Nonviolent activism around the Olympic Games: History and lessons learned

This article was originally published at openDemocracy.net on 24 November 2015 and is available here.

Whereas countless public figures have insisted that the Olympics be kept “apolitical” for decades, nonviolent action and civil society together have succeeded in revealing the hollowness of such a notion.

A Tiananmen Square-themed Olympic logo. Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.Bringing the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to act on human rights has been the product of decades of international and local resistance, from boycotting South Africa in 1968 to obstructing China’s torch relay in 2008. The key message of this resistance has consistently been that the Olympics is more than just a sporting event. Many campaigns have used the Games to draw attention to myriad rights violations ranging from minority discrimination and the loss of indigenous land to the treatment of political prisoners. There is an opportunity for civil society to build on its achievements, in particular by taking on a proactive role in holding future host countries more accountable.

The empowering spirit of the Olympics motto “Faster, Higher, Stronger” is increasingly out of step with the global decline in freedom and assault on human rights defenders over the past several decades. These problems are sometimes pronounced in Olympics host countries.

When the IOC votes to award cities like Beijing or Sochi, it is partially complicit in legitimizing repression and permitting ongoing persecution. Until recently, the IOC could brush aside calls from the international community to acknowledge its place within the politics of repression. Today, that is no longer the case.

Indeed, following decades of pressure from civil society groups and activists, the IOC in October 2014 updated host city contracts with a reference to human rights. The 2024 bid — to be announced in September 2017 — will be the IOC’s first official opportunity to demonstrate its newfound stated commitment. And yet the entity is already coming under criticism for not going far enough with the new group of potential cities between now and 2024 — a sign that public opinion on just how “apolitical” the Olympics can really be has shifted.

The 1936 Berlin Olympics

When the IOC votes to award the Olympics to cities like Beijing or Sochi, it is partially complicit in legitimizing repression and permitting the ongoing persecution of human rights defenders.

The history of the Olympics reveals its contentious nature and illustrates how civil resistance has shaped or been shaped by the Games. The narrative naturally begins in 1936 in Berlin. While Jesse Owens’ glory is widely remembered, what is not so well known is just how close the United States came to boycotting Hitler’s Olympics.

Concern that rising anti-Jewish discrimination should preclude Germany from hosting the 1936 Olympics began in earnest in 1933. In 1934, American Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage was invited to Germany to judge for himself whether or not Jewish citizens of the Third Reich faced discrimination. With no expertise in the matter, Brundage was a poor choice for such an important fact-finding mission and proved pliable in Hitler’s hands. In a trip that was deplored by the US ambassador to Germany, in Berlin Brundage was wined and dined. Following his trip, he argued that sporting events should not “interfere in the internal political, religious or racial affairs of any country or group.” A few months later, Hitler passed the Nuremberg Laws, stripping German Jews of citizenship and other basic rights.

Ignoring substantive grounds for concern, and the growing domestic movement for a boycott, Brundage succeeded in convincing the AAU to support US participation in Berlin. Advocates of a boycott were narrowly defeated.

Under pressure, Apartheid South Africa drops out of 1968 Games

Smith and Carlos raised fists in Black Power salute at 1968 Olympics in symbolic act of civil resistance. Thirty years later, Avery Brundage would again come under fire leading up to the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.

Formed in 1967, the Olympics Project for Human Rights (OPHR) was a central actor utilizing the Olympics spotlight to expose widespread, systematic racism and exploitation of black athletes in the United States. The organization had five central demands, among them the removal of Avery Brundage from his then role as the president of the US Olympic Committee, and the denial of Apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia from participating in the 1968 Olympics.

Brundage had disregarded previous demands that South Africa be banned from participating in the 1960 Olympics following the Sharpeville Massacre in March of that year. During the massacre, South African security forces opened fire on a nonviolent demonstration of some 5,000 people. For OPHR, allowing South Africa to participate in 1968 would be tantamount to failing to revoke the 1936 Games from Berlin. They announced a boycott.

 Enthusiasts for the boycott included Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who, months before his assassination, offered his absolute support saying, “This is a protest and a struggle against racism and injustice and that is what we are working to eliminate in our organization and in our total struggle.”

