Sociologist Ching Kwan Lee, a sociologist at the University of California-Los Angeles, writes in the summer issue of the American Sociological Association's Contexts magazine that there is a 'quiet revolution' happening among citizens of China that isn't recognized by the louder human rights activists.
In contrast to traditional activism appealing to universal notions of human rights, this grassroots movement among everyday people in China invokes "the protection of lawful rights," or weiquan. This activism focuses on specific rights prescribed by Chinese law, such as labor, property and rural land rights.
According to Lee, growing unrest over social injustice, as well as wealth and power gaps in Chinese society—due to the country's rapid economic development—has led to three decades of market reform and legal proliferation by the central government in Beijing.
However, in many local Chinese governments, the central government's legal reform suffers at the hand of economic and fiscal decentralization, as local governments pursue revenue and resources above all else. In this climate, Lee asserts, local governments are prone to violate citizens' rights through vested interests and the collusion of local officials with employers, investors and land developers.
In the case of labor rights, despite a series of labor laws passed since the 1990s, Lee asserts that labor standards in China have remained extremely bad since the country's economic reform began 30 years ago. As a result, non-governmental organizations have formed to provide legal and other services; the legal profession has ballooned; and workers are protesting through civil disobedience and other strategies.
Property ownership is another area in which local governments violate citizen rights in pursuit of financial gains from land lease sales and urban redevelopment. Homeowner activism has included petitions, mass occupations of property management company offices, development and use of neighborhood Web sites, hunger strikes and other strategies. In addition, homeowners' associations are increasingly being formed to advocate for rights and prevent power abuses by the local government.
In the area of land rights, thousands of conflicts, some violent, arise every year in China due to illegal land grabs by local officials, withholding of farmer compensation and lack of job replacement for those whose land has been taken. An estimated 34 million farmers have lost some or all of their land over the past two decades. Rural Chinese citizens are reacting to these rights violations by issuing public statements, filing lawsuits and organizing collective protests.
"Today's rights activism in China provides a look at the forces driving the near-total transformation of the most populace nation in the world," Lee said. "Attention may shift away from China after the 2008 Olympic Games conclude, yet the struggles between economic growth and social stability; between authoritarian rule and a more responsive state and involved citizenry; and between local and central governments will continue to shape and define China for the long-term future."