Tsewang Norbu was Right about the first “Dialog” accompanying the “China Cultural Year 2012”, and this is Why…

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



9 Responses to “Tsewang Norbu was Right about the first “Dialog” accompanying the “China Cultural Year 2012”, and this is Why…”

  1. It is a rather confused picture that emerges from the article “Tsewang Norbu was right ..etc.” but it seems that all participants have overlooked the simple fact that in a well-functioning organisation there is an equilibrium between authority and responsibility (Zuständigkeit und Verantwortlichkeit), and also: rights and duties. This healthy principle was considered but bypassed when the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights was promulgated (Cf.John H. Knox, Opinio Juris, November 6, 2007). So we still have the situation — after 63 years — that the united nations of planet Earth have granted certain rights to every individual homo sapiens because he/she is endowed with reason and a conscience, but not required certain duties from the same individual because of this endowment. This “other side of the coin” should now be given full attention, and fortunately the internet provides an ideal tool to do this. Thanks to globalization, mankind is forming virtually one ‘organization’, and counterweighing the rights that every member is entitled to, a short list of duties should be established that he/she is supposed to owe ….to his/her own conscience. These duties thus constitute the criteria for his/her moral decisions (choices). A better road to sensible decision-making in this world is hard to imagine. Please refer to http://www.humanduties.com.


  2. Thank you for commenting, Mr. Maier.

    I don’t think that I can agree with you. Human Rights aren’t just something I would owe to my own conscience (as you say duties are). Human rights are something I owe to other human beings, and the other side of the coin is my duty to respect not only my rights (or to demand respect for them), but to respect those of others, too. There is no need to seek a balance between human rights and human duties – the concept of human rights only works if they are mutually and multilaterally respected.
    In interaction with other individuals, we can only counterweight human rights with a list of duties if we are prepared to disrespect human rights of an individual, in a case when he or she turns out to be undutiful. In that case, however, these wouldn’t be human rights anymore, as we’d only owe them to responsible humans then. Human rights would become negotiable, on a case-to-case basis, depending on whose human rights they are meant to be.

    If I’m getting this right, you refer to two different balances, or equilibriums – one between authority and responsibility, and one between rights and duties (authority in the sense of being in charge, for being appointed, for for being in the know, or what kind of reasons?).

    Authority and responsibility, depending on what they are meant to be, are balanced in the way we organize – as a country, an association, as a company, etc.. If you just see this balance as a way to organize, I have no objections. But I don’t see them on a par with human rights. If globalization should define not just the way we organize, but our conscience, too, globalization would be up to a blind alley. I don’t believe it is – but what you wrote makes it look like one, if I’m not misreading you.


  3. My view on that: I think that we do not have to change any law and do not need a definition of duties. But the society should bare in mind that freedom is not a value in itself but stems from dignity. There are a lot of ways to exploit human beings by making them say they want to be exploited. But nobody should have the “freedom” to be treated as a thing. I think Mrs, Zhang was right. The first step to freedom ist the right/possibility to be “wenbao” (to have food and shelter) when you work for it.

    And I keep thinking about the German “Peepshow case”.
    It is a good example for “dignity against freedom”.


  4. And I think Mrs Zhang was wrong, but had a right to her opinion. Which isn’t news, I guess. I’m aware of the old Schiller quote:

    Nichts mehr davon, ich bitt euch. Zu essen gebt ihm, zu wohnen. Habt ihr die Blöße bedeckt, gibt sich die Würde von selbst.

    But that was in 1796 – and what if the lady in Saarheim (in 2012, I suppose) wants to undress, for a few bucks or for whatever kind of reason? The “star” of that show could probably use a psychotherapy – but just as well before undressing, as afterwards. No big difference for the world at large, or for her.
    My only concern might be the neighborhood – especially if there’s a residential area around.

    I see no need to make wenbao a condition before respecting all of peoples’ human rights. In fact, such an approach seems to prove the North Korean “Workers’ Party” right: “Keep them freezing, and you’ll never have to address all that other stuff.” If poor people have the right to organize, wenbao is likely to come at an earlier date.


  5. “If poor people have the right to organize, wenbao is likely to come at an earlier date.” That would be true if there were no threat from outside of the country. The majority of Chinese people still fears foreign countries a lot more than the communist party. They still feel weak and threatend by Japan and the West. Especially the young people who grew up during the war in Irak, Afghanistan and Libya. The West is no longer a role model and I guess even the western democracy has lost to much credibility to be the goal of there efforts to change the society.

    I recently talked to one of the guys who were at Tiananmen in 1989 and realized how frustrated they all are. How sad thez are that their dreams of a better country did not come true. I believe a lot of them are sad because they have had rather few influence on the modern Chinese society. They do not want to give up the idea that this fight was for something. But the young generation has their own goals and only because they do not use the word “freedom” or “democracy” does not mean they are not going to change the society.

    In Germany there is a direct line from Hippies to the Greens even to the Pirates, In China the generation gap is extremly wide.

    And: They are organizing. But who needs the streets when you can use the internet to express your opinion?


  6. “If poor people have the right to organize, wenbao is likely to come at an earlier date.” That would be true if there were no threat from outside of the country.

    I seem to understand from this line that this isn’t only a Chinese majority’s impression, but yours, too. But which foreign country would want China – a nuclear power – to become a failed state, with the corresponding security and refugee issues, to name just two consequences? Can’t see that threat.

    But I do know a thing from experience: many Chinese people, if facing a choice between turning to authority to level criticism at it, or to a foreigner (especially an understanding one) instead, the foreigner is a much more convenient and likely choice.


  7. Let’s say that I do not think that it is likely for the US and Europe to watch the economical rise of China inactively. Direct military conflicts are very unlikely but every else is more than possible.

    My impression is that even if Chinese people work three times harder than Americans, are better educated, earn a lot less and even act ethically, hardly anyone in the western countrieswill acknowledge their efforts. They will fight the idea and the fact that China is more successful than their country. The impression of their superiority is deeply rooted in the minds of westerners.

    The ‘threat’ is that no one in the West will accept the fact that in the future most probably we will be the ones who sit in the front of the rickshaw. We are not used to loose. And it will take a long time to accept that we are no longer the ruling class of the world. We have to learn “to go down”. “Erfolgreicher Abstieg” as Prof. Sandschneider calls it. Like climbing: Most accidents happen on the way down.

    I do not see any signs in the western societies in preparing for a world that is not dominated by them.


  8. Admin (JR): Thread closed; discussion continues there.



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