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.

“5 overlooked activist victories in 2013″

On 31 December Wagingnonviolence published their 5 Overlooked Activist Victories in 2013. I am proud to be a contributor to Wagingnonviolence and especially proud that my contribution on cyber resistance in China was number five on their list.

The editors write:

Activists experienced some big wins in 2013 — from the overturning of the Defense of Marriage Act to the ruling against stop-and-frisk in New York City to the revelations uncovered by NSA whisteblower Edward Snowden to an averted U.S. war with Syria. It’s not hard to find mention of these big stories on most year-end news lists. So rather than re-hash them here, we present you with a list of overlooked activist victories from the past year.

The five victories are (1) People power continues to win in the Philippines; (2) A big win against Big Coal in the Pacific Northwest; (3) A sleeping giant wakes up in Brazil; (4) A victory for millions of indigenous people in Mexico; and (5) Online activists gain political clout in China.

I have been on hiatus the last few months, partially traipsing around Southern China and Laos. I look forward to updating content with some travel narratives and some other exciting analytical pieces in the next few weeks. Back by popular demand, happy 2014…

Localizing Inclusive Institutions: Adaptive Governance in China

The common wisdom is that in the post-Mao years China has experienced unprecedented developments from the grassroots level to the  high echelons of power. Some observers cling to examples of minor achievements in political opening to bolster far flung claims that China is on a gradual path toward political liberalization. Such pundits, mired in now largely disproved neoliberal economic theory, cling hopelessly to the notion that economic liberalization inevitably brings political liberalization. Such arguments often point to village committee elections as the starting point of a bottom up initiative toward gentle democratization. The internationalization of the series of events collectively understood as the Wukan Incident is a good example of this fervor. However, a clear understanding of adaptive governance, outlined by Heilmann and Perry in their 2011 Book Mao’s Invisible Hand: The Political Foundations of Adaptive Governance in China, challenges the conventional understanding. It encourages us to see village elections not as part of a democratizing mission, and may never have been, but as a directed effort by the central government in the 1980s to shore up inefficiencies and integrate itself by institutionalizing CCP authority at the grassroots. Furthermore, the procedural definition of democracy behind such narrowly optimistic appraisals as that trumpeted Wukan might actually contribute to forestalling more structural civil and political developments. This treatment of adaptive governance is especially germane to understanding the recent announcements of the Third Plenum.

Village Committees, An institutionalized Hoax

In late 1980 and early 1981 two counties in Guangxi (Yishan and Luocheng) began experimenting with village committees (cunmin weiyuanhui), then referred to as ‘village management committees’ (cun guan hui). This was an attempt to address the perceived impending crisis produced by decollectivization; as Naughton explains (2006, p. 89), the household responsibility system was effectively turning the collective into little more than a landlord. These early experiments in locally elected administration were done without the guidance or explicit knowledge of party representatives. Eventually, reports of Guangxi’s Village Committees reached Beijing. Vice-chairman of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, Peng Zhen lauded the ingenuity of the newly formed VCs and subsequently instructed the NPC and the Ministry of Civil Affairs (MCA) to send investigators to Guangxi in order to gain a deeper understanding of what was happening. He encouraged other provinces to experiment with village committees. In a short time experimentation with locally elected village committees was spreading throughout China.

The following year, 1982, villager’s committees were written into the Constitution as elected mass organizations of self-government. Article 111 of the 1982 Constitution reads:

“The residents’ committees and villagers’ committees established among urban and rural residents on the basis of their place of residence are mass organizations of self-management at the grass-roots level. The chairman, vice-chairmen and members of each residents’ or villagers’ committee are elected by the residents. The relationship between the residents’ and villagers’ committees and the grass-roots organs of state power is prescribed by law. The residents’ and villagers’ committees establish committees for people’s mediation, public security, public health and other matters in order to manage public affairs and social services in their areas, mediate civil disputes, help maintain public order and convey residents’ opinions and demands and make suggestions to the people’s government.”

In 1986, a Circular from the Central Committee and the State Council on the Creation of Rural Grassroots Self-Governing Institutions defined village democracy as, ‘self-education, self-management, self-building-up and self-service,’ and urged village committees to actively engage in village campaigns (Baogang, 2007, p. 24). Deng Xiaoping encouraged investigation into village committees as a means of “political reform to overcome the systemic obstacles to his economic reform (Pei, 2008, p. 50).” The Organic Law of Village Committees was first promulgated in 1988. This preliminary version had 21 articles. The 1998 version, with an additional 9 articles, nationally mandated village elections. The current version, with 41 articles, was promulgated in 2010. These legal developments support an understanding of changing political perceptions of local level ‘democratic’ participation as the result of evolving central policies. What was at the core of these changing policies?

The village committee and its leader have significant local economic power, says Landry et al (2010, p. 766), to oversee the redistribution or lease of collectively owned village land, which since the 1980s’ rapid private development has become exceedingly valuable. This has seen a parallel increase in land rights related corruption. The committee is also tasked with, inter alia, mediating local disputes and for serving as liaison between township party officials. However, while the village committee may be entrusted with economic rights by law—implementation is another matter—the effective autonomy of the village committee to make political decisions or engage in the legislative process does not appear to have evolved since initial experimentation in the early 1980s, outside of potentially more competitive elections with higher voter turnout. I argue, in line with Nathan (2003) and Yan (2011), that village committees should be treated as the localized institutionalization of CCP authority, a far more believable objective behind central government support of initial efforts at village level self-governance.

Nathan (2003) explains that, while authoritarian regimes are generally fragile due to the prevalence of legitimacy crises, destabilizing coercive methods of control, an overly centralized power structure, and the predominance of factionalism, the Chinese model of authoritarianism has remained resilient. It has outlived most of the 20th centuries other totalitarian states, and has far outpaced its neighbor the DPRK in international integration and economic development, while maintaining fundamental power for the party. Not least of all because of the perfection of ‘input institutions.’ These are institutions that allow for a modicum of autonomy for Chinese citizens to notify the regime of their grievances. However, as Nathan (2003, p. 14) implies ‘input institutions’ may only beguile individuals into believing that “they have some influence on policy decisions and personnel choices at the local level,” while generating support for the central legitimacy of the CCP.

Yan (2011) uses different terminology to expand on the same analysis. Inclusive regime institutions (IRI), he states, are attempts by the regime to expand its internal decision making boundaries, and to integrate rather than insulate itself with non-regime members of society. IRI incentivizes participation in the regime-dominated system, although strictly demarcating the methods of participation, while at the same time preemptively stalling demands for more long term or anti-systemic changes. Although directly speaking of People’s Political Consultative Congresses (renmin zhengxie), Yan (2011, p. 54) offers a further beneficial description of IRI that fits an examination of village committees, in that IRI represent “important platforms for co-opting potentially threatening social forces” and “a mechanism for offering material benefits to the regime’s most loyal and trustworthy collaborators.”

These institutions empower individuals with clearly delimited rights and responsibilities that are never capable of challenging or even engaging equally with the regime. One might inquire whether village committees as an institution began with the reformist objective of greater democratization or as part of Nathan and Yan’s framework.  Deeper understanding of adaptive policy making in China will address this concern and further develop an understanding of village committees as nothing more than regime supporting institutions.

Unlike other authoritarian states, “Mao’s China exhibited a trademark policy style that favored continual experimentation and transformation (or ‘permanent revolution’) over regime consolidation (Heilmann and Perry 2011, p.7),” a regime feature that has not been abandoned in post-Mao China. I would argue that the trajectory of village committees from 1980 to 2010 can be seen as part of what Heilmann and Perry term the ‘experimentation under hierarchy’ approach, where “trial implementation of controversial or risky reforms in limited domains regularly precedes the enactment of national laws: risky policies are tried out first, spread to larger areas secondly, and only written into national law as a last step (Heilmann, Perry, 16).” Both the legal evolution and institutionalization of village committees proceeded, as part of a carefully choreographed effort by central party authorities to address overcentralization, without foregoing the efficiency of technical central decision-making, incrementally through a series of trial implementations, investigations, central discussions, and cautious extensions.

As noted above, Deng advocated measured ‘democratization’ as an effort to bolster his economic reforms. He may have noted, in 1979, that, “we have not propagated and practiced democracy enough, and our systems and institutions leave much to be desired… (Baum, 1996, p. 81).” But in 1987, when presented with ‘The General Outline on the Reform of the Political System’ (Zhengzhi tizhi gaige zongti shexiang), a report conducted by a task force for studying and discussing reform headed by Zhao Ziyang, Deng stressed, “we cannot abandon our dictatorship. We must not accommodate the sentiments of democratization… Efficiency must be guaranteed (Pei, 2008, p. 55).” For Deng, democratic reform was about little more than maintaining efficiency, which can be understood as a constituent concern of decentralization within Nathan’s typology of regime weakness.

“we cannot abandon our dictatorship. We must not accommodate the sentiments of democratization… Efficiency must be guaranteed.”

The regime logic behind the implementation of village committees should be seen as at least threefold, and part of the adaptive governance model. The first goal was maintaining efficiency, as explicitly noted by Deng. The additional goals, in line with Nathan and Yan’s regime institutions, are to generate greater support and legitimacy for the regime and to control local malfeasance among party and non-party individuals or provide material or symbolic support for collaborators, a concern for Chinese leaders with legacies stretching as far back as Imperial China. In this light we can understand village committees as inclusive regime institutions that, rather than having been hijacked from more democratic origins, began as experiments in localized party domination. If we accept village committees as the localized extension of party domination, then an over reliance on village elections, tout court, as the barometer of democratization must be unpacked as well. It presents a shallow and partial view that also benefits and legitimizes the authoritarian regime that, by nature, must firstly permit the election to take place.

Tilly (2007, p. 8) explains that procedural definitions fixate on a narrow range of governmental practices to determine whether a regime is a democracy. Adherents of this approach tend to focus their attention on elections, likely for reasons of observability and simplicity. He argues that the problem with procedural definitions is, “despite their crisp convenience, they work with an extremely thin conception of the political processes involved (2007, p. 8).” Tilly also elucidates the more sophisticated process-oriented approach. This approach is based on measuring five criteria: (1) effective participation; (2) voting equality; (3) enlightened understanding; (4) control of the agenda; and (5) inclusion of adults (Tilly, 2007, p. 9).

Adding critique to the procedural definition, Landry et al point out, “Officials who run authoritarian elections have strong political incentives to maximize turnout, and variation in turnout reflects not individual-level decisions but instead the performance of local officials as election organizers (Landry et al, 2010, p. 768).” Clearly, that elections are taking place in China, a procedural definition is more appealing for optimistic analysis, willing to shrug off the blocking of independent candidates at township level elections as outliers, but once a process-oriented approach is applied the degree of democratization represented by village committees is significantly diminished.

