Ching Kwan Lee: Rights Activism in China

Ching Kwan Lee teaches sociology at University of California, Los Angeles. She is currently studying both rights activism in China and Chinese investments in Africa. She writes in the Contexts.org:

For the better part of the past year, most of the international media attention and political debate has focused on high-profile, highly charged cases involving Sudan, Tibet, and the torch relay itself. Less visible to international audiences (and, likely, to future Olympic visitors), however, is another kind of rights activism.

Understanding the struggles over rights and the law itself provides a fascinating window into contemporary China.

Without any national organizations or charismatic public leaders, a quiet “rights revolution” is taking shape among ordinary Chinese people whose everyday lives have been radically, and in many cases adversely, transformed by three decades of market reform. What the Chinese call , meaning “the protection of lawful rights,” has become a generalized social movement commanding intense passion in many quarters of Chinese society.

Weiquan is invoked constantly in different kinds of public discussions, including newspaper headlines, academic writings, and everyday conversations. Rather than appealing to the purportedly universal notion of human rights, Chinese citizens demand the specific rights—labor rights, property rights, and land rights—enshrined in various Chinese laws.

The rights activism of weiquan is profoundly transforming Chinese society, the Chinese state, and the relationships between them. With the state simultaneously promoting rights and restricting them (if not violating them altogether), and with society itself deeply contentious and in constant change, the outcomes of all this are far from clear. But a better understanding of how rights—and the law itself—are being constructed and struggled over provides a fascinating window into contemporary China.

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