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.

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.”

Surveying Nonviolence in China

This Article was originally published on 24 September by openDemocracy under the title A Sea of Dissent: Nonviolent Waves in China.

In 2010, Chinese sociologist, Sun Linping, estimated that the number of mass incidents across China had surpassed 180,000 that year, more than doubling from 2006. This indicates growing discontent in the world’s most populous non-democracy, unrest that the regime has treated with corresponding repression. In 2013 China’s internal security budget reached 124 billion dollars, exceeding military allocations. This awesome internal security spending implies the regime’s trepidation about what is predominantly nonviolent resistance. But what are the lasting sources of discontent that drive this increase in protest? What tactics are Chinese activists employing and how have nonviolent actors adapted in the face of severe government persecution?

The most universal source of discontent in China is illegal demolition and eviction, a byproduct of rapid development and urbanization. Corrupt local officials profit from illegal development deals and brutally crack down on resistance; adding to widespread claims of arbitrary detention and invasion of privacy. Land and labor abuses stem from official impunity, incentives for rapid development, a party controlled union, and limited rights for migrant workers because of the hukou, the local registration system. China reports more than 250 million migrant workers who leave countryside homes in search of work. They are often greeted with a litany of labor violations. Official impunity and the lack of judicial independence affords aggrieved Chinese villagers and workers minimal institutional recourse. Labor arbitration is less popular than strikes or protests, but this often remains locality-specific. Meanwhile boycotts are frequently nationalistic and often target Japanese products or those associated with the Dalai Lama.

Chinese activists have turned to the media to publicize their grievances and voices within the media have become activists, alongside an emboldened netizen community, to challenge propaganda and make claims against censorship, coupled with discontent over the lack of freedom of expression. In January 2013, a censored message in the Southern Weekend newspaper sparked massive material and digital resistance. Such information-based grievances have slowly created activists within the previously apolitical middle class, traditionally acquiescent to economic liberalization. Treating much discontent as politically interrelated, Chinese citizens have issued demands for civil society empowerment. Most recently Xu Zhiyong, who was later arrested in July 2013, called for a ‘New Citizen’s Movement.’ While many Chinese activists and scholars have remained skeptical of these claims gaining sustainable national traction, environmental and public health grievances are seen by some as having the greatest opportunity for more enduring mobilization. This array of loosely connected, deeply felt grievances has produced a diverse repertoire of resistance tactics.

Publicly inscribed resistance is prevalent. Petitioning, despite frequently lead to arbitrary detention or torture, is by far the most popular means for protesting land rights violations but is also a common tactic for expressing other grievances, from official corruption to government transparency. Preceding the 2008 Beijing Olympics, according to Chinese Human Rights Defenders, there were an estimated 10 million petitioners across China. Petitioners mostly arise from poorly educated villagers, but sometimes develop into professional rights defenders. Hanging banners is common among both village and urban neighborhood committees to broadcast myriad grievances, such as in early 2013 when activists, including later arrested Zhao Changqing, unfurled banners in Beijing calling on government transparency. Activists in Guangdong and elsewhere seized the spotlight of the 2008 Olympic Torch Relay to hang posters challenging China’s Human Rights Record. Civil society activists including academics, journalists, and lawyers, have relied more on signed public statements and open letters such as Charter 08, which called for greater political liberalization and lead to the imprisonment of Liu Xiaobo in 2008; Liu later won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Collective action such as protests, strikes, sit-ins, blockades, marches, and teach-ins are widespread. On 6 March 2006 several thousand workers at a textile plant in Yunnan Province went on strike demanding participation in company restructuring while two years earlier 6,000 women workers protested the privatization of a textile factory in Guangdong.  In 2004 hundreds of villagers, representing 150,000 inhabitants, around the Hanyuan Reservoir Area in Sichuan banded together to protest forced relocation and blockaded several villages. Police later opened fire killing 17 and wounding 40. While marches are infrequent in China, the Wukan incident began with a march of 5,000 villagers to Liufeng city to stage a sit-in during the early days of the protests over stolen land, which precipitated the now famous election. Upwards of 200 individuals, in July 2013, staged a two-week sit-in at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing demanding greater transparency or participation in China’s human rights reporting to the UN. Activists from villagers to lawyers, often with the assistance of domestic or international NGOs, hold teach-ins to share grievances and exchange strategies for resistance. Despite scattered attempts to emulate the Arab Spring, the Chinese Jasmine Revolution of 2011 never took off. Critical activists and scholars are in agreement that this scale of national collective action is a long way off in China.

Symbolic resistance such as political mourning or politicized grave visitation, hunger strikes, and costumes or theater are not unknown in China. In 2011 Chengdu officials detained known activist Chen Yunfei as he prepared to travel to Beijing to pay his respects to former premier Zhao Ziyang, known for being sympathetic to the 1989 pro-democracy student movement, and in 2012 police in Beijing arrested more than 2,000 people on their way to demonstrate at his grave. While hunger strikes were traditionally associated with religious demonstrations, they have become more common among political prisoners, and publically. Activists in 2006 coordinated hunger strikes in at least 10 provinces across China to challenge government repression and support fellow dissidents. Recently, in March of 2013 activists staged a hunger strike at a school in Hefei city to protest the refusal to admit the ten-year-old daughter of political prisoner Zhang Lin. Chinese activists sometimes play on the association of white with death and incorporate symbolic dress into demonstrations or street theater.

Government Repression seeks actively to forestall movement formation through sophisticated surveillance and censorship apparatuses and strives to confine resistance to locality or issue specific claims. In the first half of 2013 the Central Government proclaimed the ‘seven don’t mentions’ of universal values, freedom of speech, civil rights, civil society, historical errors of the CCP, official bourgeoisie, and judicial independence. The 1989 Law on Assemblies essentially forbids dissident collective action and in 2013 the central prosecutors office promised to crackdown on all ‘illegal assembly’ that aims to ‘subvert state power.’ However, activists continue to develop robust networks of support for exchange and innovation.

