SHANGHAI - Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao proclaimed "what we do is for people's happiness and dignity, and for greater social justice and harmony" in his keynote report opening the National People's Congress (NPC) on March 5.
While it is uncommon for a Chinese leader to talk about the top legislature working for "people's dignity", this wasn't the first time Wen has used the term in public. Wen first mentioned "people's dignity" in a speech at the State Council's grand reception on the eve of the Lunar New Year last month. Two weeks later in an online chat, he again said a major government objective was to realize the dignity of the Chinese people.
What made its mention at the NPC significant, however, was its delivery in the working report, effectively the premier's policy address which must be approved by the politburo of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Many took this as a signal of a fundamental, though also subtle, shift in Beijing's approach toward human rights.
Hitherto, in rebuttal to foreign governments' criticism of China's record, government officials have always said "survival" is the most important and fundamental aspect of human rights. This has put boosting economic development at the center of Beijing's efforts to tackle the basic human right of "survival" for the Chinese people.
At the current level of economic development, "survival" may no longer be a basic problem, though millions still live in poverty. Most Chinese, urban people in particular, live with basic needs taken care of and are increasingly demanding to live with greater happiness and dignity. The government can no longer afford to ignore their growing calls.
"Dignity" is a core word in the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) as well as a key element of the UN's charter. The UDHR declares in the preamble that "recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world", and says in Article 1 that "all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights".
The same spirit is in the UN's charter, which argues that the establishment of the UN was based on the decision "to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small".
Since "dignity" as an essential human right is accepted by the international community and almost all modern societies, in Wen's repeated use of the word is the inference that China wants to joint their ranks.
Top CCP and government leaders always speak with carefully chosen words. So any new word always reflects the political climate in the country. It is also a tradition in Chinese culture that any subtle or tiny changes in the use of words can imply huge differences, as Confucius illustrated in his masterpiece chronology Spring and Autumn.
Then what's the significance of Wen's usage of the word "dignity"? First, it's necessary to explore the meaning of "dignity". The idea first emerged in Western modern philosophy and is at the core of the Western conception of human rights.
The 17th-century Scottish thinker John Locke defined human rights as being in place when people have the dignity to pursue the right to life, liberty and ownership of private property, which later evolved in the United States' Declaration of Independence to become the right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" .
Soon afterwards, human rights were recognized to be closely related to human dignity, as written in French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen after the 1789 revolution. After the end of World War II, dignity was commonly recognized as at the heart of human rights. And it kept the same place when it was accepted by non-Western countries in the UN.
Thus Wen's statement, at least on the face of it, means that as a top leader of a communist-ruled country, he now acknowledges the universality of a Western idea on human rights.
Since it started reform and opening up in 1979, the central government has argued that China should study and absorb all achievements of civilizations, even those including good capitalist ideas and philosophies. China's road to modernization has zig-zagged between extremes of full-scale Westernization in the 1920s to a total rejection of capitalist ideas in the 1960s. As the 21st century progresses, it is preparing to accept some capitalist ideas and values, especially those regarding economics and management. And now Wen considers dignity to be a worthy concept for China to accept and promote.
Although "dignity" is a fuzzy word, historical meaning confers on it the inclusion of political rights. According to Western values, political rights mean political democracy and societal freedom, as Locke and the US's Thomas Jefferson once argued. Does this mean therefore that the Chinese government will start along the road to Western-style political reform? The answer to this question is complex.
While Wen's statement on dignity does signal that China is gradually revising its approach toward human rights, given the political and societal reality, this does not mean that its policy will mimic the West's and take the country to a Western-style political and societal system. Gradual and continuous revision only indicates China's policy of human rights has evolved to encompass more than a single set of values. Not capitalist ideology, not nationalist ideology, and not Confucianism. It is rather a mixture of ideas from all civilizations.
To put it as simply as possible, China's view on human rights is now based at least on the capitalist ideal of "freedom, democracy and pursuing happiness", and the socialist core idea of "equality" and nationalist goal of "state development".
From 1949 to 1979, the Chinese government focused on "socialist equality" with the destruction of exploiting classes like "capitalists" and "landlords" while farmers and working classes were respected as ruling groups - both in rhetoric and in practice.
In the three decades since opening up, it focused much more on "capitalist-style" economics. "Capitalists", both domestic or foreign, have be welcomed, and while many workers have lost their jobs as China embraced this focus, they are still regarded constitutionally as the country's masters. Underpinning both periods, China has insisted on a rather nationalistic core idea - national development.
In 2010, and from Wen's statement, it seems the Chinese government is dealing with the aspirations for human rights of all Chinese - including of capitalists, farmers, workers and the rising middle class. Naturally these social strata have different demands. But one thing is in common: they all want to live happily and with dignity. This means the Chinese government can no longer stick to one single ideology dominating its approach to human rights and the CCP, which professes to represent all Chinese - not just the working class - must adjust accordingly.
Wen's statement implies the Chinese government's opinion on human rights may be revised or amended to draw on not just socialist or nationalistic ideas but also from capitalist political ones. In this regard, China sets standards of human rights much higher than the those of Western countries, which, in Chinese minds, are pure capitalist countries and still keep the hackneyed standards formulated by early enlightenment thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Hobbs, Locke and Immanuel Kant.
The difficulty for China is how to balance the ideas and demands of different social strata and how to build a multi-tier human-rights system with Chinese characteristics. Clearly, the practical approach to building a workable system will be much more difficult than adopting the new idea. But Wen's comment on "people's dignity" points the way to progress. From this perspective, it should be warmly welcomed.
Dr Jian Junbo is assistant professor of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University, Shanghai, China.