Xinjiang or East Turkestan: Contending Historical Narratives and the Politics of Representation in China

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July 5th marked the fifth anniversary of a series of bloody events in Xinjiang collectively labeled as the 7/5 Urumqi riots. Immediately afterward, state and international media set to reporting and analyzing the conflict, scholars and international human rights organizations soon joined. Meanwhile the government in Beijing launched damage control, exerting its monopoly of symbolic power by shutting down Internet connectivity to Xinjiang’s 22 million people for 10 months. From the violence and its aftermath numerous accounts emerged on the causes, significance, grievances, and policies that allowed or perpetuated the violence. Reports differed in placing the dead and disappeared in the hundreds to the thousands. Media and policy discussions ranged from dissecting socio-political to ethnic tensions. While some pointed at historical narratives others ignored them all together in their attempts to answer such questions as ‘who are the Uyghurs,’ or to identify the ‘East Turkestan’ threat in their search to prove or disprove that ‘China has a terrorism problem.’

Explanatory narratives on Uyghurs and Xinjiang have understandably grown more prevalent with rising instability and the violence attributed to Uyghur discontent. These accounts have ranged from statements by the Chinese government about mounting security threats and ‘foreign forces,’ documentation by human rights groups of structural inequality and abuse, or ranged wildly in tone and sophistication from both domestic and international media. However, too few accounts have set to the task of exploring the competing historical narratives, or the significance in controlling those narratives for the identities and lives they impact.

Competing narratives in the politics of representation not only play into how the CCP crafts its policy of dealing with the region and how it understands Uyghur grievances but also influences how Uyghurs perceive their place in central government policies and frame their grievances. In that sense, exploring the competing narratives of history, the provenance of place and the significance of name sheds light on contemporary discontent centered in this contentious region. They are present at the heart of the ongoing conflict. Rather than a passing reference or minor historical footnote they demand greater attention.

Why is it Xinjiang for some and East Turkestan for others? What is the significance in the terms and why has the name and history of the region become so contentious? Representations and narratives are a constituent of identity and group formation. They influence perceptions and the significance of grievances and the vocabularies of power.

I was in Xinjiang in 2009 and happened by chance to leave Urumqi five days before the riot erupted. I returned in 2011, traveling immediately afterward to Turkey where I spent several months doing research among the Uyghur diaspora in Istanbul. I always began my interviews by inquiring how they felt about the word Xinjiang, which literally means ‘new frontier’ in Chinese.

One Uyghur student, who had become a Turkish citizen in 2010, related, “When I hear, every time, that word, Xinjiang, it reminds me that, ‘Oh! You have your place named with another language. You have to change that name.’ It makes me think that way. Always makes me feel, always reminds me that my homeland, home place, or home country, is occupied by another power.”

Another graduate student related, “This word, when I was young, I didn’t have any special feeling. Chinese just call our region Xinjiang. But how do we call it? We don’t have any word. When I went to Malaysia [first left China] I learned something about our flag, our country. I know that place is not Xinjiang. Now, when I hear that word I just think ‘new project,’ a new chance for the Chinese to earn money.”

The preferred name among Uyghurs freer to express symbolic resistance, ‘East Turkestan,’ places them within a pan-Turkic identity and a distinct historical narrative. It is included in the name of many Uyghur rights, cultural and political organizations among the diaspora, as well as violent groups of questionable existence such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM).

In China it is illegal to mention East Turkestan, Dong Tujuesitan, and the image of the East Turkestan flag, a crescent moon and star on a light blue field, is forbidden from public and private space. Human rights organizations have cataloged a number of Uyghurs being arrested and imprisoned for hoisting or displaying the flag in China.

For many Uyghurs ‘East Turkestan’ represents the history of an independent Uyghur nation, challenging the official Chinese narrative. It is little wonder then that the Chinese Communist Party conflates all mention of ‘East Turkestan’ with separatism and terrorism, says University of Kansas anthropologist Arienne Dwyer in a 2005 report on violence in Xinjiang.

It is a war of words and not just over whether to call an act of violence terrorism or not but how to situate a place in history and rectify its name, to use a Confucian concept.

In 1759, Qing troops conquered the Western region in what had been a history of territorial conflict. China has at times admitted this history but used it to state that, as in “History of the Uygurs,” a 2009 China Daily article, “The lives and cultures of people from multiple ethnic groups have been so intertwined for thousands of years that no single group can claim exclusive ownership of this region.” Still, the declaration of terra nullius is generally only put forth by the Chinese government to refute Uyghur historical claims to the region. While most independent historians tend to draw attention to the few thousand years of various Turkic empires that claimed jurisdiction in the region, from the Huns between around 200 BC to the 4th century AD to the Uyghur, Mongolian confederation from 1218 to 1759, Uyghur sources draw on the Turkic link of these empires to claim multiple independent Uyghur kingdoms in what is present day Xinjiang.

The predominant Chinese narrative is that Xinjiang has been the homeland of multiple ethnic groups since ancient times and an integral part of Chinese rule for centuries. Official accounts sometimes claim that Xinjiang was part of the Tang dynasty (618–907 AD) and that large numbers of Uyghurs, then foreigners, didn’t arrive in Xinjiang until the ninth century. Similar accounts stress Uyghur military cooperation with the Tang court in quelling rebellions in Eastern China.

Now when one travels through Xinjiang to sites such as the tomb of the 11th-century Uyghur linguist and cartographer Mahmud al-Kashgari, outside of the Southern Xinjiang town of Kashgar, they are greeted with an introductory plaque that situates him as a subject of the Song Dynasty (960 -1279). This is odd considering accepted maps of Song Dynasty territory don’t extend that far west. Some of Mahmud al-Kashgari’s most important works are stored in Istanbul; meanwhile, addressing the importance of rival narratives, Uyghurs and Uzbeks both claim Kashgari to their respective ethnic groups.

The Chinese insistence on a multiethnic history in the region, although factually not altogether contentious is arguably part of delegitimizing Uyghur claims to a titular national, historical landscape. Still, most independent scholars, such as anthropologist Dru Gladney in his Dislocating China: Reflections on Muslims, Minorities and Other Subaltern Subjects, tend to agree that the area wasn’t incorporated into China until 1821.

Conflict throughout the last two centuries of the Qing Dynasty was protracted. In 1864, Qing garrisons were jolted by the Yakub Beg rebellion, which resulted in the independent Khanate of Kashgaria. However, Beg’s sudden death in Korla in 1877 effectively brought an end to organized resistance to Qing rule. Historian and China expert, James Millward explains in his fastidiously documented Eurasian Crossroad: A History of Xinjiang that although Xinjiang had been treated more as a colony to that point, shortly after Yakub Beg’s death the region was officially made a province in 1884.

Uyghur expert Gardner Bovingdon claims in The Uyghurs: Strangers in Their Own Land that while Chinese officials and scholars had referred to Xinjiang as a colony before the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, “Chinese historians after 1949 would busy themselves erasing any such reference.” The representation of Xinjiang as an ancient and unbroken part of China became the official discourse in national mythologizing after the founding of New China. Furthermore, China is generally understood in terms of the majority ethnicity Han, and another part of the nationalizing project of erasing any reference to Xinjiang as anything but always a part of China is the population influx of Han into Xinjiang. Han residents have grown from 6.7 percent of the population in 1949 to just around half in 2014.

The collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1911 plunged China into chaos. In Xinjiang, uprisings and brutal crackdowns were prevalent as the region was torn between a series of warlords and the competing geo-political interests of the Soviet Union and emerging rivalry between the Chinese Nationalist and Communist Parties.

On 12 April 1933, the independent East Turkestan Republic (ETR) was established in Kashgar. The leaders of the 1933 ETR were predominantly educators and merchants who had been influential reformers in the 1910s and 20s. Among the goals of the new republic was the cultural and educational revival of Turkic and Uyghur identity. Kashgar, the roughly two thousand year old silk-road oasis, has long been considered the symbolic and spiritual heart of the Uyghur community, a significance that has been enhanced by the legacy of the 33’ republic. It is also this cultural significance that compounds perceptions of oppression with the destruction of Kashgar’s Old City, for example, or reifies feelings of colonization when the preserved sections of the Old City are cordoned off by a Han owned company that charges an entrance fee. When I visited in 2011, those residents willing to speak on the matter told me that they did not receive any proceeds from ticket sales. The first ETR fell within a year to the brutal warlord Sheng Shicai. The Chinese writer and activist Wang Lixiong mentions in his 2007 book My West China, Your East Turkestan that while some of Xinjiang’s Han residents laud Sheng Shicai’s methods, Uyghurs often angrily drew parallels between the savage 20th century warlord and Wang Lequan the hardline CCP General Secretary of Xinjiang from 1994 in 2010.

On 12 November 1944, the second ETR was established in Ghulja, Yining in Chinese, a city in Northern Xinjiang very close to the border with Kazakhstan. Ahmetjan Qasimi, Mehmet Emin Buğra and Isa Yusuf Alptekin were influential forces in the founding of the second republic. They remain Uyghur heroes in popular historical narratives and Ghulja has not lost its spirit of resistance. In 1997 it was the site of one of the region’s largest episodes of contention. On the eve of Ramadan, 5 February 1997, hundreds of Ghulja’s Uyghur residents took to the streets. Amnesty International collected testimony at the time that the demonstrations were a response to growing resentment at heavy police pressure, ‘Strike Hard’ Campaigns, and the direct targeting of cultural and religious rights, a recurring grievance in Xinjiang. According to Global Security, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was called in to suppress the demonstrations, killing 167 people and arresting over 5,000 Uyghurs. The 1944 republic ended in similar abruptness. All hopes of lasting independence for the Ghulja based East Turkestan Republic went down in flames on 27 August 1949.

Ahmetjan Qasimi and a coterie of Xinjiang’s top Uyghur intellectuals and political leaders had been invited to Beijing by Mao Zedong to attend the first Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. The main task of the CPPCC was to discuss the particulars of the soon to be established People’s Republic of China. Ahmetjan Qasimi, who had kept the second ETR aligned with the Nationalists until toward the end, had switched sides and joined the communists at the encouragement of the Soviet Union and, according to prominent Uyghur narratives I have uncovered, promises from the CCP that Uyghurs would be rewarded with full independence. The plane, crowded with Uyghur leaders, never made it to the conference. In circumstances that would be repeated two decades later with the removal of Mao’s rival Lin Biao, the plane mysteriously crashed along the way.

Their deaths would be kept secret for several months, until the PLA had fully occupied the region. The death of so many well-educated and capable leaders resulted in a leadership vacuum for Xinjiang’s Uyghurs. In her memoir, World Uyghur Congress president Rebiya Kadeer notes, “The death of our leading delegation was too severe a setback for compatriots to overcome, and so our momentum toward independence came to a stop.”

Fearing a crackdown following the mysterious crash, Isa Yusuf Alptekin led a wave of Uyghurs out of Xinjiang into neighboring Kashmir, and Afghanistan. Similar routes have been replicated over the years by Uyghurs fleeing China’s borders, whether as would-be refugees or militants. I met Alptekin’s son Arslan, who was a child at the time, in Istanbul in 2011, only weeks before he passed away. He related the severity of conditions in the escape, remembering frozen corpses on the road as relatives dragged him along.

By 1952, through Alptekin’s lobbying and pressure from the UNHCR, Turkey accepted around 2,000 Uyghur refugees for resettlement in Kayseri, South of Ankara. The establishment of the Uyghur diaspora in Turkey, and later countries, and subsequent waves of refugees out of Xinjiang are important elements in the shaping of the official Chinese narrative on Xinjiang and the threat of ‘foreign forces.’ Middle East scholar and Uyghur expert Yitzhak Shichor has written extensively about this.

Despite a history of indigenous resistance, Chinese sources generally represent the two republics as the product of abusive foreign governments. This is the official position outlined, for example, by Chen Chao in Xinjiang de Fenlie Yu Fanfenlie Douzheng (The struggle of separatism and counter-separatism in Xinjiang). Media sources in China are no different. A 2009 China Daily article following the rioting in Urumqi, “’East Turkistan’ a concept forged by separatists,” states that in the early 20th century and later, ‘a small number of separatists and religious extremists in Xinjiang,’ influenced by overseas extremism and imperialism, ‘politicized the idea of East Turkistan’ and fabricated a history, which had never existed.

Contemporary official rhetoric has not changed. It continues to deny accusations of structural inequality and Uyghur grievances and labels the majority of domestic unrest as the result of ‘foreign forces,’ such as the Munich based World Uyghur Congress, The East Turkestan Foundation in Istanbul, or others. Ironically, as professor Millward notes, while “the PRC claims that the Uyghur terrorist problem is foreign in origin, much of China’s effort to combat terrorism is directed domestically at Uyghur cultural expression, thus worsening the Uyghur civil rights problem.”

By claiming that inequality does not exist, delegitimizing Uyghur claims, and circumscribing the available institutional channels for Uyghurs to report grievances, the CCP policy in Xinjiang continues to engender unrest, which is further labeled as the influence of ‘foreign forces’ because the government continues to deny the possible existence of legitimate domestic grievances. And, soon, all Uyghur discontent, or scholarship, may be labeled as inciting separatism. After all, these designations are left to the government to decide.

Because the CCP has enforced a zero tolerance for critical historiography and public debate domestically, the historical narrative among the Uyghur diaspora has tended to take on more radical interpretations and criticism of Han Chinese accounts. In this sense, by its unrelenting monopoly of symbolic power within the country, the government has institutionalized a domestic narrative that guarantees politicization from foreign sources.

This refusal to acknowledge competing historical narratives is of course repeated in the Party’s silencing of discourse on the 1989 Tiananmen Pro-Democracy Movement and elsewhere. As such, that same year Uyghur poet and historian Turghun Almas published his grand history of the Uyghurs, an impressive 6,000 year challenge to official histories. The book received considerable attention before it was banned a few years later, leading to Almas’ house arrest until his death in 2001. Subsequently, Uyghur historians and scholars have been marginalized as scholarship has become more politicized.

In 2013, with the disappearance and later arrest of Ilham Tohti, the Uyghur economist and Beijing professor who has been an outspoken advocate for Uyghur rights and nonviolent civil resistance, the government continues to circumscribe the boundaries of Uyghur scholarship and limits the mechanisms for Uyghur participation in political and public discourse. The separatism charges against him, and the brutal treatment he has endured while in state custody have been criticized by human rights organizations as reprisal for his rights defense. Some of rights defense was expressed through Uyghur Online, a website he established as a platform for discussion of Uyghur issues and concerns.

