When Universal Rights Meet a Universal Virus

Richard Cullen

Adjunct Professor, School of Law, University of Western Australia
Visiting Professor, Faculty of Law, Hong Kong University

The concept of universal human rights is a relatively new one.[1]  It is a model for mediating human interaction that is widely regarded in a positive way.  It is also a concept that is deeply sourced in Europe’s past.

Using a Chinese metric, one can credibly describe the long era of European history following the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD until 1945, as, more often than not, a “Warring States” period.  Before and after that fall, powerful tribes invaded by land from the North.  Vikings later did likewise by sea.  Within much of Europe, numerous kingdoms were recurrently engaged in conflict with one another.  Islamic invasion from the East had also begun by the 8th century leading to frequent confrontational responses, including the Crusades.  Then came the Reformation in the 16th century.   Christianity was split as never before.  Still more savage levels of warfare followed.

Martin Luther, the man who did most to trigger the Reformation, was deeply hostile to the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church.  In due course he also became militantly anti-jewish.  Here we encounter another severe Western religious divide – one which dates back over 2,000 years to the dawn of the birth of Christianity.

In the 20th century Europe brought us World War I, from 1914-1918 – the War to End All Wars.  That war did not secure this outcome.  World War II followed from 1939 – 1945. 

The most infamous aspect of World War II was the “Holocaust”, the name given to the horrific Nazi-German scheme where millions of Jews and other “undesirables” were exterminated in a series of Central European Death Camps.  As it happens, Luther’s anti-jewish legacy helped lay important foundations for this genocidal project.

The lead-up to this overwhelming terror encompassed years of fearsome Nazi attacks on Jews, which included “Kristalnacht”, in November, 1938 when hundreds of Synagogues were wrecked, thousands of jewish businesses were destroyed and some 30,000 Jews were arrested and sent to Concentration Camps.

The extreme revulsion felt around the world – after the totality of these unspeakable Nazi projects was revealed – helped energize a powerful desire to create the United Nations.  In early 1946, the first meeting of the UN General Assembly was held in London.  In late 1948, the General Assembly, adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) as a pivotal part of the project to protect individual rights against horrific abuse.  The UDHR was strongly shaped by the intense European Enlightenment understanding of individual autonomy. 

This groundbreaking international instrument states in its title that it is a universal declaration.  In the preamble it goes on to proclaim the essential need for “the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms”.

These are admirable aims.  Since 1948, a vast Human Rights Movement has evolved around the globe, standing on the shoulders of the UDHR.  This movement has asserted the crucial need to protect human rights and its readiness to do so.

The outbreak of the new coronavirus in China, in Wuhan, in 2019 has, however, conspicuously tested this readiness on a global basis. 

At this point we need to consider some facts.  The human infectious disease arising from this virus is now known as COVID-19.  It can be lethal.  Those whose existing state of health is compromised are most vulnerable.  Notably more concerning is that fact that this is a new human viral infection.  There is no vaccine.  There will not be one for some time.  The precise mode of the development and the effects of COVID-19 are not yet fully known.  It is, though, highly contagious.  

Now we need to consider the increasingly grim reaction to Chinese people globally which has gathered such pace in the wake of the onset of this viral outbreak.  The propagation of misleading and false information (for example citing the dangers of eating regular Chinese food) about the disease is epidemic.  Highly discriminatory discussion and treatment of Chinese people is increasingly rampant in places like Australia the UK and the US.[2]  This menacing narrative has also been readily endorsed by certain groups within Hong Kong.[3] 

In Australia, long-established Chinese Restaurants are closing and Chinese people have been locked out of their rental homes, to take just two examples.[4]  The impact of this massive stigmatization exercise is global.  It includes malevolently recycled references to China being the “sick man of Asia” and the onset of a new “yellow peril”.[5]

We should remember, too, how in Hong Kong over many months, conspicuous numbers of China-related businesses have been trashed, some repeatedly and Mainland Chinese students, visitors and residents have lived in increasing fear of localist intimidation and violence.[6]

We have witnessed shocking levels of basic rights abuses directed at Mainland Chinese and China-linked businesses in Hong Kong and, now, after the onset of the COVID-19 epidemic, against Chinese people generally, worldwide. 

But has that world-spanning human rights movement risen with all the vigour it can regularly display to denounce these abuses?  With some limited exceptions, the answer is, no it has not.

