Hunger and Human Rights in China’s Diplomacy

February 4, 2014 Updated: February 5, 2014

The Chinese foreign minister famous for defending China’s human rights record on the grounds that the Chinese people can eat has published a memoir.

In “Disclosure of Foreign Affairs,” Li Zhaoxing recalls deploying his pet theory to good effect against U.S. President Jimmy Carter: “Carter liked to evaluate the human rights situations in China with American standards. One day, I argued with him. I said, ‘In a developing country like China, the rights of survival and development are the most important. Americans would not understand it because you have never starved before. 

“When I was in college in 1960 and 1961, my biggest fear was losing my meal tickets because even with the tickets, I didn’t have enough to eat, let alone without them. Talking about democracy without self-sufficiency and discussing freedom without enough food makes no sense! 

“No wonder some Chinese people criticize some of your politicians for not putting themselves in our shoes.’”

In 2007, Li Zhaoxing was hired as a professor at Peking University after being forced to step down during a power struggle. 

During a lunch with students, he proposed a theory called “human rights for the starving.” He said his experience of starving helped him better understand human rights. 

He told students, while debating with foreigners, “I know what human rights are because I’ve starved before. Have you starved before?” 

Human Rights 

Li’s version of the Chinese Communist Party’s idea of human rights is not worth refuting. 

According to Li and the CCP, human rights involves the right to food, not the political, social, or economic forms of human rights.

The situation is the opposite of what Li has said. One doesn’t have to starve to understand human rights. Individuals starve in the absence of human rights.

Li had to starve in college because of the great, three-year famine that was caused by the Chinese people having been deprived of human rights. 

The Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen observed: “It is not surprising that no famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy. Rather, famines tend to occur in one-party governments and military dictatorships and colonies ruled from elsewhere. 

“The diverse political freedoms that are available in a democratic state, including regular elections, free newspapers and freedom of speech, must be seen as the real force behind the elimination of famines.”

While trying to sell the theory of human rights for the starving, Li Zhaoxing has never discussed why he and the Chinese people had to starve. 

Chinese democratic activist Mr. Hu Ping said, “Anyone from a democratic country can refute Li by saying, ‘We know what human rights are, and that’s why we have never been hungry.’” 


I have heard Li speak, and he makes a flashy impression. The substance of what he has to say may not be so impressive. 

In his memoir Li recounts how one day U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright asked him, “Mr. Li, you have always been saying that you adhere to the cardinal principles of China’s diplomatic policies, but I have never figured out what these principles are.” 

Li admitted that he was stumped and didn’t know how to reply. To buy himself time, he asked her, “What are the U.S. diplomatic principles?” 

Albright answered, “The three ‘Ls’—law, leadership, liberty.” 

Li pondered a moment and said, “China’s diplomatic principles are peace and development.” 

This anecdote shows that, even though he was the chief officer of China’s diplomatic affairs, Li was confused about the basic principles of China’s diplomatic policy. 

Li Zhaoxing is the ninth CCP foreign minister. The occupants of this office have usually gone on to hold important positions. Zhou Enlai concurrently served as prime minister. Other foreign ministers, upon leaving that office, have served as state councilor, member of the Politburo, or deputy premier, or became the state councilor in charge of foreign affairs. 

Qiao Guanhua was the only one who had a bad ending. Li’s predecessor, Tang Jiaxuan, and successor, Yang Jiechi, both became state councilor in charge of foreign affairs after serving as foreign minister. 

Li Zhaoxing left in disgrace and didn’t get a chance to serve as state councilor, which reportedly left Li feeling very ashamed. 

Conflict With Hu Jintao 

In office, Li always appeared as the extreme leftist, giving the world the true image of the CCP as an international bully and causing the CCP to suffer diplomatic losses and humiliation. 

For example, Li wrote a letter to a senior member of the United States Congress criticizing the U.S. position on the Taiwan issue. In the letter, he said that the congressman’s knowledge of international affairs was less than that of an elementary school student.

There are two diplomatic incidents that contributed to Li Zhaoxing stepping down early. 

During the spring of 2002, when Hu Jintao, then China’s vice chair and the presumptive next head of the CCP, was visiting the United States, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney invited Hu for a private conversation. Cheney wanted to know Hu’s true feelings about ruling China and dealing with foreign policy, while allowing Hu to learn more about America’s domestic and foreign policies. 

Cheney invited Hu to the library, but before he could finish with exchanging courtesies, the door suddenly opened, and Li Zhaowing, then the deputy foreign minister, rushed into the room. 

Cheney’s chief of staff said afterward that he had politely tried to stop Li and explained that this was a private conversation. Cheney was dissatisfied with the result, and Hu was also unhappy. Hu remembered Li for this incident.

In 2006, Hu Jintao was the head of the Chinese regime. Having gained control over the Communist Party, the government, and the military, he planned to visit the United States. 

Hu ordered Li to plan a state visit to the United States, but Li didn’t do this. He planned a working visit. During the welcome ceremony, the U.S. band mixed the anthem of the People’s Republic of China (the mainland) with the Republic of China (Taiwan). 

It’s rumored that to calm Hu Jintao down, Li Zhaoxing recommended that Hu hold some press conferences to answer questions from Chinese and foreign reporters and improve the CCP’s international image. If there were hard questions, Li would try to answer instead. 

However, Hu most disliked answering reporter’s questions. A few years back, when Hu visited Russia, a reporter asked what Russian book Hu liked the most. Hu answered, “The Story of Zoya and Shura,” a book from the era of the Soviet Union. After that, Hu didn’t hold any more press conferences. 

Not long after that, during a CCP Foreign Ministry meeting, Hu ordered Li to review his errors and the losses he had caused the CCP and the country, then quickly ended Li’s career in the Foreign Ministry. 

After retiring from the position as chairman of the National People’s Congress Foreign Affairs Committee, Li stubbornly continued to promote his theory of human rights for the starving, making up all sorts of fallacies for the CCP’s poor human rights record.

First published by Secret China.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.