In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Political Dissent

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Traditions of Chinese Political Dissent
  • Kinds of Political Dissent

Chinese Studies Political Dissent
Timothy Cheek
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 April 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0141


Political dissent has existed in China since at least the time of Confucius in the 5th century BCE. Every political regime in China has provoked political dissent, some aimed to improve the current order and some designed to overturn it. Most dissent has claimed a moral imperative based on Confucian and later Buddhist values of humanity. By the mid-19th century these indigenous traditions of dissent combined with new examples of political activism drawn from Western societies, particularly liberal democracy and soon, socialism. Given the strong links between educated elites and the state embodied in the scholar-officials of the Qing and the cadres of China’s 20th-century governments, the line between political service and advice as Oxford Bibliographies article in Chinese Studies “Establishment Intellectuals” and political dissent and resistance has been blurry. Not only have Western scholars been inclined to view activities of some establishment intellectuals who saw themselves as loyal to their regime as dissidents, but also Chinese states have often declared loyal ministers or cadres to be dissidents after the fact. In the modern period, the regimes against which political dissent in China struggled and the public arenas through which this dissent has been expressed have changed markedly from the last imperial dynasty, the Qing, which fell in 1911, to the troubled Republic between 1912 and 1949, and in the PRC since 1949, with the years before the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations and repression being significantly different from post-Tiananmen developments—much dissent moved from the streets before 1990 to the Internet today. Different kinds of political dissent can be identified, including literary dissent, social dissent, and legal dissent. Major themes of political dissent in modern China have included human rights, socialist legality, and constitutional order. Today, political dissent in China persists between the limitations of the Party under Xi Jinping and the opportunities afforded by the Internet. The study of political dissent is an inherently interdisciplinary topic engaging at least the perspectives of political science, sociology, philosophy, literary studies, and intellectual and social history in order to engage ideas of individuals and social groups, trends of thought and discourse, social and political institutions, as well as traditional historiographical questions of context and change over time. Thus, several other topics in the Oxford Bibliographies in Chinese Studies will be of use to those interested in China’s political dissent: Establishment Intellectuals, Modern Chinese Political Thought, Chinese Communist Party to 1949, Chinese Communist Party since 1949, Journalism and the Press, Revolutionary Literature under Mao, Chinese Literature Post-Mao, and 1989 People’s Movement.

General Overviews

Political dissent in China is largely, but not only, intellectual dissent. Studies of modern Chinese intellectuals generally cover the full century from late Qing scholar-officials, to May Fourth intellectuals and liberals in the Republic, to intellectual cadres and dissidents under Mao, to intellectuals of various stripes in the post-Mao period. Most studies focus on intellectuals who offered public criticism and even those that try to balance examples of state service by establishment intellectuals also cover political dissent.

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