Society for East Asian Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
In China, persons with disabilities have long been viewed as welfare subjects who are incapable, who have to depend on others’ care and protection. This view is reinforced by state apparatuses such as special schools, psychiatric institutions, welfare stipends, and legal provision for parental guardianship. In recent years, however, a disability rights movement has emerged. Activists of this movement see persons with disabilities as autonomous and capable citizens, champion their inclusion into mainstream society, and fight against both discrimination and special treatment based on disability.
This paper examines the disability rights movement and its repercussions among grassroots disabled communities. Cases include both the advocacy against institutionalization and parental guardianship of people with psychiatric disabilities, and the struggle for blind people’s access to mainstream higher education. My fieldwork shows that while people with disabilities value the movement’s general goals of dignity and equality, they criticize some of the advocacy strategies for disregarding their vulnerability, their need for welfare support, and their dependence on the goodwill of others. Moreover, especially as people with psychiatric disabilities see it, when activists emphasize the similar social barriers faced by all people with disabilities, they risk flattening embodied differences and trivializing people’s suffering. Indeed, in the post-socialist paternalistic politics, it is often these differences and suffering that allow one to demand recognition and redistribution. These concerns and controversies illustrate changing imaginations of personhood, rights, and citizenship in post-socialist China, revealing how identity politics are shaped by the country’s dominant ideology and institutions of welfare paternalism.