Human Rights 人权

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Susan Trevaskes and Elisa Nesossi
Australian Centre on China in the World


This lexicon entry consists of the following sub-sections:



When, in 2008, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of the post-Mao open door and reform policies, the domestic media praised the country’s realization of the rule of law and the progress made in the protection of human rights. One year later, domestic newspapers applauded the enactment of the first National Human Rights Action Plan (2009-2010) by the State Council; and in 2010, Wang Chen 王晨, then director of the State Council Information Office, opened the Third Beijing Forum on Human Rights claiming that the Chinese government has long pursued modernization and human rights, and that improvements in human rights were ‘obvious’ (see here). In 2004, the protection of human rights was inserted in the 1982 Constitution of the People’s Republic and, more recently, in the 2012 amendment of the Criminal Procedure Law. A new National Human Rights Action Plan (2012-2015) was issued in 2012 to restate China’s domestic commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights.

Voices from Chinese civil society contrast starkly with these official views and their accompanying enthusiasm about the pace of change; they openly contest and denounce abuses by the party-state of its citizens. They claim that party-state discourse does not reflect a genuine commitment to the protection of individual rights in practice, as official discourse on human rights is rigid in its conception of the relationship between the individual and the state, protecting the political and institutional status quo. The official commitment of the PRC to the protection of individual rights is also questioned by the international human rights regime, especially at times when the party-state fails to acknowledge domestic flaws in the administration of justice and perpetrates abuses against domestic human rights activists and other critics who are seen as dissidents or dissenters.

Notwithstanding some significant changes in the Chinese domestic discourse on human rights over the last twenty years, human rights has been and remains a very sensitive political issue. Before the 4 June Incident of 1989 (known variously internationally as ‘4 June’, the ‘Beijing Massacre’ and the ‘Tiananmen Massacre’), which was a turning point in the human rights debate within China, there was little discussion, either public or academic, of human rights questions. Human rights were seen as bourgeois, Western liberal values that, expressed as political and civil rights, were not regarded as relevant to China’s socialist system, which in principle privileged the promotion of economic and social rights. Indeed, according to the 1991 First White Paper on Human Rights, a key goal of human rights development in China was to dramatically improve the subsistence rights of citizens.

The widespread international criticism of the human rights situation in the PRC that followed 4 June 1989 had, among other outcomes, the effect of opening up a domestic debate on human rights. Since then, human rights issues have become an acceptable aspect of domestic political and legal discourse, though the promotion of political and civil rights has remained highly contentious. The official view has always been that in a fast developing economy, economic and social rights should be privileged over other rights.

During the last decade, Chinese public discourse on human rights has widened considerably, as exemplified by the increasing number of academic and official publications on key issues. Overall, the development of a stronger civil society, a burgeoning internet culture of critique and the changes in the media sector such as the rise of progressive newspaper outlets as the Southern Metropolis Daily (Nanfang dushi bao 南方都市报), have contributed to a more pluralistic and diversified domestic discourse on human rights from the grassroots of society.

New approaches in the Chinese discourse on human rights have also been triggered by the dramatic economic changes over the last three decades. Economic growth in China has not, of course, benefited everybody equally. While hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty as a direct result of the economic reforms, many others remain poor and are more vulnerable to the socio-economic fallout of land development and labour policies that encourage rapid growth.

China now has one of the widest economic gaps in the world between the richest and poorest members of society. This inequality has increased social tensions and the threat of instability, challenging at its core the party-state’s earlier assumptions that economic success and prosperity would bring about social stability. Indeed, as the pace of economic development has accelerated, so has the rate and intensity of public protests against forced land acquisitions, job layoffs, low and unpaid wages, environmental degradation, toll charges, forced housing relocations and ethnic tensions.

In the twenty-first century, Party doctrine has sought to deal with this uneasy nexus between rapid economic growth and social stability. While not explicitly cloaked in the discourse of ‘human rights’, official state doctrine in the Hu Jintao 胡锦涛-Wen Jiabao温家宝 era (2002-2012) sought to address – at least rhetorically – the disparity in income and access to wealth, welfare and justice by touting the development goal of an Harmonious Society (hexie shehui 和谐社会).

