Spring 2012 Course: Rights and Activism in Modern China

Rights and Activism in Modern China NANT3570
Spring 2012 on Mondays from 4:00-5:50 PM

The language of human rights has become increasingly common in China today. Amid the economic and social upheavals of the late socialist period, ordinary Chinese have turned to human rights as both a political strategy and a new way of understanding themselves and their relationship to the state.

We use studies of current and prominent human rights cases to contemplate the following questions: What is the relationship between the international human rights movement and domestic grassroots activism? In what kinds of situations is the language of rights useful, and how are individuals interpreting and pressing human rights claims? What is the role of the state in promoting or suppressing human rights? What impact do China’s burgeoning capitalist markets have on human rights?

We discuss the growth of grassroots groups and the expansion of civil society in China, exploring the impact of technology, international funding, and domestic law. The course draws on scholarly texts, publications by nongovernmental human rights organizations, and Web-based academic projects and blogs.

Solidarity and Expertise

A few weeks into fieldwork this summer, I was contracted by my host organization and its New York-based partner organization to edit drafts of a research report they were working on. I have done project-based consulting and volunteer work for the New York partner group since 2008, and worked full-time at a different China-focused rights organization for four years prior to graduate school. As a result, my summer research field site was interesting to me not only because of the subject of research, but also because it provided an opportunity to develop a practical approach to conducting fieldwork in the context of multiple commitments. All anthropologists encounter the dilemma of complex and sometimes conflicting commitments during the course of fieldwork, and the chronology of my commitments meant that it was not necessarily easier for me to think like an anthropologist than a practitioner. I have been thinking a lot about two major methodological issues, encapsulated by the concepts of solidarity and expertise, which were significant to the way I positioned myself in the field site.

A quick online dictionary search tells me that solidarity is the “union or fellowship arising from common responsibilities and interests, as between members of a group or between classes, peoples.” When an expert speaks of “standing in solidarity” with the subjects of her ethnography, then, she is expressing an intention to support—or at the very least, not obstruct—the aims of those who appear in her work. Solidarity doesn’t indicate any practical collaboration or hands-on power-sharing per se, but, according to anthropologist Miriam Ticktin, a recognition on the part of the anthropologist that one never produces knowledge alone. It is an intention, a sentiment, and an engagement, which may translate into quite flexible forms of action.

Expertise, on the other hand, refers to special skills and knowledge held by a limited number of individuals, and as such serves to stratify rather than unite, unlike the concept of solidarity. Furthermore, professionalization has been defined as “an informal process begun by practitioners who perceive there to be exacting standards required of their activities which make it necessary to exclude amateurs” (Lewis 2008; O’Flaherty and Ulrich 2010: 2). What does it mean then, when a human rights expert professes solidarity with people living with HIV/AIDS, or when an anthropologist professes solidarity with her informants? Given that capacity building is about the transfer of expertise, what does it say about the relationship between expertise and solidarity in this particular setting? How does claiming expertise transform ties of solidarity? And how does my own expertise in human rights affect the way I listen to my informants and interpret their actions and words? Although I did not find satisfying answers to all of these questions, it was helpful to keep these two problematics in mind as I conducted fieldwork.

Lewis, O. 2008. “To What Extent Was Diplomacy Professionalised in the French System?” International Relations e-Journal. Available at: http://www.e-ir.info/?p-428.

O’Flaherty, Michael and George Ulrich. 2010. “The Professionalization of Human Rights Field Work.” Journal of Human Rights Practice 2(1): 1-27.

ICI Representative Jianying Zha meets with Obama over China’s Human Rights Issues

Jianying Zha meets Obama

January 20th, 2011

Last Thursday, a select group of five experts on China were asked to meet with President Obama to discuss issues of human rights and reform ahead of a state visit by President Hu Jintao this week. Jianying Zha, the India China Institute’s representative in China, was part of this group, and offered her views and advice.

Zha is a writer and an expert in Chinese pop culture and media, giving her a vantage point that goes beyond the state-run media. Zha began by remarking on the natural comparison between India and China on the issues of democracy and modes of development, and mentioned some works done by ICI’s fellows program as a source of further information and insight.

Zha then summed up current China as undergoing “a moment of great pride and great anxiety”—pride over the achievements that have been made in the economic reform of the past thirty years, and anxiety over a host of difficult challenges in terms of corruption and inequality, upgrading the economy and deepening the reform. She noted that though the Chinese are schooled on nationalism and can be
prickly about Western criticism, there have also been lots of internal debates about constitutional democracy as Chinese citizens have grown more conscious of their rights. She advised President Obama on the importance of addressing human rights issues with cultural sensitivity. She raised the point in particular that these universal rights are also guaranteed in the Chinese constitution, and there have been many lively discussions among the Chinese themselves about how to enact the Chinese constitution.

Her point appears to have been well received by President Obama. The New York Times reported, in a front page article on January 20, that Obama “called on China to live up to human rights values that he said were enshrined in the Chinese Constitution,” to which Hu Jintao responded by saying “China recognizes and also respects the universality of human rights,” but “China is a developing country with a huge population, and also a developing country in a crucial stage of reform. In this context, China still faces many challenges in economic and social development. And a lot still needs to be done in China, in terms of human rights.” This unusually pointed exchange between the two presidents, at the widely watched joint press conference, is certainly worth noting for its candid yet positive tone.

Below are links to further coverage of this meeting.

CNN: Another Long March: China’s Human Rights Struggles

The Washington Post: Ahead of visit by China’s Hu, Obama meets with advocates for human rights

The New York Times : Obama Pushes Hu on Rights but Stresses Ties to China