Richard Madsen | August 30, 2021
Responding To: Shared Approaches and Prospects for Peace: Part 2
Rainbow Activism in China
The Supreme Court has recently delivered a major victory to LGBTQ employees. Protecting gay, lesbian, and transgender employees from discrimination, the ruling states that employers cannot fire someone for being homosexual or transgender. My research on rainbow activism in China shows reveals the way that parents provide a different moral basis for their activism.
In discussions of different ideas of the common good, Chinese notions of gong and si (公与私) are relevant. While the latter, “si”, can be readily translated as the private, the former, “gong”, signifies in most cases the state or the official, instead of the public. The mainstream Chinese thoughts hold that gong is always good, and si is the opposite of the Good if not entirely evil. Therefore, from the late Zhou Dynasty, the consensus of Chinese thinkers of various schools was to “promote gong and oppress si” (崇公抑私), “establishing gong to eliminate si” (立公灭私), “great impartiality without any si” (大公无私).
The terms of gong and si are first and foremost understood from the perspective of the holders of political powers and also defined in a hierarchal differentiation. The kings represent gong in front of the nobilities who as the subjects of kings are si; to move one level down the nobilities become gong while commoners are si. The feudal state is gong while the individuals in the state are si. The key here is to use the term gong to connect the feudal state, the king, society and individual into one entity in a descending order or hierarchy; hence eliminates the possibility of the opposition between state and society, society and individual, and ultimately rulers and subjects.
Therefore, virtues, good behaviors, like all good things, must come from the king or emperor and then go downwardly along the hierarchy in the name of the gong. From the ruler’s point of view, too much private virtues could develop into a threat to the centralized power of king/emperor, much less the organization of the individuals on their own term. By this logic, participatory politics by citizens in public life would be viewed as gathering to make trouble (聚众滋事) in traditional China, a clear sign of malfunctioning governing and potential political instability. The rulers always do their best to prevent the commoners from participating in politics by separate the gong from si, the politics from ordinary people.
Under the influence of traditional culture, the modern notion of common good in the sense of making the Good through public participation of autonomous individuals is not welcomed by the Chinese elite and government leaders alike. While the notion of civic engagement has gained certain degree of popularity and various forms of NGO groups popped up during the post-Mao era, the political constraints on the growth of civil society remains throughout the past four decades, and the party-state still prefers to maintain a highly paternalist approach in dealing with the state-society relationship.
It is in such a cultural context that the case of rainbow parents (i.e., straight parents who organize themselves to fight for the equal rights of their gay children) is particularly noteworthy. On one hand, parental activism originated from intergenerational solidarity and other familial values, which seems to fit the Catholic notion of common good but break away from the Confucian tradition by making their fight in the public sphere and engaging both the general public and the government. On the other hand, rainbow parents have gone beyond the family and kin networks to organize themselves in a typical grassroots civic group, PFLAG China, and proactively advocate diversity and equal rights on behalf of the sexual minority. To a certain extent, these rainbow parents have created their own way to approach the common good.
Yan Yunxiang is a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles.
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