2008 July 14 Monday
Chinese Seen As Quietly Fighting For More Rights

Will the Chinese become strong supporters of limits on state power and for protection of individual rights?

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.

As per capita income rises what people want changes. As they satisfy some basic needs they shift toward wanting to satisfy an expanding list of desires. Really poor people want food and shelter. People living in nice houses turn their attention toward clean air and a greater say in local governance. Various sorts of rights are preferences that people pay more attention to as they can afford to. I expect greater demand for rights in China as living standards rise.

"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."

One can understand why people want property rights. They want to protect what they've managed to accumulate. But will they move on to eventually wanting right to freedom of political speech and right to limit government powers in ways that resemble the kinds of restrictions on government we see in some Western countries?

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.

Collusion of political players to violate citizens' rights happen everywhere. The difference is a matter of degree. People get their rights violated in part because they individually do not feel they have enough power to fight for themselves and are not sufficiently motivated to fight for the rights of others. How motivated will the Chinese people become to support the rights of others?

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2008 July 14 10:45 PM  China


Comments
HellKaiserRyo said at July 14, 2008 11:33 PM:

What do you predict if China adopts democracy? Do you predict social-democratic capitalism (e.g. Denmark) or libertarian capitalism (e.g. Hong Kong)? I do not think universal sufferage will be endorsed by the arriviste.

swatcher said at July 15, 2008 6:51 AM:

People get their rights violated in part because they individually do not feel they have enough power to fight for themselves and are not sufficiently motivated to fight for the rights of others. How motivated will the Chinese people become to support the rights of others?

------------------------------------------------

Very unmotivated. China is a very low-trust country, and has been for millenia. Chinese invest all of their energies into raising and providing for their children, making sure that their children can compete against other people's children. The only people they trust are immediate family members, not outsiders, not friends, not strangers, or governments.

The only rights they will ask for are the rights to live more comfortably. They will never challenge the hierarchy or threaten the patronage system. Freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and freedom to dissent will always languish behind freedom to spend and freedom to relax.


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