Speaking tangentially to a process-oriented approach, Pei notes that “the lack of effective channels for political participation and interest representation, creating an environment in which groups unable to defend their interests are forced to take high-risk options for collective protest to voice their demands and hope for compensatory policies (Pei, 2008, p. 15).” Pei’s reference to increasing contention points perhaps to the fact that the institution of village committees not only does not represent efforts by the regime to democratize but are also failing in their attempts to be inclusive regime institutions to bolster party support and promote local stability. In other words, while village committees may be nothing more than an extension of some Faustian bargain from the center, villagers are engaging in increased contentious politics demanding a more process-oriented, truly inclusive, approach to democracy that deeper research may reveal to be far more instrumental in democratization than any amount of village elections. Put a third way, self-organized contention by civil society is a far more robust indicator of democratization within an authoritarian regime than the hijackable village election.

Conclusion

Encouraging electoral politics at the grassroots level to ostensibly transfer the onus of regulating abuses and maintaining efficiency, by mildly increasing autonomy, through elections, may well be a more appealing strategy than the Maoist mass line and mass criticism, but it falls far short of democratization. The evolution of the village committee should, rather, be treated as a cautiously and centrally approved institution by the CCP toward the goal of localizing its legitimacy and control. Approaching village committees through a procedural definition of democracy will inevitably produce a flawed understanding based on a narrow conception of democratization that perpetuates a myth, framed in central policy dictates, that village committees are a sign of political liberalization in China.

Works Cited

Baum, Richard. (1996). Burying Mao: Chinese Politics in the Age of Deng Xiaoping. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

He Baogang. (2007). Rural Democracy in China: The Role of Village Elections. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Heilmann, Sebastian and Perry, Elizabeth. (2011). Embracing Uncertainty: Guerilla Style Policy and Adaptive Governance in China. In Heilmann, Sebastian and Perry, Elizabeth (Ed). Mao’s Invisible Hand: The Political Foundations of Adaptive Governance in China (p. 1-29). Boston, MA: Harvard University Press.

Landry, Pierre; Davis, Debora; and Wang, Shiru. (2008). Rural Elections in China Competition with Parties. Comparative Political Studies. 43 (6). p. 763-790.

Nathan, Andrew J. (2003). Authoritarian Resilience. Journal of Democracy, 14, p. 6-17.

Naughton, Barry. (2007). The Chinese Economy: Transitions and Growth. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

O’Brien, Kevin J. and Li Lianjiang. (2000). Accommodating “Democracy” in a One-

Party State: Introducing Village Elections in China. The China Quarterly No. 162, Special Issue: Elections and Democracy in Greater China. p. 465-489.

Pei, Minxin. (2008). China’s Trapped Transition: The Limits of Development Autocracy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Tilly, Charles (2007). Democracy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Yan Xiaojun. (2011). Regime Inclusion and the Resilience of Authoritarianism. The China Journal. 66. p. 53-75.

The Buddhist King and Modern Politics

The following is an excerpt from In Quest of Democracy, an essay written by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. The original essay was written before Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest in July 1989 and had been planned as part of an anthology of essays on democracy and human rights. Aung San Suu Kyi, after years of tumultuous house arrest and suffering, was released on 13 November 2010. Since her release she has continued to campaign for deeper democratic transitions in Burma as the leader, and founder, of the National League for Democracy. Around the same time as her release, the decades long military dictatorship began to initiate political liberalizations that permitted independent parties an unprecedented degree of freedom. Despite easily agreed upon positive steps toward Democracy Burma faces many obstacles and complex challenges to its ongoing democratization, particularly in terms of reconciling complicated group and individual identity politics. While this essay was originally written over twenty years ago, it presents a vision of a moral leader, a vision inspired by Buddhist legends and parables, with considerable transferability to not only guiding Burma’s democratic transition but in pointing to desirable qualities in all democratically elected figures and offers insight into discussions on resisting authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. It begins…

Opponents of the movement for democracy in Burma have sought to undermine it by on the one hand casting aspersions on the competence of the people to judge what was best for the nation and on the other condemning the basic tenets of democracy as un-Burmese. There is nothing new in Third World governments seeking to justify and perpetuate authoritarian rule by denouncing liberal democratic principles as alien. By implication they claim for themselves the official and sole right to decide what does or does not conform to indigenous cultural norms.

This excerpt was taken from a version of the essay appearing in Freedom From Fear: And Other Writing (2010) p. 170-173.

—-

“The Buddhist view of world history tells that when society fell from its original state of purity into moral and social chaos a king was elected to restore peace and justice. The ruler was known by three titles: Mahasammata, ‘because he is named ruler by the unanimous consent of the people’; Khattiya; ‘because he has dominion over agricultural land’; and Raja, ‘because he wins the people to affection through observance of the dhamma (virtue, justice, the law)’…

The Buddhist view of kingship does not invest the ruler with the divine right to govern the realm as he pleases. He is expected to observe the Ten Duties of Kings, the Seven Safeguards against Decline, the Four Assistances to the People, and to be guided by numerous other codes of conduct such as the Twelve Practices of Rulers, the Six Attributes of Leaders, the Eight Virtues of Kings and the Four Ways to Overcome Peril. There is logic to a tradition which includes the king among the five enemies or perils and which subscribes to many sets of moral instructions for the edification of those in positions of authority. The people of Burma have had much experience of despotic rule and possess a great awareness of the unhappy gap that can exist between the theory and practice of government.

The Ten Duties of Kings are widely known and generally accepted as a yardstick which could be applied just as well to modern government as to the first monarch of the world. The duties are: liberality, morality, self-sacrifice, integrity, kindness, austerity, non-anger, non-violence, forbearance and non-opposition (to the will of the people).

The first duty of liberality (dana) which demands that a ruler should contribute generously towards the welfare of the people makes the tacit assumption that a government should have the competence to provide adequately for its citizens. In the context of modern politics, one of the prime duties of a responsible administration would be to ensure the economic security of the state.

Morality (sila) in traditional Buddhist terms is based on the observance of the five precepts, which entails refraining from destruction of life, theft, adultery, falsehood and indulgence in intoxicants. The ruler must bear a high moral character to win the respect and trust of the people, to ensure their happiness and prosperity and to provide a proper example. When the king does not observe the dhamma, state functionaries become corrupt, and when state functionaries are corrupt the people are caused much suffering. It is further believed that an unrighteous king brings down calamity on the land. The root of a nation’s misfortunes has to be sought in the moral failings of the government.

The third duty, paricagga, is sometimes translated as generosity  and sometime as self-sacrifice. The former would constitute  a duplication of the first duty, dana, so self-sacrifice as the ultimate generosity which gives up all for the sake of the people would appear the more satisfactory interpretation. The concept of selfless public service is sometimes illustrated by the story of the hermit Sumedha who took the vow of Buddhahood. In so doing he who could have realized the supreme liberation of nirvana in a single lifetime committed himself to countless incarnations that he might help other beings free themselves from suffering. Equally popular is the story of the lord of monkeys who sacrificed his life to save his subjects, including one who had always wished him harm and who was the eventual cause of his death. The good ruler sublimates his needs as an individual to the service of the nation.

Integrity (ajjava) implies incorruptibility in the discharge of public duties as well as honesty and sincerity in personal relations. There is a Burmese saying: ‘With rulers, truth, with (ordinary) men, vows’. While a private individual may be bound only by the formal vows that he makes, those who govern should be wholly bound by the truth in thought, word and deed. Truth is the very essence of the teachings of the Buddha, who referred to himself as the Tathagata or ‘one who has come to the truth’. The Buddhist king must therefore live and rule by truth, which is the perfect uniformity between nomenclature and nature. To deceive or to mislead the people in any way would be an occupational failing as well as a moral offence. ‘As an arrow, intrinsically straight, without warp or distortion, when one word is spoken, it does not err into two.’

Kindness (maddava) in a ruler is in a sense the courage to feel concern for the people. It is undeniably easier to ignore the hardships of those who are too weak to demand their rights than to respond sensitively to their needs. To care is to accept responsibility, to dare to act in accordance with the dictum that the ruler is the strength of the helpless. In Wizaya, a well-known nineteenth-century drama based on the Mahavamsa story of Prince Vijaya, a king sends away into exile his own son, whose wild ways had caused the people much distress: ‘In the matter of love, to make no distinction between citizen and son, to give equally of loving kindness, that is the righteousness of kings.’

The duty of austerity (tapa) enjoins the king to adopt simple habits, to develop self-control and to practise spiritual discipline. The self-indulgent ruler who enjoys an extravagant lifestyle and ignores the spiritual need for austerity was no more acceptable at the time of the Mahasammata than he would be in Burma today.

The seventh, eighth and ninth duties — non-anger (akkodha), non-violence (avihamsa) and forbearance (khanti) — could be said to be related. Because the displeasure of the powerful could have unhappy and far-reaching consequences, kings must not allow personal feelings of enmity and ill will to erupt into destructive  anger and violence. It is incumbent on a ruler to develop the true forbearance which moves him to deal wisely and generously with the shortcomings and provocations of even those whom he could crush with impunity. Violence is totally contrary to the teachings of Buddhism. The good ruler vanquishes ill will with loving kindness, wickedness with virtue, parsimony with liberality, and falsehood with truth. The Emperor Ashoka who ruled his realm in accordance with the principles of non-violence and compassion is always held up as an ideal Buddhist king. A government should not attempt to enjoin submission through harshness and immoral force but should aim at dhamma-vijaya, a conquest by righteousness.

The tenth duty of kings, non-opposition to the will of the people (avirodha), tends to be singled out as a Buddhist endorsement of democracy, supported by well-known stories from the Jakatas. Pawridasa, a monarch who acquired an unfortunate taste for human flesh, was forced to leave his kingdom because he would not heed the people’s demand that he should abandon his cannibalistic habits. A very different kind of ruler was the Buddha’s penultimate incarnation on earth, the pious King Vessantara. But he too was sent into exile when in the course of his strivings for the perfection of liberality he gave away the white elephant of the state without the consent of the people. The royal duty of non-opposition is a reminder that the legitimacy of government is founded on the consent of the people, who may withdraw their mandate at any time if they lose confidence in the ability of the ruler to serve their best interests.

By invoking the Ten Duties of Kings the Burmese are not so much indulging in wishful thinking as drawing on time-honoured values to reinforce the validity of the political reforms they consider necessary. It is a strong argument for democracy that governments regulated by principles of accountability, respect for public opinion and the supremacy of just laws are more likely than an all-powerful ruler or ruling class, uninhibited by the need to honour the will of the people, to observe the traditional duties of Buddhist kingship. Traditional values serve both to justify and to decipher popular expectations of democratic government.”

New Citizen’s Movement

Under House arrest since April 2013, outspoken human rights defender and citizen lawyer Xu Zhiyong was formally detained on 16 July 2013 and arrested on 22 August 2013 under charges of ‘gathering crowds to disrupt public order,’ a patently spurious charge for someone under house arrest. These charges are merely another set in the on-going manipulation of domestic law by the Chinese state, pretending to act with legitimacy by framing its persecution of rights defenders in the garb of national law. It is not the first time Xu Zhiyong has been the victim of government abuse. A detailed chronology of abuses suffered by Xu Zhiyong can be accessed through Human Rights in China. ((Updated: Xu Zhiyong was sentenced to 4 years on charges of ‘gathering a crowd to disturb public order’ article 291 of the Criminal Law on 26 January 2014. He was tried on 22 January 2014)

Xu Zhiyong was placed under house arrest and later arrested in direct response to his activism regarding the New Citizen Movement in China. It is a theoretical framing for citizen rights defense, an active and individual approach to transforming the Chinese state and enhancing the rule of law. His arrest comes just over one year from the posting of the New Citizen Movement manifesto. Below is the letter in translation.

