Harold Laski and his Chinese disciples

Harold Laski’s influence in China has been under-researched for decades. A new workshop held this week will explore the legacy of his legal philosophy

Harold Laski (1893-1950) was one of the most important twentieth century public intellectuals. He taught political science at the London School of Economics from 1926 to 1950. He was one of the major theorists of democratic socialism. While Laski’s impact on the English speaking world has been well studied, his equally profound influence on intellectual thinking and institution building in Republican China (1911-49) and its contemporary implications have been overlooked by both academics and lay audiences for decades.

China’s search for modernity and democracy has been heavily indebted to Laski, even though Laski never set foot in China and China never occupied a place in his writing and thinking. The discussion and dissemination of Laski’s work was driven by Chinese intellectuals’ search for solutions to what were seen as ‘indigenous’ problems standing in the way of the attempt to build a modern and democratic China. Laski’s idea of rights was particularly attractive to Chinese intellectuals, and had a great impact on the conception of human rights in Republican China. The circulation of Laski’s work was, however, interrupted by Communist rule in 1949. The development of rights in China was suppressed in the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Laski’s significance in China was therefore neglected for decades.

Laski’s teaching influenced many Chinese students when he taught in the United States from 1916-20. Those students include Zhang Xiruo (1889-1973, Professor of political science at Tsinghua University and Secretary of Education 1952-58) and Lu Xirong (1895-1958, Head of the School of Law at the National Central University and one of the founders of the Chinese Association of Political Science). Zhang Xiruo published a book review on Laski’s Communism in Xiandai Pinglun (Modern Review) in 1927, which was probably the earliest Chinese-language review of Laski’s work. Zhang Xiruo wrote Zhuquan lun (On Sovereignty) in 1925, one of the earliest introductions to Laski’s political thought in China. Lu Xirong published a discussion of Laski’s political thought on sovereignty in 1934. 

Laski also influenced Chinese intellectuals who did not study in the United States but travelled to Europe to pursue further study, for example Zhang Junmai (also known as Carsun Chang, 1887-1969, a social democratic politician, theorist of human rights, and drafter of the Constitution of Republican China). Zhang Junmai translated Laski’s Grammar of Politics into Chinese in 1926-28.

The British parliamentary system and cultural and philosophical tradition attracted many Chinese students to study in the United Kingdom. After Laski returned to England and started teaching at the LSE in 1926, he supervised a number of Chinese students, including Qian Changzhao (1899-1988, secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs 1928-29 and Senior Vice-Minister of Education 1930-32), Chen Yuan (also known Chen Xiying, 1896-1970, Dean of the Faculty of Arts at Wuhan University), Hang Liwu (1903-1991, Professor of political science at the National Central University, founder of the British-Chinese Culture Association, and Deputy Minister of Education 1944) and Wang Zaoshi (1903-1971, lawyer and advocate for human rights and Head of the Department of Political Science at Guanghua University). There were also students who may not have been directly supervised by Laski but considered themselves as Laski’s students, for example Luo Longji (1898-1965, founder of the China Democratic League and advocate for human rights).

In the 1920s, these Chinese elite students returned to China and became academics, government officials and journalists. They occupied positions of great influence before the Communist Party took power in 1949. In China, Laski’s students formed literary societies and provided intellectual platforms for the dissemination of Laski’s thoughts, and influenced more Chinese intellectuals to discuss, translate and publish Laski’s work.

Biography not only provides rich historical-empirical materials for studying an individual life, but also embeds the account of an individual life in a larger social context. As a methodological strategy, it remedies the shortcomings of the dominant approach to studying law that overlooks individual stories and contributions in favour of an examination of concepts, systems and events.

At a workshop in Sheffield this week I will present a new paper on the disciples of Harold Laski and the evolution of the human rights idea in Republican China between 1919-49. The paper builds on a metaphor of ‘travelling concepts’, which opens up a particular realm of comparative inquiry on the transfer of legal ideas. It focuses on a case study of Harold Laski’s long-neglected but very significant influence on the evolution of human rights in China’s search for modernity and democracy. It examines the idea of human rights as a ‘travelling concept’, draws on Edward Said’s discussion on ‘travelling theory’ and published biographies of the Chinese intellectuals who were highly influenced by Laski, and applies and develops actor-network theory in a new context. In so doing, I critique the existing narrative vehicles for analysing the transfer of legal ideas which are often based on the diffusion model of power. It sheds new light on our understanding of the ways in which the concept of human rights may ‘travel’ across different contexts.

The aims and objectives of this workshop are to uncover Laski’s impact on intellectual thinking and institution building in Republican China ( particularly in relation to the evolution of rights); apply biographical methods to the study of law, and provide new materials and methods for comparative law, legal history and socio-legal studies; revive an interest in the legacy of Laski’s legal philosophy and stimulate interest in, and engagement with, the study of the legal history of China-Britain relations and its contemporary implications.

For the contemporary implications of the workshop, we will examine the complex interaction of social, political, economic and intellectual forces that have shaped the travel of legal and political ideas in general and the human rights idea in particular from a transnational perspective. Laski seems almost forgotten today. Yet at the workshop we will discuss the relevance of Laski’s ideas to many contemporary issues we are dealing with in our own time, some of which are important for the study of political economy. For example, we will rethink the relationship between the individual, society and the state, examine the socio-economic conditions that make social democracy feasible, and explore the ways in which we may mitigate the tensions between liberty and state control which I write about in my recent LSE blog on ‘Rethinking Human Rights amid COVID-19 Crisis: Harold Laski’s Legacy’.