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Chinese Conceptions of “Rights”: From Mencius to Mao—and Now

  • Elizabeth J. Perry (a1)

The recent explosion of popular protest in China, often framed as a demand for the fulfillment of “rights,” has captured widespread attention. Some observers interpret the protests as signs of a “moral vacuum.” Others see the unrest as signaling a powerful new “rights consciousness.” In either case, the protests are often regarded as a major challenge to the stability of the political system. In this article, an examination of Chinese conceptions of “rights,” as reflected in the ethical discourses of philosophers, political leaders, and protesters (and as contrasted with American understandings of rights), provides the basis for questioning prevailing assumptions about the fragility of the Chinese political order. For over two millennia, Chinese political thought, policy, and protest have assigned central priority to the attainment of socioeconomic security. As a result, the meaning of “rights” in Chinese political discourse differs significantly from the Anglo-American tradition. Viewed in historical context, China's contemporary “rights” protests seem less politically threatening. The Chinese polity appears neither as vacuous nor as vulnerable as it is sometimes assumed to be.Elizabeth J. Perry is Henry Rosovsky Professor of Government at Harvard University and is the current President of the Association for Asian Studies ( A preliminary draft of this paper was delivered as a keynote address at the conference on Socioeconomic Rights and Justice in China held at Dickinson College in April 2004. The author is grateful to the conference organizer, Neil Diamant, for the invitation to consider these issues and to the other conference participants (especially David Strand and Jerome Cohen) for their challenging comments and questions. A substantially revised version was presented at the conference in memory of Benjamin Schwartz, held in Shanghai at East China Normal University in December 2006. Thanks are due to the conference organizers and participants (particularly Zhu Zhenghui, Xu Jilin, Zhang Jishun, Tong Shijun, and Roderick MacFarquhar) for their stimulating suggestions. Appreciation is also extended to Stephen Angle, Nara Dillon, Mary Gallagher, and Kevin O'Brien for their critical reading of an earlier draft.

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Perspectives on Politics
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