OPHR succeeded in one of its demands. Under the threat of boycott and related international mobilization, the IOC eventually advised South Africa not to participate. During the 1968 Games, in a well-known instance, OPHR members Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in the Black Power salute after receiving Gold and Bronze medals — in solidarity with the broader civil resistance campaign (see image).

In this way, OPHR also succeeded in establishing a repertoire for activists to utilize the spotlight of the Olympics to draw attention to oppressive conditions within host countries and also to more universal grievances.

A new millennium for the Olympics?

Activism around the 2008 Beijing Olympics was built on a similar repertoire of international mobilization to draw attention to widespread human rights violations within the host country.

When I first traveled to China in 2006, especially in Beijing, one could not escape banners proclaiming China’s motto for the Games, “同一个世界,同一个梦想,” (One World, One Dream), as China hoped to leverage the Games for increased soft power and a projection of a “harmonious society.” Two years later, this narrative was challenged at many stops along the international Olympics Torch Relay.

The torch was lit in Greece, on 24 March 2008, about a week after a security crackdown on what had begun as a nonviolent demonstration in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. The demonstration resulted in an unknown number of Tibetan deaths and detentions. Images of crimson-clad monks surrounded and beaten by Chinese police shocked international audiences. For many around the world, it was the first they learned of widespread human rights concerns in China.

There were a few scattered incidents along the route but the first major demonstration took place on 6 April in London. Free Tibet flags and placards voicing myriad human rights concerns contrasted with Chinese flags and “One China” supporters. In similar rhetoric as Brundage’s toward the Berlin Olympics, Beijing torch relay spokesperson Qu Yingpu told the BBC, responding to events in England, that, “This is not the right time, the right platform, for any people to voice their political views.”

Other organized nonviolent actions in Paris, San Francisco, Southern China and elsewhere succeeded in interrupting the Torch Relay, drawing major international attention to a number of human rights issues. Sadly however, the international demonstrations ultimately had little concrete impact on the 2008 Games. What’s more, China has since then come to represent an even bigger missed opportunity for the IOC to demonstrate commitment to upholding human rights.

Since President Xi Jinping came to power in March 2013, human rights organizations have documented over 1,800 cases of arbitrary detention. A new criminal law along with legislation on national security and NGO management have increasingly constrained Chinese citizens from exercising their rights. Torture and enforced disappearances remain a state practice. Notwithstanding this regime’s deplorable track record, the IOC went ahead this July with awarding the 2022 Winter Olympic Games to Beijing.

Tibetan rights protesters come face to face with pro-China counter-demonstrators along the torch route in San Francisco.

No Olympics on Stolen Native Land”

At the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, the dominant narrative for many focused on the Olympic Games as an institution, as a corrupt or repressive symbol.

In 2010, Amy Goodman of Democracy Now reported it was an historic convergence as indigenous rights defenders and poverty and civil liberties activists joined together under coalition titles such as the “2010 Welcoming Committee” and the “Olympics Resistance Network” to protest the Games and the some $1 billion dollars spent on police and security. Advocates of broad-ranging issues from women’s rights and rights of the homeless to anti-war and globalization also took part in the demonstrations. The Seattle Times traced parallels in coalition formation and other tactics in Vancouver back to the 1999 anti-globalization movement against the World Trade Organization in Seattle, my own introduction to civil resistance.

Despite the fact that the 2010 Games made history as the first time indigenous people were recognized as official partners, for many the rallying cry in Vancouver was still, “No Olympics on Stolen Native Land.”

Vancouver activists raise concerns about land destruction and neglect for native peoples in the lead-up to the 2010 Winter Olympics.

At the 2014 Sochi Olympics, undoubtedly LGBTI issues took center stage. Many of the tactics employed by activists over the preceding decade were repeated, from international coordination in multiple cities to boycott movements. There was also a sense of rising disgust with the IOC and the Olympics in general. How could the IOC allow such a blatant violation of IOC Principle 6 on discrimination, asked the eponymous movement.