This translation originally appeared on Seeing Red in China on July 11, 2012. It can be seen here.

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.

In the 20th century, China experienced many movements: the Xinhai Revolution, the New Culture Movement, the New Life Movement, etc. In trying to bid farewell to autocracy, they changed the Chinese people’s living habits and spiritual realms. Due to internal and external problems, however, the Republican Era ended quickly. These historical progressive movements were unable to complete fundamental changes in the political system; they were but a flash in the pan. After 1949, China’s totalitarian regime launched a flurry of movements—land reform, the suppression of counter-revolutionaries, the socialist transformation, the anti-rightist movement, and everything from the Great Leap Forward through the Cultural Revolution. These regressive movements against the tides of history were destined to have tragic endings. In the 1980s, the Communist Party of China initiated the “five stresses, four beauties, and three loves” campaign, but a social reform movement initiated by a dictator, tainted by self-interest, cannot bring real change in society.

Today, China still has not been able to leave behind authoritarianism, power monopolies, rampant corruption, the wealth disparity, violent housing demolitions, education imbalance, and the black hole of social security … the root of these weighty social problems is autocracy; the Chinese nation needs a great citizens’ movement that moves with the historic tide, moving from bottom to top, from political and social to cultural, from the awakening of individual citizens to the revitalization of the entire Chinese civilization.

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.

The core of the New Citizen’s Movement is the citizen. This is an individual concept as well as a political and social concept. The citizen is not a subjectthe citizen is an independent and free entity, and he or she obeys a rule of law that is commonly agreed upon. He or she does not have to kneel down to any given person. The citizen is not a laymanthe citizen is the master of the country. The ruler’s power must come from election by the entire citizenry, bidding farewell to the barbaric logic of  “ruling by the barrel of a gun.” Citizens are neither docile nor mob-like; they share happiness and bear of responsibilities in the order of justice; and they are upstanding, magnanimous, moderate, and rational.

The “new” in New Citizens’ Movement refers to new historical conditions, new forms of behavior, and a new liberal order. The counterpart of the new citizen is not the citizen, but the subject, of the past. The new historical conditions include technological advancement, market economies, ideological pluralism, and the common democratic trend in human society. The new forms of behavior are the lawful defense of citizens’ rights, citizens’ non-violent non-cooperation, and peaceful democracy movements, all under a new system of ideas and discourse. The new liberal order is the constitutional order of democracy, rule of law, republicanism. The social background of the New Citizens’ Movement is new, the model of behavior is new, the movement’s goal is new, and thus it is called the New Citizens’ Movement.

The big change in Chinese society needs direction and spirit. The New Citizens’ Movement advocates the New Citizen Spirit, which is the direction and spirit of great change.

The New Citizens’ Movement is a political campaign. China inevitably needs to complete the civilized transformation of politics, establish a free China that is completely democratic and ruled by law. The New Citizens’ Movement is a social campaign. The solution to a monopoly over power, rampant corruption, wealth disparity, education imbalance, and similar problems is not merely dependent on a democratic political system, but also must rely on the continual implementation of the social reform movement. The New Citizens’ Movement is a cultural campaign. It completely transforms tyrannical culture, which is corrupt, downfallen, wretched, and hostile; it founds a new nationalist spirit of “freedom, righteousness, and love.”

There must be an end to tyranny, but the New Citizens’ Movement is far from being just a democratic reformation; the New Citizens’ Movement’s discourse is not “overthrow,” but “establish.” It is not one social class taking the place of another social class, but letting righteousness take its place in the Chinese nation. It is not hostility and hate, but universal love. The New Citizens’ Movement pursues facts and justice, but from the aspiration and hard work of not giving up and settling differences. In the process of societal change, there must be new kind of spiritual coalescing of the Chinese people as a whole, from the individual citizen to the entire country.

The New Citizen’s spirit can be summarized as “free, righteous, and loving.”

Freedom implies the sovereignty of belief, thought, expression, life, the pursuit of independence, and the unrestrained, authentic selfhood. People’s freedom is the end goal of society, country, and law. Righteousness: it is the fair justice of this world; it is the ideal status of the country and the society; it is equal opportunity.

The strong will have restriction; the weak will have protection, and every person, to the best of their abilities, will build on their strengths, perform their duties, and do what they want. Righteousness implies democratic rule of law is the cornerstone of the system. It implies individual responsibility, defends and pursues rights, cares for the common good, and respects the boundaries of other people’s rights. Love is the source of humanity’s well-being; it is the highest state of the New Citizen’s mind. A people’s mind must contain love as well as erase hate and hostility entirely, founding a free and well-off civil society.

The New Citizens’ Movement includes the citizens’ rights movement, the citizens’ non-cooperation movement, and the democracy movement. It follows the lead of the New Citizen’s spirit in China’s magnificent movement toward peaceful transformation.

The citizens’ rights movement is the soil of the democracy movement. It includes the social movement for the defense of the rights of individual cases, rights of building demolition [property rights], rights of ex-servicemen, rights of the environment, right of the freedom of belief, and right of opposing the housing registration system, which strives for the rights and interests of the group.

The citizens’ rights movement emphasizes an individual’s or an individual group’s demand for rights. However, China’s internal power monopoly, rampant corruption, wealth gap, black hole of social security, and other serious societal problems have already reached the point of needing a political solution. The citizens’ rights movement, after developing to a certain point, will inevitably enter into a democratic political movement.

The citizens’ non-cooperation movement runs through the entire rights movement and democracy movement, including the negative resistance of authoritarianism and the positive protection of free rights. As compared to the citizens’ non-cooperation movement, the New Citizens’ Movement moreover emphasizes establishment. The establishment of a civil society will do away with tyranny, not only putting an end to tyranny, but also establishing the future of civilized politics and civil society.

In a broader sense, the New Citizens’ Movement also includes a campaign appearing in many recent democratic countries that is centered on the demands for fairness and justice. Background to the morally-upright fourth wave of democratization is new technology changing peoples’ societal structure. China’s New Citizens’ Movement gathers the previous democratic era’s civil rights movements and democratic revolutions as well as the social revolutions of democratic countries.

The New Citizens’ Movement already has a social basis. Thirty years of Reform and Opening Up has established the economic basis of private property and the market process. It has also brought with it a pluralistic society. The party in power has gone from a totalitarian regime to an authoritarian regime and then to an oligarchic regime; the forces of tyranny have already become weak, and therein the citizens’ movement already has a certain amount of leeway. The Internet, telecommunications, and other new technologies have sped up China’s enlightenment and the formation of citizens’ interpersonal networks. The trend of international democratization is transforming and restraining autocratic violence, and imbuing the political movements in newly democratic countries with the peaceful and rational spirit of world citizens.

Without the New Citizen, there can be neither a new civil society nor a constitutional China; the New Citizens’ Movement emphasizes the New Citizen, from the individual and the small matters on upward; it practices citizen responsibilities and does not obey the despotism of unspoken rules. It is not concurrent with privilege and corruption, believing instead in democratic rule of law, in the pursuit of freedom and fairness, civil movements, and a constitutional China.

The New Citizens’ Movement includes all types of current social movements and political movements: the “Grass Mud Horse” campaign, the displaced residents campaign, the campaign to oppose the household registration stratification, the campaign to remember June Fourth, the freedom of belief campaign, the blogging campaign, the environmental protection campaign, the food and health safety campaign, the campaign to elect deputies to people’s congresses, the microblog-based campaign attacking human trafficking, the campaign to oppose monopolies, the campaign to oppose corruption. These social and political movements are brought together by way of the New Citizens’ Movement.

The New Citizens’ Movement advocates the practice of the New Citizen spirit and societal responsibility in every sector: the New Citizen judge is impartial and evenhanded, loyal to the law and of good conscience. He or she does not pervert the law for the sake of dominance and selfishness. The New Citizen policeman is an impartial implementer of the law, removing the evil and content with the good, never torturing for confession, uncorrupted by dark and evil forces. The New Citizen public prosecutor is loyal to the country’s laws, does not appease corruption, does not pervert the course of justice and does not indulge in crime. The New Citizen deputy to the people’s congress has the courage to carry out the law for the benefit of the public; it is not a voting machine and rubber stamp.

The New Citizen teacher loves his or her students, never passing lies onto them. The New Citizen physician loves patients and does not accept bribes, arbitrarily prescribe medications, or discriminate against patients. The New Citizen lawyer abides by the law, lawfully defends the rights and interests of clients and does not bribe judges. The New Citizen accountant abides by accounting regulations and does not cook the books. The New Citizen editor and reporter seek the truth and do not report lies.

The New Citizen college student diligently studies, cares for the society—does not cheat on tests or plagiarize essays. The New Citizen scholar seeks truth with professionalism—does not flatter or ingratiate, or use another’s ideas as his or her own. The New Citizen artist expresses truth, goodness, and beauty and rejects unspoken rules. The New Citizen sports referee makes calls with impartial independence—does not blow the whistle unfairly. The New Citizen athlete competes fairly—does not throw competitions for profit. The New Citizen entrepreneur faces the market and runs business honestly—does not parlay favor with bigwigs. The New Citizen industrial worker guarantees the quality of products—does not use inferior materials to turn out substandard products or make fake, shoddy products. The New Citizen food manufacturer does not mix in poisonous and harmful materials. And so on.

To push forward the New Citizens’ Movement, the New Citizen can:

Disseminate the New Citizen Spirit: Explain the “freedom, righteousness, and love” of the New Citizen Spirit by way of online posts, street fliers, t-shirt slogans, and any other method of spreading the New Citizen Spirit. The New Citizen Spirit must appear on the Internet, flourish in the streets, and, most of all, take root in the deepest part in our hearts.

Practice New Citizen Responsibility: Promise to practice New Citizen Responsibility, stand fast to New Citizen behavioral standards, reject corruption in one’s life, reject the practice of seeking private gain at the expense of the public, be loyal to good conscience and do not actively do evil, do good service for society, and mutually supervise one another to carry out this promise. The New Citizen Spirit is the spirit of commitment, sacrificing one’s profit to be an example, to maintain good conscience and righteousness, up until righteousness exists all over the Chinese nation.

Use the “Citizen” sign or other identifying methods: Citizens design their own “Citizen” insignias, and strengthen their own Citizen status and self-affirmation by wearing the insignias in everyday life.

Participate in civic life: Hold regular mealtime talks, discuss current political situation, pay close attention to people’s livelihood, care for public service as well as public policy, help the weak, serve society, promulgate fairness and justice. Every place has a group of modern citizens. Everybody needs to group together for society to progress. Unity begins with acquaintance.

Unite to share labor and coordinate work. 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.