Equally concerning is the 2013 disappearance and later imprisonment of Uyghur language rights activist and educator Abduwell Ayup. The severity of his detention continues to imply central government perceptions that Uyghur cultural activism poses a threat. Professor Millward in a recent LA Review of Books article suspects that Chinese leadership and Chinese scholars are uncomfortable with Uyghur cultural uniqueness. I argue a step further in that central government concerns over Uyghur linguistic distinctiveness, the threat of Tohti’s Uyghur Online and Ayups activism for example, stems from its ability to position counter-narratives or alternate vocabularies for expressing grievances.

Xinjiang and Uyghurs have been represented by opposing narratives from all sides. This is understandable considering, as Bovingdon notes, actors in political conflicts often appeal to history to legitimize their cases. Without contextualization, contemporary narratives are sometimes no more than amorphous vocabularies ripe for the politicization of myriad interests. Historical narratives in the founding of a nation are fundamental to how that nation sees itself. They shape the dynamic between the powerful and the subaltern. When that happens, not only the histories themselves but also the languages used to explore and disseminate them become political. In understanding central government policies, accusations of abuse and unrest, claims of domestic grievances or ‘foreign forces,’ and arriving at substantive policy recommendations requires equal acknowledgement of the fundamental narratives and the power of language that resides at the heart of any conflict. Unraveling Xinjiang’s contentious history is no different.

 

Revisiting Kyrgyzstan’s Bloody Summer

Originally published by The Diplomat on June 13, 2014. Available here.

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Ethnicity is a convenient but misleading way of explaining the outburst of violence in 2010.

Late in the night of June 10, 2010, outside a casino in Osh a skirmish broke out between several groups of young men. A catalyst for greater belligerence, fighting continued through the night and by the morning Osh was in flames. The chaos lasted for days, with violence spreading to Jalalabad and elsewhere. This week marks the forth anniversary of those deadly riots, which sparked a wave of violence in Southern Kyrgyzstan’s Ferghana Valley.

By August 2010, preliminary UN assessments estimated that 985,000 people had been affected by violence in the Ferghana Valley, resulting in 300,000 internally displaced. The International Crisis Group in late August placed the official casualty rate at 393 but Human Rights Watch quoted some numbers as high as 900. What caused such wanton violence in that summer of 2010?

With headlines from the New York Times’Ethnic Rioting Ravages Kyrgyzstan” to the Guardian’sKyrgyzstan killings are attempted genocide, say ethnic Uzbeks” the cause seems clear: ethnic-violence. But that is a dangerous simplification, not least so because it presupposes ethnicity is monolithic. Ethnicity is a convenient but misleading way of looking at what happened four years ago in Kyrgyzstan. And yet, where it is convenient, the cause of ongoing conflicts continues to be superficially discussed as ethnic-tension. Recognizing this is especially important from a policy perspective because if ethnicity is not at the roots of these episodes of violence then an ethnic solution will simply be another nostrum.

From Tulip Revolution to Burning of Osh

In March 2005, the Tulip Revolution brought an end to President Askar Akayev’s authoritarian reign. His fourteen years in power were marked by corruption, the absence of the rule of law, nepotism, and decreasing quality of life. In July 2005, Kurmanbek Bakiyev campaigned to eliminate corruption and improve living standards. He won the presidential election with a landslide 89 percent. Within a few years, however, his campaign rhetoric had proven hollow.

The changes under Bakiyev were seen as an intensified version of Akayev’s despotism. Bakiyev consolidated power in a new Constitution, appointed family members to key positions, and sold vast amounts of national resources for personal gain, leading to severe energy shortages in the winter of 2007-2008, the coldest in 40 years. In April 2008, after two days of popular mobilization, Bakiyev’s short-lived dictatorial reign came to an end but the country, impoverished by years of corrupt rule, was left with a political and security vacuum.

Tensions erupted on the evening of June tenth when groups of unemployed young men got into an argument outside a small casino in Osh. The violence escalated. Independent observers and human rights organizations quoted witnesses who claimed that security forces responded differently depending on the ethnicity of the perpetrators, that plain clothed security officials were seen distributing weapons to Kyrgyz men or protecting roving mobs. The local government, a long-time supporter and ally of the ousted Bakiyev, claimed that Uzbeks were committing atrocities while Uzebks reported being targeted by violence. Arbitrary detentions, disappearances, and torture in custody were reported.

While much of the violence was perpetrated along ethnic lines, the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, Knut Vollebaek, noted the challenges were not confined to interethnic relations and pointed to the significance of disillusionment with the state and feelings of economic and personal insecurity. Indeed, along these lines Kyrgyzstan was very insecure.

Human Insecurity

In 2008 the official minimum wage was 340 som ($6.45) per month, yet the government estimated that the standard statistical “basket” of goods and commodities cost on average 3,354 som per person per month. Following global increases in basic commodity prices, 2007 saw a 23.5 percent increase in food costs and 2008 an increase of around 20 percent.

By 2010, around 43 percent of the population lived below the poverty line, with an unemployment rate of 18 percent. Many families responded by sending off working-age sons to work in Kazakhstan and Russia, and China to a lesser extent, a palliative for economic woes but destabilizing for traditional family structures. The Economist reported that almost 22 percent of GDP was generated from migrant laborers, with as many as 500,000 in Russia alone.

High levels of unemployment and economic uncertainty often result in illegal economies. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime routinely cites Osh as a regional hub for narco-trafficking, which decreases food security through the loss of croplands, environmental security through deprivation of soil and toxic chemicals, and personal security through gang violence.

Disillusionment with the state among certain demographics facilitated the rise of criminal groups who seized land and extorted protection money. The continued asymmetric protection of personal security institutionalized those groups and had a negative impact on social tensions and perceived inequalities.

But why did these tensions erupt along ethnic lines?

The Ethnicization of Insecurity and Competition?

Historically, the Ferghana valley was inhabited by sedentary Uzbek traders and farmers. The Kyrgyz tended to be nomadic. Soviet control irrevocably altered traditional structures of communal power through Korenizatsiya: the policy of local administration initiated under Stalin where titular nationalities – here the Kyrgyz – were elevated to positions of power not necessarily previously held by such groups.

Later, as Soviet regional authority waned, Human Rights Watch explains “grievances over land and water distribution increasingly took on an ethnic dimension during the perestroika and glasnost era in the mid-to-late 1980s, as ethnic, linguistic, and cultural identities became stronger.” Eventually grievances over territory and resource access culminated in a violent outbreak in Osh in 1990.

On the eve of the Soviet Union’s disintegration, precipitated by the vacuum of Kremlin control, an Uzbek group called for the establishment of an autonomous region to address concerns that their needs were routinely subjugated to those of the Kyrgyz. The ensuing conflict left more than 300 dead. KGB reports at the time, cited by the Crisis Group, noted perceptions among poorer Kyrgyz that the Uzbeks had become too prosperous. Meanwhile New York Times coverage was noting Uzbek frustration at the pro-Kyrgyz allocation of land for housing.

This lead to what political scientist Paul Brass has called an “institutionalized riot system,” where ethicized violent mobilization in response to perceptions of unequal access to basic human needs became part of the repertoire of popular mobilization. If anything, the perceptions of unequal access that sparked violence in 1990 only intensified under the policies of corrupt leadership in the following decades.