The IOC responds to direct challenges

Human Rights Watch and others outlined the need for the IOC to change in a 2014 submission to the “Olympic Agenda 2020.” This included media freedom, labor rights, freedom of expression and association, and nondiscrimination based on race, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity. ” Too often major sports events have seen people forcibly evicted from their homes to make way for infrastructure, workers exploited, campaigners locked up, the environment damaged beyond repair and notoriously opaque bidding processes.” 

In a February 2015 open letter to IOC President Thomas Bach of the Sports and Rights Alliance (SRA) wrote, “As you know, too often major sports events have seen people forcibly evicted from their homes to make way for infrastructure, workers exploited, campaigners locked up, the environment damaged beyond repair and notoriously opaque bidding processes.” SRA identified the need for concrete and measurable indicators in the future host city bidding process.

In late 2014, the IOC added a human rights clause, meaning countries must meet minimum standards to be awarded host. The problem is, the IOC isn’t set up to be a human rights monitoring body. It will need help, from IOC member countries and civil society.

This is a good step forward and should be lauded, with caution. Whereas countless public figures have insisted that the Olympics be kept “apolitical” for decades, nonviolent action and civil society together have succeeded in revealing the hollowness of such a notion. But without concrete action, the IOC may inadvertently continue legitimizing repressive regimes.

Eyes on 2024 and beyond

Ongoing innovation in civil resistance and organizations such as Principle 6 and the SRA have contributed to forcing the IOC to recognize its place within the politics of repression. Decades of civil resistance succeeded in shifting the narrative.

Nevertheless, the IOC lacks monitoring and enforcement mechanisms, other than the threat of refusal to award host city status. Human rights defenders and civil society organizations should take this on as a new objective in their work around the Olympics.

These actors would benefit from tactical innovation that engages with the IOC’s updated Charter in a new, more proactive and direct way. In addition to many of the previous tactics such as boycotts or collective action, this will also at times require less disruptive actions. For example, civil resisters should deepen coalitions with human rights law practitioners, especially those most skilled in practical fact-finding and reporting. Different tactics can be combined, but they must be done so as part of a broadly inclusive grand strategy that aims to hold the IOC accountable to its recently stated embrace of human rights. If the IOC is sincere, it should welcome such civil society participation and monitoring at all phases. If it is unwilling to do so, then it makes itself vulnerable to such visible, popular nonviolent actions as those chronicled in this article.

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Violence and Nonviolence in the Uyghur Struggle

First published at opendemocracy.net on 10 October 2014 as Resistance, repression, and the cycle of violence in the Uyghur Struggle.

On Tuesday, September 26, 2014 a Chinese court convicted Ilham Tohti, a Uyghur economics professor, to a life sentence on charges of separatism in a disgracefully political trial. Amnesty International’s China researcher William Nee wrote, “This shameful judgment has no basis in reality. Ilham Tohti worked to peacefully build bridges between ethnic communities and for that he has been punished…”

Ilham Tohti’s conviction should be seen as a symbol sent by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to other Uyghurs and a reprisal against Mr. Tohti specifically for his outspoken activism for Uyghur rights. He has been adamant that central government policies have been abusive toward Uyghurs and have fueled conflict. However, he has been steady in his commitment to nonviolent action as the necessary path for Uyghur rights in China, always advocating autonomy never independence, despite contrary claims by the government.

Admittedly, over the past few years, there has been a tragic increase in violent episodes attributed to Uyghur discontent in China. Uyghurs are the ethnically Turkic, predominantly Muslim minority who claim ancient homeland in what is today the northwest Chinese province of Xinjiang, a Chinese word that literally translates as ‘new territory.’

Restive and repressive

Chinese and Uyghur historical narratives have been a source of contention. Uyghurs have suffered from state repression on the basis of cultural, linguistic, and religious rights and been disadvantaged by a number of prejudicial economic policies that favor the majority Han. While Uyghur grievances have sparked unrest in the past, the recent increase of violence is startling.

While the Chinese government has been quick to blame this spate of violence on Islamic radicalization and incitement by foreign forces, which has been used to justify greater securitization, most international human rights organizations point to a systematic assault on Uyghur rights and increasing militarization by the state as causes of escalating instability in Xinjiang.

