Ironically, the prelude to the cultural dialogue program for the Year of Chinese Culture in Germany is opened with Helmut Schmidt in Berliner Kommandantenhaus which is jointly organized by the Bertelsmann, Bosch and Koerber Foundation. The Ex-Federal-Chancellor is one of those weighty admirers of the Chinese economic miracle of the last 3 decades and is unfortunately also the most prominent representative of cultural relativism when it comes to criticism of China. He, therefore, acts as an apologist for the totalitarian rule of the Chinese communist regime and not as an advocate of the forbidden artists or oppressed peoples.
Tsewang Norbu, cofounder of Association of Tibetans in Germany und Member of the Executive Board of Tibet Initiative Deutschland e.V., in a statement about the opening “dialog” accompanying the China Cultural Year 2012 in Germany (his statement in German here).
I would like to explain in some more detail why I believe that the three men on stage, Gu Xuewu, Helmut Schmidt, and Frank Sieren, proved Tsewang Norbu’s criticism correct. Their approach wasn’t complicated, but it was [update/completion: but it was cheap]. At the core, Gu and Schmidt put two concepts side by side: human rights and human responsibilities. The latter one isn’t entirely new, either; it was first brought up by a InterAction Council, with Malcolm Fraser, Helmut Schmidt and other retired politicians, in the 1980s. It was renewed and recommended to the United Nations in 1997.
A podcast of the Gu-Schmidt-Sieren talk in Berlin (in German), on January 31 this year, can be found here.
In that “dialog”, Gu was apparently the first participant to address the issue of human responsibilities. Asked by Sieren “what separates China and Germany”, Gu said that
what separates China and Germany seems to be a different idea of what people should do – that’s to say, in my view, an idea of more human rights or more human duties – this is a difference (was China und Deutschland trennt, scheint mir die unterschiedliche Vorstellung zu sein, was die Menschen tun sollen. Das heißt aus meiner Sicht, die Vorstellung von mehr Menschenrechten oder mehr Menschenpflichten – das ist ein Trennungspunkt).
Gu then linked the concept of human duties or responsibilities with Confucianism – as a concept of what people needed to do for society, for a collective, family, danwei, or the nation, rather than to make demands.
I’m not trying to judge if the “responsibilities” approach as described by Gu would indeed be Confucian. The interesting bit in my view was that neither Schmidt nor Sieren disagreed when Gu suggested that
somehow, a compromise needs to be found, a balance between human rights and human duties. As long as this balance isn’t there, I see a big problem for an understanding between Germans and Chinese people (es muss irgendwie ein Kompromiss gefunden werden, eine Balance zwischen den Menschenrechten und den Menschenpflichten. So lange diese Balance nicht da ist, gibt es aus meiner Sicht ein großes Problem für das Verständnis zwischen den Deutschen und den Chinesen).
Gu saw no such balance – neither in Germany, where human rights were “overemphasized”, nor in China, where collective duties were “overemphasized”.
Gu and Schmidt didn’t disagree with each other – if there was a “dialog”, it was one with little or no potential for genuine arguments, and indeed, there were no arguments.
A benevolent look at this kind of search for a “balance” between rights and responsibilities might suggest that there is an underlying, fundamental misunderstanding at work, of what human rights actually are.
After all, human rights do determine one fundamental duty: a duty to respect not only one’s own human rights, but others’ human rights, too. That requires no second, complementary charter of “responsibilities”. In fact, much of the catalog of duties as listed by Schmidt and the “Action Council” reads like a mirror of the Human Rights Declaration – and even if these duties, rather than the rights according to the UNDHR, were used as a standard, the West and China would be just as far apart from each other.
However, a “charter of responsibilities” can help to make human rights look relative – as long as these responsibilities (and their dependence on human rights) aren’t explained in some detail. Gu, Schmidt, and Sieren certainly spared themselves and their audience the effort to explore that side of the “responsibility” concept. Such a try could have turned out to become pretty unharmonious – and the job of the dialog was, apparently, to create “a positive atmosphere”.
Provided that you invite the right people, and shun trouble-makers like Tsewang Norbu at such events, you can have a beautiful, festive “dialog” – but you might as well spend your evening humming an infinite loop of “molihua”.
» Helmut Schmidt and the Korean War, March 1, 2012