Under Bakiyev, employment in the public sector was skewed in favor of Kyrgyz language; fluency was a prerequisite for state employment. The education system did not require Kyrgyz fluency for Uzbeks, Dungens or Uyghurs, who were largely barred access to state employment and sought to make their livings in the private sector, fueling accusations that minorities got rich at the expense of the Kyrgyz. However, a Eurasianet article published on the first anniversary of the 2010 violence cited Uzbek feelings of alienation from both political and economic life.

The April 2010 rebellion prompted Kyrgyzstan’s neighbors to close their borders. The de-facto embargo from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and China caused severe economic concerns for those who relied on cross-border trade, agriculture, fuel and food imports. Border closure lead to sudden unemployment and deprivation, while perceptions of economic and political inequality stoked the growing tensions.

Nowhere were tensions more noticeable than in the Ferghana Valley. After his ouster from Bishkek, for a time Bakiyev returned to his hometown in the South, where he attempted to mold tensions to retake the capital. To counter Bakiyev’s support network and stabilize provisional authority, the interim government under Roza Otunbayeva reached out to elites within the Uzbek population in the South.

Anthropologist Gerd Baumann asserts that ethnic identity is often found in the social processes of maintaining boundaries between groups who perceive these boundaries as ethnic. In this sense the Kyrgyz were political players and the Uzbek were business players.

These boundaries were drawn as much along class and community lines as along ethnic lines argues anthropologist and Central Asia scholar Madeleine Reeves. At the time, she observed that the oft-reported targeted violence should have been balanced by cases where ethnicity was irrelevant, such as when property was looted because it represented inaccessible wealth and opportunity to the looter or when mixed neighborhoods established self-defense groups from attack not because of shared ethnicity but because of shared feelings of community.

Bakiyev had created rifts in the South for political leverage, which were widened when the interim government called for Uzbeks to be included in the traditional political boundaries of the already economically and socially threatened Kyrgyz population. Longstanding hardships exacerbated by border closures further strained society and threatened human needs. These factors created a violent atmosphere prone to manipulation by elites. Because economic, political and community boundaries had mostly been demarcated along ethnic lines the violence took on an ethnic quality that was not actually at its roots. Ethnic violence was a more proximate factor; the ultimate causes of the conflict were serious economic, political, and social insecurity combined with competition.

Looking Ahead

Revisiting the causes of the violence in the Ferghana Valley in 2010 and questioning the narratives of ethnic tension can yield a transferable understanding to other contemporary episodes of conflict. It is a lesson perhaps particularly valuable in geographically close Xinjiang, for example, where a violent encounter near the Chinese border between a group of Uyghurs and a Kyrgyz border patrol left 12 dead at the end of January 2014. Regardless of the motivation of this group of Uyghurs, as militants or refugees, their illegal entry into Kyrgyzstan was undoubtedly spurred by insecurity in Xinjiang, a conflict that is increasingly characterized along principally ethnic divisions but one that could certainly benefit from a more nuanced examination.

The contentious politics of China’s New Citizens Movement

This article was originally published by openDemocracy.net on June 6, 2014. Available here.

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Corruption has been among the grievances that have inspired civil resistance and toppled empires, even in some of the most authoritarian regimes. In China, from indignation over the corrupt Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) that helped mobilize the 1911 Xinhai Revolution, ending the nation’s more than 2,000 years of imperial rule, to anger toward Chiang Kai-Shek’s increasingly venal Guomingdang (Chinese Nationalist Party) that contributed to its overthrow and exile to Taiwan in 1949, corruption has been focal to domestic instability.

More recently, the 1989 student protests that culminated in the Tiananmen Square massacre, which marks its 25th anniversary this June 4, began with posters demanding an end to official nepotism and corruption. Responding to this history of overthrow and unrest, influenced by resentment toward perceptions of corruption, heeding George Santayana’s often quoted warning that those who fail to remember history are doomed to repeat it, the fight against corruption has become a hallmark of Xi Jinping’s administration, at least rhetorically.

When Xi Jinping assumed power as China’s new president, 14 March 2013, he announced a general crackdown on corruption, to considerable applause, at first even from among China’s activist community who had so hoped for a liberal reformer. Xi Jinping’s call for government transparency and an investigation into official corruption encouraged veteran rights defenders to take to the streets in support.

But those who have engaged under the banner of a New Citizens Movement — a designation the government has strategically avoided using even in its patently targeted crackdown on its members — have been rounded up and prosecuted on spurious charges.

Admittedly, the New Citizens Movement is more a loose network of like-minded activists and human-rights defenders than a nationwide social movement. It is both a self-imposed mantle and an implicit charge of dissent from above applied to individuals engaged in myriad actions directed at multiple issues from demanding greater government transparency to championing the rights of migrant workers’ children.

But perhaps because of the common thread that has earned the movement its anti-corruption spirit, at times directly quoting Xi Jinping, authorities have implied the crackdown is targeting not the message but the methods of the movement.

The first years under Xi Jinping have heralded an innovation in regime repression, the manipulation of criminal law to persecute activists and rights defenders, the worst in years. Despite increasing repression of civil society, activists and rights defenders have continued their charge.

Meet China’s New Citizens

Shortly after Xi Jinping declared war on corruption, on 31 March 2013 several Beijing activists unfurled banners and made anti-corruption speeches in the crowded Xidan shopping area. Among them were Ding Jiaxi, a veteran democracy activist and human rights lawyer. He was detained on 17 April and formally arrested for disturbing public order on 24 May 2013. His trial began in late January 2014. As was the case for several other trials linked to the New Citizens Movement, Ding Jiaxi’s proceedings were postponed after he tactically dismissed his lawyer, earning extra time to draw more public attention to his case.

Ding Jiaxi’s retrial began on 8 April 2014. Fellow human rights lawyer Wang Quanping, after driving the nearly 1,400 miles from his hometown in South China to the Beijing Courthouse where Ding Jiaxi and several others were standing retrial, was blocked from the trial and taken away by unidentified men.

He remained incommunicado for two days until the police notified his wife that he had been criminally detained for ‘causing a disturbance.’ For his crime, Wang had pasted decals on his car to read, “The people are welcome to disclose their assets; public servants are exempted.” Ten days later, Ding Jiaxi was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for the charge of disturbing public order. On the same day, fellow activist, Li Wei was sentenced to two years on the same charge.
Outlined in Chapter VI Section I of China’s Criminal Law, the crime of disturbing public order has become a blanket charge applied to civil society activists.

A year ago, following the April 2013 detention of activists involved in the Xidan demonstration, others cautioned that repression would engender further civil resistance and on 21 April 2013 Liu Ping, Wei Zhongping, and Li Sihua, along with nine others protested in Southern Jiangxi Province.

They uploaded photos online of themselves holding posters in solidarity with the recently detained Beijing activists, among them Ding Jiaxi. They also denounced government corruption. The organizers — who would come to be known as the Jiangxi Three — were arrested on charges of disturbing public order. While they were the first to be tried in relation to the New Citizens Movement (on 3 December 2013, although they have still not been sentenced), they are far from new to civil resistance.

Still, like other activists around the country, they were emboldened by the idea of the New Citizens Movement –and eventually persecuted for finding this inspiration in an essay authored by veteran rights defender Xu Zhiyong.

The radicalism of Xu Zhiyong

Xu Zhiyong was detained on 16 July 2013, formally arrested a little more than a month later, and tried on 22 January 2014. He was found guilty of “gathering a crowd to disturb public order” and sentenced to four years in prison.