Commonly reported on are the large-scale outbursts of violence such as the Kunming train station massacre in March 2014 or the Urumqi vegetable market bombing in May the same year, but more common are the countless episodes of everyday resistance and unrest directed at perceived targets of state repression. Many public manifestations begin as small groups of Uyghurs peacefully protest grievances of religious or cultural abuse or in solidarity with a detained friend or relative. This was the case following the questionable death of 17-year old Abdulbasit Ablimit when 17 Uyghur protesters were sentenced to between six months and seven years in prison.

Nonviolent demonstrators are attacked or arrested by security forces, which sometimes leads to radical flanks storming police or government buildings armed with knives and axes, many of whom are then gunned down by security forces and labeled as separatists and terrorists for their outburst. This tends to engender greater resistance to police violence. A similar situation triggered severe unrest in Yarkand in June 2014 that by one account resulted in the death of some 2,000 Uyghurs, although this has not been confirmed.

In such clashes police and government officials as well as civilians have admittedly been killed and no doubt some violent outbursts have been driven by religious fundamentalism, but the uniformity of central government depictions of the cause of violence and the categorical repression of Uyghur dissent challenge the validity of such narratives and fail to address the core instability.

The increase in violent resistance, the ongoing and perhaps escalating crackdown on Uyghur rights advocates, and zero-tolerance for all Uyghur dissent pose two pressing questions.

Firstly, why haven’t we seen more nonviolent resistance by Uyghurs? While Uyghur experts Gardner Bovingdon, James Millward and others have documented nonviolent resistance, it is less frequent than one might expect considering the litany of abuses and grievances generally acknowledged by international organizations.

The silencing of high profile Uyghur rights defenders who advocate for nonviolent resistance has arguably ceded some strategic and intellectual territory to more radicalized forces. The Chinese state seldom discriminates between peaceful and violent dissent among Uyghurs, treating virtually all expressions of grievance as connected to separatist ideology fomented by ‘foreign forces’ and calling for strike-hard campaigns against violent and nonviolent dissent alike.

Secondly, what is the root cause of the rise in violent manifestations in Xinjiang, and how does regime intolerance toward nonviolent resistance impact this? The late social scientist Charles Tilly wrote in Regimes and Repertoires that a government that narrows the openness for tolerated nonviolent civil resistance, such as demonstrations, petitioning or open letters, significantly increases both the likelihood of violent resistance and encourages further violent repression from the state — a cycle of violence.

Acts of dissent, acts of terror

Bovingdon explains in The Uyghurs: Strangers in Their Own Land that in the face of severe repression Uyghurs have for a long time engaged in both nonviolent collective action and everyday resistance, often taking the form of strengthening Uyghur distinctions from Han China and its political order.

Nonviolent civil resistance is more successful in achieving political change than violent insurgencies, explain Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan in Why Civil Resistance Works, in large part due to mass participation. Nonviolent movements have fewer barriers to participation, while violent movements have more. As such, state repression aims to increase the costs of participation; repression either constrains resistance or radicalizes tactics toward violence, as movement actors feel they have no opportunity for nonviolent dissent and nothing to lose.

Chinese government rhetoric continues to deny accusations of structural inequality and Uyghur grievances. Ironically, as 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 nonviolent channels for Uyghurs to express grievances, CCP policy in Xinjiang continues to engender unrest. The unrest is then labeled as the influence of foreign forces because the government refuses to acknowledge the possible existence of legitimate domestic grievances.

Virtually all Uyghur participation in nonviolent resistance may be labeled as inciting separatism and treated with severe repression, even in the case of those who merely participate in scholarship.

Resistance campaigns begin with cognitive liberation, which is fostered by dissident scholars and inspirational counter-culture figures. They too have been silenced and disappeared, unquestionably affecting the tactics of resistance.

Silencing the Uyghur who speaks

In 1989, Uyghur poet and historian Turghun Almas published a 6,000 year Uyghur history. His scholarship positioned an empowering narrative that contradicted the official Chinese history designed to bolster Beijing’s claims to ancient dominance and to legitimize the Communist trope of emancipating enslaved minorities. The book was blacklisted and Almas was placed under house arrest until his death in 2001. In March 2002, authorities burned countless copies of his book along with thousands of others during raids on bookstalls in Xinjiang.

