Through Culture and its Disciplines: Human Rights and the Institutionalization of Law in China

Document Type



This paper was awarded the Clarke Student Essay Prize in 2003.


The issue of human rights is always grist for the mill of diplomacy. The international community has over the years identified China as a source of chronic and egregious human rights abuses. China's divergence from internationally-recognized norms of human rights constitutes the most serious impediment to China's political, economic, and social integration with the rest of the world.

The present paper argues that a sustainable and viable rule of law must precede commitment to and preservation of human rights. The problem immediately becomes one of definitions: whose "rule of law"? whose "human rights"? The meanings of these highly-charged phrases are contested along different lines; much of the discrepancy is caused by the different historical and cultural experiences of peoples in regards to "rule of law" and "human rights." This paper argues that the analytic lens of anthropology can reconceptualize these issues allowing us to think anew about such stumbling blocks to international relations as the universalism/relativism impasse of the human rights debate, the legitimacy and accuracy of "Asian values," and the difficulties China has faced in institutionalizing a rule of law recognized by the international community.

Date of Authorship for this Version

June 2003