Repertoire innovation in China has reacted to government repression and in many cases dramatized regime vulnerability, illegitimacy or hypocrisy, through the dyad of digital and rightful resistance. Despite regime attempts to control the Internet, from blocking Facebook, Twitter, and countless other websites and blogs, or in 2009 shutting down the Internet for ten months in Xinjiang province following ethnic riots, Chinese netizens continue to develop creative solutions to speak truth to power, such as renowned blogger Zhou Shuguang, aka Zola. Some rely on homonyms and oblique references to voice discontent, exposing a vulnerability that censors even web searches for ‘big yellow duck.’ The government has responded to the perceived threat of digital resistance with mass arrests and crackdowns. In August and September 2013 alone more than 400 netizens were placed in administrative detention. Rightful resistance describes petitioner’s reliance on Chinese law to frame their resistance and the growth of weiquan, rights defenders, who legally challenge government abuse of other activists, thus positioning an unorthodox demographic of resistance actor: the relatively intra-institutional activist couching their grievances in the vocabulary of the abusive state. Again, the state has responded to perceptions of a nonviolent threat with force, by rounding up and detaining weiquan lawyers, from Gao Zhisheng to Chen Guangcheng and countless others.

Despite growing internal security spending and repression techniques by the government, the number of resistance actors in China is likely to continue to rise unless the state seriously addresses widespread grievances. Because its internal security logic is based on force and manipulation, the growth of nonviolent resistance outside of its purview and the inter-connectivity of activists may eventually overburden the state’s capacity to forestall more national mobilization with local repression. And while the overall Chinese population may have agreed not to discuss the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, they will not suffer another.

Fundamental Rights

The following list of fundamental human rights is taken from Jack Donnelly‘s book International Human Rights2007 p. 7. This compilation of fundamental rights is based on the key articles and substance of the three documents that make up what has become known as the International Bill of Human Rights. Namely, these are the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). While the UDHR is not exclusively a legal document, many law scholars, activists, and practitioners have argued that it has, through practice and general acceptance, entered into customary international law. Meanwhile, the two International Covenants are international legal documents. They were both adopted by the United Nation’s General Assembly on 16 December 1966. The ICESCR achieved enough ratifications and entered into force on 3 January 1976 and the ICCPR on 23 March 1976. Since the ratification of these two treaties a number of additional international human rights instruments that greatly expand on the rights here enumerated have entered into force.

1976 also inaugurated the Human Rights Committee, charged with reviewing state implementation of the ICCPR and hearing complaints and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, charged with the same task for the ICESCR. As noted in an earlier post, a number of states parties to both conventions have either put forth reservations stripping these monitoring bodies of jurisdiction to specific countries or failed to ratify accompanying optional protocols that allow for independent complaint mechanisms. Aside from these monitoring bodies, known as Treaty bodies because their existence is tied to specific human rights treaties, the United Nations Human Rights Council is the principal body charged with monitoring human rights among the 193 member states of the United Nations. The Human Rights Council shall be composed of 47 member countries, chosen with set distribution from certain regions around the world. It has come under significant criticism from a number of sources for bias or hypocrisy. For example, the Philippines is a current member despite censure by the Committee to Protect Journalists that the Philippines is the second most dangerous place for press freedom advocates and journalists after Iraq and the fact that China has served, and is up for election in November.

In light of such contradictions and concerns amid declarations of humanitarian and international human rights conditions as a pretext for the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), for example, a deeper understanding of the specific human rights guaranteed by international law is of paramount necessity. If the international order, composed of states most often acting in pursuit of their own interests, is to be taken seriously, far greater promotion and protection of human rights is needed. For regimes such as the United States in their support of R2P or China in their support for non-interference, both countries eliciting respect for international law, to be taken seriously their own domestic and international records have a convenient litmus by which to measure actual commitment against the rhetoric of political or economic expediency.

Donnelly succinctly outlines the following principle human rights by which we may measure state’s commitment to international law and fundamental human rights (UDHR=D; ICESCR=E; ICCPR=C):

Equality of rights without discrimination (D1, D2, E2, E3, C2, C3)
Life (D3,D6)
Liberty and security of person (D3, C9)
Protection against slavery (D4, C8)
Protection against torture and cruel and inhuman punishment (D5, C7)
Recognition as a person before the law (D6, C16)
Equal protection of the law (D7, C14, C26)
Access to legal remedies for rights violations (D8, C16)
Protection against arbitrary arrest or detention (D9, C9)
Hearing before an independent and impartial judiciary (D10, C14)
Presumption of innocence (D11, C14)
Protection against ex post facto laws (D11, C15)
Protection of privacy, family, and home (D12, C17)
Freedom of movement and residence (D13, C12)
Seek asylum from persecution (D14)
Nationality (D15)
Marry and found a family (D16, E10, C23)
Own property (D17)
Freedom of thought, conscience, and religion (D18, C18)
Freedom of opinion, expression, and the press (D19, C19)
Freedom of assembly and association (D20, C21, C22)
Political participation (D21, C25)
Social security (D22, E9)
Work, under favorable conditions (D23, E6, E7)
Free trade unions (D23, E8, C22)
Rest and leisure (D24, E7)
Food, clothing, and housing (D25, E12)
Health care and social services (D25, E12)
Special protection for children (D25, E10, C24)
Education (D26, E13, E14)
Participation in cultural life (D27, E15)
A social and international order needed to realize rights (D28)
Self-determination (E1, C1)
Humane treatment when detained or imprisoned (C10)
Protection against debtor’s prison (C11)
Protection against arbitrary expulsion of aliens (C13)
Protection against advocacy of racial or religious hatred (C20)
Protection of minority culture (C27)

‘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.

——–

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

The Politics of Representing ‘Uyghur,’ a socio-historical sketch

This piece was republished by the World Uyghur Congress. It is also available on their website.

At 6pm on Tuesday, the 28th of February violence erupted in the desert town of Kargilik, between Kashgar and Hotan, in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China. Armed with knives or axes (depending on the report), whether desperate or deranged, several men unleashed a short spree of bloodletting. The violence resulted in between 12 and 20 dead. The Washington Post, noting 12 deaths, reported,

Officials and state media said the bloodshed started when assailants attacked civilians with knives on a commercial street in Yecheng city, killing 10 people; police fatally shot two of the attackers, the official accounts said.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei callled the attackers “terrorists” and said they attacked innocent civilians, “cruelly killing several of them in an appalling manner.”

