Sun & Star Webinar Series: The Rights Protection Movements in Contemporary China

Over the last few years, much of the foreign policy news in America has revolved around our relations, both economic and political, with China. Many scholars also question whether or not China is moving any closer to democracy, and if not, what is holding China back from liberalizing? Is China’s current path a threat to US international power and influence? While American policymakers discuss the rise of China against the current US hegemony, Chinese officials maintain their focus on domestic threats, not foreign ones. Because China is an authoritarian power, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) must consistently protect itself against threats that may destabilize the regime, and while the US poses a foreign threat to that legitimacy, the CCP’s most formidable foe is its own people. On April 8th, 2021, the SMU Tower Center Sun & Star Webinar Series invited Dr. Maosong Wu, a visiting scholar of the SMU Tower Center and Associate Professor at Keio University in Japan, to discuss rights protection movements in contemporary China.

Dr. Wu’s research studies how a changing society influences political order, a highly
relevant question considering the rise of rights movements in China since the 1990s. This collection of movements, termed the weiquan movement, is defined by the people’s defense of human rights and protections in various fields across China through resistance, legal actions, and social movements. The weiquan movement arose after a preparatory stage of legalization and institutionalization in the 1980s, necessary conditions forming in society in the 1990s, and finally, the movements developing in the 2000s.

Over the course of the 2000s, the Chinese populace achieved great progress towards
protecting their rights, but not without pushback from the government. In 2004, respecting human rights was finally added to the Constitution, and in 2008, the then decentralized movement defined itself by a common political objective of achieving people’s rights and democracy. Since these developments, the CCP cracked down on rights movements in China, demonstrating how a changing society demanding rights protections was met with a changing political order that resisted this progress. In 2013 the state arrested activists, in 2015 the government arrested over 300 lawyers and activists across China, and since then the state has launched a campaign against weiquan discourse in the media. According to Dr. Wu, the state’s response reflects how the Party is cautious about blurring the lines between civil rights and political values. While it does recognize that safeguarding civil and legal rights is necessary at this point, allowing the movement to advance toward a political one threatens the regime’s legitimacy, stability, and power. This, in turn, has transformed the weiquan movement even further, making it more focused on the right to resistance and raising anti-regime sentiment to a small degree.

This movement transcends civil and human rights in China. In fact, the movement affects and is based on people’s livelihoods, giving it the fuel to potentially develop into a full-scale democratic movement. As Dr. Wu explained, the tension now exists between a changing, diversifying society and a resistant government hoping to centralize and homogenize political attitudes. This tension could be the source of a movement reminiscent of the Taisho Democracy in Japan, which was a harbinger of Japan’s transformation into a democracy in the post-war world. Although it is impossible to foresee where this movement may take China politically, it is
clear that the CCP will have to work much harder to push back against growing demands for democratization, liberalization, and human rights as its own people become its greatest threat.

Watch the entire event below:


To learn more about SMU Tower Center events, go here.

This post was written by Saavni Desai ’23, a President’s Scholar and Tower Scholar. She is double majoring in Political Science and International Studies with a focus on the Middle East and North Africa and triple minoring in Arabic, Philosophy, and the Tower Scholars Public Policy and International Affairs minor. She also does research alongside Professor Takeuchi and is involved in Mock Trial, Indian Student Association, and the Alpha Chi Omega sorority.