China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2015/May

Charters and the Covenant

In Hong Kong, when you step into a public hospital you have the right to receive medical attention that “fully meets the currently accepted standards of care and quality.”

The Patients’ Charter also spells out such rights as having “your privacy, dignity and religious and cultural beliefs respected” provided the observance does not hurt the rights of other patients or healthcare providers.

A charter recognises the rights of a recipient to a service, or the right to run a local governing body (e.g. a town or university).

In early medieval Britain, documents were written on paper – carta – granting land or special authority. This year marks the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta (Great Charter) which was sealed in June 1215). It was a peace agreement between King John of England and a group of barons who sought to limit the king’s power to impose heavy taxes and wage war abroad.

The Magna Carta gave birth to the founding democratic value that nobody, not even the king, is above the law.

Few of its clauses now remain on the Statute Book. But it gave the world a powerful legacy. Clauses 39 and 40 declared:

(39) “No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.

(40) “To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.”

The inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of every human person have since become the touchstone of every legal framework that claims to represent the people or serve their interests.

The charter of the United Nations

From the heartsick horrors of two world wars, people learned a lesson. The Charter of the United Nations, signed on 26 June 1945, began with this resolve: “We the Peoples of the United Nations determined:

.to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war;

.to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person;

.to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained; and

.to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.

No man is an island. If people and nations desire peace we must take responsibility, not just to protect our own interests, but to respect the dignity and worth of every human person.

To ensure domestic and international security, we need conditions of fairness and sustainability. Military and economic might cannot prevail.

Better living standards mean more than the amassing of food and toys. To live in larger freedom is to be free from want and oppression. True development aims at the growth of the whole person and of all people.

In Catholic social teaching, these are summed up by the values of human dignity and solidarity: we are all loved and created in God’s image, so we value one another. Christians strive for the common good, not just the good of those who have. We care for creation and the environment because all creation has a profound relationship with God.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

From the start, the United Nations (UN) formed the Human Rights Commission. Eighteen delegates from various political, cultural and religious backgrounds prepared an international bill of rights that would guarantee the prerogatives of each person everywhere.

Eleanor Roosevelt, a woman of integrity with well-honed diplomatic skills, chaired the commission. A Confucian scholar, Chang Peng-Chun, was one of the drafters.

Roosevelt recalled: “Dr. Chang was a pluralist… The Declaration, he said, should reflect more than simply Western ideas.”

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights did not mince words. For example it declared:

“Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law”

No doubt the Confucian scholar would have recalled Mencius’ clear-eyed judgment in Liang Hui Wang II:

King Xuan of Qi asked about two tyrants who came to a bad end: “Was it so, that Tang banished Jie, and that king Wu smote Zhou?”

Mencius replied, “It is so in the records.”

The king said, “May a minister then put his sovereign to death?”

Mencius said, “He who outrages the benevolence proper to his nature, is called a robber; he who outrages righteousness, is called a ruffian. The robber and ruffian we call a mere fellow. I have heard of the cutting off of the fellow Zhou, but I have not heard of the putting a sovereign to death, in his case.”

The declaration was adopted by the UN General Assembly on 10 December 1948. For the first time – Hernán Santa Cruz of Chile noted, “(a) consensus had been reached as to the supreme value of the human person, a value that did not originate in the decision of a worldly power, but rather in the fact of existing.”

China among the nations

China is a founding member of the United Nations and one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.

In 1971, when China’s membership at the United Nations changed from the Taiwan-based Republic of China (ROC) to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the latter declared all international agreements adopted by the ROC since 1949 null and void.

At stake are two human rights treaties. China finally ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 2001. However, there is a striking omission. China signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1998, but it has not been ratified by the National People’s Congress.

As China asserts political and financial leadership in the world, what about moral leadership?

According to the law

In late 2014, the Fourth Plenary Meeting of the 18th Communist Party of China Central Committee decided to “comprehensively advance the rule of law in China.” The country must be ruled through its constitution.

The current constitution was adopted by the National People’s Congress in 1982 as China was recovering from the shocking lawlessness of the Cultural Revolution. Those who survived wanted a constitution that “is the fundamental law of the State and has supreme legal authority.”

“The people of all nationalities, all State organs, the armed forces, all political parties and public organisations and all enterprises and institutions in the country must take the Constitution as the basic standard of conduct, and they have the duty to uphold the dignity of the Constitution and ensure its implementation.”

Let us review one law in light of recent news. Article 35 states: “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.”

In April, 2015 veteran journalist, Gao Yu, was sentenced to seven years in jail for leaking state secrets. She had reported on a party (not state) document forbidding public discussion of constitutional democracy, universal values, freedom of the press, civil society, judicial independence, the wealth of those in power and the Party’s historical errors.

On April 7, Ming Pao reported on a campaign by the Communist Youth League to recruit more than 10 million volunteers to defend “internet sovereignty.” They are to actively promote socialist core values, quash and report any criticism against the state or the communist system.

According to the report, universities are expected to field at least four million recruits. Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou has a quota of 9,000 while the Shenzhen campus of the Chinese University of Hong Kong has the lowest provincial quota of 100.

If people cannot discuss and reporters cannot report how binding is the constitutional guarantee of free speech and free press?

The covenant

Now there is another kind of agreement.

“But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31:33).

Jesus said: “This is my blood, the blood of the covenant, poured out for many” (Mark 14: 24).

The word covenant, from the Latin convenire for come together, is often used in the bible to render the Greek word diatheke, a legal term that denotes a binding declaration of benefits to be given by one party to another, with or without conditions attached.

A one-sided grant is well and good. Indeed Christians live by the generous pledge: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16).

But something falls short unless there is a coming together, such as conveyed in these equally generous words in the bible: “Wherever you go, I shall go, wherever you live, I shall live, your people will be my people and your God will be my God” (Ruth 1:16).

What happens when we walk, or stay with someone? Likely there is conversation, listening – a mutual attending.

In the public sphere, the state can promulgate a law or ratify treaties. But unless the law is written “on their hearts” – unless people have a say in how the law will affect their lives, or how it can be improved – the law is dead.

From Vatican II, the Church teaches us: “The social order requires constant improvement. It must be founded on truth, built on justice and animated by love; in freedom it should grow every day toward a more humane balance” (The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, 26).

As people of the Covenant, how can we walk with our neighbour, our young people, our local community, so that human society grows everyday? Time and again humanity has found the null and void option too costly.