Francis C. W. Fung’s most recent essay, “Harmony Essential to Human Rights” has struck a cord that I believe to be invaluable at this stage of human existence. His focus here is clear from the title but his approach to the topic is unique and insightful. With contributions to this topic as common as they are, it is difficult to find an article that sheds new light on the subject, but this is just what Fung has done.
Human rights are considered by most to be equal and inalienable for all people regardless of race, gender, ethnicity or nationality. Fung has posited that, while this is an ideal goal to strive for, it is necessary to understand that each individual nation has limitations that create obstacles in the path of human rights development. He further notes that it is possible that behaviour that could be perceived as a human rights violation in one place may well be a legitimate course of action in another. China’s one baby policy exemplifies his point perfectly because of the fact that this is a case where the seeming infringement of one’s human rights is, in fact, a boon to the greater good.
Creating the elaborate web of infrastructure necessary to operate a fully functional society bereft of so-called human rights violations requires discernment of the needs of that particular society along with a stable economy. Given the fact that China’s population crisis has created a situation wherein many are unable to provide the necessities of life for children due to a lack of facilities and resources, it seems unconscionable that the North American media should pass judgement so readily without sufficient knowledge or personal contact with the situation. The idea that a blanket of human rights, conceived by the Western world, is able to cover any situation is egocentric and more importantly inaccurate.
Having identified the problem as being an inability to understand the varied needs and values of nations as they relate to the implementation of human rights, Fung goes on to suggest that it is the imminent Harmony Renaissance that could reveal the solutions. Harmony requires that people allow for the differences between cultures without passing judgement. It requires that people take the time to ask questions and make decisions after they have heard the answers.
The concept of ritual is instrumental to Confucianism and may lend itself well to this discussion. The tenet holds that in carrying out ritual properly one becomes a human being. The performance of ritual requires genuine interaction with another individual or individuals. If we were to think of every moment as being ritualised, we would be forced to connect to the other that we intend to judge rather than simply imposing our own standards upon the other on whom those standards have no bearing.
Excusing nations for all violations of human rights is certainly not what is being called for. Nor is Fung necessarily claiming that each nation should independently determine the degree to which human rights can be provided. Rather the importance of what Fung is claiming lies in the acknowledgement and acceptance of difference. The manner in which a country behaves is determined by its history, its geography, its current socio-economic make-up and intangible cultural traits. Without a profound understanding of all factors involved it is impossible to understand decisions made. It is with this outlook that modern leaders and citizens must enter the global-political realm and replace careless judgements with calculated decisions based in the growing tide of harmony.
Morgan Steacy, York University, Department of East Asian Stu