Sociological analysis shows emergence of 'rights revolution' in China

July 14, 2008

WASHINGTON, DC--While the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing has elicited a rallying cry for human rights among high-profile activists and organizations outside China, ordinary Chinese citizens are mobilizing to fight for their rights inside the rapidly changing country, according to sociologist Ching Kwan Lee, writing in the summer issue of the American Sociological Association's Contexts magazine.

"Ordinary Chinese workers, homeowners and farmers have emerged as unlikely activists in a quiet revolution that is filling the gaps between central government law-making and the rights violations and corruption of local governments," said Lee, a sociologist at the University of California-Los Angeles who studies rights activism in China and Chinese investments in Africa. "This emerging rights mobilization has failed to attract the level of attention paid to other human rights activism directed at China, yet citizen activism inside the country is creating the potential for much broader social change."

In contrast to traditional activism appealing to universal notions of human rights, this grassroots movement among everyday people in China invokes "the protection of lawful rights," or weiquan. This activism focuses on specific rights prescribed by Chinese law, such as labor, property and rural land rights.

According to Lee, growing unrest over social injustice, as well as wealth and power gaps in Chinese society--due to the country's rapid economic development--has led to three decades of market reform and legal proliferation by the central government in Beijing.

However, in many local Chinese governments, the central government's legal reform suffers at the hand of economic and fiscal decentralization, as local governments pursue revenue and resources above all else. In this climate, Lee asserts, local governments are prone to violate citizens' rights through vested interests and the collusion of local officials with employers, investors and land developers.

In the case of labor rights, despite a series of labor laws passed since the 1990s, Lee asserts that labor standards in China have remained extremely bad since the country's economic reform began 30 years ago. As a result, non-governmental organizations have formed to provide legal and other services; the legal profession has ballooned; and workers are protesting through civil disobedience and other strategies.

Property ownership is another area in which local governments violate citizen rights in pursuit of financial gains from land lease sales and urban redevelopment. Homeowner activism has included petitions, mass occupations of property management company offices, development and use of neighborhood Web sites, hunger strikes and other strategies. In addition, homeowners' associations are increasingly being formed to advocate for rights and prevent power abuses by the local government.

In the area of land rights, thousands of conflicts, some violent, arise every year in China due to illegal land grabs by local officials, withholding of farmer compensation and lack of job replacement for those whose land has been taken. An estimated 34 million farmers have lost some or all of their land over the past two decades. Rural Chinese citizens are reacting to these rights violations by issuing public statements, filing lawsuits and organizing collective protests.

"Today's rights activism in China provides a look at the forces driving the near-total transformation of the most populace nation in the world," Lee said. "Attention may shift away from China after the 2008 Olympic Games conclude, yet the struggles between economic growth and social stability; between authoritarian rule and a more responsive state and involved citizenry; and between local and central governments will continue to shape and define China for the long-term future."
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Lee's article is available online at www.contexts.org.

For more information or to request an interview with Ching Kwan Lee, contact Jackie Cooper (202-247-9871, jcooper@asanet.org).

About Contexts

Contexts (www.contexts.org), a magazine published by the American Sociological Association, provides the lay public with an accessible and thought-provoking look at modern life through the lens of the research and expertise of prominent U.S. sociologists. Edited by a team from the University of Minnesota's sociology department, the magazine offers provocative sociological ideas and research to examine everyday experiences through feature articles, book reviews, cultural analysis and engaging photography.

About the American Sociological Association

The American Sociological Association (www.asanet.org), founded in 1905, is a non-profit membership association dedicated to serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science and profession, and promoting the contributions to and use of sociology by society.

American Sociological Association

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