This event is happening only days before the National People’s Congress is set to meet in Beijing, on 5 March. This is important in that the NPC will spend time passing into law the revised Criminal Procedure Law, which stands to potentially legalize a number of draconian policies for dealing with security, and terrorist-framed issues. Senior Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, Nicholas Bequelin, points out that, in particular, Article 73 of the CPL poses considerable concern for human rights activists and members of Uyghur or Tibetan groups who are often framed as violent threats to the state. Understanding the violence in Xinjiang is part of a greater discursive battle, with physical and structural ramifications.

The Uyghur Human Rights Project reports that, “The Uyghur American Association (UAA) calls upon the international community to view official Chinese statements about the reported deaths with extreme caution until independent observers are allowed to investigate the incident.” And within reason.

Edward Wang’s piece in the New York Times points out that, “As with virtually all such events in remote parts of China, there were competing accounts of the violence on Tuesday… A report on a Web site run by the propaganda bureau of Xinjiang said Wednesday that 13 people were killed and many others injured when nine “terrorists” armed with knives stabbed people in a crowd… police shot dead seven attackers and captured the other two… Global Times, an officially approved newspaper, reported that attackers killed at least 10 people… Xinhua, the state news agency, reported that the police shot dead at least two attackers.”

As information about this episode of violence unfolds it is important to keep in mind Wang’s critical remarks, and understand the complexity of the politics of representation. The following examination is meant primarily for those with a limited knowledge of Uyghur history and aims to elucidate some of the situation in Xinjiang and provide a background for understanding the unfolding accounts of violence, and the framing of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Although it is geared more as an introduction to the unfamiliar, it also presents information and ideas that those more accustomed to examining and analyzing the region will no doubt find informative.

Uyghurs, an ethnic Turkic and predominantly Sunni Muslim minority group which are culturally and linguistically distinct from the majority Han, trace their ancestry to the geographic region known today as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). The word Xinjiang in Chinese, (新疆), means new territory or frontier. However, many Uyghurs, both inside the XUAR and abroad, tend to perceive this word as synonymous with colonial power. Perceptions that range from economic or political marginalization to victimization by an organized campaign to stamp out cultural identity and autonomy are best explained through a narrative analysis of the subjective meaning of name of the province for those who are purportedly autonomous within.

When I hear, every time, that word, Xinjiang, it reminds me that, ‘Oh! You have your place named with another language. You have to change that name.’ It makes me think that way. Always makes me feel, always reminds me that my homeland, home place, or home country, is occupied by another power. (A Uyghur student who has been living outside of China for five years, for safety reasons names will not be included.)

We hate that word. We don’t even have the right to say our hometown in our own language. (A Uyghur youth with whom I spoke in Kashgar, 2011)

This word, when I was young, I didn’t have any special feeling. Chinese just call our region as Xinjiang. But how do we call it? But we don’t have any word. When I went to Malaysia [first left China] I learned something about our flag, our country. I know that place is not Xinjiang. Now, when I hear that word I just think ‘new project,’ a new chance for the Chinese to earn money. (A Uyghur who has been living outside of China for two and a half years, and has since renounced Chinese citizenship out of fear of persecution.)

In this brief discussion, it is neither my intention to challenge nor certify the word Xinjiang but for consistency I will refer to the region as such. I do acknowledge the significance it has for many Uyghurs as a symbol of oppression or discrusive target of claim-making within a broader framework of resistance and cultural re-articulation.

The preferred name, once Uyghurs are more free to express discursive resistance outside of China and for those more daring who still reside inside China, is East Turkestan. In China, however, it is illegal to mention East Turkestan, Dong Tujuesitan,and the image of the East Turkestan flag, a crescent moon and star on a blue field, is forbidden from public and private space.In December 1999, for example, two men were arrested and charged with 15 and 13 years in prison for merely hoisting the East Turkestan flag in place of the Chinese Flag at a courthouse in Xinjiang.

The reason for China’s response to the ‘East Turkestan’ frame, from central government perspectives, is clear. It presents an implicit history of an independent Uyghur nation which challenges the official Chinese history. Therefore, the Chinese government routinely conflates all mention of ‘East Turkestan’ with separatism and, particularly after the establishment of the US led War on Terror, with terrorism (Dwyer, 2005). The use and interpretation of the ‘East Turkestan’ frame has become a constituent of domination and resistance, when protests, non-violent or otherwise, flare up in the region the government hastily blames it on the influence of ‘East Turkestan’ terrorist groups or foreign interference, as it does with blaming the Dalai Lama for any contention among Tibetan groups.

Before we can even begin to grasp a more profound understanding of the last few years’ episodes of conflict within the province we must develop an understanding of the significance of the words ‘Xinjiang’ and ‘East Turkestan,’ and the social-historical context from which the phenomenon derives its meaning and force.

In 1759, Qing troops conquered the region in what had been a long history of territorial conflict (Millward, 2007). China has at times admitted this history but used it rhetorically to state, “that the lives and cultures of people from multiple ethnic groups have been so intertwined for thousands of years that no single group can claim exclusive ownership of this region.” Still, the declaration of terra nullius is generally only put forth to counter Uyghur claims to a 4000 year history of multiple independent kingdoms, as noted on the World Uyghur Congress Website. While the predominant Chinese narrative is that Xinjiang has been an integral part of Han Chinese rule for centuries (Beijing, 2003; Shandong, 2010), others have suggested that the region was not incorporated into the empire until 1821 (Gladney, 2004: 215).

Conflict throughout this period was protracted. In 1864, Qing administration was jolted by the Yakub Beg rebellion which resulted in the independent Khanate of Kashgaria (Gladney, 2004). However, Beg’s sudden death in Korla in 1877 effectively brought an end to organized anti-Qing resistance; and, although Xinjiang had been treated more as a colony to this point, it was shortly thereafter officially made a province in 1884 (Millward, 2007). The collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911 sank China into chaos. In Xinjiang, uprisings and brutal crackdowns were prevalent (Gladney, 2004) as the region was split between a series of warlords and the competing geo-political interests of the Soviet Union and emerging rivalry between the Guomingdang (Nationalist) and Communist party of China (Bovingdon, 2010; Millward 2007; Gladney, 2003, 2004).

