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Human rights are a noble and straightforward aim.

Since 2024 marks the 20th anniversary of the inclusion of “The state shall respect and protect human rights” in the Constitution of China, this is an appropriate time to review the development of human rights in the country.

Human rights are rooted in human dignity, and the cause of human rights is rooted in people’s lives. In his New Year’s message, President Xi Jinping said: “Our goal is both inspiring and simple. Ultimately, it is about delivering a better life for the people. Our children should be well taken care of and receive a good education. Our young people should have the opportunities to pursue their careers and succeed. And our elderly people should have adequate access to medical services and elderly care. These issues matter to every family, and they are also a top priority of the government. We must work together to deliver on these issues.”

Ensuring a life of dignity for people

We protect and promote human rights because they are an “inspiring yet simple goal”. Human rights are protected and promoted in China to ensure the Chinese people lead a life of dignity, while governance is improved to achieve that goal. Over the past few years China has made tremendous achievements in human rights thanks to the intensifying modernization drive.

China eradicated absolute poverty and built a moderately prosperous society in all respects by the end of 2020. It improved “whole-process people’s democracy”, and promoted the rule of law in order to better protect and promote human rights. China follows a people-first development philosophy, which was especially evident during the COVID-19 pandemic when it made the safety of the people its top priority.

The report to the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in October 2022 vowed to “follow a Chinese path of human rights development, actively participate in global human rights governance, and promote all-around advancement of human rights”. In line with that, China’s development is the development of a huge population, including its material, cultural and ethical development, as well as the harmonious development of human beings and nature. As China’s modernization advances, the cause of human rights also advances.

In the course of its long-term promotion of human rights, China has developed a unique human rights philosophy, which aligns with the contemporary Chinese concept of human rights. The contemporary concept combines the Marxist concept of human rights with China’s concrete reality. The “free and comprehensive development of human beings” as per Marxism is the conceptual basis of China’s human rights endeavors.

The contemporary concept of human rights also combines the Marxist concept of human rights with the traditional Chinese culture. Mencius said: “The one who wins people for the sake of the world is called benevolence”, with benevolence (Ren) being the love for others, for society, for the country, and for the world, which reflects the broadmindedness of China’s human rights cause.

China’s development relies on the people, and it shares the fruits of development with the people while protecting and promoting human rights. On the global front, China carries forward the common values of humankind, such as peace, development, fairness, justice, democracy and freedom, while upholding multilateralism and helping build a community with a shared future.

Over the past four years, China has enacted 51 new laws and amended 113 old ones to promote human rights through legislation. It has signed a number of international human rights instruments, engaged in international human rights cooperation, and implemented the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights to fulfill its international human rights obligations. It has also been protecting and promoting human rights in its political and judicial systems, implemented the National Human Rights Action Plan (2021-25), and invited civil society to participate in human rights governance, thus building a strong human rights protection system.

People’s happiness is greatest human rights

“The happiness of the people is the greatest human right.” In terms of protecting human rights, China does not limit itself to just repeating abstract concepts, but makes efforts to understand the aspirations of the people.

First, in terms of economic, social and cultural rights, China has achieved fruitful results in food production, poverty alleviation and economic development, which means it is protecting people’s rights to subsistence, development, equal employment opportunities, fair wages and healthy working conditions, and preventing the violation of labor laws and workers’ rights.

China has built the world’s largest social security system, meaning it protects individuals’ right to social security, and ensures “houses are for living in, not speculation” while improving the housing system — both home purchase and rental housing, meaning China protects individuals’ right to housing. Also, China’s education system ranks first in the world in terms of scale, with the government subsidizing student loans and thus effectively protecting people’s right to education.

The government continues to upgrade the cultural service system and attaches great importance to the protection of minority cultures, and improve the healthcare system by, among other things, strengthening the grassroots healthcare institutions and widening the coverage of basic medical insurance. China also has been promoting the concept of “clear waters and green mountains are as valuable as mountains of gold and silver”, and has made remarkable achievements on the environmental protection front, while reducing air and water pollution and soil contamination, thus protecting individuals’ right to a healthy environment.

Second, in the field of civil and political rights, China has taken measures to combat and prevent terrorism, punish those involved in extremist activities in accordance with the law, while making those who engage in minor criminal acts aware that their actions are detrimental to the country’s development and it is the duty of every individual to work for the betterment of society. The country has also taken measures to combat drug and human trafficking. As such, the government is safeguarding people’s safety and security.

Also, the government is developing whole-process people’s democracy, making sure the people are in charge of their own affairs, and launching a hotline which people can call to avail of government services, and seek redressal for their grievances.

The government guarantees citizens’ rights to freedom of religion in accordance with the law. The government also protects freedom of speech.

And third, with regard to the rights of specific groups, China’s adherence to the basic policy of equality between men and women, which penalizes domestic violence and encourages women to participate in economic and social fields as equals. China has also taken measures to eradicate crimes against minors and guarantee children get good education and medical care.

Measures have also been taken to ensure the elderly people share the fruits of economic development and lead a happy life in their twilight years. To that end, it has improved the eldercare system. China believes that people with disabilities, too, can lead a fulfilling life, and thus provided them with living subsidies and nursing care subsidies, and built public facilities that are easily accessible for people with disabilities.

China guarantees, in accordance with the law, equal rights to all ethnic groups, and the increase in the populations of ethnic minority groups and the preservation of ethnic cultures mean the rights of ethnic minorities are protected.

To quote Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of former US president Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home — so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world”.

It is true that beyond the broader dimensions of human rights, people lead a simple life. Looking back, China has not only promoted the development of human rights but also introduced human rights in every aspect of social life. Looking ahead, we should keep in mind that human rights are both an inspiring and a simple goal, and we should not only pursue the ultimate realization of universal human rights, but also adopt a down-to-earth attitude when it comes to improving the daily life of individuals.

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