The Politics of Dignity in Twenty-First Century China

In Chinese language, the normative concept of “dignity” (zunyan 尊严) in relation to human rights first gained traction among Chinese intellectuals around the mid-twentieth century but soon virtually disappeared with the purge of intellectuals in the mid-1950s under Mao Zedong’s rule (1945–1976). From the 1990s onward, as a new generation of Chinese intellectuals and activists emerged in a global context that became historically and politically more favourable to human rights advocacy in China, the concept of dignity started to be increasingly used by Chinese intellectuals, scholars, human rights defenders and common citizens alike as part of a counter-discourse to protect and defend their individual rights as Chinese citizens and human beings who suffered injustice at the hands of the Chinese party-state. At the same time, the Chinese government under Hu Jintao (2002–2012) and Xi Jinping (2013–) has been promoting the Chinese Dream (zhongguo meng中国梦) narrative based on “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” whose historical background is that China’s “century of humiliation” (bainian guochi百年国耻) is over and China has regained it “national dignity” (guojia zunyan国家尊严) as a “great power” (da guo大国) of the Twenty-First Century.

This talk will illustrate how Chinese citizens such as the imprisoned 2010 Nobel Peace Prize laurate Liu Xiaobo and other Chinese human rights defenders have sought to strategically appropriate the noble moral dimension of “dignity”, that was usually associated in the past with traditional elites during China’s imperial era, as an effort to contrast their moral positioning with the mean-spirited “small persons” (xiaoren 小人) of government officials in contemporary China who promote the grand narrative of “national dignity” without caring much for the individual dignity of Chinese people. In order to better ascertain the changing conditions and power relations under which the global discourse on dignity is being contested and redefined at this juncture of history, this paper argues that it is important to clarify the gap between those two concepts of dignity that exist in Chinese language, namely the dignity discourse of Chinese victims of injustice and the abstract rhetoric about national dignity being promoted by the Chinese party-state.