The goal of ‘building an harmonious society’ by the year 2020 was written into a Party Resolution in 2006 and it included a blueprint for social and political governance goals aimed at more equitable economic development. Since 2007, however, the idea of ‘building an harmonious society’ has been linked increasingly with protecting society from those who dissent, many of whom are those who are most vulnerable to the social and economic fallout of rapid growth and development, along with the more well off who, in various ways, oppose the inequitable distribution of wealth and opportunity. In this context, official discourse has reemphasized the 1980s’ maxim by Deng Xiaoping 邓小平 that ‘Stability crushes everything else’ (wending yadao yiqie 稳定压倒一切), a slogan that stressed that stability was a prerequisite for the development of rights.

The perceived threat of instability has had a significant impact on the discourse on human rights in China over the last decade, particularly since 2007. That is to say:

  • In the first place, it has given more prominence to civil society groups and the weiquan (维权 or ‘rights defence’) movement whose mission is linked to the promotion and protection of the human rights of the most vulnerable in society. Weiquan lawyers, for example, are committed to taking up legal causes with wider social and sometimes political impact to fight social injustices and give voice to the socially marginalised;
  • secondly, academic views support the idea that Chinese citizens have progressively become more rights-conscious and tend to challenge their grievances by adopting the language of rights. Social inequality and the various related social problems that cause it are nowadays often interpreted in the social sciences and humanities through the lens of rights violation and protection; and,
  • thirdly, and most importantly, perceived threats of instability have had a significant impact on party-state discourse, particularly how it articulates the Party as the protector of society and how it promotes performance-based legitimacy in terms of stability maintenance.

While continuing to promote the rhetoric of human rights protection through the issuing of official statements and the amendment of existing legislation, the party-state has increasingly expressed the need to enforce measures for the maintenance of stability by preventing and containing social unrest. Stability Maintenance has therefore become a central plank of social management policies since 2007. Since then, the Hu Jintao-Wen Jiabao socio-economic policy model has sought to justify suppression – in the name of Stability Maintenance – of those views that demand economic and social rights beyond what the party-state can supply.

In the face of rising public dissent, the party-state has made stability a key legitimizing principle for justice system practice and for official views on how best to use its authority to govern the nation through this current era of increasing tension between society’s haves and have-nots. But in doing so, and whether self-consciously or not, it has tied the rationale for ‘stability’ to the centre post of socio-economic policies and hence, it cannot ignore the foundational principle of its own human rights agenda – the prioritizing of economic and social rights – as a key part of the debate about how to forge socioeconomic policy in the second decade of the twenty-first century.



The Official View

Since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, in line with Marxist-Leninist-Mao Zedong Thought and consistent in approach with other developing countries, China has emphasised the promotion of collective rights such as anti-discrimination, anti-colonialism, self-determination, development and economic and social rights. While in a rhetorical sense not denying the existence of political and civil rights, official views on their promotion over and above economic and social rights has been considered an expression or vestige of Western hegemonic imperialism.

The Chinese official human rights policy has always emphasised that human rights interpretation and implementation is strictly dependent upon local circumstances which vary according to the level of economic development, socio-cultural and historical circumstances. Accordingly, the rationale has been that each country should be afforded a margin of appreciation on rights issues. This rationale has been supported with rhetoric on the principles of non-interference and calls for the international community to respect the domestic jurisdiction of individual countries, even in the field of international human rights law.

Despite this consistent stance of ‘non-interference’, over the last decade human rights discourse has found its way into key instruments of legislation in China. In 2004, the 1982 Constitution was revised to include the formula ‘the state respects and protects human rights’ in Article 33. While the inclusion of this terminology has been acknowledged by international commentators and human rights groups as a step in the right direction, the fundamentals underpinning the concept of human rights in China have not changed and have continued to be tied to the notion of the inseparability of rights and duties. The same Article sets out the principle of mutuality of rights and duties (quanli yiwu xiang yizhi 权利义务相一致), which implies that rights are inseparable from the duties prescribed by the Constitution and other laws.

As clearly stated by Liu Huaqiu in his speech to the Vienna conference on Human Rights in 1993:

The rights and obligations of a citizen are indivisible. While enjoying his legitimate rights and freedoms, a citizen must fulfil his social responsibilities and obligations. There are no absolute individual rights and freedom, except those prescribed by and within the framework of law. Nobody shall place his own rights and interests above those of the state and society, nor should be allowed to impair those of others and the general public. (See: Liu Huaqiu in Tang James Tuck-Hong, ed., Human Rights and International Relations in the Asia and Pacific, London: Pinter, London, 1995, p.215.)

Official documents such as White Papers on Human Rights (the first issued in 1991 and the second in 2009) and the two Human Rights Action Plans (2009 and 2012) demonstrate changes and continuities inherent into the official approach to human rights, both civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights.