‘The Danger of American Fascism’ by Henry A Wallace

The Danger of American Fascism by Henry A. Wallace

On April 4, 1944 the following op-ed piece appeared in the New York Times. It was written by then American Vice President Henry A. Wallace. Wallace served as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Vice President from 1941 until 1945. Wallace was also a third party nominee for the 1948 presidential elections. I have posted his article here because of its hauntingly prescient content, a prescience in 1944 that rings startlingly relevant to the face of American politics in 2013, sixty-nine years later. It needs little commentary or introduction.

The following text has been reposed from The New Deal Network. The text as it appears below is from Henry A. Wallace, Democracy Reborn (New York, 1944), edited by Russell Lord, p. 259.

  1. On returning from my trip to the West in February, I received a request from The New York Times to write a piece answering the following questions:
    1. What is a fascist?
    2. How many fascists have we?
    3. How dangerous are they?
  2. A fascist is one whose lust for money or power is combined with such an intensity of intolerance toward those of other races, parties, classes, religions, cultures, regions or nations as to make him ruthless in his use of deceit or violence to attain his ends. The supreme god of a fascist, to which his ends are directed, may be money or power; may be a race or a class; may be a military, clique or an economic group; or may be a culture, religion, or a political party.
  3. The perfect type of fascist throughout recent centuries has been the Prussian Junker, who developed such hatred for other races and such allegiance to a military clique as to make him willing at all times to engage in any degree of deceit and violence necessary to place his culture and race astride the world. In every big nation of the world are at least a few people who have the fascist temperament. Every Jew-baiter, every Catholic hater, is a fascist at heart. The hoodlums who have been desecrating churches, cathedrals and synagogues in some of our larger cities are ripe material for fascist leadership.
  4. The obvious types of American fascists are dealt with on the air and in the press. These demagogues and stooges are fronts for others. Dangerous as these people may be, they are not so significant as thousands of other people who have never been mentioned. The really dangerous American fascists are not those who are hooked up directly or indirectly with the Axis. The FBI has its finger on those. The dangerous American fascist is the man who wants to do in the United States in an American way what Hitler did in Germany in a Prussian way. The American fascist would prefer not to use violence. His method is to poison the channels of public information. With a fascist the problem is never how best to present the truth to the public but how best to use the news to deceive the public into giving the fascist and his group more money or more power.
  5. If we define an American fascist as one who in case of conflict puts money and power ahead of human beings, then there are undoubtedly several million fascists in the United States. There are probably several hundred thousand if we narrow the definition to include only those who in their search for money and power are ruthless and deceitful. Most American fascists are enthusiastically supporting the war effort. They are doing this even in those cases where they hope to have profitable connections with German chemical firms after the war ends. They are patriotic in time of war because it is to their interest to be so, but in time of peace they follow power and the dollar wherever they may lead.
  6. American fascism will not be really dangerous until there is a purposeful coalition among the cartelists, the deliberate poisoners of public information, and those who stand for the K.K.K. type of demagoguery.
  7. The European brand of fascism will probably present its most serious postwar threat to us via Latin America. The effect of the war has been to raise the cost of living in most Latin American countries much faster than the wages of labor. The fascists in most Latin American countries tell the people that the reason their wages will not buy as much in the way of goods is because of Yankee imperialism. The fascists in Latin America learn to speak and act like natives. Our chemical and other manufacturing concerns are all too often ready to let the Germans have Latin American markets, provided the American companies can work out an arrangement which will enable them to charge high prices to the consumer inside the United States. Following this war, technology will have reached such a point that it will be possible for Germans, using South America as a base, to cause us much more difficulty in World War III than they did in World War II. The military and landowning cliques in many South American countries will find it attractive financially to work with German fascist concerns as well as expedient from the standpoint of temporary power politics.
  8. Fascism is a worldwide disease. Its greatest threat to the United States will come after the war, either via Latin America or within the United States itself.
  9. Still another danger is represented by those who, paying lip service to democracy and the common welfare, in their insatiable greed for money and the power which money gives, do not hesitate surreptitiously to evade the laws designed to safeguard the public from monopolistic extortion. American fascists of this stamp were clandestinely aligned with their German counterparts before the war, and are even now preparing to resume where they left off, after “the present unpleasantness” ceases:
  10. The symptoms of fascist thinking are colored by environment and adapted to immediate circumstances. But always and everywhere they can be identified by their appeal to prejudice and by the desire to play upon the fears and vanities of different groups in order to gain power. It is no coincidence that the growth of modern tyrants has in every case been heralded by the growth of prejudice. It may be shocking to some people in this country to realize that, without meaning to do so, they hold views in common with Hitler when they preach discrimination against other religious, racial or economic groups. Likewise, many people whose patriotism is their proudest boast play Hitler’s game by retailing distrust of our Allies and by giving currency to snide suspicions without foundation in fact.
  11. The American fascists are most easily recognized by their deliberate perversion of truth and fact. Their newspapers and propaganda carefully cultivate every fissure of disunity, every crack in the common front against fascism. They use every opportunity to impugn democracy. They use isolationism as a slogan to conceal their own selfish imperialism. They cultivate hate and distrust of both Britain and Russia. They claim to be super-patriots, but they would destroy every liberty guaranteed by the Constitution. They demand free enterprise, but are the spokesmen for monopoly and vested interest. Their final objective toward which all their deceit is directed is to capture political power so that, using the power of the state and the power of the market simultaneously, they may keep the common man in eternal subjection.
  12. Several leaders of industry in this country who have gained a new vision of the meaning of opportunity through co-operation with government have warned the public openly that there are some selfish groups in industry who are willing to jeopardize the structure of American liberty to gain some temporary advantage. We all know the part that the cartels played in bringing Hitler to power, and the rule the giant German trusts have played in Nazi conquests. Monopolists who fear competition and who distrust democracy because it stands for equal opportunity would like to secure their position against small and energetic enterprise. In an effort to eliminate the possibility of any rival growing up, some monopolists would sacrifice democracy itself.
  13. It has been claimed at times that our modern age of technology facilitates dictatorship. What we must understand is that the industries, processes, and inventions created by modern science can be used either to subjugate or liberate. The choice is up to us. The myth of fascist efficiency has deluded many people. It was Mussolini’s vaunted claim that he “made the trains run on time.” In the end, however, he brought to the Italian people impoverishment and defeat. It was Hitler’s claim that he eliminated all unemployment in Germany. Neither is there unemployment in a prison camp.
  14. Democracy to crush fascism internally must demonstrate its capacity to “make the trains run on time.” It must develop the ability to keep people fully employed and at the same time balance the budget. It must put human beings first and dollars second. It must appeal to reason and decency and not to violence and deceit. We must not tolerate oppressive government or industrial oligarchy in the form of monopolies and cartels. As long as scientific research and inventive ingenuity outran our ability to devise social mechanisms to raise the living standards of the people, we may expect the liberal potential of the United States to increase. If this liberal potential is properly channeled, we may expect the area of freedom of the United States to increase. The problem is to spend up our rate of social invention in the service of the welfare of all the people.
  15. The worldwide, agelong struggle between fascism and democracy will not stop when the fighting ends in Germany and Japan. Democracy can win the peace only if it does two things:
    1. Speeds up the rate of political and economic inventions so that both production and, especially, distribution can match in their power and practical effect on the daily life of the common man the immense and growing volume of scientific research, mechanical invention and management technique.
    2. Vivifies with the greatest intensity the spiritual processes which are both the foundation and the very essence of democracy.
  16. The moral and spiritual aspects of both personal and international relationships have a practical bearing which so-called practical men deny. This dullness of vision regarding the importance of the general welfare to the individual is the measure of the failure of our schools and churches to teach the spiritual significance of genuine democracy. Until democracy in effective enthusiastic action fills the vacuum created by the power of modern inventions, we may expect the fascists to increase in power after the war both in the United States and in the world.
  17. Fascism in the postwar inevitably will push steadily for Anglo-Saxon imperialism and eventually for war with Russia. Already American fascists are talking and writing about this conflict and using it as an excuse for their internal hatreds and intolerances toward certain races, creeds and classes.
  18. It should also be evident that exhibitions of the native brand of fascism are not confined to any single section, class or religion. Happily, it can be said that as yet fascism has not captured a predominant place in the outlook of any American section, class or religion. It may be encountered in Wall Street, Main Street or Tobacco Road. Some even suspect that they can detect incipient traces of it along the Potomac. It is an infectious disease, and we must all be on our guard against intolerance, bigotry and the pretension of invidious distinction. But if we put our trust in the common sense of common men and “with malice toward none and charity for all” go forward on the great adventure of making political, economic and social democracy a practical reality, we shall not fail.

Ai Weiwei’s Wife Reflects on the Criminal Procedure Law (Redux)

((Disclaimer: After I first wrote this article and posted on the evening of March 7 there were several developments. The Revised Text for the New Criminal Procedure Law was made public. At 10:31am on March 8, 2012 Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch Tweeted: Breaking News: “Disappearance clause” stricken out of revisions to the Criminal Procedure Law. A significant victory for legal reformers…”  Carrying on the conversation Bequelin later tweeted: “What was particularly worrisome with the “disappearance clause” was the power to detain suspects OUTSIDE of formal detention places.” Joshua Rosenzweig of Siweiluozi Blog responded, “@Bequelin Police will be able to detain people outside of formal detention centers; but they won’t be able to do so without notifying anyone.” However, all this effectively means is that the new law is not granting the Public Security Bureau with greater freedoms and power of detention; it does not legalize what is already an extensive system of arbitrary detention and abuse as some feared. There are still a number of lingering questions and concerns. However, if these changes are true then it would appear that the drafters have at least honestly responded to public criticism, in the wording of the text at least, which is certainly a positive step.

Whereas the initial intent behind this blog entry was to offer a new look at an open letter in criticism of this very clause, now that it has reportedly been removed from the final version this blog entry will hopefully serve to remind those of us who have not been following this process as closely why this was such a ‘significant victory for legal reformers…’ and their families. I also hope that it will help to illuminate some of the difficulties facing dissidents and rights defenders in China for those with less background.))

——

This week at the National People’s Congress the much anticipated, much debated, revised Criminal Procedure Law (CPL) will be made public. This is the legal document most responsible for establishing the rights of criminal suspects, including dissidents accused of political crimes, and delimiting the powers of the police. For these reasons the contents, both the purportedly unequivocal printed text and the ambiguities of interpretation, will be the principle guiding legal standard for the vast majority of China’s legal system in the years to come; the revision under discussion is the first thorough reworking of the law since 1996.

One of China’s most famous dissidents, the internationally renowned artist Ai Weiwei, was disappeared earlier this year, prompting almost immediate international attention. Many fear that if certain sections of the draft CPL are made into law it would institutionalize the types of abuses suffered by Ai Weiwei and countless others, most without an international advocacy network, who end up languishing for years shunted about from one facility to another, in and out of contact with their loved ones.