Millward (2007) provides a vivid account of rapidly shifting power dynamics during this period. On 12 November 1933, the East Turkestan Republic (ETR) was established in Kashgar. Its leaders were predominantly educators and merchants who had been influential reformers in the 1910s and 20s. A year later the ETR would fall to the infamous warlord Sheng Shicai. On 12 November 1944, the second ETR was established in Ghulja. Ahmetjan Qasimi, Mehmet Emin Buğra and Isa Yusuf Alptekin were influential forces in this time, and remain as Uyghur heroes.

The hope of lasting independence went down in flames on 27 August 1949. Although the negotiations for an independent Uyghur nation had essentially already been resolved much earlier, for the CCP had agreed to this in exchange for Uyghur military assistance against the Guomingdang, Ahmetjan Qasimi and a coterie of Xinjiang’s top Uyghurs were invited to Beijing to meet with Mao on the issue of independence. However, somewhere en route their plane mysteriously crashed. Their deaths would be kept secret until several months after the Chinese Army had fully occupied the region. The death of so many well educated and capable leaders resulted in a leadership vacuum for the region’s Uyghurs. This lesson has not been lost and, although it is a strictly taboo subject to discuss in public both the two independent republics and the mysterious plane crash are well known and hushed topics.In her memoir, World Uyghur Congress (WUC) President Rebiya Kadeer notes, “The death of our leading delegation was too severe a setback for compatriots to overcome, and so our momentum toward independence came to a stop (Kadeer, 2009; 11).”

Despite this history of indigenous resistance to perceived foreign—Qing, Russian, CCP—occupation, Chinese sources tend to represent the independent republics as the result of abusive foreign governments (Chen, 2009). Official media sources in China go as far to relate that in the early 20th century and later, ‘a small number of separatists and religious extremists in Xinjiang,’ influenced by overseas extremism and imperialism, ‘politicized the idea of East Turkestan’ and fabricated a history which had not even existed. While Chinese officials and scholars may have referred to Xinjiang as a colony before the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, “Chinese historians after 1949 would busy themselves erasing any such reference (Bovingdon, 2010; 39).” The representation of Xinjiang as an ancient and unbroken part of China became the official discourse within China and diverging from this discourse became a crime tantamount to terrorism. However, it has been continually contested by the Uyghur diaspora, and many third party scholars.

Because the Chinese government frequently blames domestic contention on the manipulation of foreign organizations, framed as violent separatist groups with no authority in China, it is important to quickly examine Uyghur deterritorialization.

Yitzhak Shichor (2003, 2009) provides a rich history of Uyghur diffusion. In 1949, Alptekin and Buğra led the first major wave of a Uyghur exodus from Xinjiang to neighboring Kashmir. By 1952, owing to Alptekin’s efforts, pressure from the US and the UNHCR Turkey accepted around 2,000 Uyghur refugees for resettlement in Kayseri. This marked the second phase of Uyghur migration. By a decade later a sizable community had also started to form in Istanbul. The third phase of Uyghur migration can be divided into two separate waves. The first began with post-Mao reforms in the late 1970s, with greater flight from China, mainly to Central Asian countries and Turkey. The second wave was composed of Uyghurs migrating from host countries such as Turkey to a third host country in North America or Western Europe (Shichor, 2003: 285). The global headquarters of the World Uyghur Congress is in Munich. Still, the diaspora is relatively small. The majority of Uyghurs still live in Xinjiang. There a different migration, Han moving from inner China, encouraged by uneven access to opportunities at the expense of Uyghurs, is perceived by Uyghurs as a direct economic and cultural attack.

Due less to migration of Uyghurs out of Xinjiang than to steady Han migration into Xinjiang, from 1947 until the present the demographics of Xinjiang have dramatically shifted. The majority of Uyghurs with whom I have spoken have brought this up as one of the gravest threats to their cultural survival. The Han population in the region has increased at an average rate of 8.1 per cent yearly, from 5 per cent in 1947 to around 40 per cent in 2000 (Millward, 2007: 307). Information for 2010 from the National Bureau of Statistics in China reports the percentage of Han as 40.1 per cent and conflates the remaining 59.9 per cent to an amalgamation of the other ethnic groups. This census representation, I would argue, is done in part to stifle ethnic based mobilization and to legitimize official histories of Chinese presence in the region.

A few years ago, in Korla, I was asked by one Uyghur how many Uyghurs lived in Xinjiang. When I told him that I knew that the given number is usually around 9 million he replied that the number is actually double but that, “the government will never say there is more than 10 million Uyghurs. Because when a nation has more than 10 million,” he choked with emotion, “they have to get their own country.” This sentiment is illustrative of the perceptions of repressive intentions behind various forms of representation, including the census. Representing or misrepresenting population figures is a way to dominate a given group but it can also be transformed into a counter-discourse if the population claims greater numbers than official figures. Uyghur sources report from 15 to 20 million Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

Admittedly, the history of this conflict has been represented in opposing narratives by Chinese, Uyghur, and third party historians. This is understandable considering actors in political conflicts often appeal to history to legitimize their cases (Bovingdon, 2010: 23). At times, it becomes difficult to disentangle the opposing representations. It does appear, however, that some accounts (Bovingdon, 2010; Gladney, 2003; 2004; Millward, 2007; Shichor, 2003; 2009) are more resonant with Uyghur narratives. This is important to separate from narratives obedient to Chinese cultural and historical hegemony. Understood from an analysis of the literature and discussion with Uyghurs, official Chinese accounts can be seen as representational repression. It is important to keep in mind as news and representations of the violence in Kargilik unfolds.