Changes and Continuities Since the 1980s

The 1991 White Paper on Human Rights is the first formal expression of post-1949 Chinese view on human rights, offering as it does an insight into the most fundamental theoretical and philosophical concepts underpinning the official discourse on human rights during those years. The document reiterated China’s support of economic and social rights embraced by other Asian and developing countries. However, in contrast to these countries, it put utmost emphasis on the ‘right of subsistence’ (shengcun quan 生存权), as a right superior to other economic and social rights. This meant that the priority of the leadership was to ensure a basic level of subsistence for Chinese citizens, without necessarily guaranteeing all other economic and social rights. Consistent with the internationally-shared gradualist approach toward the realization of economic, social and cultural rights, the Chinese leadership formally acknowledged that such rights could be enjoyed by the Chinese citizens only gradually, in line with the country’s economic development.

More recent official views on human rights can be found in the 2009 White Paper on Human Rights, and, strictly in line with it, in the two National Human Rights Action Plan which, according to Chinese official views, are intended as a manifesto on the dramatic economic and social changes that have occurred in Chinese society since the early 1980s and the benefits that these changes have accrued. Notwithstanding their different aims – while the first one is mainly an account of recent-past achievements in protection of human rights, the second are programmatic documents that set milestones for the future – the three documents are based on very similar theoretical approaches.

As in the case of the 1991 White Paper, these most recent documents continue to stress economic development and the protection of economic and social rights. Nevertheless, in light of China’s economic performance, the emphasis has shifted from the right to subsistence to redistributive rights. Because of the gap between rich and poor that has emerged in Chinese society due to rapid economic development, the government is committed to prioritising the egalitarian provision of economic and social rights in an ‘all-round way’ to all members of society, in particular through the development of a social welfare system. Other economic and social rights newly introduced by the 2009 documents are labour and environmental rights, and provisions related to the right to health (in the form of health care).

In terms of civil and political rights, both the 2009 White Paper and the National Human Rights Action Plans identify a number of rights new to the Chinese discourse on human rights. By associating, the protection of civil and political rights along with the promotion of the rule of law and democracy, the documents list the rights of prisoners and detainees, fair trial rights, the right to be informed, the right to supervision (by the authorised organs of the state) and the right of citizens to orderly political participation. They emphasise transparency and freedom of expression also associated with Internet rights.

According to the official view, whereas civil and political rights should still be considered secondary to economic development, in practice Chinese citizens now enjoy a significantly wider spectrum of rights than a few of decades ago, including freedom of movement, speech, press, publication, association and assembly. The legislation constitutes to be the instrument through which such rights are guaranteed and through which they can be claimed in court and through other official channels.

Human Rights Diplomacy (renquan waijiao 人权外交)

Human rights groups refer to the progressive engagement of developing/non-Western countries in the international human rights community as a process of ‘socialisation’, which is reflected in the country’s willingness to engage with international treaties and conventions. Notwithstanding the persistently strong emphasis on state sovereignty and the right to development, since its access to the UN in 1971, the Chinese government has increasingly engaged with international human rights bodies. In 1992, in a Security Council speech, the then Chinese Premier Li Peng 李鹏 formally acknowledged that China would engage in discussion and co-operate with other states on human rights issues.

The 2009 documents show the full extent of China’s international engagement in the previous twenty years. China has acceded to twenty-five international conventions and, the issuing of the National Human Rights Plan itself was a clear response to the 1993 UN call for the establishment of human rights plan at the nation level. Among other instruments, the PRC signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in 1997 (aiming at an imminent ratification) and, in 2002, ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

In addition, China has participated in the international human rights regime by submitting reports, participating in the drafting of new instruments, engaging in multilateral, regional and bilateral dialogues on rights issues, and hosting a number of important human rights meetings. It has also allowed international rights monitors to visit the country – including the Special Rapporteur on Torture, the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion, the one on the Right to Education and the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.

In view of this increasing level of involvement, the Chinese authorities see the continuing negative reports by international organizations and Western NGOs simply as an attacks on China that ‘intentionally distort China’s human rights conditions’ and do not take into account the significant improvement in the welfare conditions of the Chinese citizens. The argument here is that countries that criticise China’s human rights record have their own human rights problems, ones that they should try to address before pointing the finger of blame at others (see here, for example).

