‘Human rights activism driving changes in China’


Washington : A quiet revolution is going on in China, fuelled by human rights activists and ordinary citizens that is “creating the potential for much broader social change”.

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This is the finding of an extensive new study by a University of California sociologist who believes these changes will kick in after the Beijing Olympics.

“Workers, homeowners and farmers have emerged as unlikely activists… filling the gaps between central government law-making and the rights violations and corruption of local governments,” said sociologist Ching Kwan Lee.

Lee said labour standards in China have remained extremely bad since the country’s economic reform began 30 years ago. As a result, NGOs have come forward to provide legal and other services and workers are protesting through civil disobedience and other strategies.

An estimated 34 million farmers have lost some or all of their land over the past two decades. Rural Chinese are reacting to these rights violations by issuing public statements, filing lawsuits and organising collective protests.

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 labour, property and rural land rights, said Lee.

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.

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 neighbourhood Web sites, hunger strikes and other strategies.

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.

“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.

Lee’s findings have been published in the summer issue of the American Sociological Association’s journal Contexts.