We should keep in mind that prematurely conceptualizing cycles of violence in terms of dyadic ethnic clashes distorts the complexity of the phenomenon as to render analysis facile. Conflation of contention to one category whether male/female, rich/poor, or in-group/out-group fails to take into consideration a multiplicity of influences and identities, as noted by Amartya Sen in Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny. Similarly, be wary of attempts to present some definitive sketch of ‘Uyghur.’ There is none. On this, it is worth quoting Gaye Christoffersen in length.

“Western and Chinese discourse on ‘the Uyghur’ tends towards making essentializing arguments that assume there is a ‘Universal Uyghur’ with an unchanging essence and fixed properties, whether living in Xinjiang, the Central Asian diaspora, Afghanistan, Turkey, Germany or the United States. Uyghur identity formation, difficult to begin with, is complicated further by outside forces attempting to construct a monolithic identity that would fit their particular vision. It is their essentializing imagery that victimizes Uyghurs by forcing them to assimilate to alien visions. The vast majority of Uyghurs in Xinjiang have no voice in world affairs, instead becoming the object of the politics of representation by outside forces (2002; 3).”

PART ONE IN A PLANNED SERIES ON UYGHURS AND XINJIANG

Kashgar Old City, 2011

This article was republished on the Website for the World Uyghur Congress.

Works Cited:

Bovingdon, Gardner (2010). The Uyghurs: Strangers in Their Own Land. New York: Columbia University Press.

Chen, Xi (2007). “Between Defiance and Obedience: Protest Opportunism in China,” in Perry,Elizabeth J. and Goldman, Merle (2007), Grassroots Political Reform in Contemporary China. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 253-281.

Christoffersen, Gaye (2002). “Constituting the Uyghur in U.S.-China Relations: The Geopolitics of Identity in the War on Terrorism.” Strategic Insight White Paper: Centor for Contemporary Conflict at the Naval Postgraduate School.

Gladney, Dru. C (2003). “Islam in China: Accommodation or Separatism?” The China Quarterly, No. 174, Religion in China Today.

———- (2004). Dislocating China: Reflections on Muslims, Minorities and other Subaltern Subjects. London: C. Hurst & Co. (Publishers) Ltd.

Kadeer, Rebiya; trans. Alexandra Cavelius (2009). Dragon Fighter: One Woman’s Epic Struggle for Peace with China. USA: Kales Press, Inc.

Millward, James A., (2007). Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang, London:  C. Hurst & Co.

Sen, Amartya (2007). Identity and violence: the illusion of destiny. New York: W W Norton & Co Inc.

Shichor, Yitzhak (2003). “Virtual Transnationalism: Uygur Communities in Europe and the Quest for Eastern Turkestan Independence.” in Allievi, Stefano and Nielsen, Jorgen S. (2003), Muslim Networks and Transnational Communities in and Across Europe.  Leiden: Brill. 281-311

———- (2009). Ethno-Diplomacy: The Uyghur Hitch in Sino-Turkish Relations. Honolulu: The East West Center.

The Divine Comedy of Mohamed Ben Soltane: Commentary and Creativity in Tunisia

Image Source: La Maja Descalza

“Before the revolution, I think, the art scene was closed so artists couldn’t make art in public spaces. There was real fear from almost everybody. We can say that it was hell and it is now paradise.”

Image Source: La Maja Descalza. Work by Mohamed Ben Soltane

A few days ago I had the chance to sit down with Mohamed Ben Soltane. As an artist, writer, critic and currently the head curator at the  B’chira Art Center, the first contemporary art center in Tunisia, which opened in November 2011, Mohamed Ben Soltane is a leading force for creativity and social criticism in Tunisia. He has been called a ‘visual sociologist of our most repressed desires.’

He had just returned from a workshop in Cairo organized by Al Mawred Al Thaqafy. They explain on their website that they are a “regional, non-profit organization that seeks to support artistic creativity in the Arab region and to encourage cultural exchanges within this region and the developing world.” It seeks to liberate the imagination and stimulate progress, which it sees as social necessities. In 2007 Al Mawred had planned and organized a meeting in Tunisia to empower local artists but at the last minute the government revoked their permission. Why?

“They were helping young artists to make art projects. There was no link with politics because they knew that they can’t do anything political but in that period thinking is already political. They [the government] preferred not to help people that will make you think.”

He explained that before the revolution we would certainly have been monitored if we spoke together in public. We couldn’t have made our appointment in a public place without considering who would be there, who the waiters were, or who would be sitting next to us. Anyone could be an informant.

We met near the train station in Sidi Bou Said, at the Jasmine Cafe. As the waiter delivered our coffees Ben Soltane leaned in and, with a smile, informed me that before the revolution this cafe used to be called Trabelsi cafe.

Image Source: Visual Arts in Tunisia. Work by Mohamed Ben Soltane

I have been concerned with this issue of naming since I arrived in Tunisia. In the international press the revolution has been referred to as, inter alia, the Jasmine Revolution, the Arab Spring and the Facebook Revolution. Knowing that when Ben Ali came to power in a coup on 7 November 1987 he called it the Jasmine Revolution, I asked Ben Soltane about the perceptions among Tunisians that their revolution is being framed by the international community.

“It is like other people that you don’t know giving the name of your son. It is not normal. It was really bizarre because when Tunisian people were called the Jasmine Revolution I was saying, ‘what the hell?’ Who gave that name? It was really from outside and you feel that some people just took it like that and the first thing that you imagine when you listen to Jasmine Revolution is the people who died, the people that suffered, the people that were for 20 years harassed by the police every day in front of their houses. I don’t think that for them Jasmine is a good name. And even the Arab Spring, I don’t know who invented those words. It was the revolution for freedom and dignity.”

Mohamed Ben Soltane’s artwork is about collaboration and exploration of everyday objects and phenomena, distilling the essence of the banal and insinuating new meaning to previously un-assorted forms. He works with many materials to form his artwork, from video and photography to plastics and paints. His writing on art has pointed out the flaws in the international art system that maintains certain hegemonies in which the voices of Southern countries are not given an equal place. For him art and politics are inextricably linked. He writes that political decision makers and art collectors in the global North prefer to focus on that which comforts their preconceived notions, of the Arab world and the global South.