No stranger to rights defense and civil action, after graduating with a Ph.D. in law from Beijing University, Xu Zhiyong quickly made a name for himself. In 2003, along with his classmate Teng Biao, the two waged a comprehensive campaign against arbitrary detention, launching legal appeals, organizing direct action, engaging with domestic media, publishing open letters, and encouraging international advocacy. That same year the two founded Gongmeng (Open Constitution Initiative), a nonprofit focused on rule of law reform and legal aid.

In 2009, he appeared on the cover of Chinese Esquire. China Dream was the issue’s theme. His dream for China was a country that could be free, where no citizen needed to go against her own conscience. But even as he was being profiled on the cover, he was under detention on charges of tax evasion for his nonprofit Gongmeng, which came suspiciously soon after the organization sponsored research on the deadly March 2008 Lhasa riots. Gongmeng was shuttered but his resolve was not diminished.

One of his clients remembers, “My impression of Mr Xu is that he is a moderate and prudent man.” Xu Zhiyong is often depicted as the equanimous proponent of moderate reform. However, Eva Pils, law professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and Joshua Rosenzweig, a human rights researcher, argue that the China envisioned by Xu Zhiyong is in fact a very radical vision in the one-party state.

To think of him as a moderate does a great disservice to Xu Zhiyong and the “force of popular resistance he and others have successfully coordinated.” The only thing moderate about Xu Zhiyong, they write, “is his unwavering advocacy of nonviolence.” It is this unwavering commitment to strategic nonviolence that encapsulates the New Citizens Movement.

What is the New Citizens Movement?

On 29 May 2012, Xu Zhiyong published an essay beginning as follows:

China needs a new citizens’ movement. This movement is a political movement in which this ancient nation bids utter farewell to authoritarianism and completes the civilized transformation to constitutional governance; it is a social movement to completely destroy the privileges of corruption, the abuse of power, the gap between rich and poor, and to construct a new order of fairness and justice; it is a cultural movement to bid farewell to the culture of autocrats and subjects and instead create a new nationalist spirit; it is the peaceful progressive movement to herald humanity’s process of civilizing.

The New Citizens Movement is “the lawful defense of citizens’ rights, citizens’ nonviolent non-cooperation, and peaceful democracy, all under a new system of ideas and discourse,” a discourse that does not ‘overthrow’ but ‘establish.’

In his closing statement at his trial, which he was only allowed to read for 10 minutes before being cut off by the judge, Xu Zhiyong reiterated:

What the New Citizens Movement advocates is for each and every Chinese national to act and behave as a citizen, to accept our roles as citizens and masters of our country—and not to act as feudal subjects, remain complacent, accept mob rule or a position as an underclass. To take seriously the rights which come with citizenship, those written into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and China’s Constitution: to treat these sacred rights—to vote, to freedom of speech and religion—as more than an everlasting IOU.

In his 2012 essay he outlined the tactics to be employed to bring about this goal:

Repost messages, file lawsuits, photograph everyday injustices, wear t-shirts with slogans, witness everyday events [specifically referring to the phenomenon of standing in a circle around someone causing a scene to witness it], participate or openly refuse to participate in elections, transcribe [things that you see happen], hold gatherings or marches or demonstrations, do performance art, and use other methods in order to jointly promote citizens’ rights movements and citizens’ non-cooperation campaigns—such as assets reporting, openness of information, opposition to corruption, opposition to housing registration stratification, freedom of beliefs, freedom of speech, and the right of election. Practice the New Citizen Spirit in action. Citizens’ power grows in the citizens’ movement.

It is for advocating such methods — for seizing the reins of Xi Jinping’s own claims against corruption, and mobilizing accordingly — that Xu Zhiyong was found guilty. He was turned into a criminal, states Chinese writer Yaxue Cao, “not under the Chinese law but by the Chinese Communist Party that fears and crushes any sign of social organizing for change.”

Anti-corruption: the ‘Master Frame’

This position on “social organizing for change” indicates a perceived threat to the Party posed by popular mobilization. Indeed, it was an acknowledgement of public opinion, measured against managing the needs of the Party that resulted in Xi Jinping’s announced crackdown on corruption, which became central to the vocabulary of both official and civil society frameworks.

Recognizing corruption as a long-time and exigent problem, as a significant source of civil unrest and inefficiencies between the central and local governments, Xi Jinping no doubt responded to the perception of threat posed by a failure to acknowledge the issue. Coincidentally, the anti-corruption drive also became a convenient way to legitimize a power struggle between rival factions within the CCP, such as the much-broadcast trial of former Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai and the mounting investigation against former security Tsar Zhou Yongkang. Growing perceptions of regime vulnerability to popular unrest and attempts to both respond to and control public opinion mark a regime arguably aware of its vulnerabilities and desperate to maintain its grasp on power.

How does this inform an understanding of the New Citizens Movement? The late social scientist Charles Tilly speaks in terms of ‘political opportunity structures’. He points to, among others, the availability of influential supporters within the regime and the extent to which the regime constrains or facilitates popular claim-making. Evolving from here, sociologist Doug McAdam speaks of ‘cultural opportunity structures’, most relevant of which are the dramatization of a system’s illegitimacy or vulnerability and the availability of a ‘master frame.’

When we combine these elements, we see that Chinese civil society initially perceived Xi Jinping as an influential ally in supporting concerns over official malfeasance. Belief in his resolve to stamp out corruption emboldened collective claim-making by activists who probably expected facilitation in their support of official policy.

At the same time, in making corruption a hallmark of his administration, Xi Jinping’s rhetoric not only echoed existing civil society grievances over corruption but also dramatized perceptions of Party illegitimacy by appearing to yield to public opinion. Finally, despite a diversity of pressing grievances, anti-corruption became a convincing ‘master frame.’ While Xu Zhiyong’s essay spoke of diverse grievances and active citizenship, the above opportunity structure analysis, especially the anti-corruption ‘master frame,’ provided the New Citizens Movement with the force to mobilize activists and for the government to categorically target them.

The New Citizens Movement is based on the principal of organizing without organization, a loose network for mobilizing civil resistance and rights defense in response to a history of repressing formal civil organization.

While the activities of the New Citizens Movement activists have been essentially no different from those of the past, the presence of the corruption ‘master frame’ encouraged a spirit of greater connectivity among activists and perception of threat from authorities. However, despite the discussion of a ‘New Citizens Movement’ by activists and third-party supporters, during the course of its crackdown and trials the authorities made sure never to mention it by name, out of concern for further emboldening and acknowledging a movement.

But, despite their many efforts to stave off greater mobilization inspired by the ideals of the New Citizens Movement, the Party must know that eventually the force of popular mobilization will be too great to disregard by mere omission. As Xu Zhiyong wrote in his closing statement, “The day will come when the 1.3 billion Chinese will stand up from their submissive state and grow to be proud and responsible citizens.”

 

Urging Nonviolence After Tiananmen

In commemoration of the Tiananmen Massacre, the following is from a pamphlet issued by the Autonomous Federation of Students on June 4th, 1989. It outlines and reiterates the need to remain nonviolent.

