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The Role of the State in China's Human Rights Progress

On 19 April 2007, Dr. Dingding Chen, a China and World Fellow at Harvard, gave a talk on the evolution of China’s human rights policy since 1978. Chen’s talk challenges the conventional view that external pressure is the most important factor in explaining China’s human rights changes. By tracing the origins and developments of China’s human rights policy, Chen finds that although external pressure did play a role in shaping China’s human rights policy, it cannot adequately explain the whole picture. Instead, cognitive changes resulting from self-reflection by the Chinese government upon China’s past, especially the Cultural Revolution, laid the foundation for China’s human rights transformation in subsequent years. One of the policy implications of this study is that pure external pressure is unlikely to produce positive changes in China’s human rights situation. Chen’s presentation triggered off a lively discussion among the participants. As several participants suggested, while Chen’s main argument about the crucial role of the state in promoting human rights in China is plausible, an “equilibrium” approach which incorporates both domestic politics and international forces may provide a better theoretical perspective on the study of human rights in China and beyond. (Dingding Chen/Xu Xin)