Two years later, in 2004, Nurmuhemmet Yasin was arrested, found guilty of inciting separatism, and sentenced to 10 years in prison. In 2013, a year before he was scheduled for release, authorities announced that he had died in prison in 2011. His crime had been writing a short story called ‘Wild Pigeon,’ an allegory for Uyghur captivity and abuse in Han-dominated China, an act of symbolic resistance. The magazine editor that published the story received three years in prison.

Abduweli Ayup studied in Turkey and completed his MA in linguistics through a Ford Foundation fellowship at the University of Kansas in 2011. Afterward he returned to Xinjiang and campaigned for Uyghur cultural and linguistic rights. He had a vision to establish Uyghur language kindergartens as a way to resist growing perceptions of assimilationist language policies. He documented his interactions with belligerent officials ‘to let people know how China was treating the status of the Uyghur language,’ said Mamatjan Juma of Radio Free Asia. In August 2013, Ayup was detained and later arrested on spurious charges of ‘illegal fund-raising,’ for selling honey and T-shirts to raise money for his language centers.

Ilham Tohti, with whom we began, was first charged with separatism in July 2014, after months of incommunicado detention. Despite being first detained on January 15, 2014, and constant pleas from his lawyers, he wasn’t allowed legal visitation until June and soon after that meeting one of his lawyers, Wang Yu, was forced out of the case after her law firm was intimidated by the government.

When I first met Mr. Tohti in 2011 he was clear in his discussion of Uyghur rights abuses and unwavering in his commitment to nonviolent resistance as the only strategy for promoting and protecting Uyghur rights. Speaking shortly after the announcement of the charges in July, Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch told The New York Times that charging Mr. Tohti with separatism “signifies that China is burning all bridges with moderate voices.” Similarly, William Nee of Amnesty International noted, “with violence on the rise in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, it’s difficult to grasp why the authorities would target a prominent Uyghur intellectual known for his commitment to nonviolence and dialogue between ethnic groups.”

Ending the cycle of violence

The Chinese government could do two things to address Uyghur grievances and decrease violent resistance. It could put an immediate end to its categorical repression of all performances of Uyghur resistance, i.e. no longer treating violent and nonviolent dissent alike, and it could immediately release individuals such as Tohti and Ayup who are clear prisoners of conscience.

Detaining and disappearing inspirational figures that advocate nonviolent resistance and moderate rights defense sends a signal to all would-be resisters that no amount of dissent will be tolerated. The state’s refusal either to acknowledge the legitimacy of ongoing grievances or to make structural adjustments, as well as its abusive policies and zero-tolerance toward dissent, will not encourage submission to Beijing’s rule. It will likely radicalize more severe resistance tactics in the vacuum of avenues for nonviolent action and the presence of moderate voices offering cognitive liberation.

The escalating repression of all acts of Uyghur claim-making might portend a deeper feeling of insecurity toward the power or validity of Uyghur grievances by policymakers in Beijing. Gene Sharp has observed that “repression is an acknowledgment by the opponents of the seriousness of the challenge posed by the resistance.” In that sense, one might interpret the brutality of state repression as a response to the Uyghur struggle: the state is actively engaged in decreasing participation in nonviolent resistance and delegitimizing Uyghur grievances by highlighting escalating violence.

Urging Nonviolence After Tiananmen

In commemoration of the Tiananmen Massacre, the following is from a pamphlet issued by the Autonomous Federation of Students on June 4th, 1989. It outlines and reiterates the need to remain nonviolent.

“This fascist massacre pushes the people of the entire nation beyond the outer limits of toleration. The blood will not have been shed in vain; the struggle most not end here. But, fellow students and countrymen, our position is firmly opposed to fighting violence with violence. The river of blood must not become an ocean. Our sacrifice has already been tragic enough. It is already enough to show clearly that the Li Peng government is the enemy of the people and that its days are numbered. We do not have our own army; we are defenseless in the face of modern, well-equipped troops. But nonviolent struggle is the people’s right, and its power is beyond imagining. Our duty now is to expose to the world the true face of this bloody massacre. We call upon people in Beijing and the entire nation to strike work and boycott the marketplace, and we entreat the support of the international community.

