The Persistence of Chinese Rights Defenders

Scholars have recently critiqued human rights as a purely Eurocentric construct that has failed to find wider appeal and is now on the decline. Some cite the apparent success of China’s repressive political regime in support of this argument, but depicting China as uniformly authoritarian risks missing the persistence of domestic forms of human rights advocacy and mobilization.

This chapter, “The Persistence of Chinese Rights Defenders”, which I wrote a couple of years ago for the Oxford Handbook of Law and Anthropology, draws on my experience as a rights advocate to review the history of civil society mobilization in China since 2000, including actions taken in domestic courts, in non-governmental organizations, and through social media. Despite repeated crackdowns, the arrest and disappearance of leading human rights defenders, and Chinese authorities’ interference with UN human rights mechanisms, some Chinese human rights defenders do find innovative ways to persist in rights-based advocacy, such as the practice of weiguan (public counterveillance during political trials).

I argue that the world has entered a more intense phase of struggle over the meaning and application of human rights norms in diverse local contexts, and that the human rights framework facilitates transnational solidarity.

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