Back in September Ai Weiwei’s wife, Lu Qing, sent a letter to the Law Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC) Standing Committee to request further deliberation by the NPC concerning the draft Criminal Procedure Law. Her contention with the draft legislation, as has been discussed elsewhere (See China Geeks, Siweiluozi Blog), was with a number of articles that afford the police the right to carry out residential surveillance and detain a suspect without the need to notify their family if the suspect is deemed, by the police, to represent a threat to national security. The problem with these articles is that they provide for the police to not only carry out residential surveillance at the suspect’s residence but to move the suspect to a designated location, outside of a residence, detention facility, or police station, when the situation is deemed sensitive for purposes of terrorism, cases endangering state security, or large scale corruption. In such cases the police are not required to notify anyone of the suspects whereabouts. Under the draft law, this condition of enforced disappearance can carry on for up to six months. Human Rights Watch has noted, “Disappeared’ people are often at high risk of torture, a risk even greater when they are detained outside of formal detention facilities such as prisons and police stations.” Nicholas Bequelin, senior Asia division researcher for Human Rights Watch has pointed out that if this provision in the draft CPL is written into law it would only legitimize what is currently an illegal practice.

In her letter Lu demands that the draft CPL should constrain and monitor police power, rather than legitimize arbitrary and extralegal activities. Only in this way, she states, can citizens be protected by the law, and exercise their fundamental human rights. Lu Qing’s letter was mailed and published on Ai Weiwei’s Google+ account during the designated 30 day period (August 30-September 30) for public commentary invited by the drafters of the new law. The very fact of calling on public commentary in the drafting process of a new law has received considerable attention; Elizabeth M. Lynch of China Law and Policy has an interesting analysis.

Now, as the likely unveiling of the new law draws near, Lu’s comments are worth revisiting. Below is a rough (my apologies) translation of Lu Qing’s open letter. The letter is also available, in Chinese, following the English translation or on the Human Rights in China Website, here. It first appeared on the HRIC Website on 28 September 2011.

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Opinions on the Draft Criminal Procedure Law of the People’s Republic of China

Law Committee of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee:

As a Chinese citizen, I recognize that the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress is in the process of soliciting public commentary on the revised draft of the Criminal Procedure Law of the People’s Republic of China. Included in the revised law is Article 30, which affords the Public Security Bureau the ability to place a suspect in residential surveillance without notifying their family members in special circumstances, and articles 36 and 39, which stipulate that the Public Security Bureau can carry out detention or arrest without notifying family members. This will make basic protection of Chinese citizen’s rights impossible. Where residential surveillance can turn into secret detentions it is a clear violation of the constitution. I request that the National People’s Congress consider not passing the amendments to articles 30, 36, and 39. It should be clear that regardless of who the Public Security Bureau detains, arrests, places under residential surveillance or any other form of coercive measure, their family should be notified within the legal time period.

My name is Lu Qing. I am a Chinese citizen. My husband, Ai Weiwei, the artist, architect, active member of civil society, and curator at Fake Cultural Development Limited, was taken from customs at the Beijing International Airport on April 3 as he was preparing to leave. After this he was missing for as long as 81 days. We receive no official or formal information, no notice of why he was taken, where he was being held, or his physical condition.

Friends and relatives were all very worried because of his unknown whereabouts. We were worried and angry. Ai Weiwei’s 80 year old mother was so worried that she was unable to sleep for nights on end, and forced to take medications to maintain her health, suffering extreme psychological duress. We asked everywhere, frantically inquiring about his whereabouts, reporting him missing to the local police. We sent letters to the Beijing Public Security Bureau, the Procuratorate, The Political and Law Commission, the Discipline Inspection Commission, and the Ministry of Public Security. We received no answers. These 81 days of Ai Weiwei’s disappearance caused immense physical and psychological injury to our family.

On June 22 Ai Weiwei was released on bail and returned to his family. We never received formal documents from the Public Security Bureau after he was taken away. After he was taken away he was required to sign a so-called residential surveillance notice but he was held at a secret location on the outskirts of Beijing.

When a citizen is taken into police custody, providing some kind of notification to the family concerning their whereabouts is a basic right. Family members are not accomplices and should have the right to know. When a society fails to protect even one citizen’s fundamental rights, the whole society is injured.

A civilized country ought to respect the fundamental rights of its people. If the above mentioned articles are passed into law, it will cause a serious regression in China’s legal system, human rights will suffer, and it will obstruct the course of our civilization. I hope that this amendment to the Criminal Procedure Law will restrain arbitrary enforcement by the Public Security Bureau, and provide citizens with legal protection, to genuinely achieve fundamental human rights as they are enshrined in the Chinese Constitution.

Opinion: Lu Qing

September 28, 2011

对《中华人民共和国刑事诉讼法修正案(草案)》的意见

全国人大常委会法制工作委员会:

我 作为一名中国公民,看到全国人大常委会正在公开征求《中华人民共和国刑事诉讼法》修订草案的意见,其中,《修正案》“第30条”规定了公安机关可给嫌疑人 指定监视居住地点,不通知家属的特殊排除条款;《修正案》“第36条”、“第39条”规定了公安机关采取拘留、逮捕措施可以不通知家属的特殊排除条款;使 中国公民人身权利无法得到最基本的保障,使监视居住变成了秘密关押,公然违反宪法。我要求全国人大审议时,对修正案第30条、36条、39条中特殊排除条 款不予通过,明确公安机关对任何公民采取拘留、逮捕或监视居住等强制措施时,都应当在法定时间内不加区别地通知到家属。

我叫路青,中国公民,画家,我的先生艾未未,一位艺术家,建筑师,公民社会的参与者,发课文化发展有限公司设计师,今年4月3日在出北京首都机场海关时被带走,失踪长达81天,我们没有收到官方的任何手续,不知道他为什么被抓,被关在哪里,身体状况如何。

亲 人朋友都为他的下落不明焦虑、担忧和愤怒。艾未未的母亲,八十多岁,为此日夜担心,寝食难安,只能用药物来控制身体健康,精神上遭到巨大的折磨,家人四处 打听,到他的失踪地点备案,到居住地及户籍所在地派出所报案,写寻人启事,向北京市公安局、检察院、政法委、纪委和公安部写信,都没有任何答复。艾未未 81天失踪给家人带来了巨大的身心伤害。

6月22日艾未未先生以“取保候审”名义回到家中,我们是没有得到任何公安机关的手续,他被公安机关带走后,曾被要求签署了一份所谓的“监视居住”的通知书,被关押在北京郊区一个秘密的地点。

一个公民被公安机关带走,给家属一个通知是对公民最基本人权的尊重。家属不是同案犯,应当有知情权。当社会失去了对一个公民的基本权利的保护,整个社会也受到伤害。

一个文明的国家,应当尊重人的最基本的权利。如果上述条款得以通过,是中国法制的倒退,是人权的恶化,阻碍了我们文明进程。我希望本次刑事诉讼法修正案能限制公安机关执法的任意性,使公民在公权力面前得到法律的保护,真正实现宪法中所体现的基本人权。

意见人:路青

二○一一年九月二十八日

A Feminist (trans)election Barometer

“What are your immediate thoughts on the election?”

“I am really angry! That is all,” Myriam explained through a facebook chat. Myriam is a university graduate in her mid twenties who has studied in Europe and recently returned to Tunisia.

At a small couchsurfing gathering at a friend’s apartment I started speaking with Mouna about her thoughts on the future of Tunisia following the elections. Mouna studied Business in France and currently works with a company that facilitates business opportunities for women entrepreneurs. She hopes to begin her PhD soon. I wanted to know how she perceived the election, through the lens of women’s rights. I began with the same question, “What do you think about the election?”

The overarching emotional value of her response can be paraphrased as distinct apprehension, fear that one dominant force will simply be replaced by another. While she spoke, my thoughts returned to a moment of exchange at the New Arab Debates, held at the Mediterranean Business College on 20 October, three days before the election. It mirrored comments that echoed in multiple languages across Facebook and Twitter leading up to the 23 October election. The sentiment can be summarized as, “We did not oust one regime that controlled what we can do to vote in another that will control what we can do.” There was, and continues to be, a palpable environment of concern over the rights of women in particular. At the same time, individuals in the international media have begun to speak of a women’s victory in the election, see for example University of Washington professor Philip N. Howard’s recent article in Miller-McCune. Howard claims, “[r]egardless of how particular parties fared in the election, it is safe to say that women will help mediate political power in Tunisia.” I argue that positivist and episodic analyses that fail to take into account qualitative and long term indicators may result in a more shallow picture than realized.

“Women’s rights are in danger,” Mouna explained. I pushed her on this issue. The status of gender rights in Tunisia is a common point of praise among scholars and analysts observing Tunisia, and an oft expressed issue of national and legislative pride among the Tunisians with whom I have spoken. An example is the Personal Status code, passed in 1956, which gave women the right to vote, to engage in parliament, and the rights to abortion and divorce.

But in a social space where the overarching narrative is one of gender equality, a legal space where the laws are purportedly clear on the status and rights of women, it is necessary to separate narrative from the material phenomenon encased in the narrative. Why? Because when a narrative becomes enshrined in the conscious perception of ‘reality’ it is easier for that narrative to maintain itself, of its own force, well after it has ceased to signify a material phenomenon. What does this mean? It means that constructing a narrative of a phenomenon, and deconstructing that narrative, are equal components of power and resistance. Unwrapping this narrative, the conscious ‘reality’, the signifer of a social phenomenon, from the signified concept, the material phenomenon is the task of discourse and narrative analysis. While this article is too short to adequately present and analyze the complexity of Tunisian social space it offers a small platform to inaugurate this sort of inquiry into the social and political transformations simply understood as the Tunisian revolution-accepting that a revolution is a bounded episode of change, and that the episode of change in Tunisia is still underway. I argue that the Tunisian revolution is still very much under way. This is perhaps best understood in the continuing dialectic environment. So, approaching the revolution in Tunisian social space with these caveats in mind, I return to Mouna’s concerns on women’s rights.

She agreed that by many accounts women’s rights in Tunisia are more robust than in many of the country’s Arab neighbors, and by some accounts more robust than in a number of ‘developed,’ ‘modern,’ ‘democratic’ countries. Still, according to Al Jazeera, regardless of the law stating all party lists for the constituent assembly must alternate between men and women candidates, the fact remains that of the 828 parties’, 655 independents’, and 34 coalition’s domestic lists, totaling 1,517 lists, the percentage of men vs. women as heads of lists before the election was 93% men and 7% women. However, if we examine the result it paints a somewhat better picture. According to Tunisa-live, forty-nine women received seats in the 217 seat Constituent Assembly giving them 24% representation. This means that women make up a slightly larger percentage of the Constituent Assembly in Tunisia than in the 112th United States Congress, which, according to thisnation.com is 20% women. These are quantitative indicators that often fail to present a deeper, analyzable picture of a regime or social space.

Mouna, and a number of others, have expressed a deep concern, which should not be disregarded as merely overly emotional or uninformed apprehension. It is the continuation of a narrative that has apparently grown traction among much of Tunisia’s (women) elite. I make this clarification due to my own sampling constraints, the women with whom I have spoken, and the majority of women-as writers, referents, or general voices- in this conversation appear to be among the country’s elite. Defining ‘elite’ in the confines of a blog is difficult but I will stick to a narrow definition, that of an educated, identifying as predominantly secular Muslim-or cultural Muslim, and generally from a middle class or above economic group. This understanding of elite applies to both men and women. Mouna continued…

“Maybe…” Maybe the situation is better. Maybe there are reports that discuss marriage and divorce rights and women are granted a purportedly freer status in public space, “but it is not good.”