Social Management Goals

Despite China’s increasing willingness to participate in international human rights law and dialogue, its internal human rights discourse, especially in regard to economic and social rights, is still articulated within the boundaries of socialist discourse such as the Harmonious Society, Stability Maintenance and, more recently, Social Management Innovation (shehui guanli chuangxin 社会管理创新).

Social Management is a catchall expression that includes all areas of social and political policy related to the regulation of various sectors of the population including economically and socially vulnerable people, criminals and dissenters. The aim of social management strategy is to encourage politico-legal institutions such as courts and police to work more closely with community groups to solve social problems such as poverty and crime. Since 2011, party-state discourse has progressively sought to associate human rights goals with social management goals, stating that Social Management is realized through the respect of human rights and rule of law principles.

Social control rhetoric and strategies such as Stability Maintenance, Harmonious Society and Social Management continue to link rights with duties. Theoretically, the authorities can claim that by preserving the rhetoric of mutuality of rights and duties (Article 33 of the 1982 Constitution), those who do not respect their duties in society should not be accorded certain rights by the state. Thus, those whose actions hamper social stability may legitimately be deprived of their rights. In this sense, both individual and collective protests undermine the rights of the collective; they hamper economic development and the realization of the economic and social rights of others.

Despite this recent obsession with ‘stability’, there remains a recognition (albeit limited) in socio-economic policy that social inequality in and of itself has a potential negative impact on social stability. In order to mitigate the problem of social inequality and its negative impact on stability, the government has issued a significant number of laws and regulations protecting the rights of most disadvantaged group in society for the realization of social justice.

Contending Views on Human Rights

There are complex political, social, cultural, historical and economic factors that shape human rights dissent in China. Those who hold contending views on human rights argue that dramatic economic growth has lifted millions out of poverty, but many hundreds of thousands of people have lost or are losing their homes and land, some under the threat of violence and without adequate compensation; hundreds face imprisonment for practicing their faith, others may be tortured into confessing to a capital crime or locked up in a psychiatric institution or in illegal places of detention, that is ‘black jails’ (hei jianyu 黑监狱) for persistent petitioning and filing complaints. Dissenting views on human rights within China come from different sources and their nature and scope have significantly changed over time. With the popularization of the Internet, avenues and modalities for expressing dissent have also been dramatically transformed.

Academics and Intellectuals in China

In pre-1989 China, dissent on human rights issues developed among academics and intellectuals. Particularly in the early reform era of the 1980s, a number of intellectuals showed an open commitment to liberal democratic political reforms and supported the human rights ethos. While most of these intellectuals attempted to promote democratization from within the system, a minority employed more radical means to press for political change and the realization of human rights.

Clear examples were the Democracy Wall movement of 1978-1980 and the student-led demonstrations of late 1986 and spring-summer 1989. The leaders of the latter were severely punished or compelled to flee the country. In the last twenty years, the majority of the Chinese intellectuals have become more aligned with official views and many have come to seek improvements by participating in official decision-making activities. Their mode of dissent has been expressed subtly and in relation to very specific topics – like the amendments of specific laws for example. The few academics who have been seen to be too outspoken on democratization and human rights issues have been marginalized by their peers and moved to the peripheries (see, for example, the case of He Weifang 贺卫方 in 2009). Other intellectuals who have been overtly outspoken promoting principles of democracy and human rights – China’s most famous dissident, Liu Xiaobo 刘晓波, for example – have been subject to harsh punishments and become international icons of dissent against the Chinese government.

Human Rights Defenders and Activists in China

Chinese human rights defenders and activists openly contend that the official commitment of the Chinese government to the protection of human rights is merely rhetorical and does not have an effect on the daily life of individual citizens. In an attempt to hold the authorities to account, human rights activists and defenders take up social causes and advocate for the resolution of specific social problems and for the redress of abuses perpetrated by the party-state and its officials. They speak for the most disadvantaged in society either through the social media or by working or volunteering for civil society organizations and NGOs. Indeed, since the beginning of the period of reform in late 1978 the latter have become increasingly prominent, even taking up some of the functions originally performed by governmental agencies, particularly in relation to the promotion and protection of economic and social rights – labour and environmental issues – as well as the rights of the most vulnerable groups in society, that is women, children, the diseased and the disabled.

