, two other rights enshrined in the declaration. In addition to American citizens’ being targeted for assassination or indefinite detention.”

11.1. Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defense. (2) No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offence was committed. America holds one quarter of the world’s prison population, mostly without trial, including forty in Guantánamo Bay who committed no penal offense, some of whom they have tortured a hundred times.   

12. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks. America operates 360-degree, 24-hour surveillance of all citizens and police regularly invade private homes and kill innocent homeowners.  

13.(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state. (2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country. America’s secret, no-fly list denies this right to 50,000 citizens. China’s hukou deny citizens the right to change residency without permission. 

14. (1) Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution. (2) This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations. The US has sought to deny Edward Snowdon and Julian Assange the right to asylum from persecution.  

15 (1) Everyone has the right to a nationality. (2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.  

16. (1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution. (2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses. (3) The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State. American families break up twice as frequently as Chinese families. 

17. (1) Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others. (2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property. Without adducing evidence or proving a crime, American police take more money from citizens each year than robbers

18. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance. China restricts public practice of religion while in the US, says Carter, “Popular state laws permit detaining individuals because of their appearance, where they worship, or with whom they associate.”  

19. Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. America observes freedom of expression better than China, while China’s media are more reliable sources of information and more trusted.

20.1. Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. (2) No one may be compelled to belong to an association. The US flunked its UN ‘peaceful assembly’ inspection while Chinese hold thousands of noisy, nonviolent protests each year. 

21. (1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives. (2) Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country. (3) The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures. Neither Chinese nor Americans elect their heads of State directly, but Chinese prisoners retain the right to vote, and Chinese voter participation is sixty-two percent–compared to fifty-five percent in the US. Thirty-five percent of Americansapprove of their government’s policies compared to ninety percent of Chinese. 

22. Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international cooperation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality. China closed this gap in 2021. Now every citizen has health and old age insurance and access to first class schools. 

23. (1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment. (2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work. (3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.  (4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests. China’s union membership is double America’s rate and Chinese wages have outpaced GDP growth while Americans’ have lagged it for forty years.   

24. Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay. Chinese employees have sixteen annual, paid, mandatory vacation days. Americans have none. 

25. (1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.  (2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection. There are 550,000 homeless people in the United States, a country with 18 million empty homes. China has 98% home ownership and no homelessness. There are  more hungry children, drug addicts, suicides and executions, more homeless, poor, illiterate, and imprisoned citizens in America than in China. “30% of people say the increased cost of food, sparked by inflation, has forced them or their families to skip meals” (Zogby). 

26. (1)  Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit. (2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace. (3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children. Even poor Chinese children outscore American children academically.    

27. (1) Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits. (2) Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author. America has stronger intellectual property rights than China.

28. Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized. Since World War II, America has deprived thirty-five countries of this right by invading them. 

29. (1) Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible. (2) In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.  (3) These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.  

30. Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein. 

Footnote: In 1997, China ratified the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The US has yet to do so.  In 2014, China proposed that food, shelter, and development be listed as primary human rights. The UN Human Rights Council then voted 30-13 in favor of initiating a human rights system that allows developing countries to incorporate their own priorities and values. The US voted against the motion saying, “We reject any suggestion that development goals could permit countries to deviate from their human rights obligations and commitments. Attempting to reframe the relationship between development and human rights in a way that deviates from consensus texts adopted by UN Member States.”  

On December 17, 2018,  in The Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and other People Working in Rural Areas, the UN General Assembly formally extended human rights protections to farmers whose seed sovereignty is threatened by government and corporate IP practices by a vote of 121-8. The USA, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Hungary, Israel, and Sweden voted ‘No.’


Godfree wrote Why China Leads the World: Talent at the Top, Data in the Middle, Democracy at the Bottom, and publishes the weekly newsletter, Here Comes China.


[1] Randall Nadeau, Confucianism and the Problem of Human Rights

[2] Core Values of Chinese Civilisation. Chen Lai

[3] The Great Learning

[4] On the Correct Handling of Contradictions  Among the People

[5] Cruel and Unusual Record. By JIMMY CARTER JUNE 24, 2012. New York Times

[6] World Values Survey Wave 6: 2010-2014, V55.- How much freedom of choice and control over own life?

[7] Idem

[8] Law enforcement took more stuff from people than burglars did last year. Christopher Ingraham. Washington Post, November 23, 2015

[9] Hunger in America: Compromises and coping strategies. Feeding America, 2014.

[10] Xi Jinping President of the People’s Republic of China At UNESCO Headquarters. 2014/03/28

[11] In June 2017, at HRC35, China sponsored a resolution titled “The contribution of development to the enjoyment of all human rights” and the resolution was adopted 30 to 13. A followup study will advance China’s ‘development first’ agenda and its resolution on “The right to food” (A/HRC/34/L.21).


Godfree Roberts wrote Why China Leads the World: Talent at the Top, Data in the Middle, Democracy at the Bottom, and publishes the newsletter, Here Comes China.

 “Western liberal democracy is not the only model for universal human rights: I will argue that Confucianism can and should be a universal ethic of human liberation. The goal of personal freedom is not uniquely Western, and it is not anti-Confucian. Self- determination is as much a Confucian value as it is a Western value, and the West has a great deal to learn from the East about self-cultivation in the context of family and community life. Embedded in the Confucian classics, as well as historically in specific Confucian institutions, is a profound idea of individual possibility, creativity, and achievement, in some ways more dynamic and integrative than Western values, which see individuals and communities in conflict and opposition”.


A second Confucian challenge to the Western conception of human rights is in the fundamentally communitarian basis of li. As we have seen, the traditional Western view of human rights conceptually separates the individual from the community, which is potentially oppressive. So, human rights are frequently expressed in Western terms as a kind of freedom, independence, or liberation. Feminism, for example, is equated with “women’s liberation” from the oppressive nature of fixed gender roles.


In conclusion, I have attempted in this paper to make these four statements:

1. The Confucian tradition supports human rights for individuals-in-community, including both “first generation” and “second generation” rights.

2. Ren and li are positive models for self-cultivation, emphasizing human creativity and development.

3. Ren and li are definitive of humanity, and it is a violation of a person’s human rights to deny his or her full participation in family, community, and state as a self-actualizing moral agent.

4. Confucian relationships are non-egalitarian but affirm the fundamental worth, dignity, and freedom of all persons.



Randall Nadeau

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