Tunisia signed the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) on 24 July 1980 and later ratified the Convention on 20 September 1985. It is germane to situate Tunisia within the timeline of other Maghreb countries’ date of ratification. CEDAW entered into force in 1981, thirty days after the twentieth state ratification, under Article 27(1). Libya ratified the treaty in 1989, Morocco in 1993, Algeria in 1996, and Mauritania in 2001. While ratification of international treaties far from guarantees compliance it demonstrates a legal standard the state claims to uphold; however, it also provides an inscribed foundation of rights protection which may be manipulated to artificially proliferate a narrative of the existence of rights in potential that contradicts the actual environment of rights in practice.

The government of Tunisia, at the time of ratification still under Habib Bourguiba, issued two declarations and three reservations regarding Tunisia’s legal responsibilities as a state party to the Convention. The general declaration reads: “The Tunisian Government declares that it shall not take any organizational or legislative decision in conformity with the requirements of this Convention where such a decision would conflict with the provisions of chapter I of the Tunisian Constitution.”

Chapter I of the Tunisian Constitution lays out the general provisions. It begins with, “Tunisia is a free, independent and sovereign state. Its religion is Islam, its language is Arabic and its type of government is the republic (Art. 1).” The first chapter goes on to guarantee a number of rights, including the freedom of expression and the freedom from arbitrary detention and torture. Despite the inscription of these ideals into Tunisian Constitutional law, reports by Human Rights Watch ((Click here to see list)) and other international human rights organizations clearly point to the disconnect between print and practice during the Ben Ali years. This phenomenon is not unique for Tunisia, of course, but it brings me back to the point under discussion: contrast between inscribed, narrative ‘reality’ and material phenomenon.

What has been a vocal point in the lead up to the election has been Article 1 of Chapter 1 of the Constitution. Article 1 presents a legal definition for Tunisian Arab-Muslim Identity. But what does this identity mean? And how will the interpretation or reworking of this chapter, or the meaning it is meant to reflect, affect Tunisia’s responsibilities under CEDAW; more specifically, how will women’s identity and place be affected?

“I have been harassed on the street. Men see me and they say, ‘why are you out in the street like that?” As she spoke she pantomimed eyes going up and down her full figure. This is a concern that has been expressed elsewhere. With the new found freedom and decreasing persecution of religious rights in Tunisia, a number of women have reported increased public harassment for not wearing a veil, or for their dress and presentation-or merely being in public. Reportedly the men who approached these women all identified themselves as supporters of Al Nahda.

Mouna continued, “They point at me and say I should be covered. They make a point to intimidate me. Sure it is okay to go out and work but I should not be dressed like this. A few days ago a professor was teased and shamed by several of her students because she was not wearing a scarf. This kind of thing didn’t used to happen (before the revolution?).” I pressed her on Al Nahda; the party has continually responded to its critics promising that it will continue to uphold the secular identity of Tunisia and will not push for a theocratic state. Recently, according to Reuters, Al Nahda’s leaders continued this promise, stating that they will focus on democratization and a free-market economy, leaving religion out of the constitution. Furthermore, they promise to uphold the status of women and will not promote any constitutional changes that will threaten the ‘modern liberal’ state of women’s rights. For Mouna, and many women, “Maybe they say this but they don’t mean it. I don’t believe it.”

Distrust of politicians was a salient feature leading to the elections, and persisted well after the blue ink had faded from voter’s fingers. Lingering distrust of political figures can be easily understood in a social space coming from decades of political abuse. As is the feature of authoritarian regimes built around the cult of personality of a deified leader figure, Ben Ali and Leila Trabelsi were the symbols of abuse and corruption, symbolized in the omnipresent posters and references to Ben Ali’s 7 November 1987 coup. Ben Ali’s visage presented a constant reminder of where this dominant power emanated. As much as rage over decades of abuse targeted these images with the revolutionary contention that ousted Ben Ali, and continue to deface his symbols, constructing metaphors of power, and resistance, has become a feature in these revolutionary times. In this sense, much of the dialectic of political participation has centered on discussing individual party leaders as much or more than the party platforms themselves. What this also means is that discovering the meaning of disparate parties has in many ways become a matter of discussing perceptions of those parties’ leaders, perceptions that have constructed a narrative reality of what the party represents. So, what the figures leading the party say in public, and what the party claims in its literature, is judged against the collective perception of what the party or individual will actually do. The dominant force of perception in translating political campaigns into ‘real’ planned policy, the disconnect between perception and promise, has continued the atmosphere of distrust of politicians. I don’t mean to reductively imply that all distrust of politicians is merely the result of an unjustified marriage of perceived ‘reality’ with accepted ‘reality,’ but I have noticed a particular discourse among the elite of Tunisia: regardless of what Al Nahda claims to stand for, claims that it will preserve Tunisia’s modern, liberal, secular freedoms, many people simply distrust the veracity of these claims. Hence the debate topic: “In their first free election Tunisians have nothing to fear from Islamists,” at the New Arab Debates (linked above).

Mouna explained, “They (Al Nahda) say ‘of course women can work. But it would be better if they stayed home and took care of the family. It is fine for women to work but they should take care of their home and let their husbands work. It is better for them, less stress, a better life.” She made these comments mockingly paraphrasing her understanding of Al Nahda’s position. But from her concern over the status of women we arrive at an understanding, regardless of whether the threat to women’s rights comes from an Al Nahda legislation or a social value, of perceptions of women’s rights in Tunisia, and how women’s rights fit into the changing political environment. Answering whether she felt that the situation has gotten worse since the revolution, or whether it has been a long time coming, she pointed to a growing trend of decreasing ‘experienced’ rights of women. Mouna’s perceived ‘reality’ offers a marked divergence from the narrative of women’s rights generally invoked when discussing Tunisia. Has it gotten worse?

“Yes. It has gotten worse. It was best during my grandmother’s years or maybe in the 1960s, 1970s. Since then it has been up and down but recently I am very concerned. And now with Al Nahda it could get even worse.” A number of political advertisements, commercials on television or kept to digital circulation, purportedly apolitical but obviously targeted at Al Nahda, have directed an accessible critical appeal on behalf of women, against an Islamic takeover of the political and social space left vacant with the flight of Ben Ali and the RCD. Not necessarily because of a particular enmity toward Islam, tout court, as religious rights must also be given a fair inclusion within any such discourse, but out of a precedent of doctrinal interpretation that favors a patriarchal power structure.

2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Iranian human rights defender Shirin Ebadi, an outspoken critic for women’s rights within Islam who takes the antithetical position of Ayaan Hirsi Ali-who argues that Islam and human rights are inherently at odds-offers some assistance for this discussion. In a recent interview Ebadi gave to the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates she expresses that women should “not give way to a government that would force you to choose between your rights and Islam…Getting to understand Islam well and encouraging women to learn different interpretations of Islam is important.” As one Tunisian woman told the Guardian in the lead up to the election, it is not only a concern of forcing Islam on the secular. “I am a religious woman. I pray. They want to impose the religion of An Nahda on me? I pray by myself. They are telling me to pray? Why do they impose things on me?”

Ebadi continues, speaking about women, Islam, and the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, stating that women in these countries  have witnessed the predicament of Iranian women and have seen how Islam ‘hijacked the Iranian revolution.’ Essentially Ebadi argues that of course there are serious issues of women’s rights in many countries in the Muslim world but these inequalities do not stem from an enlightened interpretation of Islam; they stem from the patriarchal structures of traditional society, which have masked themselves in Islam and given women, and men, the false choice of voting with X party or government or against Islam. In the Tunisian case, it is part of a crafted narrative that Al Nahda represents Islam and therefore any vote against Al Nahda is a vote against Islam. It is part of the narrative that conflates concern over Al Nahda, a political party, with Islamophobia- an argument with as much reasonable, academic appeal as criticizing human rights reports on Israeli abuses in Palestine with anti-semitism or a critical approach to US Foreign Policy with treason. There are plenty of women, and men, that are fearful that future criticisms of Al Nahda’s policies will be translated by Al Nahda as an attack on Islam. The concern for the women of Tunisia will be how Al Nahda chooses to interpret Islam and how women will factor in this interpretation. And this concern has echoed, in varying degrees of severity, through the conversations I have had and the tweets, blogs, and Facebook conversations I have observed.

While these challenges may emanate most resoundingly from those among the country’s elite (or minority as some might argue considering the high numbers of voter support for Al Nahda who gained 41% of the vote, earning them 90 seats in the 217 seat assembly), any reasonably concerned observer must position these concerns and critical analyses within the universal dialectic on women’s rights and cultural values. The question that is most pressing perhaps as Tunisia heads into a new era of national, ideological, and social introspection is how cultural, religious, and political values will be judged, treated, and implemented. A number of women have expressed to me that the most important change needed in Tunisia, rather than the political or economic change many foreign media and policy perspectives have highlighted, is a change in mentality. As Tunisian artist and theorist Mohamed Ben Soltane notes in an article in Nafas Art Magazine, “We took possession of our country and we must build a model of living together that meets our needs. This is Culture. We must restore our confidence in our creative abilities and assume our responsibilities.”

Changing a nation’s mentality is a more complicated task than queuing to cast a vote for a constituent assembly. It requires creative engagement and a rearticulation of power and place.

I will offer a cursory example.

A few days after I arrived in Tunisia, a friend and former classmate, Yasmin, invited me to attend Amnesty International Tunisia’s new ten point country plan for human rights. Of the issues presented, the death penalty and women’s rights sparked the most animated conversation among the twenty-nine party representatives and five private citizens who responded. A few party representatives went so far as to ask “If there is a ministry of women’s affairs, why isn’t there a ministry of men’s affairs?” Or to state that “We are placing women at the level of God.” But a number of representatives defended women’s rights noting that “Women need a ministry because they are discriminated against.” But what presents a deeper view into the ‘mentality’ of Tunisian social space came after the conference, when Yasmin and two friends of mine, Graham and Brandon, went looking for a cafe to discuss the day’s events.

I suggested a cafe where Graham, Brandon and I had gone several times. They have a good café allongé, espresso served with water. As I was suggesting the cafe Yasmin noted that the majority of Tunisia’s many cafes are for male clientele only. This had not occurred to the three of us. However, after Yasmin’s comments, and looking back, the gender segregation of cafe public space had been glaringly obvious. What does this mean exactly? In part, the cafe represents an open forum, a caffeinated agora, the salon of political engagement, where actors may participate in the dialogic process of negotiating place and meaning. One is left to consider the culturally accepted place of women in the activity of negotiating ‘reality’ in a cultural mentality where custom is to segregate this sort of public participation. Of course there are bars and clubs were this gender segregation does not occur, but these are the venues frequented by the country’s elite, again that word with its complexity of meanings. The point however is learning how to treat the cafe as an analytical model for perceiving social space. There are volumes of potentially analyzable data that can be drawn from the cafe, as a metaphor and material substance, but for our purpose here this simple example will have to suffice.