A group of human rights defenders that in recent years has become increasingly prominent and has gained international attention are the weiquan 维权 or ‘rights defence’ lawyers. The community of lawyers who are willing to take on the most difficult cases which touch on fundamental issues – mainly around the use of detention, ill treatment or torture, freedom of religion, association or speech – is still small, but it is growing steadily. Although the chances of winning specific cases may be slim, by taking on such cases, lawyers seek to demonstrate the importance of the law, the right of citizens to legal defence, and the need to seek redress for clients. Their arguments are helping to shape an emerging human rights discourse.

Some lawyers specialize in specific areas of the law such as women’s rights or forced evictions while others may take on a significant number of cases involving deaths in custody or allegations of torture. Some issues such as the practice of Falun Gong 法轮功 or the defence of individual dissidents are considered particularly sensitive and have often resulted in problems for those lawyers involved in these cases. Within this broad community, different strategies have been adopted in fighting cases; some lawyers have tried to engage the Constitution in their legal arguments while others have focused on trying to succeed on behalf of their clients within the constraints of a very imperfect set of laws and institutions. These different approaches sometimes spill over into tensions, with the more radical lawyers criticized by their colleagues for increasing the political sensitivity of the profession as a whole. Yet many lawyers who have taken this route have themselves become victims as their cases touch on so-called ‘sensitive’ issues, challenge local political interests or reveal serious violations of the law.

Among the specific problems experienced by many within the target group are: the frequent use of ‘soft detention’ (ruanjin 软禁) or house arrest (particularly during politically sensitive periods), regular harassment by the police and state security forces, restrictions on freedom of movement and overseas travel, police violence including torture, and the monitoring of personal communications and lack of digital security. Some of the lawyers have lost their licenses to practice, faced the closure of their law firm or have been required to re-register their status as lawyers.

Chinese Activists and Dissidents Abroad

Chinese activists and dissidents overseas contest party-state human rights policies and abuses. Intellectuals and academics who fled China following the events of 1989 often express their dissent through cultural means or the media. Others, who have left China because of their human rights activism or religious affiliation (for example the case of Falun Gong followers) have founded and/or worked for human rights organizations or informal networks which support the work of Chinese domestic groups or help to disseminate information about the human rights situation in China (see, for example, the Laogai Foundation founded by Harry Wu). The majority of these human rights organizations are found in the US.

Popular Dissent

Expressions of popular dissent are clearly visible from collective and individual protests against rights violations and through Internet discussion forums and blogs. There are now reported to be more 100,000 public protests or mass incidents’ (quntixing shijian 群体性事件) every year in China with protestors at rallies or sit ins usually ranging from ten to 10,000 and sometimes even over 50,000.
A significant number of collective protests have been spurred on by unscrupulous misappropriation of land and environmental hazards directly affecting citizens’ right to health and housing. Other en masse unrests are rooted in unemployment and violations of basic labour rights, forced housing relocations and ethnic tensions. Similar issues have also led aggrieved citizens to take their individual cases to the attention of the authorities through the system of individual petitioning (xinfang 信访) whereby disaffected individuals protest at the gates of the relevant local government and court offices to register disputes or plead for redress of the abuses they have been subject to. The Internet has proved a very potent tool in channelling popular dissatisfaction; the various Internet forums and blogs have helped news spreading fairly quickly and offered a platform for netizens to talk about both individual and collective cases of rights’ violations. Though at times banned within the country, Weibo and Twitter are the two most prominent virtual platforms for social networking in China.

International Scholarship

Since the late 1980s, the issue of human rights in China has become the focus of Western scholarship in three diverse disciplinary areas: Politics and International Relations, Chinese/Asian Studies and Law.

Scholars of politics and international relations have mainly focussed their analysis on China’s diplomatic engagement with the UN and other Western countries. The three most representatives scholars in this area are Ann Kent (see her Between Freedom and Subsistence: China and Human Rights, 1993; and, China, the United Nations and Human Rights: The Limits of Compliance, 1999), Rosemary Foot (see Rights Beyond Borders: the Global Community and the Struggle over Human Rights in China, 2000) and Andrew Nathan (see Human Rights in Contemporary China, with R. Randle Edwards and Louis Henkin, 1986; and, his Negotiating Culture and Human Rights: Beyond Universalism and Relativism, co-edited with Lynda S. Bell and Ilan Peleg, 2001).

Scholars of Chinese and Asian Studies have sought to explain the discourse on human rights in China by exploring its historical and philosophical background. The 1997 edited collection by Tu Weiming and Theodore de Bary Confucianism and Human Rights represented a pivotal attempt to examine the possible links between human rights and the Chinese Confucian tradition and their degree of compatibility.