To take one example, Human Rights Watch has expressed serious concern about the possible invasion of privacy rights in China arising from the use of surveillance technology as part of the massive and, thus far, significantly effective virus containment measures adopted within China to limit the spread of the virus which causes COVID-19 infections.[7]  But one searches in vain for continuing, emphatic human rights initiatives denouncing the abuse of rights of Mainland Chinese in Hong Kong and Chinese people generally, just noted above.[8] 

As it happens an internationally respected, principal commentator in China on the coronavirus outbreak, Professor Zhong, Nanshan, has stated that, from a medical standpoint, the drastic containment measures adopted have been – and remain – vital in the battle to limit the spread of COVID-19 infections.[9] 

Human Rights Watch claims that “often the most effective responses to public health crises involve volunteer public participation”.[10]  It is good to recall how reliance on voluntary containment methods (combined with a free media sector) worked 10 years ago in the US, following the outbreak, there, in March 2009, of what came to be known as “Swine Flu” (the first cases of which surfaced earlier in Mexico).  Within a year, around 60 million were infected with Swine Flu in the US and over 12,000 persons died.  Worldwide, the infection estimates range from 600 million to over a billion with death estimates ranging from 151,000 to 575,000 (mainly in Africa and South East Asia).[11]  Fortunately, it transpired that the mortality rate with Swine Flu was comparatively low.[12]

In 2012, as the London Olympics progressed, an article by Ross Clark appeared in The Spectator entitled “Sinophobia, the last acceptable racism”.  Clark argued that unfounded, critical responses to Chinese success at those games reflected an irrational suspicion of China.[13] 

Unhappily, this analysis retains robust traction.  After recently urging the world to show sympathy and express solidarity towards Chinese people at this very difficult time, the former Prime Minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd, went on to observe that: “These are ugly times and the racism implicit (and sometimes explicit) in many responses to Chinese people around the world makes me question just how far we have come as a human family.”[14]

After decades of copious human rights discourse, preaching tolerance, enacting hate crime laws and praising multiculturalism, we have come to this: the overall response of the global human rights movement to the comprehensive abuse of rights outlined here has been shamefully minimalist.

It seems, more than 70 years since the passage of the UDHR, some people are still less universal than others.

‘The Editors became aware after the publication of the blog that a substantially similar text also appeared in the China Daily (Hong Kong edition), which can be read at this link

Editors’ note

The Editors became aware after the publication of the blog that a substantially similar text also appeared in the China Daily (Hong Kong edition), which can be read at this link

Dialogue & Debate Collection

Richard Cullen, the author of this blog, recently participated in our occasional series, Dialogue & Debate, as part of a discussion around the theme ‘Pursuing Democracy in an Authoritarian State: Protest and the Rule of Law in Hong Kong’ (2020) 29(1) Social & Legal Studies 107-145. All the contributions (from Benny Tai, Scott Veitch, Fu Hualing, and Richard Cullen) to this discussion can be read at this link for free.

About the author

Richard Cullen is Visiting Professor in the Faculty of Law at Hong Kong University and an Adjunct Professor in the School of Law at the University of Western Australia. He has spent around 25 years based in Hong Kong. He was a Professor at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia until 2006. His latest book, Hong Kong Constitutionalism: The British Legacy and the Chinese Future (Routledge, Abingdon, 2020) has just been published.


[1] The primary provisions of the Bill of Rights in the US Constitution were ratified in 1791.  It was worded to provide a range of general protections for individual rights but its reach was far from universal.  Thus, even legally freed slaves were not covered (Dred Scott v Sandford (1857)) and most of the provisions, including the First Amendment protecting free expression, had limited impact for around 160 years until the Civil Rights era in the US, which followed World War II (Cullen, Richard and Tso, Kevin, “Commercial Free Speech: A Critical Reconsideration” (2016) 17 Australian Journal of Asian Law, available at: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2939388).  The US Bill of Rights drew, in its drafting, on the Magna Carta (1215) and the English Bill of Rights (1689).  However, neither of these provided widely applicable protections for individual rights: the former was, in essence, a “Bill of Rights for Barons” for and the latter, a “Bill of Rights for Parliament”. 

[2] See, for example: Zhao, Iris, “Coronavirus has sparked racist attacks on Asians in Australia — including me”, ABC News Australia, February 1, 2020, available at: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-02-01/coronavirus-has-sparked-racist-attacks-on-asian-australians/11918962.; Williams, Austin, “Treating coronavirus like a Yellow Peril”, Spiked, January 30, 2020, available at: https://www.spiked-online.com/2020/01/30/treating-coronavirus-like-a-yellow-peril/; Oh, Inae, “The Coronavirus Is Inflaming the UK’s Racism: ‘To those people who told me London isn’t racist, think again’”, Mother Jones, March 4, 2020, available at: https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2020/03/the-coronavirus-is-inflaming-the-uks-racism/; Wahlquist, Calla, “Doctors and nurses at Melbourne hospital racially abused over coronavirus panic”, The Guardian, February 27, 2020, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/feb/27/doctors-and-nurses-at-melbourne-hospital-racially-abused-over-coronavirus-panic; Wong, Tessa, “Sinophobia: How a virus reveals the many ways China is feared”, BBC News, February 20, 2020, available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-51456056 ; and Mead, Walter Russell, “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia”, Wall Street Journal, February 3, 2020, available at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/china-is-the-real-sick-man-of-asia-11580773677.

