The issue of human rights has been difficult to deal with in the official relationship between the EU and the Chinese government, and has also been controversial in public opinion and in the media. For instance, when Europe speaks of human rights, either explicitly or implicitly it means almost always civil and political rights, and argues that they are fundamental. China on the other hand, emphasizes the importance of economic and social rights and argues that human rights as conceived in Europe are dependant on a process of development which may be long term, and that the basic right to subsistence must come first.
In Europe there is a widespread view which argues that as economic development takes place in China there will be increasing demands for human rights. The theory argues that economic development is related to a transition from traditional to modern and then post-modern values. On the basis of global surveys of values, it is argued that changes in values bring about a shift from traditional to secular-rational values and from survival to self-expression values.
Contrary to beliefs widely held in Europe, this article will show that people in China have a very positive view of their human rights. Furthermore, when the data is analyzed by age group, occupation and education level, it shows that younger, economically better off and educated Chinese have a more positive view of their human rights. When Chinese are asked to give priorities, human rights values as they are defined in Europe are placed lower than they are by European respondents. Furthermore, younger, better off and more educated Chinese give significantly higher preference for priorities such as maintaining stability over human rights such as freedom of speech.
The evidence challenges expectations in Europe. The perceptions held in Europe of human rights in China appear to be at odds with those of Chinese themselves. This has implications for policies adopted in Europe, since a policy based on an assessment of conditions in China that is at variance with how Chinese see their own condition is unlikely to gain acceptance by those it claims to benefit.