Fellow students and countrymen, from the beginning of this movement to the very end, we have led the masses using reason and wisdom. Now, at this critical juncture, our responsibility is even more momentous. The best commemoration of the victims will be not more bloodshed but the achievement of final victory. In peaceful struggle the people eventually will win. Eternal glory to the martyrs of democracy!”

— Quoted from Andrew Nathan and Perry Link’s impressive The Tiananmen Papers p. 508.

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.

Revisiting Righteous Indignation

Originally published by Dissident Voice on 20 January 2014.

Revisiting Righteous Indignation: the Radical Tradition of Martin Luther King Jr.

There’s a scene in Lee Daniel’s The Butler when the son of Forest Whitaker’s character is sitting in the Lorraine Motel with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., shortly before his assassination. Dr. King asks those assembled, “How many of your parents support the war?” All the young men gathered in the room raise their hands, and in one sentence King summarizes that his opposition to the war is because the Vietnamese do not prejudice blacks. There is something insidious in this scene, unintentional by the director, no doubt. It is the reproduction of the simplification myth of Dr. King the crusader of a narrowly conceptualized struggle, rather than the fiery radical that he was. His opposition to the Vietnam War was far more complex than the one liner afforded his character in the film, but the portrayal is sadly in line with the hijacking of his comprehensive philosophy. For King’s was a radicalism of total justice, for black, white, rich, poor, gay, lesbian, Christian, Jew, or Muslim, that bears remembering as we honor him with a federal holiday this week.

One year to the day before his assassination, on April 4th, 1967, Dr. King delivered his most critical and divisive speech, Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence. It was an impassioned excoriation of imperialism and militarism, against the American government that King referred to as the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” There was no ambivalence in his conviction. He had refused a first draft prepared by his close friend and legal counsel, Clarence Jones, which attempted to present multiple sides, favoring the total condemnation of war provided in Vincent Harding’s first version. The two men agreed; their conscience left them no other choice but to speak out. King says:

It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor — both black and white — through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam and I watched the program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.

Four years earlier, in a Letter from a Birmingham Jail Dr. King acknowledged that, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He was certainly focused on combating the institutionalized terror of segregation and racism, which was the target of the direct action that found him in that Birmingham Jail on April 16th, 1963. But, his concern for justice everywhere extended beyond contemporary popular depictions that his campaigning was confined to concerns of race alone. King makes it very clear,

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

Of course, that same purveyor of violence abroad targeted in Beyond Vietnam, the United States, perpetrated and sponsored a great deal of violence against its own people and the struggle for human rights in the United States is a savage one still raging 28 years after the first Martin Luther King Jr. Day, as myriad incidents such as the killing and trial surrounding Trayvon Martin or Jena 6 illustrate. It is not my intention to downplay the brutality of racial injustice targeted by King and others. My intention is to point out that King acknowledged that the causes of these and other injustices were inherently linked to a certain structure of oppression. King and others targeted the totality of this violent power structure through sustained nonviolent action. It is that narrative of comprehensive resistance that has been sterilized. In sickening episodes of appropriation, King has become a plaything in the hands of those who seek to justify their profiting from that same structure of abuse that he fought against with the bastardization of his legacy.

King’s most famous oration is his I Have a Dream speech and rightly should it be hailed for its outstanding rhetoric and the power of change it inspired. But so is “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” far less threatening to the established structure of power than denouncing it as the greatest purveyor of violence in the world. Latching onto King as the desegregater and not King the fiery radical is more comfortable for the creation of King the symbol.

Vincent Harding explained in a 2013 interview that conservatives love to take hold of the I have a Dream speech when King talks about not being judged by the color of ones skin as a way to avoid discussing race at all. In the same interview Harding challenges us to find ways to discover the content of one’s character. It is through critical dialogue, through nonviolent engagement, he says. Meanwhile, as evidence of Harding’s concern, former Republican Florida representative, Allen West, wrote in an article for USA News on the 50th anniversary of that speech, that King’s dream had been derailed by liberal politics. While Dr. King advocated evaluation on the content of one’s character, he opined, Americans had instead voted for Obama strictly based upon the color of his skin.

