Matching resistance to repression in China

Pu Zhiqiang

First Published at openDemocracy on April 8, 2015. Also available here.

Prominent human rights activist Pu Zhiqiang has languished in pre-trial detention since his arrest last May – in the lead-up to the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre – on charges for several crimes including “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”. His case remains at a crossroads today. Any day now prosecutors should decide whether to indict and begin his trial or hand the case again back to the police for further investigation – meaning more time to conjure up criminal intent. It is unfortunately highly unlikely that he will be released.

Pu Zhiqiang is another high-profile prisoner of conscience suffering under a severe crackdown on civil society under President Xi Jinping since 2013. But is this vocabulary of a crackdown, with its connotations of sudden escalation, constructive?

Throughout 2013 to 2014, I remember many grassroots activists around China relating to me their perceptions that the ferocity of government repression should be understood as steadily increasing pressure, not as a swift crackdown. It is severe and inexcusable, without question, but in this sense it is more similar to the ‘frog in boiling water’ folk tale than the sudden purges of past dictatorships.

For domestic rights defenders, the challenge has therefore become matching their resistance efforts to this sort of slow-onset repression. Rather than pursuing tactics of sudden unrest and demanding high-profile victories, more can arguably be achieved – especially within a high-capacity authoritarian regime such as China – through strategic actions, producing limited but sustained improvements.

The importance of such realizations is universal. Activists and movements that demand sudden systemic change can become upset when they fail in their mission, causing participation to dissipate or making participation in successive waves harder to secure. They may refuse to abandon or adapt their tactics accordingly, such as refusing to evacuate a public occupation until all their demands are met. The world witnessed the gruesome consequences of this logic in Beijing in the early hours of 4 June, 1989.

Observers and analysts began to issue similarly cautious remarks regarding Occupy Central and the Umbrella Revolution in late 2014. Victoria Hui, speaking with the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, for example, outlined the need for tactical evolution in the form of methods of dispersion, which might garner less publicity but ultimately have more impact. Focusing on more systematic, grassroots, or small-scale change can ultimately be more productive for civil resistance and rights campaigns.

Broad resistance is harder to repress

Mark Lichbach came up with the five percent rule, that no regime can withstand the collective force of five percent of its population mobilized against it. Research by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan actually puts that number even lower, showing that the sustained active participation of 3.5 percent of a population is sufficient for a successful campaign.

While 3.5 percent is a lot larger than it sounds (nearly 45 million people in China), it is not an impossible number. As Chenoweth and Stephan have shown, it’s been done before. But it does require diverse tactics that can appeal to broad sections of society, and the ability to outmanoeuvre repression and think in terms of grand strategy over immediate rewards.

The Chinese government is likely aware of the possible threat posed by sustained collective action achieved through small-scale victories for activists. This, in part, explains the sophisticated attempts to circumscribe collective action and to respond with draconian measures against even minor civil dissent. Indeed, the government is notorious for issuing harsh sentences for moderate voices and activists.

The year 2014 was marked by a procession of reprisals against all manifestations of nonviolent civil resistance and domestic rights defenders, from Xu Zhiyong’s four year prison sentence and Liu Ping’s six and a half year sentence to Ilham Tohti’s life sentence. Figures released by the US-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders indicate nearly 1000 cases of detention and torture of Chinese rights defenders in 2014, with more than 100 detentions drawn from seven provinces and three municipalities as simple reprisals against those who supported the Hong Kong demonstrations.

Much of this repression has come through the manipulation of Chinese law. In this sense it is persecution through prosecution, or what is called legalist repression. The vaguely worded crimes of “Picking Quarrels and Provoking Trouble” or “Disturbing Public Order,” outlined in Chapter VI, Section I of the Criminal Law, articles 290 to 293, have become a canvas applied to virtually anything the state finds discomforting. However, far more serious crimes have also been conjured to silence rights defenders, such as the appalling life sentence for Ilham Tohti on absurd charges of separatism.

There are several lessons in this for domestic actors and those who would support them – particularly the importance of steady, strategic development and a focus on details. This requires recognizing the dynamic between rights abuse and repression on the one hand, and the interconnectivity of resistance tactics on the other. Put another way, because repression is most often the context for a series of rights abuses, resistance that is too narrow is also more susceptible to persecution. The Chinese rights defence community has begun to recognize this.

For example, what begins as a land rights violation or forced eviction can escalate into a situation of arbitrary detention or disappearance of villagers who intervene between developers, hired thugs, police and local officials. Village petitioners might blockade township government offices or issue open letters. Some have resorted to mass public suicide. They also travel from the village or township to cities seeking government redress, file open information requests to expose the corrupt development negotiations, or organize small campaigns against corruption. By doing so, they may find themselves detained in black jails and abused by thugs or charged with illegal assembly.

Some turn to citizen lawyers or licensed lawyers for support at different stages. More tech-savvy petitioners and rights defenders post evidence of land theft and abuses to Weibo and other social media, or communicate with domestic or international media and organizations, at which point some might be arrested on charges of sharing state secrets. Sometimes the victim, jaded by an endless petitioning cycle, sees independent candidacy in local elections as a means of holding officials accountable.