“This fascist massacre pushes the people of the entire nation beyond the outer limits of toleration. The blood will not have been shed in vain; the struggle most not end here. But, fellow students and countrymen, our position is firmly opposed to fighting violence with violence. The river of blood must not become an ocean. Our sacrifice has already been tragic enough. It is already enough to show clearly that the Li Peng government is the enemy of the people and that its days are numbered. We do not have our own army; we are defenseless in the face of modern, well-equipped troops. But nonviolent struggle is the people’s right, and its power is beyond imagining. Our duty now is to expose to the world the true face of this bloody massacre. We call upon people in Beijing and the entire nation to strike work and boycott the marketplace, and we entreat the support of the international community.

Fellow students and countrymen, from the beginning of this movement to the very end, we have led the masses using reason and wisdom. Now, at this critical juncture, our responsibility is even more momentous. The best commemoration of the victims will be not more bloodshed but the achievement of final victory. In peaceful struggle the people eventually will win. Eternal glory to the martyrs of democracy!”

– Quoted from Andrew Nathan and Perry Link’s impressive The Tiananmen Papers p. 508.

A striking pose: labor resistance in China

This article was originally published on May Day at wagingnonviolence.org here. It was also kindly republished by China Labour Bulletin here.

As if in anticipation of May Day, one of the largest episodes of labor resistance in decades unfurled in Southern China like a great red carpet of contention throughout the month of April. Beginning on April 5 and seething intermittently for several weeks, tens of thousands of workers demonstrated at the Yue Yuen factory in Dongguan. The Yue Yuen incident should be seen from the perspective of China’s nascent labor movement, as an episode in a steady trajectory of resistance.

Yue Yuen is the largest sports shoe manufacturer in the world, supplying Adidas, Nike, Puma, Crocs, Timberland, and many other brands. The demonstration against the factory came to its first crescendo on April 14 as hundreds of police attacked the workers. The strikers were undaunted and by the following week the number of workers on strike had risen to around 40,000. Students in nearby Guangzhou glued posters outside of Nike stores in solidarity with the striking workers. Meanwhile, according to China Digital Times, government censors issued directives that domestic media delete all content related to the incident.

The workers had taken to the streets in protest of the company’s ongoing failure to pay its 70,000 employees their full social security and housing allowance. Worker grievances also included the thousands of fraudulent contracts they had been forced to sign, which prevented their children from enrolling in free local education, forcing them to pay for specialty migrant worker children schools. These are common grievances among China’s some 250 million migrant workers, who are building lives in the cities rather than returning to the countryside with their wages.

A 2010 survey conducted by China’s National Bureau of Statistics noted 61.6 percent of all migrant workers were born after 1980. This new generation of migrant workers differ from their parents in fundamental ways.

A theme explored in Lixin Fan’s 2009 documentary “Last Train Home,” is the shifting of identity away from the village to the city. Many new generation migrant workers grew up in or were born in cities. This urban identity is associated with more education and skills than their parents, a more independent attitude, and a greater fluency in the Internet and social media. Such differences have arguably influenced the evolution of labor resistance.

Yue Yuen workers were supported by independent labor rights organizations, such as Shenzhen Chunfeng Labor Dispute Service Center. Labor activists from this organization, Zhang Zhiru and Lin Dong, helped coordinate the action through various social media platforms, and urged the workers to remain nonviolent. In response, the police detained Zhang and Lin on 22 April 22. At the time of writing, Lin Dong was still being held in criminal detention. Union representatives, on the other hand, were conspicuously absent during the strike.

“I personally have not seen any union staff, although I heard that they have issued a comment, which no one gives a damn about,” a striking worker told China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong rights organization. “They are now giving us instructions, but where the hell were they when the company violated our rights?! I have worked at Yue Yuen for almost two decades, and I don’t even know who our union president is.”

Where is the union?

The largest trade union in the world, the All China Federation of Trade Unions has 239 million members according to 2010 figures. However, the reputation of the ACFTU as the protector of workers’ rights in China has long been suspect due to subordination to elite interests within the ruling Communist Party of China.

When it ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights on March 27, 2001, China made a reservation to Article 8.1(a), which guarantees the right to form and freely join trade unions, stating that its application must be consistent with relevant domestic laws, the typical rhetoric of exemption. Although the Chinese Labor Law encourages collective bargaining on paper it is clear from precedent that the collective bargaining process has most often been shallow and disproportionately favors enterprise, while the freedom of association that is purportedly guaranteed in the Chinese Constitution is often infringed.

China has, furthermore, continually failed to ratify fundamental International Labor Organization conventions, including CO87, the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize, and CO98, the Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining.

With a regulation stating that union chairs must be approved by Communist Party officials, it is not uncommon that union representatives are appointed from among factory management or that union officials beat workers back from strikes with truncheons. It is little wonder that the rise in labor resistance is more attributed to horizontal organization within and between factories and supported by independent labor rights organizations rather than through union coordination.

Two episodes that are often accepted as benchmarks in labor resistance, due to the nature of their grievances, sophistication of organization, and relative successes are the 2002 demonstrations by unremunerated workers against the Ferro-Alloy factory bankruptcy and the 2010 strikes at a series of Honda factories over unlivable wages and worker representation.

Resistance at Honda

For weeks in May and June of 2010 workers from several Honda auto parts factories in southern China orchestrated a series of nonviolent demonstrations beginning in Foshan. Most labor disputes in China arise over unpaid or underpaid wages, but the Honda demonstrators demanded large wage increases and a graduated wage scale. According to interviews at the time, as the strike continued, workers “developed higher consciousness of the importance of setting up a democratic union organization in their factory” and included in their demands the right to freely elect representatives.

On the afternoon of May 31, rather than responding to these demands, the local trade union dispatched around 200 officials. Identifiable by matching yellow hats, they attacked a small crowd of gathered workers. Many were beaten. The confrontations escalated but the demonstrators remained firm. They demanded a response from the union and the company and eventually succeeded in gaining limited rights in electing their own representatives and earned a 35 percent wage increase; student interns received an even higher percent wage increase. The successes of the first strike spread to several other Honda factories in June.

Two of the early organizers in the Foshan demonstrations, in their early 20s, had already quit but decided to organize for the benefit of their fellow employees while they waited to be transferred. In Foshan, several workers wrote updates on personal blogs and many of the demonstrators and supporters were active on QQ, a popular Chinese social media platform. At follow up actions, Honda workers uploaded cell phone videos online.

The success of Honda workers has been hailed by labor rights organizations as something of a turning point. Their demands demonstrated increasing awareness of the need for worker representation and that migrant workers are increasingly eager to negotiate their own terms and build sustainable lives in cities.

Ferro Alloy

In early March 2002, after three years of simmering tensions, thousands of employees of the Liaoyang Ferro-Alloy factory in the northeastern province of Liaoning marched on the city government building. They were joined en route by thousands of workers from other factories. Later, the arrest of several Ferro-Alloy worker representatives sparked greater coordination and swelled the numbers to more than 30,000 demonstrators by March 18. Among their main grievances were unpaid housing allotments, pension contributions, social security payments and owed wages. Workers demanded investigation into the misappropriation of funds that they claimed had lead to the company’s bankruptcy and refusal to pay workers.

While also creating petitions and making legal demands, the Ferro-Alloy protests, as noted by UCLA sociologist Ching Kwan Lee in her 2007  book Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt, “involved inter-factory coordination and political demands for the removal of city officials.” These tactics set it apart from previous labor protests. Like the Yue Yuen strike, ACFTU representatives were conspicuously absent from the demonstrations in Liaoning and later sided with the state’s hardline stance against workers.