In the early 2000s, Marina Svensson published a comprehensive intellectual history of the Chinese political discourse on human rights since the late Qing dynasty and throughout the twentieth century (see Debating Human Rights in China: A Conceptual and Political History, 2002); Stephen Angle in his Human Rights and Chinese Thought (2002) combines a historical and philosophical investigation into the ways the Chinese rights discourse developed and its possible connection with rights ideas in the West. All these three works may be seen as representative of the intellectual discourse developed during the second half of the 1990s, placing the Chinese discourse on rights within the wider debate on rights universalism versus cultural relativism, and the related discussions on Asian values.

More recently, China scholars have been discussing the practice of human rights as an indicator of the changes in the relationship between the Chinese state and its citizens; they mainly focus on phenomena of local activism and protests. In this context, Merle Goldman’s 2005 book From Comrade to Citizens: The struggle for political rights in China examines the effects of the awareness about political rights among the general population and describes the struggles undertaken by groups and individuals to assert them. A more recent volume is Perry Keller’s 2012 edited volume, The Citizen and the Chinese State. Other scholars such as Kevin O’Brien focus on the sociological aspects of the rise of popular protests (see his Popular Protests in China, 2009).

The incipient discourse on Chinese constitutionalism and constitutional rights has developed on similar grounds analyzing as it does the different avenues adopted by the Chinese citizens to claim for their rights. The general discourse asserts that citizens have become more rights-conscious and increasingly keener to assert their rights not only by taking the streets but also in court through formal legal means. This process is described in detail in the recent volume edited by Stephanie Balmé and Michael Dowdle, Building Constitutionalism in China (2009).

A few legal scholars – particularly Eva Pils and Fu Hualing – have been looking at rights consciousness and activism by analyzing the work of weiquan lawyers as part of the wider rights-defence movement. Weiquan lawyers are linked to the human rights discourse in China in two ways: on the one hand, they are part of the wider group of human rights defenders who take up the legal causes of the most disadvantaged and socially vulnerable; on the other hand, they are themselves the victims of overt human rights abuses by the hand of the State officials who want to discourage their action for the sake of social stability.

Apart from the analysis on legal activism, legal scholarship on human rights in China has developed through a quite particularistic approach, analysing Chinese specific legislation compliance/non-compliance with international human rights standards and quite definite areas of legal practice that prove problematic against international standards and the paradigm of the rule of law.

Criminal justice is but one of the areas of significant human rights concerns among legal scholars. Since the early 1980s up to recent years, Western scholarship has been concerned with administrative detention powers in China, the administration of criminal justice especially during strike hard campaigns, criminal proceedings and fair trial rights, the widespread use of torture and the death penalty. These debates have become more intense in the wake of China’s signing the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in 1997 and promising to amend its 1996 Criminal Procedure Law accordingly. Adopting a socio-legal approach, in their New Crime in China: Public order and human rights (2006) Ronald Keith and Lin Zhiqiu provide a number of examples of the Chinese ‘anti-rights legislation’. In this work they explain how criminal justice has been used/abused to deal with specific social problems with wider human rights implications – the management of public order, cyber-crime, the Falun Gong movement, domestic violence and organized crime.

Legal scholars have also discussed issues related to religious freedom – in particular in relation to the repression of the Falun Gong, Tibetan and Muslim minorities (see, for example, the entry on Xinjiang in this Lexicon), freedom of expression and association, women and children’s rights (see journal articles by Michael Palmer, online here).

Areas of recent concerns by Western scholarship are land and property rights, environmental protection and labour rights. An analysis on health rights is offered by Pitman Potter who contextualises it in a wider discourse on human rights’ adaptation in the Chinese context. Taking health rights as a case study, Potter tries to elucidate the process through which international human rights principles are selectively chosen and adapted to the local Chinese context to instrumentally serve domestic socio-political needs (see Lesley Jacobs and Pitman B. Potter, ‘Selective Adaptation and Human Rights to Health in China’, Health and Human Rights, vol.9, no.2 (2006): 112-134).

Overall, two main approaches may be identified among Western legal scholars:

  • the first is a critical literature emphasising weak governance capacities and human rights abuses in specific areas; and,
  • the second approach is what some may class as an ‘apologetic’ literature linking human rights with economic development and emphasising the enormous progress done by the Chinese government in re-building a legal system after the anarchy of the Cultural Revolution and lifting millions out of poverty.

