The contentious politics of China’s New Citizens Movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet China’s New Citizens

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

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

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

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

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

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

The radicalism of Xu Zhiyong

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

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

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

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

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

What is the New Citizens Movement?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anti-corruption: the ‘Master Frame’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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.

In Hong Kong, Protests Against New Citizen’s Movement Crackdown

IMG_5195As the government of China continues its crackdown on civil society actors, especially those who have publicly endorsed or claimed membership in the New Citizen’s Movement, human rights activists gathered in Hong Kong to do something many like minded Chinese citizens are forbidden from doing within the Chinese mainland under the 1989 Law on Assemblies, Processions, and Demonstrations: engage in collective action to express their grievances. A small coalition of rights groups from Hong Kong, including the Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, and the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, organized the demonstration for a few days before the Chinese Mid Autumn Festival.

Among the demands of the small procession were for the immediate release of all arbitrarily detained civil society actors that have been arrested for their participation in the New Citizen’s Movement. Prominent names included Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波), Xu Zhiyong (许志永), and Guo Feixiong (郭飞雄). These high profile arrests are arguably part of the new administration’s rampant crackdown on civil society and dissent. The goals of these crackdowns have been discussed extensively and convincing explanations are that they are part of a symbolic campaign to forestall actions by reform minded elements within the party and to demonstrate to the broader society that deviation and dissent of party dogma will not be tolerated. It is part of the logic of the totalizing social institution of the CCP. “It’s a thought-out measure that is really against this movement, and not just Xu personally,” explains Eva Pills in an article by Benjamin Carlson. Other members of the so called movement to have been detained or arrested include writers and netizens; since August 20 more than 400 such individuals have been arbitrarily detained.

This wave of anti-civil society pressure by the Central Government roughly coincides with the Universal Periodic Review on China and China’s bid for the UN Human Rights Council. China’s session within the UPR is scheduled for Tuesday 22 October at 9:00am and the final election for their membership to the HRC will take place on November 12. For a full overview of the relevant stakeholder reports on China’s human rights situation going into the UPR see here. China’s respect for the international community and the United Nations is often lambasted by members of the United States congress, although the US has a spotty record as well, but the CCP’s trepidation at civil society freedom, especially the freedom to participate in the drafting of China’s National Human Rights Country Reports or to demand transparency in the process demonstrates a deeper concern to maintain appearances of adhering to certain international norms. That is, the government wants to engage with the international community on human rights grounds but only when they can severely control the conversation in their favor. Admittedly, this is an unfortunately common practice for many powerful states whose domestic and foreign policies still rotate around a realist worldview.

Silencing these actors is part of state policy, demonstrated in the Summer’s leaked Central Party Circular colloquially known as the ‘Seven Don’t Mentions:’ (1) Universal Values, (2) Freedom of Speech, (3) Civil Society, (4) Civil Rights, (5) The Historical Errors of the CCP, (6) Official Bourgeoisie, and (7) Judicial Independence. This list provides a convenient official government document with which to highlight the brazen hypocrisy of China’s bid to the Human Rights Council. The opening lines of their official announcement read, “The Chinese Government respects the principle of the universality of human rights and has made unremitting efforts for the promotion of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the Chinese people.” Unfortunately, exposing irony and falsehood is insufficient to release innocent citizens and human rights defenders from arbitrary detention but the second claim of this small demonstration in Hong Kong was certainly to call attention to the falsehood of China’s bid and qualifications for entry to the human rights council. It will be the responsibility of the international community to stand in solidarity with domestic and international Chinese activists, especially those whose fundamental and personal freedoms have been arbitrarily withheld.

The demonstration had a small turnout and lasted for only about 20 minutes, enough time to march across the street and into the entrance of the Hong Kong government offices where the group encamped just long enough to read out from prepared remarks before dissembling. Hong Kong residents perhaps have grown apathetic to collective action; the frequency of protests, demonstrations, sit-ins, and other forms of public resistance have devalued the potential impact of certain sustained tactics of resistance. One might make similar criticisms of collective action even in the worlds purportedly democratic states. What is sometimes neglected from such discussions however is how valued the right to assembly and association is in places where it is severely restricted. While a small group of activists gathering for 20 minutes in downtown Hong Kong to express grievances in front of government offices is not a newsworthy story, it should be appreciated that Hong Kong allows such rights to its citizens to demonstrate for like minded Chinese citizens, some only an hour away by train, who are denied this right and detained and arrested for even less. While the CCP is arguably engaged in waging a symbolic war to discourage further mobilization one might wonder if they may not end up losing that war to mounting symbolic insurgency.

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