However, thanks to the revolution in Tunisia, which has spread throughout the Arab world in one way or another, many new voices are finding a place for expression and creation. He is overall optimistic for the future of Tunisia but he is realistic that the transition away from a dictatorship will take time and that there are obstacles that still must be overcome. We spoke about these obstacles and Tunisia’s future, the role of art and social change, and the interstices of international perceptions and local realities.

Image Source: Susan Paiva. Work by Mohamed Ben Soltane

Michael Caster: What role do you see the art community playing in this? In many times, in many countries it is often the artists that push the limits, that encourage or force society to rethink, to look at themselves and their place, socially and politically in a different way.

Mohamed Ben Soltane: I think that we can demand much from the art society. There is a lot of people who also have to do their jobs. The civil society now is very important, in the legal and economic, the artistic. The artistic scene, the thing that they specifically have is to look at things from different angles. The most important thing that artists can do is to show people realities from different angles and that can make dogmatic thinking less important but it is work on the long term. In the short term maybe they can develop critical thinking. Caricature is a very important art. It must find its place.

MC: Willis from Tunis has been a very popular comic. Of course there was no place for this kind of satire before the revolution.

MBS: Yes but we need at least one very good caricaturist in every newspaper. There are too few at the moment but there was an exhibition and books about caricature and that’s really good.

Image Source: Cartooning for Peace

MC: Cartooning for Peace?

MBS: Yes. This kind of art is more related to politics.

There is also art in the public space that can be very important. There are different art projects. There are art projects that make people interested and that make them participate, and art that doesn’t interest the people. I understand that. There is too much art in the public space that is the same kind of painting that you do in your home but you make it on a wall outside. It interests too few people and that is not art in a public space.

If you go to the municipality and take authorization to make street art it’s not street art.

MC: Before the revolution it seems that the only graffiti you might be able to find is reference to a soccer club. Of course this remains but the more politically engaged street art is confined to certain places. Can you elaborate on public and street art, how it is participatory and how it is engaging people.

MBS: I made a project from 2006. I presented it in 2009 and it was about inscription on the walls. I felt that it was really a space of freedom. It was not really street art because the people that were making the writings or drawings were not really established artists or did not present themselves as artists or even street artists but the street art is not really developed.

Ahl Al Kahf are doing a really good job but it is really new. It was not so developed until now.

Dream City are doing a good job. The idea is excellent but the projects selected are not all good. So maybe we need more time to make good projects in the streets.

MC: Dream City II was before the revolution. Is there a plan for Dream City III?

MBS: It will be next year I think. They are selecting artists now. The two organizers are very strong in cultural engineering and…

MC: Selma and Sofiane Ouissi?

MBS: They are very interesting because they present the new profile of cultural managers that we don’t have right now. They are young and I am sure that they will continue doing good projects.

In a conference in Istanbul two months ago I spoke about two experiences that for me are the most important now. These are Dream City and the Festival of Electronic Music…They present also digital art one time a year. It is festivals that have a larger public than the traditional exhibitions. They also help artists producing artworks and that is the most important thing to do for artists now, if you want to develop the artistic scene.

MC: I read about Dream City and it sounds incredible. The whole Medina is opened up to become the gallery and instead of a catalogue the people have a map and compass. What you see is how much energy and effort you put into it. It is a true discovery and an exploration and I spoke with some people who worked with Dream City. Mostly this was safe art, though. No one really put themselves in danger. Was this political art?

MBS: I think it was already political because it was for a large public. It was in the Medina, in a place that was not a priority in the politics but the interesting thing in the festival is that people in the Medina went to see and gave their opinion about the works…

It was really a cultural activity because it made new people discover art, not the same people who go always to the same exhibitions.

MC: It seems that there is a lot of interesting cultural events and art spaces in the Medina, with Centre Culturel Bir Lahjar, Club Culturel Tahar Haddad and Maison des Associations Culturelles. Old madrasahs converted into art centers. There is a lot happening, workshops for children doing silkscreening or photographs from the revolution.

MBS: I think it is a public space. They are state structures. So if they are from the state they can’t be really alternative. They do things. They did things for photography, for music. It was for a small public but interesting. The thing is, we forget too quickly that the state doesn’t do good culture. We think that the state will help us now making, I don’t know what, but it’s not true.

The state makes official culture and official culture is not the good one.

MC: I met a Jordanian artist, Abdel Qwaider, a surrealist, very much like Dali but he did a number of pieces after the revolution that were symbolic of Ben Ali, with the color purple and the chair. He liked the image of a purple snake tongue. You mentioned in your article about Nadia Jelassi who has worked with the image of the chair. Can you speak about these symbols. In semiotics we deconstruct form and meaning. With the meaning of the chair and the color purple, it has a specific Tunisian meaning. Can you elaborate on this?

MBS: In 2002 or 2003 I sent an anonymous letter to a newspaper about the color purple. Saying that ‘I don’t think the president loves the color purple so much so maybe people are doing too much and now all of them, all of us, hate that color. It would be good for the image of the president and for all the country if you make less purple so please…’ But they didn’t want to publish it.

The purple color was like cancer. And up to now we see purple.

If you opened a small store and you have the color purple then when you go to the municipality they will know that you are with the party.

One time I was in Algeria, in a workshop, and every group was presenting his work. There was a group that made a comic. The comic spoke about a king that loved purple flowers and one day he decided that all the country must have only purple flowers and he called everybody and told them that all the other colors had to be put off. Some of them made that. After that he called the army and said it is up to you to make only the purple colors and find people who are not doing this. People started resisting by making other colors in their houses. In the night they would go outside and put the colors. After years of repression the king knew that he had no chance to win so he took back his decision and left the palace. The Turkish guy who made the comic didn’t know that Tunisia is really like that. So I said to him, ‘It’s really political what you did.’ He said he will present it in Tunisia but I told him, ‘well it is up to you but it is not the best thing to do because they will find you.’

This color was really present and I don’t know, I think until now they have big containers of purple that they aren’t using anymore. Maybe they will give it to artists to make artworks. The other symbols, the chair is not specific to Tunisia.

MC: A symbol of Power?

MBS: Especially in the Arab countries.