Scholars such as Randall Peerenboom argue that China is subject to a double-standard. He points out, for instance, that the international human rights regime bases its conception of human rights on the presumption of a liberal-democratic framework which emphasises individual autonomy not group interests. Moreover, the international human rights regime constructs the Chinese human rights narrative around individual atrocities that, while horrific, are not representative of the Chinese system as a whole.

These different approaches both acknowledge that economic and social rights and civil and political rights have expanded since the onset of the reforms. They recognise that more citizens can access to justice, NGOs are increasingly tolerated, individuals are freer to express their views through the Internet and more open discussions on human rights are taking place at different levels of society. However, those who pursue more critical approaches point to China’s weak compliance record in relation to international obligations and the overall lack of transparency. These critics focus relatively less on changes and more on continuities with past human rights practices looking at claimed progress – such as the enactment of a new law – with a certain degree of scepticism, or questioning the discrepancies between stated theories and actual practice.

For its part, the contending literature stresses the unique cultural and political context of China and its immense and successful efforts to improve the living conditions of the Chinese population. It also emphasises the increased internationalisation of Chinese thinking in relation to human rights with the adherence to a significant number of international human rights treaties and cooperation activities.

Media Representations

Media representations of human rights in China in ‘the West’ (North America, Europe, Australia, as well as Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan) have rarely been positive and journalists have sometimes depicted China as a ‘rogue’ element in the international human rights arena. Similar to human rights organizations, the Western media generally have tended to focus on particularly horrific stories of abuses and human rights violations. The wide reporting about the Beijing Massacre of 1989 helped to create a simplistic dichotomy of ‘good dissidents’ versus ‘bad authoritarian government’ that has shaped the media discourse until more recent days (for more on this, see ‘Telling Chinese Stories’ on this site).

In the late 1990s, there was not a significant amount of media attention given to China’s human rights record – weak media attention being the result of a relaxation of international pressure on China since 1997 because of its signing of the two major international human rights covenants. Over the last decade, however, media coverage has become more prominent with China’s crucial role in the international economy, its access to the WTO and its hosting of the Olympics in 2008.

In 2008, the media became increasingly attentive to China’s human rights practices in relation to protests and reported on the actions taken to silence activists and protesters immediately prior to and during the Olympics, particularly in relation to domestic unrest and scandals – such as those related to the Sanyuan Company’s 三元集团 contaminated milk powder (see for example: Tania Branigan, ‘Chinese figures show fivefold rise in babies sick from contaminated milk’, The Guardian, 2 December 2008) and the Sichuan earthquake (see for example: Jake Hooker and Jim Yardley, ‘Powerful quake ravages China, killing thousands’, The New York Times, 13 May 2008). In 2008 and 2009, they also widely reported on the repressive actions in Tibet (see for example: ‘Fleeing students bring tales of Tibet repression’, ABC News, 23 November 2008) and Xinjiang (see for example: ‘Is China fraying? Racial killings and heavy-handed policing stir up a repressed and dangerous province’, The Economist, 9 July 2009) and other minority areas.

More recently, the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo at the end of 2010 and the reaction by the Chinese government brought increased attention on China’s poor human rights conditions, and presented once again an extremely negative and repressive image of the Chinese government (see for example: Michael Bristow, ‘One year on: Nobel winner Liu Xiaobo still in jail’, BBC News, 6 October 2011). Even though the human rights focus was on reporting about the Arab Spring in 2010 and 2011, the Western media dedicated various articles to the repression of the ‘Jasmine Movement’ in China and the imprisonment of a number of weiquan lawyers and activists in connection with such activities (see for example: Michael Moore, ‘China suppresses, arrests, and makes lawyers disappear’, The Telegraph, 01 July 2011). More recently, Western media had paid significant attention to the case Foxconn and the abuses against workers in China (see for example: Charles Duhigg and Steven Greenhouse, ‘Electronic giant vowing reforms in China plants’, The New York Times, 29 March 2012).



