Unlike many of the bloggers here, I’m not a big fan of Eric X. Li’s writing and speeches from what I have so far seen and heard. I disagree with what he has said as they are either irrelevant, confused, contradictory or a strawman. I think I have expressed why I felt this way in the comments section of the latest blog on Li but there still seems to be some misunderstanding between Allen’s interpretation of Eric and myself.
Here I’d like to give a more detailed explanation of why I didn’t think Eric’s interview was that interesting or even helpful to bettering understanding between China and the west. I did agree on some things but found myself disagreeing far more often. I do not believe that Eric’s view represent much of what the Chinese government’s views which I think are primarily very sound. It’s a shame that people may misconstrue Eric’s views as a defense of China’s view because they are quite different.
But first, I will give some of the reasons I have that his interview isn’t very convincing or interesting. First, notice that he keeps using big terms and abstract terms such as “universalism” and “pluralism” and “democrat with a small d,” Modernism with a capital M,” Capitalistic, not capitalism,” etc without defining specifically and concretely what they mean. I get very suspicious when people start using buzzwords like this without concrete examples and definitions. They may sound nice but do they have substantive and relevant meaning? What he says later makes me even more suspicious that he doesn’t really understand these terms either or at least uses them as a strawman against what he perceives (inaccurately) as the western view.
At 9:10 to 9:50 he says that democracy and human rights are fundamentally western religious concepts. His example that human rights is a western religious concept is the phrase, “All men are created equal.” He asked rhetorically “well, by whom?” He assumes that the “creator” must be some supernatural force or person like an Abrahamic god. But the natural rights tradition, the tradition that is dominant in western human rights development over the last 300 years, does not posit any person as the creator. The “creator” could very well be naturalistic process like evolution and rights may very well be a product of human institutions rather than god. It makes no claim either way. Most of the original fathers of the rights approach are either deists, agnostics or atheists. Most of the people today working on rights are atheists. See here for a brief description of contemporary approach .
Rights plausibly attributed to divine decree must be very general and abstract (life, liberty, etc.) so that they can apply to thousands of years of human history, not just to recent centuries. But contemporary human rights are specific and many of them presuppose contemporary institutions (e.g., the right to a fair trial and the right to education). Even if people are born with God-given natural rights, we need to explain how to get from those general and abstract rights to the specific rights found in contemporary declarations and treaties.
Attributing human rights to God’s commands may give them a secure status at the metaphysical level, but in a very diverse world it does not make them practically secure. Billions of people do not believe in the God of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. If people do not believe in God, or in the sort of god that prescribes rights, then if you want to base human rights on theological beliefs you must persuade these people of a rights-supporting theological view. This is likely to be even harder than persuading them of human rights. Legal enactment at the national and international levels provides a far more secure status for practical purposes.
Human rights might also exist independently of legal enactment by being part of actual human moralities. It appears that all human groups have moralities, that is, imperative norms of behavior backed by reasons and values. [Emphasis mine]
Rather, the rights approach seeks to make common intuitions more cogent. Consider our intuition that we ought to keep promises. Why ought we keep them? Why is it wrong to make and break them? The rights approach says that we have an obligation once we make a promise. That is a duty is conferred on the promiser and a right to goods and services on the person promised. Eric also makes another strawman when he says that rights can be “negotiated rights” and can be “taken away”. I don’t know who or what he is arguing with here. Even in the US, the bastion of Liberal approach, people conccede that rights can be taken away. Just look at criminals. Their rights may be taken away. Their freedom, their right to vote, even their lives. So it seems again, that he is making a strawman here too.
Whether those stories about rights is wrong or right is obviously not the point. The point I was making is that Eric is setting up a strawman by attacking his version which seems to be a divine rights version (obviously much easier to argue against) and not the actual version employed by those in the modern world. I have reservations about the modern rights approach as well as I made clear in another post but my criticisms are based on what people actually think and say about rights, not on what a few religious people said about certain kinds of “rights” more than 300 years ago. No one today really takes seriously the idea of divine rights. So attacking it is a strawman.
This blog usually focuses on misunderstandings that the west has about China. But in this case, there is the reverse problem in that many Chinese often misunderstand the western tradition (more specifically the philosophical and historical forces producing the Liberal tradition). Understanding on both sides must be improved to gain real understanding.
Next, he explicitly says that the notions of human rights and democracy “evolved from the Judeo Christian traditions” (10:15-10:30) Again, I’ve already made my case that this is a common misperception and false in another blog so I won’t deal with it here further except to say that fact, there are far more likely roots for their origin and in many important ways, the Judeo-Christian tradition is one of the most antithetical traditions towards the Liberal conception to have ever existed. I think the Judeo-Christian origin theory of the Liberal approach is a lie that has been told so often that it has become “common sense” but one without any justification and is wholly ridiculous upon serious historical and philosophical reflection.
In both history and philosophical content, the Liberal tradition has its roots in values that are opposed to the values of Christianity. Many of the men who are the intellectual fathers of the tradition, despite Eric’s explicit claims (10:20-10:25) that all were religious, were in fact, not religious at all. In fact, most weren’t religious. Some did believe in a non personal creator and some didn’t even go that far. Even among those that did believe in a creator, they believed such a being created the world through naturalistic, lawful processes much as a watch maker did with a watch e.g. rather than supernatural powers and that such a being had no role to play in human moral affairs.