By the middle of March, the government — no longer willing to negotiate — launched a series of counter-strikes. At first attempting to subvert the movement from within through agents provocateur and political spin in domestic media. The state eventually responded with mass arrests. While several of the main organizers, such as Yao Fuxin, were arrested, so were those targeted by worker claims. Yao Fuxin was sentenced to seven years for illegal assembly and subversion, while the former director of the Ferro-Alloy factory was sentenced to 13 years on smuggling charges. Other company and party officials were also sentenced. The central government instituted new provisions that made it more difficult for enterprises to declare bankruptcy without guaranteeing provisions for workers, as the Ferro-Alloy factory had attempted.

Labor looking forward

While such episodes demonstrate that coordination is possible, it is arguable whether China has a labor movement. The sustainability and national coordination of individual episodes of labor resistance is underdeveloped and the Communist Party works tirelessly to constrain national mobilization. The bulk of labor resistance is still often spontaneous, but younger workers are injecting innovative ideas with the guidance of increasingly professional labor activists inside China and abroad. The nascent movement has made strides. As collective identity among workers has increased, so has organizing capabilities; with new support, workers are becoming more proactive and successful.

The international community can continue to support labor resistance in China by expressing solidarity for all nonviolent labor resistance and making consumer or political decisions at home. When the Yue Yuen strike started, Adidas moved a bulk of its orders to other suppliers. In response, solidarity actions were staged at Adidas stores from Hong Kong to Istanbul and New York. Monitoring the situation of labor rights defenders and standing resolute on arbitrary detention, communicating with international organizations and local political representatives have contributed to the international struggle for labor rights and will continue to benefit Chinese workers.

Yue Yuen and the world

This article was originally published on May Day as ‘Yue Yuen: wildcat strieks and autonomous labor struggles in China’ at ROAR Magazine, reflections on a revolution, as part of a series on labor resistance, available here.

In China, the Communist Party (CCP) and the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) promote and protect workers’ rights. In reality, however, elite interests most often prevail, submerging workers’ rights in the tide of global capitalism. The response has been increasing civil resistance. According to one study, there were 1.171 strikes and labor protests between June 2011 and the end of 2013, and much of April 2014 was marked by one of the largest episodes of resistance in modern Chinese labor history.

On Monday, April 14, 2014, 10.000 workers at the Yue Yuen Dongguan shoe factory took to the streets in protest of the company’s ongoing failure to pay its 70.000 employees their full social security and housing allowance. Worker grievances also included the thousands of fraudulent contracts they had been forced to sign, which prevented their children from enrolling in local schools, forcing them to pay for migrant worker children’s schools. These are common grievances among China’s some 250 million migrant workers.

The strikes, which had been intermittent since April 5, came to their first crescendo that Monday as hundreds of riot police swarmed the crowd. Despite the show of force and minimal arrests, the workers were undaunted, and by the following week the demonstrators numbered around 40.000. Government censors instructed domestic media to delete content related to the incident.

The strike at Yue Yuen, the largest sports shoe manufacturer in the world, supplying Adidas, Nike, Puma, Crocs and others, was supported by labor rights organizations, such as the Shenzhen-based Chunfeng Labor Justice Service Department. Meanwhile, union presence was minuscule. That substantive union support was conspicuously absent in one of the largest labor rights demonstrations in modern China is telling.

China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong rights organization, quoted one striking worker: “I personally have not seen any union staff, although I heard that they have issued a comment, which no one gives damn about… They are now giving us instructions, but where the hell were they when the company violated our rights?! I have worked at Yue Yuen for almost two decades, and I don’t even know who our union president is.”

The ACFTU is the largest trade union in the world, with around 239 million members according to 2010 figures. However, the legitimacy of the ACFTU as a representative of workers’ rights has been tarnished by perennial subordination to the interests of the CCP. There is a regulation that party officials must approve all union chairs and the CCP’s position on labor rights is clear.

On March 27, 2001, when it ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), China issued a reservation to Article 8.1(a), the right to form and freely join trade unions, that its application must be consistent with the Chinese Constitution and other domestic laws. The word union does not appear in the Chinese Constitution. Furthermore, China has continually failed to ratify fundamental International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions CO87, The Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize and CO98, The Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining.

For these reasons China’s workers have increasingly been relying on autonomous structures of labor resistance organized horizontally within or between small groups of factories with support from independent labor rights organizations and third parties. Students in the nearby city of Guangzhou, for example, left posters outside of Nike stores in solidarity with the striking workers.

After several weeks of demonstrations, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Labor and Social Security acknowledged that Yue Yuen had been underpaying its workers and noted that the department had ordered the factory to comply.

Still, we must not forget that China is increasingly outsourcing cheap labor to countries such as Vietnam and Bangladesh. While victories for individual factories are milestones in the Chinese labor movement, until the engines of global capitalism come to a halt the same exploitive practices will continue in their voracious race to the bottom.

After all, following the initial outbreak of demonstrations at Yue Yuen, Adidas moved a bulk of its orders to other suppliers. This move earned the company criticism from the International Union League for Brand Responsibility, which, as a reminder that the struggle for workers’ rights is universal, responded by organizing solidarity protests at Adidas and Nike stores from Hong Kong to Istanbul and Los Angeles.

In China: Citizenship on Trial

This article was originally published in a shortened version on 7 February 2014 at Waging Nonviolence. Available here.

Last week China observed the lunar New Year. The Spring Festival is celebrated with two weeks of fireworks and food, when hundreds of millions of Chinese travel home to be with their families, but this year a group of activists will be conspicuously missed as their families ring in the year of the horse. The Chinese Communist Party scheduled the majority of trials for some 20 activists related to the New Citizens Movement for the week preceding the Chinese New Year with the expectation that the overlap would diminish public awareness of the trials.

When Xi Jinping became the new president of China in March 2013 there was a general feeling, although perhaps naïve, that he would be more politically liberal than his predecessor, Hu Jintao. Even before assuming full position, in early 2013, Xi Jinping was inspiring hope for reform by calling for a comprehensive crackdown on graft. Corruption, mainly related to illegal demolitions and evictions, health and labor exploitation, is a serious issue in China. It is at the source, in one form or another, of the majority of demonstrations, online campaigns, legal challenges, and millions of petitions filed every year. However, the jubilation over his declared war on corruption soon receded with the parallel crackdown on civil society activists, many whose principal grievance ironically was corruption.

The year before, Xu Zhiyong, a well-known human rights defender, had published an article calling for enhanced civil society participation and this impetus soon became the spirit and master frame of civil society activism and the government’s response. In certain respects, Xi Jinping’s repressive policies against civil society participation in the first year of his administration as much created the New Citizens Movement as a unified movement as the activists who have been or are awaiting trial for their involvement. Who are some of these individuals? What are their grievances and how have they mobilized?

The Jiangxi Three and Other New Citizens

On April 21, 2013 Liu Ping, Wei Zhongping, and Li Sihua, along with nine others staged a demonstration in Xinyu, Jiangxi Province. They posted photos online of themselves holding posters in solidarity with several recently detained activists. A week later they were detained. While most of the demonstrators were subsequently released, the three organizers were arrested on charges of ‘gathering a crowd to disturb public order.’  On December 3rd, 2013 the Jiangxi Three would become the first group formally tried in relation to the New Citizens Movement. But these three were far from new to civil resistance and their singling out is as much related to their previous activism as their association with the nascent movement.

