In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Human Rights in China

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Collections of Source Materials
  • Chinese Official Discourse and Policy Documents
  • Chinese Scholarship
  • Health
  • Children’s Rights
  • Religious Freedom
  • Minority Rights
  • Internet
  • Art

Chinese Studies Human Rights in China
Marina Svensson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 August 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 August 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0135


Human rights are a fairly recent topic within the field of Chinese studies. The topic has evolved and been influenced by sociopolitical developments in China as well as by intra-disciplinary developments within the fields of China studies and human rights studies. Before 1989 very few academic works in English addressed human rights in China. Human rights as a concept and as a research field were not considered fruitful or relevant for studies of Chinese politics and society. Ideological and political campaigns, political and religious persecution, and legal issues were thus addressed and studied using other frameworks. The crushing of the democracy movement in 1989 led scholars to begin to critically study human rights discourses and practices in China. In the early post-1989 period scholars mostly focused on topics such as the understanding and role of human rights and democracy within the democracy movement, topics related to Chinese culture and human rights, and China’s compliance with the international human rights regime and the role of human rights in foreign relations more generally. The majority of these scholars came from the fields of Sinology, history, philosophy, law and international relations, and the methods they used were mostly analyses of media reports, dissident writings, philosophical and theoretical works, laws and policy documents. Developments since the 1990s, including the Chinese governments’ own adoption and appropriation of the human rights discourse as a result of international pressure and domestic developments, growing rights consciousness, debates and struggles among ordinary citizens, and the rise of NGOs working in the field, have encouraged scholars from other disciplines, including sociology, political science, and anthropology to address human rights. These scholars often make use of more bottom-up, empirical and ethnographic methods in contrast to the earlier more text-based studies. The topics addressed, methods used, and disciplinary approaches to human rights have thus broadened as rights talk now permeate legal discourses, political debates and struggles and protests in China. Despite official recognition and the fact that human rights since 2004 are written into the constitution, the concept and topic remain highly sensitive in China, and the ability to get access to reliable data and do serious fieldwork continues to be very circumscribed. It is important to remember that there exist divergent understandings of human rights within the academic community and between different disciplines, as well as in the Chinese society itself. These dividing lines do not only or simply run between official and non-official views in China, or between China and the so-called West, but are more complex and changing.

General Overviews

There exist a number of works that provide useful introductions and overviews of both the history of human rights in China and the actual situation in the country. Among the first scholars to more systematically address human rights in China was Cohen 1987, who critically addressed the fact that China had been exempted from scrutiny. Early edited volumes that brought together political scientists and legal scholars on the issue include Edwards, et al. 1986. After 1989 more scholars turned their attention to human rights issues. A number of scholars have studied the historical evolution of human rights thinking. Angle 2002 focuses more on the philosophical dimensions of human rights discussions in China, whereas Svensson 2002 addresses the political context and background to human rights debates. Other scholars provide overviews of the legal protection of human rights, China’s compliance with international law, and the actual situation in the country. Kent 1993 was among the first scholars to address China’s changing position in the early 1990s and the country’s involvement with the United Nations (UN). Peerenboom, et al. 2006 provides a good overview of Chinese laws and policies in the field, discussing different measurements and indexes related to human rights performance and comparing China’s performance with other countries. International NGOs, such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Human Rights in China, provide annual reports on the human rights situation in China (see International NGOs), to be compared with China’s reports submitted to different UN bodies (see Chinese Official Discourse and Policy Documents). Svensson 2011 provides an overview of the development of research on human rights in China since the 1980s and the perspectives from different disciplines such as Sinology, history, philosophy, law, sociology, political science, and anthropology.

  • Angle, Stephen C. Human Rights in Chinese Thought: A Cross-Cultural Inquiry. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511499227

    The book provides a historical overview introducing a number of selected Chinese scholars and contemporary Chinese intellectuals’ discussions on selected topics. It mainly takes a philosophical approach to the study of human rights ideas and approaches it from a cross-cultural perspective.

  • Cohen, Roberta. “People’s Republic of China: The Human Rights Exception.” Human Rights Quarterly 9.4 (November 1987): 447–549.

    DOI: 10.2307/761910

    The article discusses the reason why the Chinese human rights record has not been addressed in the past, recent changes in this respect, and the role of governments and NGOs. It also addresses the beginning of China’s engagement with the UN on human rights system.

  • Edwards, Randle R., Louis Henkin, and Andrew J. Nathan. Human Rights in Contemporary China. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.

    One of the earliest works addressing the history and status of human rights in contemporary China. The book reflects the situation in China and the understanding among Western scholars in the mid-1980s. It serves to remind us that studies of human rights have changed since then as a result of development in China, including both the official appropritation of human rights discourse and a growing human rights awareness among ordinary citizens.

  • Kent, Ann. Between Freedom and Subsistence: China and Human Rights. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1993.

    Kent provides an overview of the political and legal environment in China and the official position on human rights. But the book moves beyond the domestic scene to address the connections and tensions between international human rights norms, the Chinese constitutional, legal and institutional framework, and the actual enjoyment of rights among Chinese citizens.

  • Peerenboom, Randall, Carole J. Petersen, and Albert H. Y. Chen. Human Rights in Asia: A Comparative Legal Study of Twelve Asian Jurisdictions, France and the USA. London: Routledge, 2006.

    The book provides a good overview and comparison between different Asian and Western countries. The chapter by Peerenboom on China provides a good overview of Chinese laws and policies in the field, and China’s compliance to international law. The book is useful for its comparative perspective and for addressing both legal issues and socioeconomic developments.

  • Svensson, Marina. Debating Human Rights in China: A Conceptual and Political History. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002.

    This book traces the concept of human rights in Chinese political discourse since the late Qing dynasty until 2000. It pays particular attention to the historical and political context of human rights debates and new developments during the reform period.

  • Svensson, Marina. “Human Rights in China as an Interdisciplinary Field: History, Current Debates and New Approaches.” In Handbook of Human Rights. Edited by Tom Cushman, 685–701. London: Routledge, 2011.

    The article discusses developments regarding the study of human rights in China, how different disciplines approach the topic, and new insights and approaches in recent years. The author advocates an interdisciplinary approach and encourages new approaches that take into account how expressions and struggles for human rights are circulated in art, film, and on the Internet.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.