I want to make clear that I’m not advocating for or against any particular view of human rights or even the whole rights enterprise here. Just that Eric does not seem to understand what modern human rights discourse is, makes it into a simplistic caricature, and that he makes several historical and philosophical errors in his argument against it.
But this issue is not the worst of Eric’s errors.
Next (14:40-14:55) he says that “we are back to the religious idea” if we posit anything “beyond the law.” This is false. We are not back to any particular religious idea if we posit principles or sensibilities above the law. Think about it. Laws change. Why do they change and why ought they change? Because some laws become obsolete. Because some are not right, are not just, or are impractical, etc. They change according to some basic principles and sensibilities (such as practicality, justice, etc) so in some sense, these things are above the law because the law ought to conform to them and not vice versa. Some laws are unjust and must be changed much like say, apartheid laws in South Africa or the laws the Chinese were made to observe under foreign occupation. In positing these principles and sensibilities, I made no commitments to any particular version of religion.
He claims that we ought not approach countries with “any kind of values.” This is odd as this seems to contradict the purpose of actually dealing with other countries even in strictly economic terms for such economic terms presuppose certain values (economic development, welfare of the population, fairness, etc). However, he also does not understand that other more general moral values are connected to economic values. For example, if there is civil unrest, genocide, mass killings, an unstable political environment, and a society without the rule of law and widespread injustice etc etc. that is a society that will be detrimental to economic development. Again, this is an issue that the Chinese government deeply understand but that Eric seems not to. So you can’t separate them and say “well, we’ll only deal with them on economic terms and not impose any values on them.” That would be pragmatically contradictory because good economic relations presupposes many values and many of those values are inseparable from common moral values. This is partly why the Chinese government has played in such vital roles in resolving international affairs through diplomacy, dialogue, and through international law in recent years.
The only interesting points he seemed to have made was in questioning the interviewer on what democracy is (because it is such an ambiguous and vague term and shouldn’t be used so carelessly and there are hidden assumptions the interviewer clearly had that are questionable) and his point about consent. Unfortunately, he contradicts himself when he both says that he doesn’t know what democracy is but then proceeds to make all sorts of (false) substantive claims about it.
The interviewer asks next if Eric is scared that China has “nothing to say” regarding atrocities like genocide in the world and Eric responds with “the bad things ought to be allowed to take their course and to play out.” This is wrong and idiotic on many levels. First of all, the interviewer assumes that China does have “nothing to say” regarding these matters when that is wholly the opposite of the truth (it’s not a surprise that he makes such stupid accusations like this and many others because he is a NYT journalist).
Both the west and China agree that things like genocide and the atrocities of the Japanese and the Iraq war among many other things are wrong. The issue is how to stop these things from happening. China has lots to say about these issues but that voice is being ignored by people like the interviewer, the public and the media in the west. They all agree that these events are bad and that they ought not be allowed to play their course. They may sometimes disagree on how best to avoid them. But all sides disagree with Eric that they ought be allowed to “take their course.” That much is patently clear to me and to anyone in the Chinese government. In fact, I would argue that China’s strategy so far has been far more effective (or at least less damaging) than the west’s strategy in preventing them.
Eric buys into the western rhetoric unquestioningly and accepts it.
Finally, Eric’s confusing talk about “plurality” and “universality” seems contradictory or at least confused to me. For example, it’s not clear to me at all why his notion of “plurality” is not a “universal concept”. He seems to argue that the US is employing a universalist strategy in spreading “western” ideas of human rights and democracy but says that China’s view is that every society ought to have their own way even if it is not a western conception. But in pitting the “pluralist” conception against the “universalist”, doesn’t Eric presuppose that the pluralist model ought to be the model to be followed by the world including those who follow a “universalist approach”? Isn’t he advocating that people jettison the universalist approach in favor of a pluralist one? Why should the US stop its “universalist” strategy in favor of allowing more pluralism in the world? It seems to me that Eric presupposes that the “pluralist” approach is somehow superior. But pluralism applied universally is also universalist. So Eric seems to presuppose a kind of universalism. It’s like two adversaries standing on one carpet and one adversary wants to yank the carpet underneath the other not realizing that both are standing on the same carpet and when he does yank it out, he yanks the carpet underneath his own feet.
I find this talk both confusing and possibly worse, contradictory. Why not simply avoid using such abstract, buzzwords and replace them with simpler, concrete terms? I think you could get at the gist of what Eric wanted to say simply by saying that the west needs to be more open-minded in regards to how other people run their countries. It’s also not clear to me that the west is anymore “universalist” than other cultures. Many cultures make general universalist claims (murder is wrong, genocide is wrong, economic development is right, etc, etc,) including the Chinese. So this distinction seems to trade between incoherence, contradiction and strawman arguments.
Eric’s responses to questions also seem contradictory. He says that all of China’s laws are currently just and ought to be followed but then says that Chinese laws in the past were not just and ought to be amended. What makes the laws now completely just and outside of amendment and the laws in the past subject to amendment? This is not clear and his fidgety, confused response simply confirmed to people in the audience, IMO, that he doesn’t know what he is talking about.
There are many things that the Chinese government and the Chinese people agree with westerners on such as there ought to be greater transparency in government (for both China and the US) and that democracy is a goal for society and that there ought to be better establishment of the rule of law to protect people’s human rights. These values are explicitly framed by the Chinese government. It’s really a false dichotomy to see a divide as China on one side not valuing these and not doing anything to develop them and the west as valuing and developing them. This is what the interviewer and Eric seems to fall into thinking.