How to protect a movement from state repression

Effective rights defence campaigns and civil resistance must prepare for the protection challenges of steady state repression. For a time, certain civil society actors such as lawyers, journalists, scholars, petitioners and labour, land or LGBT rights activists were focused on narrower solutions to their own causes. The mentality is shifting, however, in favour of more coordination and horizontal networking between groups.

This is not to say that issue-specific rifts don’t still exist. I’ve been frustrated in conversations with licensed rights lawyers who claim that grassroots ‘barefoot’ lawyers aren’t worth collaborating with. Similarly, freedom of religion activists have told me that gender issues aren’t an important civil society concern or that women don’t make as good ‘barefoot’ lawyers as men. But the broader preference is a trend toward more integrated communication and exchange.

These are among the lessons I have learned from nearly five years of supporting civil society and human rights in China.

The main protection challenges stem from the government’s manipulation or outright disregard of domestic law. However, despite the more traditional inclination of civil resisters to work outside of established state institutions, couching resistance in Chinese law has a demonstrated benefit.

The police often illegally detain rights defenders and activists. In some cases merely the presence of a lawyer or ‘barefoot’ lawyer may force the police to release the arbitrarily detained individual or at least begin proper legal proceedings. While the charges may still be contrived, operating within the legal system is preferable to disappearances or prolonged detention and is also advantageous to sustained rights defence and gradual normative change. Furthermore, even a flawed trial often supports greater coordination of civil resistance or advocacy campaigns than more illegal alternatives such as disappearance or detentions without trial.

The degree of international attention and domestic pressure and the profile of the activists are important factors in the effectiveness of rights defence. The Nobel Peace Prize-winning Liu Xiaobo is unlikely to be released from prison any time soon nor will Gao Zhisheng realistically be free of revolving detention and harassment despite considerable domestic and international advocacy. These high-profile cases are important to the central government and maintaining a strong stance is related to demonstrating their supremacy. On the other hand, in 2005 Rebiya Kadeer was released from prison and permitted to leave China following international advocacy. More recently, in 2011, following sustained domestic and international efforts, journalist Qi Chonghuai was transferred out of Tengzhou prison where he was being savagely beaten under direct order of local officials.

While Beijing likely later grew to regret releasing Rebiya Kadeer, these cases demonstrate that concessions have been made but only in cases where the central government doesn’t have a direct interest in the detention. One of the most successful tactics in rights defence and civil resistance to date is recognizing and capitalizing on cases where central and local government interests do not overlap. Although no easy task, identifying targets for support within the pillars of the state can have a drastic impact.

What role can the international community play? Recognizing the differences on the ground and the specific needs of Chinese rights defenders and civil resisters is essential. This can be accomplished through greater support of civil society, especially through increasing attention to activists outside of Beijing and Shanghai, supporting less high-profile rights defenders and activists throughout the country. Pressure must also come from within Chinese society. The greater rights defence campaign successes have tended to come most from domestic organizations working from the grassroots.

This can be achieved through the creation of space. Chinese rights defenders and activists must be provided greater opportunities to simply come together and exchange ideas and skills. This can be done through more training programmes and experience sharing but also just through creative ways to gather freely. While digital networking is important for direct exchange in individual cases, the sustainability of a rights movement is built on face-to-face interaction. This increases trust and supports more intimate exchanges about grievances and tactics.

Furthermore, as activists around the world know, you don’t always need a strict schedule of events and curriculum; sometimes just facilitating gatherings of activists is the best way to support the development of rights awareness and resistance tactics. Again, the government of China is aware of such moves, which is why it responded mercilessly to the New Citizens’ Movement dinner meetings and the small apartment gathering organized by the Tiananmen Mothers in 2014 for which Pu Zhiqiang was detained.

Additionally, increasing awareness of the needs and limitations of front line rights defenders in China can be reflected in more flexible donor contributions, through international organizations or government mechanisms, to support small initiatives and start-up organizations. The Chinese government investigates and has persecuted foreign funded Chinese organizations and individuals receiving money from abroad. Leaking state secrets continues to be an opaque legal charge and method of repression, as with Gao Yu, and many activists have been detained or had funding seized for collaborating with international donors. Financial security for domestic activists is a serious challenge and should be part of the agenda of international rights defence support moving forward.

This assessment is far from comprehensive. These are some of the principal means of state repression and small tactical changes that Chinese rights defenders and activists engaged in civil resistance campaigns have begun to recognize. Focusing on more daily routines and details rather than higher profile events is an important step for the sustainability of civil resistance and rights defence in China. The utility of such principles, however, is not confined to China.

A common refrain among activists in many countries is that their struggle is unique, oppression too institutionalized, dictatorships too brutal, or causes not well supported by the international community. One can differentiate between the conditions for domestic resistance in China, Zimbabwe and Russia from the United States, Spain and Australia but civil resistance trainers are wont to repeat that conditions do not dictate outcomes.

While specific country conditions do not determine the outcomes of resistance, they do affect the availability of tactical options for a given act or campaign of resistance. And recognizing the importance of building sustainable campaigns through a series of small-scale victories, matching resistance to repression, and horizontal networking are therefore not only important guidelines for civil resistance in China. They also have universal value.


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A striking pose: labor resistance in China

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where is the union?

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

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

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

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

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

Resistance at Honda

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

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

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

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

Ferro Alloy

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

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

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

Labor looking forward

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

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

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.