In China: Citizenship on Trial

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

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

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

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

The Jiangxi Three and Other New Citizens

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

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

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

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

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

The Radicalism of Xu Zhiyong

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

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

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

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

A New Citizens Movement, What’s New?

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

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

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

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

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

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About michaelcaster
Michael Caster is a human rights advocate, researcher and consultant. He holds an MA in Law and Diplomacy from the Fletcher School at Tufts University and an MA in Conflict Studies and Human Rights from Utrecht University. He has worked in China, Thailand, Myanmar, Turkey, and Tunisia.

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