Freedom in Times of Pandemic: Chinese International Students’ Readings of Human Rights Criticism During the UK’s First COVID-19 Lockdown


  • Lieve Gies University of Leicester



COVID-19, denial, human rights, imagined community, international student mobility


This research project set out to study how Chinese international students in the United Kingdom understand human rights principles. The principal method involved semi-structured interviews which were primarily intended as a listening exercise in which participants were able to voice their views on human rights. The discussions were explicitly centered on participants’ own definitions and understandings. The interviews coincided with the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite holding conflicted views on the subject, most interview participants sought to legitimize China’s human rights record. While their reactions echo Stanley Cohen’s acclaimed study of human rights denial, sufficient distinction needs to be made between state actors’ denial and citizen denial. Participants’ struggle to trust foreign media reports, their reappraisal of their circumstances during the pandemic and their lack of exposure to human rights abuse acted as barriers in acknowledging China’s human rights violations. These findings highlight the need for an inclusive pedagogy which is capable of accommodating the various iterations of the imagined community through which expatriate Chinese students view human rights criticism targeted at China.


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How to Cite

Gies, L. (2023). Freedom in Times of Pandemic: Chinese International Students’ Readings of Human Rights Criticism During the UK’s First COVID-19 Lockdown. Journal of Comparative & International Higher Education, 15(4), 70–81.



Empirical Article