Liu Ping had been forced from her job at a steel plant back in 2009, around which time she began petitioning for worker’s rights. In 2011 she decided to run as an independent candidate in a local election. Two days before the vote she was arbitrarily detained by police. Professor Yu Jianrong of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences posted an online appeal, which was reposted nearly 70,000 times. Liu Ping was released but still barred from running in the election. Wei Zhongping, like Liu Ping, began his activism on worker’s rights and has also campaigned for housing and land rights. He too ran as an independent candidate in 2011, and 2006. Li Sihua had on numerous occasions campaigned for China to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and was also an independent candidate in 2011. Following their failed electoral bids, the three activists were subjected to relentless persecution but their trial was far from isolated in the repressive political climate of 2013.

Liu Yuandong stood trial for his part in the New Citizens Movement in Guangdong province on January 24th, amid the flurry of summary trials preceding the Spring Festival. Liu Yuandong, at the helm of a loose network of activists in southern China, holds a PhD in biology. In February, he was detained for staging demonstrations against North Korean nuclear tests and two months later was arrested on charges of disturbing public order.

On March 31st, several Beijing activists unfurled banners and made anti-corruption speeches in the crowded Xidan shopping area. Among them were Li Wei and Ding Jiaxi, whose trials both begun on January 27th but were postponed until after the Spring Festival when they dismissed their lawyers. Several of the New Citizens Movement trials have been tactically postponed in order to extend public attention of the proceedings beyond the holiday. Ding Jiaxi is a rights lawyer and has been a champion for the rights of migrant worker children since 2010, while Li Wei is an unemployed petitioner. Veteran activist, Zhao Changqing was also part of the March demonstration.

A student protestor during the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy movement, Zhao has been imprisoned three times in his career of civil resistance, focusing on the right to education and anti-corruption. He has been active both in the streets and online. At the time of their detention in April 2013, rights defenders cautioned that the repression would engender further unrest. And it was only a few days later that the Jiangxi Three were protesting for their release. Countless others around the country would soon be equally emboldened to demand civil and political reform, inspired by an impassioned article written by Xu Zhiyong.

The Radicalism of Xu Zhiyong

Debonair in a pinstriped shirt with French cuffs, Xu Zhiyong posed for the cover of the Chinese version of Esquire, with a black leather bound legal pad and slightly cocked head he looked the part of the issues theme, Chinese Dream. His dream for China was a country that could be free and happy, where no citizen needed to go against her own conscience. That was in 2009, a year after he made headlines for himself by defending countless families affected by melamine poisoned milk powder but even as he was honored on the cover of Chinese Esquire he was under detention on spurious charges of tax evasion for his nonprofit Gongmeng (Open Constitution Initiative). He was released but the organization was shuttered on the tax evasion charges, which came suspiciously soon after Gongmeng sponsored research into the deadly March 2008 Lhasa riots. He continued his rights defense and lecturing at a university in Beijing.

Xu Zhiyong completed his doctorate of law from Beijing University, classmates and later partners with other high profile human rights defender Teng Biao. Liu Hua, whose husband had been a village chief until he tried to uncover local party corruption and was driven from their home to living in a tunnel in Beijing, recalls the day Xu Zhiyong found them in 2003. She recalls, “He used to come all the time, bringing us quilts that people had donated and he even slept there for three nights so he could experience what it was like.”

After graduating Xu Zhiyong and Teng Biao helped to organize a sophisticated campaign that utilized fledgling online tools in coordination with legal challenges and traditional collective action to abolish an abusive system of arbitrary detention known as Custody and Repatriation. A few years later Xu Zhiyong was at the forefront of campaigns against the even more arbitrary ‘black jail’ system. He also served as an independent candidate in his local Beijing district legislative body stating, “I have taken part in politics in pursuit of a better and more civilized nation.”

One of his clients remembers, “My impression of Mr Xu is that he is a moderate and prudent man. I have a hot temper, and once I yelled at him for a long time. But after I was finished, he simply asked me to calm down and said things would only be resolved when we were calm.” Xu Zhiyong is often depicted in media in this light, as the equanimous proponent of moderate reform. However, Eva Pils, law professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and Joshua Rosenzweig, a human rights researcher, argue that the China envisioned by Xu Zhiyong is in fact a very radical position in the one-party state. To think of him as a moderate does a great disservice to Xu Zhiyong and the “force of popular resistance he and others have successfully coordinated.” The only thing moderate about Xu Zhiyong, they write,  “is his unwavering advocacy of non-violence.” It is this radicalism and unwavering commitment to strategic nonviolence that encapsulates the New Citizens Movement.

A New Citizens Movement, What’s New?

The New Citizens Movement is an innovative, multi-issue campaign for systemic change, based on institutional and extra-institutional tactics, from launching legal actions, filing freedom of information requests, and staging demonstrations online and in the streets. In the article that called it into being in 2012, Xu Zhiyong writes that is political, championing the end of authoritarianism; social, seeking to destroy corruption, the abuse of power, and the gap between rich and poor, by building new foundations of justice; cultural, to cast off the culture of oppressor and oppressed; and progressive, in heralding a new civilized humanity. “The goal of the New Citizens’ Movement is a free China ruled by democracy and law, a just and happy civil society with ‘freedom, righteousness, love’ as the new national spirit.” It is a spirit that must, “appear on the Internet, flourish in the streets, and, most of all, take root in the deepest part of our hearts.”

The New Citizens Movement is “the lawful defense of citizens’ rights, citizens’ non-violent non-cooperation, and peaceful democracy, all under a new system of ideas and discourse,” a discourse that is not ‘overthrow’ but ‘establish.’

At the core of the New Citizens Movement is the citizen, as an independent, individual, political, and social actor responsible only to the laws that have been commonly entered into. What is important is civil society participation through regular mealtime conversations, political discussions, attention to public life and policy, and community service. Xu Zhiyong’s call to action is,

“Repost messages, file lawsuits, photograph everyday injustices, wear t-shirts with slogans, witness everyday events [specifically referring to the phenomenon of standing in a circle around someone causing a scene to witness it], participate or openly refuse to participate in elections, transcribe [things that you see happen], hold gatherings or marches or demonstrations, do performance art, and use other methods in order to jointly promote citizens’ rights movements and citizens’ non-cooperation campaigns—such as assets reporting, openness of information, opposition to corruption, opposition to housing registration stratification, freedom of beliefs, freedom of speech, and the right of election. Practice the New Citizen Spirit in action. Citizens’ power grows in the citizens’ movement.”

Granted, the activists involved in the New Citizens Movement crackdown were not radicalized by Xu Zhiyong’s article; they were mostly veteran activists. But his moving words provided a master frame for dissent, which served to galvanize civil resistance and political repression. As the Chinese New Year celebrations culminating in the Lantern Festival on February 14th wind to an end, as the last fireworks sparkle and the mountains of red paper are swept away, Ding Jiaxi, Li Wei, and others will return to court for exercising their rights as citizens. As Human Rights Watch researcher Maya Wang observed, “the government is redrawing its red line about what is allowed, and clearly street action with a clear political theme is not allowed.” But, despite the arrests and the trials, no doubt New Citizens Movement inspired street action will continue in the Year of the Horse.

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