Higher Education in Human Rights within China—A Ten-year Review of the Peking University Model

Published date01 July 2015
Date01 July 2015
DOI10.1177/2322005815578507
Subject MatterArticles
Article
Higher Education in Human Rights
within China—A Ten-year Review
of the Peking University Model
Rhona Smith1
Guimei Bai2
Abstract
Human rights education has been a cornerstone of the international human rights system for many
years. Further impetus has been added with the UN Decade for human rights education (1995–2004)
and now the ongoing World Programme for Human Rights Education. Realising human rights education
will mean people everywhere understand their rights and freedoms and those in authority understand
their duties to protect, respect and fulfil human rights responsibilities accepted by governments.
Securing human rights education at the tertiary/higher/university level is a key component of this
as university graduates often progress to higher level influential careers. This article examines the
contribution made towards the goals of human rights education by the first master level human rights
programme in China: the programme is offered at Peking University under the auspices of the Research
Centre for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law in cooperation with the Swedish Raoul Wallenberg
Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law. Empirical data from the initial ten years of the
program has been analysed to determine the impact the programme had and has on the life and careers
of graduates. The evidence suggests a real, albeit modest, contribution to human rights education
within China and beyond, with human rights being omnipresent in societal interactions of graduates
and even influencing some careers and work decisions. Greater influence can be anticipated as the
graduates progress further in their chosen careers. It is argued that the Peking University model
demonstrates the potential for relatively swift and effective cultural change: an evolving system of
embedded human rights education which respects the conditions within the Chinese education system.
Introduction
This article seeks to examine the reality of higher education in human rights within China. In doing so,
it will seek to evaluate whether the proclaimed goals of human rights education have been achieved
1 Professor of International Human Rights, Northumbria University, UK.
2 Professor of International Law, Peking University and Director, Peking University Research Centre on Human Rights.
Asian Journal of Legal Education
2(2) 81–99
© 2015 The West Bengal National
University of Juridical Sciences
SAGE Publications
sagepub.in/home.nav
DOI: 10.1177/2322005815578507
http://ale.sagepub.com
Corresponding author:
Rhona Smith, Professor of International Human Rights, Northumbria Law School, Northumbria University,
Newcastle NE1 8ST, UK.
E-mail: rhona.smith@northumbria.ac.uk
82 Asian Journal of Legal Education 2(2)
over the initial ten year period of the rst master level human rights programme in the country:
the programme offered at Peking University under the auspices of the Research Centre for Human
Rights and Humanitarian Law in cooperation with the Swedish Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human
Rights and Humanitarian Law. Some six years ago, Jessica Yeh indicated that it was not possible to
comment on the extent to which that programme had changed attitudes and effected signicant changes
in society.3 With the benet of empirical data from the initial ten years of the programme, this article will
use a growing pool of evidence to suggest that higher education can indeed result in changes in societal
attitudes. Although the process is not (and cannot be) immediate, evidence is accruing to suggest that
students who have completed the programme are going on to infuse their professional practice with
human rights. They are agents of change, ambassadors of human rights values within and outside China.
The Goals of Human Rights Education
Today, it is accepted that there is a need for human rights education and that such education should be
aimed at not only transferring knowledge but also about empowering people and changing attitudes.
From the general exhortation of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights that all states should
ensure publicity for the declaration,4 a number of resolutions and declarations followed, each promoting
in some way the advancement of knowledge about human rights.5 Following the landmark Vienna
Conference on Human Rights some twenty years ago,6 there was renewed impetus and greater
international support for advancing human rights education. The changing geopolitical demographics
and the culmination of the period of rapid decolonization played a part—many newly independent states
were accepting human rights treaties with little hesitation, and were re-writing (or introducing) national
education, particularly citizenship education, programmes.7 Although these often focused on reinforcing
national identity and goals, the curricula usually included national values and the constitution of the
state.8 Aspects of human rights education could relatively easily be included in such a curriculum. The
UN Convention on the Rights of the Child also exerted an inuence: the near universal recognition of
children’s rights, including education, prompted widespread curricula revision.9 As the Committee on
the Rights of the Child considered state reports, ever more emphasis was placed on Article 44(6), the
obligation on State parties to make the Committee’s reports widely available. Efforts culminated in
3 Jessica Yeh, Promoting Human Rights in China Through Education: An Empirical Impact Evaluation of the Swedish Approach
from a Student Perspective, 10.1 ASIA-PAC L&P J. 114 (2008).
4 General Assembly resolution 217(III) D, 10 December 1948, same resolution as adopted in the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights in part A.
5 For an overview of the evolution of human rights education and its potential, see Upendra Baxi, Human Rights Education: The
Promise of the Third Millennium?, in Human RigHts Education foR tHE twEnty-fiRst cEntuRy, 142–54 (George Andreopoulos
& Richard Claude eds, 1997); wolfgang BEnEdEk, undERstanding Human RigHts: manual on Human RigHts Education
(3d ed. 2006); safE spacEs—Human RigHts Education in divERsE contExts (C. Roux ed., 2012).
6 Vienna Declaration and Program of Action 1993, Part II.D, para. 78: ‘The World Conference on Human Rights considers human
rights education, training and public information essential for the promotion and achievement of stable and harmonious relations
among communities and for fostering mutual understanding, tolerance and peace.’
7 For the relationship between citizenship and human rights education, see Human RigHts Education: REflEctions on tHEoRy
and pRacticE (Brian Ruane & Fionnuala Waldron eds, 2011).
8 Many states, for example, included mention of human rights in their new constitutions thus basic education classes, which
included the constitution as an embodiment of national identity, automatically included elements of rights.
9 More recently, see UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, General Comment No 1(2001) Article 29(1): The Aims of
Education, UN Doc CRC/GC/2001/1, 17 April 2001.

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