Image Source: AP, "Tunisian ex-leader convicted in abstentia"

MC: What about the posters? Businesses, restaurants, the police made them hang posters of the president to force people to show support for Ben Ali but on 14, 15 January everyone was tearing them down.

Someone told me this fantastic story about coming back from Avenue Habib Bourguiba on the night of 14 January. He went to his restaurant and tore down the poster. He tore it up and ate it. He said ten minutes later he was shitting.

It has this amazing force. Everyone tearing them down, burning them, driving over them in their cars. How did this feel before the revolution when you were walking around on the street, everywhere you see these pictures of Ben Ali?

MBS: I think we were surprised. We know what is dictatorship. We know what is torture. We know what is authoritarian system but we thought the president of a progressive country couldn’t be so ill with his own image. People were saying, ‘okay it’s a dictatorship. He wants his image to be shown.’

For a lot of people it was a sign of weakness. We didn’t know why…

The authorities didn’t give authorization for a big exhibition about photojournalism. I think it was in 2007. The exhibition was okay; all the artworks were in Tunisia but they prohibited the exhibition because there was a president who was making hello to the people and he was very big and the people were really small and he looked like the president [Ben Ali]. So the authorities said no. ‘It is not only that photo that we will take off but we prohibit all the exhibition.’

They were really afraid about images.

MC: There was the demonstration in La Goulette with the giant poster of Ben Ali before the election, the campaign ‘Beware Dictatorship can return’ to get people to vote. It does have this power, the image of Ben Ali, people reacted so violently. Now it is something that nobody wants to see. It makes you ill.

MBS: Yes but it’s more than that because when, in La Goulette, there was the project of JR (See Daylight Magazine, The Utopianist, Hypebeast and Street Art News), the one hundred people, the photographs, those photos were put in the public space in all Tunisia. They put the photos in that place, in La Goulette, and the people instinctively took off the pictures.

It was in a lot of places. It was in the Port du France, in Habib Bourguiba, it was in La Goulette.

The people don’t want to see any more big images of one person. Even if it is a poor Tunisian, because the project was taking one hundred pictures from all Tunisia, and from all kinds of people: big; small; black; white; and all that. The idea of the project was good but they were not expecting that people would not be okay with a face they did not know.

MC: It was not received as well as the attempt?

MBS: It was not as well received.

And I think also because they didn’t make the work locally but in all the country. If they went to La Goulette and spoke to people, took one hundred photos and put them on the wall it would be okay. But coming in the night and putting the pictures there, very big, people said, ‘No. We don’t want to see no more faces on that wall.’

MC: Something that I have been thinking about is this project of JR’s but also the Zoo Project, with the images of the martyrs. These have received a lot of attention in international press, from Al Jazeera, The Guardian to others, (see also Tunisia Graffiti Project), and also  art magazines. I was quite curious how it was received here. The audience that it should be intended for is the Tunisian audience. Is there a disconnect between the attempt of these artists, the way it was discussed and viewed internationally to how it worked here?

MBS: Yes. It is an interesting question.For most people, they see objects. They don’t see artwork. They don’t have this idea of art as a big thing for intellectual people and all that. They see objects and they react if they like it or if they don’t like it. If you have the idea that art is a big value in the society maybe the artwork is not interesting but you see it and you say wow just because it is art. It is better that you see the thing, you don’t consider it as art or non art and you react.

JR was a very good example. If it was before the revolution people would not be really interested in the project. People interested in art would say it is a great project and it’s okay but it showed that the situation has really changed. In my exhibitions I like very much to present works to people who say ‘I am not interested in art and I don’t know anything about art.’ And normally the reaction is more open to new things than others who say, ‘I know very well art.’… It is normal that there is a lot of attention outside than inside. Maybe there are local small projects that even I don’t know about that are even more interesting than the JR experience.

Photo by Author

MC: What about the Zoo project? With the life size caricatures of the martyrs. One of my favorites is an image of a group of children playing hopscotch to Democracy. How were these projects received?

MBS: I think it was a good project because it was really direct. You see human shape.

I don’t know the reaction. I was not present. I saw them in the gallery so it is really different. I saw pictures of them in Tunis. I feel that it is a project that could have success because it is a human shape you could recognize, speaking about the martyrs. It is a really good project.

MC: The end of Habib Bourguiba, the murals, a number of the artists said it was an important location because so many people passed that area everyday.

MBS: Yes but it was the same thing that I told you some times ago. They were making the paintings that they do in their homes and it’s not street art. I don’t know. They have the authorization of the municipality.

MC: It’s public but not radical street art?

MBS: Yes. For me it is an example of a misunderstanding of art in the public space.

MC: Can you speak about that. What is the role of art in the public space.

MBS: Art in the public space is designated to a large public and especially to a public that is not especially interested in art. You have to pay attention to those conditions. You can do art in the art space for artists or the artistic art scene. It is important that your work touches people with discussions, maybe with collaboration, with interactivity. I think art is designated to make people think and reflect and give their opinion. The role of art in the public space has to give a place to people. That is art in the public space in my opinion.

MC: Is there a big difference between what has been going on between public art and studio art, in terms of engagement and taking advantage of the newly opened public sphere that encourages exchange and discourse? Where does public art and studio art overlap or diverge in Tunisia?

MBS: I think there is good art and bad art.

If you are in your studio doing good art, it’s great. The artwork that we are speaking about is good art in a studio but it is not good art in a public space. There is also a bad understanding from the people toward the art scene or artists in general. For them, artists are privileged. They benefited from the old regime but it is absolutely not true. Two or three of them or a small part benefited but not in plastic arts or visual arts, more in music. The people are a little bit aggressive with artists. We can say that it is not the fault of artists. Maybe they had to do more than they did but I think there is that impression. That makes artwork in a public space difficult.

There are also methodologies and psychological work or how to make those kind of collaborations. For example, if you are not from the Medina and you do artwork in the Medina it is not easy. If you don’t go to speak with people before… Sometimes when I take pictures in the Medina I don’t say I am an artist.

MC: Otherwise you are seen as an intruder?