Returning from the precipice of the metaphysics of the cafe, a subject I will return to in a later post, I offer what appears to be the recurring sentiment of many men in Tunisia. “Women are weak.” I will elaborate. Women and Islam has also been the thrust of a number of conversations I have had with several men, resting in a cafe in Tunis, sitting in a living room, or, most recently, walking through the streets of Gabes. There is a disconnect between the equal status afforded to women in Islam and the practice of implementing this status, as alluded to by Shirin Ebadi above. That patriarchal structures of power manipulate partial interpretations of Islam is an inconceivable fact to a number of these men. For them, Islam is pure, or it is not Islam. One of them, a 21 year old Tunisian who has studied in France for two years, told me that he would not vote Al Nahda. Not because he was worried about Islamists in government-a situation it seems he would prefer- but because he did not trust Al Nahda was a true Isamist party. This is a point for another post. I return to women and the cafe as a social indicator of gender mentalities.

In Gabes, for example, the night of Eid-the Muslim holiday of sacrifice meant to symbolize Abraham’s trial by God- I was walking back to my rented apartment with Sammy, a Tunisian male friend of mine. We passed many open cafes, despite the rest of the town being closed for the holiday, and, since Yasmin’s comments, I have been keen to observe the gender make up of cafes. Sure enough it was a men’s world. Sammy began to complain, noting the high amounts of young Tunisian men who spend all of their time in cafes. The concern of too many men in cafes as an indicator of employment malady was also expressed to me by two women, the executive assistant and chief designer, at a small fashions textile factory in Nabeul during a visit before the election. If too many men in a cafe can be treated as a barometer of an economic phenomenon then it should logically serve, ceteris paribus, as a barometer of a gender phenomenon.

The problem, Sammy said, was that these young men didn’t have anything else to do, jobs are a problem, hobbies other than watching football are a problem, etc. I mentioned that there are no women in the cafes, “Where do women go to socialize?”

“There are separate cafes for married couples and families,” replied Sammy. “Okay, but what about women who are not married?”

“What?” He didn’t understand.

“What do women who are not married do? Say there are three or four friends, all girls, where do they go if they want to hang out and chat?”

He reiterated that there are cafes for married couples, to which I pushed, “So unless a women is married she cannot go out?” This quickly turned into the old standard, ‘it is for their protection; women are weak. Men might say some bad things or make her feel uncomfortable.’

“Shouldn’t the society be more concerned with correcting the bad behavior of the men than in keeping the women locked up?” I asked.

“They are not locked up. Look, Tunisia has about 60% women in universities.” This may be true but where are they after the classes end? Where are women, represented in the public space? How does this public representation filter into private conceptions of value?

Fear of hurting her father’s or brother’s reputation has kept at least one female acquaintance of mine from allowing me to visit her hometown unless I did so without connecting with her. Concern that her behavior will reflect poorly on her family, in this sort of scenario, is that the perception is that she is a commodity of the family and must remain within a conception of purity if she is to be accepted as a bride, etc. etc. It is an old analysis. Hoarded away into homes and families after graduation is no way to bring women, hence women’s rights, into the salience of the public sphere to encourage a robust engagement with understanding and improving women’s rights. The cafe plays a very important social function in society. A drastic gender imbalance in the most prominent public space of the country, the cafe, has a symbolic value which arguably has a psychic affect on how society perceives women.

I offer a quote from a Guardian article by Angelique Chrisafis. She quotes Jamila Brahid, a woman in Kairouan. “The men are all sitting in cafes. The women do all the work, in the fields, as well as the home, earning money, making bread, providing for and taking care of the whole family… At least now we’ve got freedom of speech. Who says poor rural women aren’t interested and won’t vote? We’re mobilized. We’ve been oppressed for too long.” And what with this voice? How will this freedom of speech be factored into the conversation on shaping Tunisia’s future?

Speaking on the gender parity in the constituent assembly, Nejib Chebbi, president and founder of the PDP, discussed in an earlier post, had this to say, according to an article in the Huffington Post, “There is the obligation of getting results… Parity is one thing, but the reality is another.” Bouazza Ben Bouazza and Paul Schemm, the authors of the Huffington Post article, continue, “The new assembly will write the country’s constitution and groups like the Association of Democratic Women worry that their long-held rights may not be explicitly protected in the new document.”

As I mentioned, a number of women, and men, with whom I have spoken highlight the necessity of a change in mentality. Those whose concern over the rights of women, and other human rights in fact, stem from a perception that abuses of women’s rights stem not from political or religious doctrine alone may be less moved when Al Nahda president Rachid Ghannouchi’s daughter Intissar Ghannouchi- who is usually clarified as a student at the School of Oriental And African Studies at the University of London- states that “Al Nahda is clear on women’s issues, respects women’s rights and will not impose theocracy but believes in equality.” For Al Nahda’s critics these announcements are treated as the manifestation of double messages, the duplicity of discourse and feed the distrust of politicians. But if the meaning of a demand to change mentality is to sink in we must realize that what many Tunisians are skeptical of is not only the promises of politicians but the potential of fellow citizens. Of course, much of the anti Al Nahda criticisms have come because of what Al Nahda supporters have done.

Ellen Knickmeyer pointed out in a recent Foreign Policy article, “As elsewhere in the Arab world, the joining of forces to rise against dictators momentarily blurred the lines between secularists and fundamentalists. But months later, in countries where the dictators no longer rule, the distinctions are growing sharper every day.” What she is describing is the difficult task of reaching a consensus in a value-pluralist social space, to which acclaimed sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has noted, “[n]ot every difference has the same value, and some ways of life and forms of togetherness are ethically superior to others; but there is no way of finding out which is which unless each one is given an equal opportunity to argue and prove its case (Bauman 2001: 79).” With this in mind I would elaborate on Knickmeyer’s analysis. Secular and fundamentalist identities came together during the revolution, to reach perhaps what political philosopher John Gray (2000) would call a shabby consensus, and now the commingled identities that have been subjugated under the tyranny of Ben Ali have found freedom to compete for a consensus The question is how will this space be kept free to allow for an equal opportunity where all actors and identities may argue and prove their case.

I am not negating the fact that what has taken place in Tunisia has been positive. Of course the promise to shrug off domination and collectively negotiate a national political and social autonomous identity is a powerful experience. My concern is that, in the state of elation, the domestic and international community does not allow the euphoria, and the existing narrative of rights, to obfuscate a critical phenomenological engagement with the established narrative of women’s rights, the political environment, and the material or experienced phenomenon of women in Tunisia.

Election Day, 23 October, voters leaving a voting station in Bab Souika, Tunis

Bauman, Zygmunt, (2001) Community: Seeking Safety in an Insecure World, Cambridge, UK: Polity

Gray, John, (2000) Two Faces of Liberalism, New York, NY: The New Press

Two Significations of ‘Sebsi’

This article was inspired by graffiti.

On 7 October Barack Obama welcomed Beji Caid el Sebsi, interim Tunisian Prime Minister, in the Oval Office. During the meeting Obama commented, “The United States has enormous stake in seeing success in Tunisia and the creation of greater opportunity and more business investment in Tunisia.” This focused language on US economic regional involvement echoes recent comments by John McCain who on a visit to Libya at the end of September noted that American investors are eager to invest and do business in Libya. This kind of discourse inevitably produces a cringe from anyone familiar with American neoliberal economic foreign policies. But the meeting between Obama and Sebsi was about more than just economic cooperation. Obama also took the opportunity to hail Tunisia’s progress toward democracy and praise the country as the “inspiration” of the Arab Spring.

Afterwards the Office of the Press Secretary of the White House released The President’s Framework for Investing in Tunisia. The document outlines a myriad of non-security assistance including investments in private sector development; education, culture, and media capacity building; transitional justice; and democracy and civil society. In line with the final two themes Obama commented during the meeting that “Tunisia has been an inspiration to all of us who believe that each individual, man and woman, has certain inalienable rights.” Obama’s vocabulary elicits the language of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Furthermore, the White House praised Tunisia for increasing transparency in governance.

The high level meeting has symbolic force in a number of analyzable trajectories. Namely, by meeting with Sebsi the White House is certifying Sebsi as the referent object of state-based transactions with not only the interim government but the social and political transformations taking place in Tunisia. Certification, explains sociologists Charles Tilly and Sidney Tarrow, is an external authority’s signal of its readiness to recognize and support the existence and claims of a political actor (Tilly and Tarrow, 2007: 215). Certification is important for both domestic and international actors and can have distinct and lasting signification for the evolution of discourse on a given phenomenon, in this case the meaning of Sebsi as a signifier of two distinct signified concepts.

The signification Obama addresses is the legitimate representative of Tunisia to the White House, the Prime Minister of Tunisia. It is that of a bounded political person. The second signification of Sebsi is the social and political significance he has for the people of Tunisia themselves, of course further dissected with the myriad identities and interests of the Tunisian population.

As with other names and symbols, Beji Caid el Sebsi is an abstract assortment of letters that are only given meaning when placed in relationship to other symbols within a given social space. I believe it is important to examine this because it allows us to analyze the language and symbols at work in the evolving reality and political meaning of the current social space under discussion.

When Obama says that Tunisia has been an inspiration to those who believe in inalienable rights, while meeting with the interim political representative of Tunisia, the certification broadcast from the White House is that Sebsi is, in terms of the symbolism of international parlance, the Tunisia being praised. For example we often speak of the Obama White House, the Ben Ali years, the Tony Blair UK, etc. A given country is generally referred to based on the political entity at its helm. Again, the White House is certifying Sebsi as the deserving recipient of praise. We should examine Sebsi in this light.

In a recent New York Times article David Kirkpatrick asks the interim Prime Minister to explain his go-slow approach to addressing popular demands for jobs and political freedoms. The response: “When someone is hungry asking for food, you only give him what he needs. You don’t give him more, or else he might die, so we offer a step-by-step approach.” He continued: “Sometimes the proponents of freedom have demands that go beyond logic and it is more difficult to protect freedom from the proponents of freedom themselves than from the enemies.” Still, his approach has, according to Kirkpatrick, lead to broad support generally but also a number of comparisons with Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. As a former member of Ben Ali’s party, and a long time political figure Sebsi’s position has enraged those who demand a complete rift with the past.

The 84 year old Beji Caid el Sebsi studied law in Paris before returning to pass the bar in Tunis in 1952. He was an early member of Habib Bourguiba’s administration following Tunisia’s independence in 1956. For the next two decades he served in numerous positions including as Defense Minister and ambassador to France from 1970 until 1972. In 1971 and 1972 he is reported to have advocated for greater democracy in Tunisia. In an article he submitted to Le Monde before leaving Paris in January 1972, he attributed his resignation to frustrations over continued democratic deficiencies. He resumed politics in 1981, serving as Minister of Foreign Affairs until 1986. Until 1994, when he apparently retired from politics, he served a number of other key roles within the Constitutional Democratic Party, Rassemblement Constitutionel Démocratique (RCD), Ben Ali’s party. On 27 February Sebsi took over the mantle of interim Prime Minister from Mohamed Ghannouchi who was forced from this position by popular protests to route out all former members of the Ben Ali regime.