[3] Cheung, Tony and Wong, Natalie, “Something else may be spreading in Hong Kong amid coronavirus outbreak and anti-government protests – ‘xenophobia’ against mainland Chinese”, South China Morning Post, February 3, 2020, available at: https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/health-environment/article/3048591/something-else-may-be-spreading-hong-kong-amid.

[4] See: Webb, Carolyn, “Beloved Chinatown restaurant closes as customers stay away over coronavirus fears”, The Age, February 1, 2020, available at: https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/beloved-chinatown-restaurant-closes-as-customers-stay-away-over-coronavirus-fears-20200212-p54076.html; and Bell, Frances, “Coronavirus fears see Malaysian student evicted from Perth share house by landlord”, ABC News Australia, February 13, 2020, available at: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-02-12/foreign-student-evicted-from-perth-house-over-coronavirus-fears/11959530.

[5] Zhang, Lijia, “Coronavirus triggers an ugly rash of racism as the old ideas of ‘Yellow Peril’ and ‘sick man of Asia’ return”, South China Morning Post, February 16, 2020, available at: https://www.scmp.com/comment/opinion/article/3050542/coronavirus-triggers-ugly-rash-racism-old-ideas-yellow-peril-and

[6] “Black Terror: Mainland Chinese are being attacked in Hong Kong”, The Economist, November 7, 2019, available at: https://www.economist.com/china/2019/11/07/mainland-chinese-are-being-attacked-in-hong-kong.

[7] See, Yang, Samuel and Zhao, Iris, “Bid to contain coronavirus COVID-19 sees Chinese tech giants deploy tracking maps”, ABC News, Australia, available at: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-02-22/coronavirus-covid-19-china-quarantine-measures-questioned/11987900 where the Human Rights Watch spokesperson told ABC News in Australia that “where surveillance technology is used for tracking viruses or other purposes there are no effective privacy rights for people.”  

[8] See, for example, the comments of a Manchester University graduate student, Sam Phan, who recently said he hoped that xenophobia towards Britain’s Asian population would get a rare moment in the national spotlight in a coming BBC special on the coronavirus  – reported by, Oh, Inae, “The Coronavirus Is Inflaming the UK’s Racism: ‘To those people who told me London isn’t racist, think again’”, Mother Jones, March 4, 2020, available at: https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2020/03/the-coronavirus-is-inflaming-the-uks-racism/

[9] “Top SARS Doctor: Coronavirus May Peak This Month”, The Straits Times, February 11, 2020, available at: https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/east-asia/chinas-top-virus-expert-says-coronavirus-outbreak-may-peak-this-month.

[10] Human Rights Watch spokesperson quoted in report by Yang, Samuel and Zhao, Iris, “Bid to contain coronavirus COVID-19 sees Chinese tech giants deploy tracking maps”, ABC News, Australia, available at: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-02-22/coronavirus-covid-19-china-quarantine-measures-questioned/11987900.

[11] See: “CDC Estimates of 2009 HINI Influenza Cases, Hospitalizations and Deaths in the United States”, Centers for Disease Control – US, May 14, 2010, available at: https://www.cdc.gov/h1n1flu/estimates_2009_h1n1.htm; “First Global Estimates of HINI Pandemic Mortality”, Centers for Disease Control – US, June 25, 2012, available at: https://www.cdc.gov/flu/spotlights/pandemic-global-estimates.htm; and “2009 – Flu Pandemic”, Wikipedia, available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2009_flu_pandemic.

[12] “2009, H1N1 Pandemic”, Centers for Disease Control, available at: https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/2009-h1n1-pandemic.html.

[13] Clark, Ross, “The last acceptable racism”, The Spectator, August 11, 2012,available at: https://beta.spectator.co.uk/article/sinophobia-the-last-acceptable-racism

[14] Rudd, Kevin, “The Coronavirus and Xi, Jinping’s Worldview”, Project Syndicate, February 8, 2020, available at: https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/coronavirus-will-not-change-xi-jinping-china-governance-by-kevin-rudd-2020-02

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