A Culture of Human Rights in East Asia: Deconstructing "Asian Values" Claims

Uyen P. Le
Vol. 18
February 2013
Page 469

During the Arab Spring, the Chinese government instigated a series of harsh crackdowns on the exercise of free speech, a human right, to crush any budding protests. To justify its human rights violations, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has persistently raised the theory of cultural relativism, asserting that Asian cultures do not support all the rights articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Various scholars have written extensively on rights in Asian cultural paradigms, but this article focuses particularly on the diverging representations of Asian values advanced by different political regimes since the creation of the Universal Declaration. 

Culture and politics are often intricately entwined. In some ways, political posturing may be the true impetus behind the PRC’s cultural relativism argument. This Comment points out the contrary positions taken by the PRC and its predecessor, Republic of China (RoC), on universal human rights, although both regimes share the same cultural roots. To further dissociate politics from culture, this Comment compares the PRC’s position against two societies, one that is culturally similar (Japan) and one that is politically similar (the former Soviet Union). Although culturally similar, Japan’s position on human rights diverges in many ways from that of the PRC. On the other hand, the PRC’s stance on cultural relativism replicates that of the former Soviet Union. Given the inconsistent support for a purported theory on “Asian values” despite cultural ties, one can conclude that the PRC’s justifications for cultural relativism depend heavily on its political philosophy, rather than shared cultural values.

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