1971: The People’s Republic of China enters the UN
1982: Issuing of the current Constitution (Chapter 2: Fundamental Rights and Duties of Citizens)
1989: 4 June Incident (also known as the ‘Beijing Massacre’ and the ‘Tiananmen Massacre’); turning point in the human rights discourse in China
1991: First White Paper on Human Rights
1998: Signature of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)
2001: Ratification of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) (signed in 1997)
2004: Protection of human rights inserted into Article 33 of the 1982 Constitution and into the CCP Constitution
2009: China’s first National Human Rights Action Plan (2009-2011); second White Paper on Human Rights
2010: Liu Xiaobo awarded the Nobel Peace Prize
2012: China’s second National Human Rights Action Plan (2012-2015)



Black jails hei jianyu 黑监狱
Harmonious Society hexie shehui 和谐社会
Human rights renquan 人权
Human rights diplomacy renquan waijiao 人权外交
Mass incidents quntixing shijian 群体性事件
Mutuality of rights and duties quanli yiwu xiang yizhi 权利义务相一致
Petitioning xinfang 信访
Right of subsistence shengcunquan 生存权
Rights Defence (weiquan is short for 维护合法权益 weihu hefa quanyi) weiquan 维权
Social Management Innovation shehui guanli chuangxin 社会管理创新
‘Soft detention’ or house/hotel- arrest ruanjin 软禁
‘Stability crushes everything else’ wending yadao yiqie 稳定压倒一切
Stability Maintenance (weiwen is short for 维护社会稳定 weihu shehui wending) weiwen 维稳



Stephen Angle and Marina Svensson, eds, The Chinese Human Rights Reader: Documents and commentary 1900-2000, Armonk and London: M.E. Sharpe, 2001.

Jean-Philippe Béja, Fu Hualing and Eva Pils, eds, Liu Xiaobo, Charter 08 and the Challenges of Political Reform in China, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2012.

Cai Yongshun, ‘Local Governments and the Suppression of Popular Resistance in China’, The China Quarterly, vol.193 (2008): 24-42.

Chen Xi, Social Protest and Contentious Authoritarianism in China, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Donald C Clarke and James V Feinerman, ‘Antagonistic Contradictions: criminal law and human rights in China’, The China Quarterly, vol.141 (1995): 135-154.

Joseph Fewsmith, ‘Social Management as a Way of Coping With Heightened Social Tensions’, China Leadership Monitor, vol.36, (2012)

Michael C Davis, ‘The Political Economy and Culture of Human Rights in Asia’, in Sarah Joseph and Adam McBeth, eds, Research Handbook on International Human Rights Law, Cheltenham, UK and Northhampton, MA: Edward Elgar, 2010, pp.414-438.

Guo Sanzhuan, ‘Implementation of Human Rights Treaties by Chinese Courts: problems and prospects’, Chinese Journal of International Law, vol.8, no.1 (2009): 161-179.

Samantha Hoffman, ‘Portents of Change in China’s Social Management’, China Brief, vol.12, no.15 (2012)

Perry Keller, ed., The Citizen and the Chinese State, London: Ashgate, 2012.

Ann Kent, ‘China’s Human Rights in the “Asian Century” ‘, in Thomas W.D. Davis and Brian Galligan, eds, Human Rights in Asia, Cheltenham, UK/Northhampton, MA: Edward Elgar, 2011, pp.187-211.

He Qinglian, ‘The Relationship between Chinese Peasant’s Right to Subsistence and China’s Social Stability’, China Rights Forum, no.1 (2009)

Li Buyun 李步云, Discussing Human Rights 论人权, Beijing: Social Sciences Academic Press 社会科学文献出版社, 2010.

Thomas Lum, Human Rights in China and U.S. Policy, Congressional Research Service, 18 July, 2011

Kevin O’Brien and Lianjiang Li, Rightful Resistance in Rural China, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Randall Peerenboom, ‘Assessing Human Rights in China: why the double standard’, Cornell International Law Journal, vol.38, no.1 (2005): 72-172.

Marina Svensson, Debating Human Rights in China: a conceptual and political history, Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2002.

Randall Peerenboom, ‘Economic and Social Rights’, in John Garrick, ed, Law and Policy for China’s Market Socialism, London and New York: Routledge, 2011, pp.167-184.

Eva Pils, ‘Asking the Tiger for His Skin: rights activism in China’, Fordham International Law Journal, vol.30, no.4 (2007): 1209-1263.

State Council Information Office 中华人民共和国国务院新闻办公室, Assessment Report on the National Human Rights Action Plan (2009-2010) 国家人权行动计划 (2009-2010年)评估报告, Beijing: People’s Publishing House 人民出版社, 2011.

Yu Jianrong, ‘Social Conflict in Rural China’, China Security, vol. 3 no.2 (2007): 2-17.

Yue Liling 岳礼玲, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Criminal Justice in China 公民权利和政治权利国际公约与中国刑事司法, Beijing: Law Press China 法律出版社, 2007.

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