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

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

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Title: Chinese Conceptions of “Rights”: From Mencius to Mao—and Now
Author: Perry, Elizabeth J.
Citation: Perry, Elizabeth J. 2008. Chinese conceptions of "rights": From Mencius to Mao—and now. Perspectives on Politics 6(1): 37-50.
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Abstract: 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 far less politically threatening. The Chinese polity appears neither as vacuous nor as vulnerable as it is sometimes assumed to be.
Published Version: doi:10.1017/S1537592708080055
Terms of Use: This article is made available under the terms and conditions applicable to Open Access Policy Articles, as set forth at
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