China: Do Chinese people live with dignity?

China’s top leader has made a historic statement regarding human rights and human dignity which has posed both doubts and meaningful questions.

During this year's Spring Festival, China's Premier Wen Jiabao made the unusually phrased statement that his government vowed to “make Chinese people more dignified”. Last Friday, during his annual government work summary to the Lianghui, he reiterated the phrase:


The fundamental purpose that drives all of our work is to ensure our people live with more happiness and more dignity, and bring to our society more justice and more harmony.

According to an analysis posted by the official website of the Chinese Communist Party, Wen's policy re-statement demonstrates China's commitment toward promoting human rights.


China's Reform and Opening-Up is a process of the awakening and the emergence of humanity, and is a process where human rights and human dignity have attracted increasingly more attention. The 1982 Constitution protected human dignity from the viewpoint of personal character, by putting in words that “the personal character of citizens in the People's Republic of China should not be violated”. The Constitutional Amendment of 1994 went further and stipulated that “the State respects and guarantees human rights”. This declaration originated from a more comprehensive perspective and a nobler principle. In the new century, the Party and the government have reiterated again and again the principles such as “People First, Government for the People”, “All for the People, All Depends on the People”. Therefore, rhetoric such as “to make our people to live with more happiness and more dignity” is both compelling and resounding.

However in China, when the supreme authorities propose a particular concept in a formal manner, it is safe to assume that there is something seriously wrong with the actual situation, and the authorities are genuinely worried. For example, the concept of “Harmonious Society” was coined at a time of escalating social tensions across the nation. The same rule applies here also: when Premier Wen vowed to make Chinese people more dignified, we are all free to speculate just how ‘undignified’ the majority of Chinese people actually are.

We do not have to look back too far. Last Sunday, during the same Lianghui, a provincial governor threatened to complain against a journalist who asked a question on an apparently ‘sensitive’ topic; On the same day, the Deputy Minister of Sports criticized one athlete, Zhou Yang, who thanked her parents instead of China after she won a gold medal in the Vancouver Winter Olympics.

An article which was widely shared in online forums and social networking sites also pointed toward the same dilemma between what is discussed over the table and what is actually happening. The article, Chinese-Style Dignity, was apparently written by an overseas Chinese who traveled back home. He was first welcomed, but later disgusted by, an old classmate. Now a corrupt local official, that classmate had become rich, powerful and proud of himself, just like many government officials all across China. Indeed, he is living in a life of great ‘dignity’, as judged by the values in the contemporary Chinese society, but it was also the ‘dignity’ based on material wealth and the servitude of less privileged people.

我们每到一处,总是被一群人围着前恭后迎,小心赔笑奉承有加,连到餐馆吃饭都是老板亲自出马,殷勤备至。我跟着他狐假虎威了一回,体验到有如皇帝出游般前呼后拥的至尊至贵,这是我在美国没有的经历。 ….. 没错,在中国,一个人是否被尊重和被尊重的多少取决于你身上披着的社会身份的大小或财富的多少。

Wherever we go, there will always be hordes of people eager to surround us with calculated smiles and effusive flattery. Even when we go to a restaurant, the restaurant owner himself will come out and act like a servant. When I am with him I experience utmost deference just as the Emperors must have experienced during their excursions, which is something I have never experienced in the U.S. … It seems in China, the degree to which an individual is respected depends almost entirely on the symbol of status they flaunt and the wealth they are perceived to possess.


Just like the first classmate, another rich classmate also could not understand why ‘dignity’ can be such a problem in China. When China's economic and judicial systems are full of loopholes, this classmate has gained tremendous wealth in the real estate by exploiting his government connections; When China's moral landscape begin to degenerate to the point when renewing wife and having mistresses have become honorable, he follows this trend by getting a new and beautiful wife, and doesn’t conceal the fact among his classmates and friends that he has a mistress. Now, he employs two house-maids and a chauffeur, which have also become something he likes to show off to others. He always steps to the tune of Time, and always marvels that a man can only be called a man if he lives in China. For a man like him, ‘dignity’ is surely not a problem.

Fortunately, many Chinese people have awakened and are now set on the road to the dignity that they deserve. We only need to look at one of the stories above to draw this conclusion. The comment by Deputy Minister of Sports’ does not reflect official thought, on the contrary, it draws criticism and ridicule not only from liberal bloggers but also from the mainstream media. Clearly, the old mentality that somehow individual rights are dispensable has met some rough bumps, and more are yet to come.


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