Peng-chun (P.C.) Chang was not against the principles of universal human rights; on the contrary, this U.S.-educated Confucian was a solid and important contributor to the drafting of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Where Chang’s perspective tended to diverge from those of Charles Malik, a Lebanese-Christian philosopher, and...
Peng-chun (P.C.) Chang was not against the principles of universal human rights; on the contrary, this U.S.-educated Confucian was a solid and important contributor to the drafting of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Where Chang’s perspective tended to diverge from those of Charles Malik, a Lebanese-Christian philosopher, and many others was in his insistence on incorporating non-Western ideas in the draft on which he, Malik, Rene Cassin, and John Humphrey were diligently laboring. Mary Ann Glendon’s account of the drafting of the Declaration focuses, in addition to the obvious American contributions in the person of Eleanor Roosevelt, on four representatives from nations other than the United States, of which Chang was one. It was not surprising, and did not detract from the efforts of these dedicated individuals to craft a document that, while not legally binding, would present the entire world with a set of standards below which they would henceforth be expected to not descend, that a representative from an Asian Confucian society would object to an overemphasis on the part of others to skew the final document towards alien concepts. Individualism, within reason, was a pillar of the American system of constitutional government – after all, the Bill of Rights existed to guarantee individual freedoms – but American concepts of individualism were destined to conflict with Eastern concepts of community and society. Glendon does emphasize, however, that these efforts at incorporating disparate cultural perspectives into the discussion of human rights was in no way a denunciation of those rights. As she wrote in her chapter Universality under Siege,
Proponents of the cultural-imperialism critique sometimes say that the educational backgrounds or professional experience of men like Chang and Malik ‘westernized’ them, but their performance in the Human Rights Commission suggests something rather different. Not only did each contribute significant insights from his own culture, but each possessed an exceptional ability to understand other cultures and to ‘translate’ concepts from one frame of reference to another. . .Over nearly two years, between the first Human Rights Commission meeting and the Declaration’s adoption, there was remarkably little disagreement regarding its basic substance, despite intense wrangling over some specifics. . .The ‘traditional’ political and civil rights – the ones now most often labeled ‘Western’ – were the least controversial of all. . .The biggest battles, as P.C. Chang told the General Assembly . . . were occasioned by purely political preoccupations.”
As Glendon points out in the closing discussion of A World Made New, P.C. Chang’s perspective has remained an operative variable in contemporary debates regarding human rights:
“At the 1998 Harvard Symposium . . . a Chinese dissident Xiao Qiang, departed from his prepared remarks in order to respond to the charge that the Declaration was an arrogant attempt to impose Judeo-Christian values on non-Western peoples.”
Chang was an important and influential contributor to one of the most important documents of modern history. That he remained sensitive to the cultural imperatives of the nation of his birth not only did not detract from the agenda of the Human Rights Commission, he succeeded in injecting a needed level of cultural awareness in a document that was, after all, “universal” in its application.