MBS: Yes. And it is a normal thing. Even when I was taking pictures I take pictures very quickly, without being there. You feel that people are waiting for you, ‘Why are you photographing my wall?’ There is a methodology and also a kind of elite and normal people here… Art must be less specific to a certain part of society.

MC: What is the best way toward that? You mentioned the notion of participation in art. What do you see as the way forward, to both create something that is not specific, that encourages people to participate, to share and grow together?

MBS: I think artists have a key role in that by education, especially.

There are solutions that don’t cost money, that can help artists, that can be very practical. Which is, artists make their books and the Ministry of Culture pay them to go to schools and present their works or make small projects with making children participate. It is really easy to find ten artists with very good projects who can do one school every week. It will be spread. It will be popular and very effective. Also, working with high schools or things like that. I think education is very important to show people that art is not only doing painting in a studio but it can be imagining new collaboration between people or new modes of curating things or finding solution.

I don’t see art as only art. It can be thinking in new ways. Never say it is impossible. Always find a solution. I work a lot with the material I find. For me a good artist is, they put you in a place and you are okay to make art. You don’t need materials or things like that. It is an exercise of creativity and creativity helps you in all fields.

MC: Now with the fear that some people have in Tunisia, and internationally, with Al Nahda, women’s rights is a big issue that a lot of people are concerned about and freedom of expression of course, with protests over Persepolis or other films to counter protests. The Ministry of Culture made a a statue of a naked women to be placed on Avenue Habib Bourguiba, to draw attention to freedom of expression in the days before the election but people reacted so violently that it had to be removed. Do you have concerns that before there was this pressure, this control from the government but that now this control will come from the people?

MBS: Yes, yes. That’s true. The story of that sculpture is more complicated because there were groups on the Avenue that didn’t want people to be together for a manifestation so they are not from the police but they work with the police and they terrorized people. One journalist that was there told me that he knew the faces and it’s not normal people. They work with the police and they decided to stop the event.

But many people, I understand them. For the first time in their life, the street and the walls are their walls. You come with an authorization; it’s like you come in their houses. It is exaggerated but I can understand it. For the other things I think we have a lot of work to do. Especially with young people because with old people it is more difficult. The things will get better I am sure. I don’t think that a dictator will be here again. It will be difficult for several years but we saw that Tunisia, that when it was really, really difficult the people made the right decisions. Like the two days after the 14th of January where it was really organized. The cars were circulating with no problems. There were no policeman. It will take some years but we are in a new process that will be better than before, if we don’t have the third world war.

For the first time in their life the street and the walls are their walls.

MC: Some people have said that with the reclaiming of the Trabelsi family homes, first there was the destruction, windows smashed, furniture stolen but then a number of collectives came in, like Ahl Al Kahf and brought life back into these places with color and words as a reminder. Maybe it is idealistic to say that this will have an effect. Some people might say that it doesn’t mean anything. What are your thoughts in terms of the cars and houses that were painted? Do you see this as a constructive step in that direction or is it just expression tout court?

Photo by Author

MBS: The things that I find very easy is to take one canvas. If you are a painter and you find one canvas you will draw on it. With the same reflex, if you find a car you draw on it, you find a wall you draw on it, a house you draw on it. It doesn’t give a lot of new ideas. I think it is easy. It is okay. It’s good. It’s entertaining but we have to do more elaborative things.

MC: Such as outreach at schools and spreading a message to more places and more participation?

MBS: Yes. And also the democracy in the municipalities that will have a cultural budget for the people that live there, the people that have projects, so the local democracy is also very important. We suffer from centralization like a lot of things that we imported from France. Maybe it is time also to work in other directions, to see other cultures, other languages, to be more open to experiences.

MC: Tell me a bit about Fatin Roussi and her project Art dans la rue, Art dans la quartier (Art in the street, Art in the neighborhood).

MBS: She was the promoter of the cars that were painted but I don’t know the other part of the project.

Image Source: Nafas Art Magazine

MC: Tell me about Ahl Al Kahf. They are elusive, one could say, but what they are doing seems powerful and exciting.

MBS: I think that they were doing a good job. One time in that exhibition with the sculpture they had their name on the invitation as though they were officially participating and I was really upset about that but one day after they published a communique saying that they are not participating and that they never participate in an official or an established manifestation. And I found that the thing to do. I hope that they will continue and there will be other groups that will make good art in the public space.

MC: Often those who become active with public art are more radical politically. There is a connection between anarchist political ideas and street art. Has there been a place for Tunisian anarchists? What has been the connection between politics and art?

MBS: I think that good art is always in relation to politics and with social issues. We couldn’t make that kind of art before. We made a little bit of it but it was closed in the galleries for too few people and now I think that it will develop. The state will not give money for that but I hope that it will develop.

MC: What about internationally? In terms of funding from international galleries, collectors, organizations, have you seen an increase in interest in Tunisia?

MBS: It is clear that there is interest. A lot of people are coming from outside to see what is happening. The Arab associations, three of them, very big, came to Tunisia after the revolution to promote their programs. I think it is normal. Everybody who is giving money is giving money for a purpose. If the purpose goes with your ideas then you can participate in that. So there is money from very different regions.

For me the money that comes from the Arab regions is, it can be coming from the United States but going through these organization, for me it is very important because we are very connected with Europe and we are not connected with Arab countries and the idea we have of Arab countries is very bad. Egypt has bad ideas about Tunisia. Tunisia the same about Egypt but there are good artists and good people in the two sides. Really we have to meet and to work together. I am very interested to do those kinds of exchanges and to participate in those kinds of projects, more than Europe.

MC: Generally speaking, what are your thoughts about the future of Tunisia? Not just in art but in religious, social, political ways?

MBS: It will be hard for several years but we have to work hard, all of us.

MC: What will be the hardest?

MBS: I think the economic crisis will be the hardest. A big part of the revolution was economic and when you have economic problems you have more radicalization in religion and thoughts. We have to make the difference between the two. That will be very hard…

Maybe we have to find new economic solutions. And we are not the only ones responsible for the economic crisis so the solution must be global. It will be a third world war and can be destructive for all humanity or it will be a decision to make the whole system more normal, less injustices.

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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