It is fascinating to observe that the Beji Caid el Sebsi Facebook page description of his political career ends in 1986, one year before Ben Ali’s Jasmine Revolution swept Habib Bourguiba from power. Of course public figure pages, fan pages and the like are not necessarily affiliated with the individuals themselves but that the designers of the facebook page decided to conclude Sebsi’s political career before the former dictator’s coup is indicative of a trend to distance Sebsi from the ancien regime despite a clear history of eight years of involvement. This distancing is a logical political strategy, considering it was anger over Ghannouchi’s affiliation with the former regime that forced him from office a month after Ben Ali. That Sebsi has remained could be analyzed from a number of perspectives, of which there is not enough room to develop all of here.

Whether Sebsi should be interpreted in relationship to the former RCD party and Ben Ali himself or as a reform minded, advocate of democratic rights, or any other interpretation should be left to the people of Tunisia. But I will present two partial treatments of Beji Caid el Sebsi as a symbol for further discussion. First I will examine Sebsi, as the source of the analogous treatment of spoon feeding the hungry (see quote above) in relation to achieving democracy and human rights.

Human rights are universal. The preamble of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) states that they are derived from the inherent dignity of the human person. They do not originate from the capriciousness of sovereign largess. Article 3 of the ICESCR and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) both state that the States Parties to the covenants undertake to ensure the equal rights of men and women to the enjoyment of all economic, social and cultural rights, and all civil and political rights  set forth in the Covenants. Furthermore, article 50 of the ICCPR and article 28 of the ICESCR reads, “The provisions of the present Covenant shall extend to all parts of federal States without any limitations or exceptions.” Tunisia has both signed and ratified these international human rights treaties and is held legally responsible for them. They are clear in their wording, and there is no mention of sparing the human being by not extending too many human rights at one time when they are not accustomed to being afforded them due to years of oppression.

It is unarguable that within certain state structures these treaties receive varying degrees of compliance. It is furthermore clear that the transition from an oppressive, human rights abusing, dictatorship to a free democratic state that respects the human rights of all its citizens is an arduous task. But the sort of language that Sebsi is employing creates an institutionalized vocabulary for accepting protracted human rights violations masked with the intention of protecting those very people who are being oppressed. Furthermore, when this rhetoric is certified by powerful foreign governments, such as when Obama praises Sebsi for the developments of democracy and freedom, it creates the potential for the entrenchment of this sort of vocabulary, which translates into material social reality. It provides a symbolic force and precedent for a possible “Sebsiism,” or some other such political strategy.

In a situation where many are apathetic or distrustful of politics, the potential of established elites seizing control of the discourse is high. This is among the worst results as it runs the greatest risk of leading to protracted social unrest and anger over the failure to follow through on the hopes of establishing an open and democratic country.

In the hopes of engaging with a diversity of narratives I will conclude with a treatment of an alternative interpretation of Sebsi than the one that has received White House certification. An interpretation that is being positioned within the battleground of public space.

These pieces of graffiti construct a parallel between Beji Caid el Sebsi and Leila (Ben Ali) Trabelsi, the wife of the ousted dictator who in many circles is more despised than Ben Ali himself. She has been compared to Imelda Marcos, the extravagant wife of former Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Trabelsi is a symbol of corruption, nepotism, abuse, and oppression that received certification through the Western dominated double standards of shallow political and economic security, known in other contexts as imperialism (as the graffiti above notes). The parallel signification is potent artistic activism.

Political philosopher Chantal Mouffe encourages us to understand the political character of certain varieties of artistic activism as part of counter-hegemonic interventions with the objective to occupy the public space and disrupt the dominant (Mouffe, 2007). For Mouffe’s Radical Democratic Theory, the political is the public space, the public sphere of discourse.

When individuals feel that political lines are blurred or that their participation is meaningless, alienation and disenchantment occur. When individuals are disaffected with political parties, or feel alienated from traditional forms of political participation they often turn to more exclusionist forms of collective identity such as forms of nationalism, religious fundamentalism or other comprehensive exclusionary identities that only foster antagonistic conceptions of friend/enemy, ‘us’ ‘them’ and perpetuate violent conflict.

Radical democratic theory holds that the more empowered and involved individuals are in the institutions and programs that directly affect their lives the more they become civic spirited and connected to the polity: belief in the viability of discourse severely limits violence as a bargaining tool.

Mouffe’s theory can be partially summarized as, when consensus is sought through public deliberation, by embracing the inherent conflicts of social life individuals become more public spirited, tolerant and knowledgeable of the values of others and often more analytical of their own values and motives. In this sense we can interpret acts of artistic activism as part of a process of opening up a radical space for democratic participation where previously there was none. It affords the agent with a degree of power to engage in counter-discourse formation through inscriptions in the public space. But it must be given an equal chance to contribute to the evolving vocabulary by which social and political transformations are scripted. This artistic activism is part of the process of interpreting a meaning for Beji Caid el Sebsi within not only the domestic social space of Tunisia but also the evolving international narrative on Tunisia.

Mouffe, Chantal (2007). “Artistic Activism and Agonistic Spaces,” Art and Research: A Journal of Ideas, Contexts and Methods. Volume 1. No. 2. (http://www.artandresearch.org.uk/v1n2/mouffe.html)

Tilly, Charles and Tarrow, Sidney (2007). Contentious Politics. Boulder and London: Paradigm Publishers

Tunisia’s Jackson Pollack

Following a scrawled address in my notebook, a reference from a couchsurfer for a small art space with an exhibition–that we just missed–of photographs from the revolution, we begin the labyrinthine task of searching El Medina. Our little crew of three American men and a Palestinian woman elicit a few odd glances and sotto voce remarks from lingering packs of teenage boys and a few old men as we navigate our way echoing our shared language, English. As we trace the lines of directions extending from the outstretched pointed fingers of several reclining Tunisian men and passing pedestrians we slowly narrow in on the Centre Cultural Bir Lahjar.

We wander through unfamiliar streets, Rue Jemaa Zaytuna, El Blagdjia souk, El Attarine souk, El Djeloud souk, and Rue des Tamis. From one side ventricle at the heart of El Medina, a sign points toward the Auberge de Jeunesse, Tunis Youth Hostel. The weathered sign, stained an impressive range of colors from exposure and neglect, points down Saida Ajoula street. We take a turn, following a hunch. We pass the impressive edifice of this former sultan’s palace turned youth hostel and continue through the black and white painted archways that connect the chalky walls of plaster that house Tunisia’s characteristic azure, cyan doors and window frames.

We stop a moment to examine a large wall painting:

In March and April the Paris based Algerian artist ZOO Project visited Tunis to leave his now iconic life size images of martyrs and revolutionaries across the city in a series of murals (For a great spread see The Guardian; A New Hype; and Share Design). The images represent courage of ordinary people who risk their lives for freedom. Many are modeled directly on some of the 236 people who were killed during the revolution.

Here we see Mohammed Hanchi, a 19 year old shot to death on 25 February during clashes between ongoing protests and the police. Although Ben Ali had been ousted a month earlier many Tunisians remained enraged that so many faces familiar with the corruption and abuse of the former regime still remained. Interim Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi and former Minister of Interior, now Home Office Secretary, Farhat Rajhi were targeted with criticism over the continued use of force by security forces and their apparent lack of concern over such deaths, according to twitter posts at the time.

After a short conversation with a few men sitting nearby we continue around the corner. Not long afterward we stumbled upon another piece, a totem pole of youths, hoisting a Tunisian flag above their heads. The base of the painting is somewhat obscured at the ground by a small, red flatbed, strewn with some waste and a large cardboard with Chinese characters for the food distribution company that had sent it written all over. 

Upon closer inspection the rest of the symbol reveals itself. The tower of children, eager for freedom, democracy, and human rights are in the middle of a hop-scotch course. The end spells out “Democratie.” However, that the path to Democracy is obscured by garbage and the flotsam of Chinese global trade is highly symbolic if we treat this scene in its totality. It goes beyond the somewhat cliché “The road to Democracy is littered with…” but draws the viewer into an examination of global trade, political and economic interest and the inter-connectivity of international structures of power.

China’s principle foreign policy mantra of nonintervention in the domestic matters of other countries is the kind of rhetoric that allows state-sponsored violence to continue. Most recently China and Russia vetoed UN sanctions designed to pressure Syria to end ongoing violence by the Assad regime which has lead to over 2,700 deaths. But the double standards of political and economic actions, based primarily on the logic of what is expedient to the powerful, is an international issue that runs among the global elite. It draws attention to the role of the entire international community in both domination and democracy. The trash is a simple metaphor. It needs no discussion. We linger for a while and move off in search of 40, Rue du Pasha.

Centre Cultural Bir Lahjar is a metaphor of translated space. Once a Madrasa, the space was converted in the 18th century to a dormitory for Zaytuna University, part of the 8th century Zaytuna Mosque. As a dormitory of Zaytuna university the space housed the children of Tunis’ poorest families. The wards, otherwise unprovided for, were watched over by the communitarianism inherent in the teachings of Islam. At the entrance to the courtyard remains 25 ground level cubbyholes whose purpose was to house the secret gifts of food and other items left there by anonymous donation from the neighborhood.

In the 14th century Zaytuna university was attended by Ibn Khaldun, the renowned Muslim historian, philosopher, and-some argue-father of sociology. His statue, between the French Embassy and Tunis’ cathedral, on Rue Habib Bourguiba is currently surrounded by razor wire and armored personal carriers. During Tunisia’s struggle for independence with France in the 1950s, Zaytuna university, as a center of flourishing nationalist thought and activism, was the target of French assaults. In in its most recent manifestation the space has become an arts and culture center.

Here we are greeted by Jemal Abdennacer, who smiles when we note the shared name with anti-imperialist Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser Hussein. Our Abdennacer likes to style himself as the Jackson Pollack of Tunisia.

Educated at l’École du Louvre and l’École des Beaux-Arts, Abdennacer went on to study calligraphy and serve as an art therapist in Canada before returning to his native Tunisia. His art is a full experience. He places a canvas on a small easel, covers the floor with large multicolored, geometrically rich Berber rugs, and launches himself into a shamans trance of liberated color and movement. Wildly flinging his paint on the canvas, the floor, the spectator, as, his art is as much a spectator sport as a personal exploration and expression. I am curious how the power of such unfettered free expression must have felt during the Ben Ali years. After his explosive construction of colors concludes, and the canvas dries, he fillets the material into strips to give away. He always keeps one piece of canvas for himself. One could interpret this as a symbolic thesis that freedom of expression must be shared, to be considered a true freedom.

I am reminded of Paul Klee’s sentiment of his time in Tunisia. In 1914 Klee wrote,“Colour has taken possession of me; no longer do I have to chase after it, I know that it has hold of me for ever.”

As Abdenaccer enthusiastically explains his art and shows us around the space, the melody of a violin lesson resounds, refracting on the arches and columns of this centuries old structure to provide a most alluring soundtrack to our stay.

After some time, Abdenaccer leaves us with parting words of philosophy. In regard to the sensitive transition and difficult task of rebuilding a state ravaged by corruption and political abuse, he simply offers, “Do not politicize the educated. Educate the politicians.” We wander back into the alleyway outside the art space with these thoughts, and of course a small fabric of colorful canvas.

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