One of the more contentious political and philosophical issues between China and many Western countries including the United States is that of human rights. More specifically, the issue is how to define human rights — in China and more broadly within an Asian historical and political context.
According to Amartya Sen, in “Human Rights and Asian Values, The New Republic: "In 1776, just when the Declaration of Independence was being adopted in this country, Thomas Paine complained, in Common Sense, that Asia had 'long expelled' freedom. In this lament, Paine saw Asia in company with much of the world (America, he hoped, would be different): 'Freedom hath been hunted around the globe. Asia and Africa have long expelled her. Europe regards her as a stranger and England hath given her warning to depart.'"
Sen states that, even some 200 years later, some contend that "Asian values do not regard freedom to be important in the way that it is regarded in the West. Given this difference in value systems—the argument runs, Asia must be faithful to its own system of philosophical and political priorities." By this, Sen is referring to the curtailing of civil and human rights in the broader interests of economic development in countries such as China and Singapore.
He continues: "There is clearly a tendency in America and Europe to assume, if only implicitly, the primacy of political freedom and democracy as a fundamental and ancient feature of Western culture, one not to be easily found in Asia….Western promoters of personal and political freedom in the non-Western world often see such an analysis as a necessary preliminary in bringing Western values to Asia and Africa."
In sum, according to Sen, the West has constructed a narrow philosophical and political dichotomy—from Thomas Paine onwards—to looking at Asian values which appear to diverge from the West's predominate thinking on human rights. "Indeed, it is by no means clear to me that Confucius is more authoritarian than, say, Plato or Augustine. The real issue is not whether these non-freedom perspectives are present in Asian traditions, but whether the freedom-oriented perspectives are absent from them."
Nonetheless, the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed by the General Assembly in 1948, helped to codify the prevailing notion of the West's emphasis on civil and political rights as we know them today, and the emphasis on economic and social rights by other nation-states, including China, in Asia, Latin America, and Africa.
Thus, this section will explore the "two covenants of human rights" as laid out by the United Nations, together with discussion of other personal, legal, religious, and political freedoms in China. In general, while supporters of China tend to point to how far China has come, critics of China's human rights record tend to look at how far China still has to go.