The famous speech was uttered to an assembled crowd of more than 250,000 people in front of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963. With reason it is remembered as a decisive moment in the American Civil Rights Movement. What is often altered through the lens of history, however, is the action at which the speech was delivered. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was as much about race as it was about economic inequality. Its chief architects remind us of the diversity of participation and the complexity of grievances within the Civil Rights Movement. The 1963 campaign drew its inspiration from the 1940’s desegregationist and labor rights March on Washington Movement organized by Philip Randolph, who began as a labor organizer and activist in New York in 1917, and Bayard Rustin, an openly gay former Quaker conscientious objector during World War II. It is this confluence of interests that better encapsulates the character of King’s resistance, so callously warped by Allen West 50 years later.

There is no greater bastardization of King’s legacy than Glenn Beck’s 2010 so-called ‘Restoring Honor Rally.’ In his characteristic histrionics Beck credited divine inspiration in the timing of his political theatre set to coincide with the 47th anniversary of King’s I have a Dream speech. He claimed to be picking up Martin Luther King’s dream in order to restore and finish it. But Beck’s narrative is one of resounding contradiction to everything epitomized by Martin Luther King.

A month preceding the farce Glenn Beck spoke with King’s niece, Dr. Alveda King, who later also participated in his rally, alongside Sarah Palin and others. Shockingly the niece embraced Beck’s subterfuge on his television program. The two, joined by then Republican congressional hopeful Stephen Broden, went so far as to cite the Biblical idea of an individual relationship with God as the justification for neo-liberal individualism, and the implicit demonization of social welfare. The outrage is not in their personal interpretation of Biblical text but the way their discussion forced that argument into their constructed narrative of Martin Luther King. The obscenity continued when Alveda King claimed that her uncle would have approved of Beck’s message.

Not only did Beck use the platform of his rally to further his rhetoric of violence against the poor but the event was also billed to celebrate and promote the American military. Glenn Beck is a wild supporter of American militarism and most recently attacked a LA Weekly film critic because she gave a recent war movie a bad review. Glenn Beck is as good an antithesis to Martin Luther King as is available and because of the pomposity of his pulpit he represents an ideal lens through which to appreciate the various trends of abandoning King’s message and profaning his name to justify the very things he so fervently fought against. And yet, popular outrage at Beck’s appropriation of King’s legacy was equally culpable in neglecting King’s fervent posture against materialism and militarism, or so the majority of mainstream criticism seemed to be.

In response to this kind of theft of the King narrative, Union Theological Seminary philosopher and preacher, Dr. Cornel West explains,

The absence of a King-worthy narrative to reinvigorate poor and working people has enabled right-wing populists to seize the moment with credible claims about government corruption and ridiculous claims about tax cuts’ stimulating growth. This right-wing threat is a catastrophic response to King’s four catastrophes; its agenda would lead to hellish conditions for most Americans.

Despite the issues addressed by Dr. West, it is far from merely conservatives and right-wing populists who have distorted King’s inherent radical commitment, and subdued the awesome force of his righteous indignation. History has been contorted to shape a more consumer friendly image of Martin Luther King Jr. He is not hailed by popular commentary or honored by Obama on the federal holiday as the radical who would today be decrying the prison and military industrial complex, demanding the trial and incarceration of Wall Street executives, and sternly speaking against Obama’s continuation of Bush era disregard for human rights in the ‘war on terror’ and the ‘war on drugs,’ or the appallingly disproportionate numbers of convictions for people of color in the latter. Where would King stand on the Tea Party’s fetishism of state’s rights? One might recall the number of incidents necessitating federal troop intervention in Alabama, Arkansas, and elsewhere or the same rhetoric now employed by Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, or Rand Paul that echoes similar positions by “Bull” Connor or George Wallace. How might King relate to Karl Rove, the Koch Brothers, or, as public intellectual Tavis Smiley has posed, comment on the more than a billion dollars raised between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama in the 2012 election versus the money spent on poverty reduction?

Martin Luther King gave his final speech on April 3rd, 1968 at the Mason Temple in Memphis Tennessee. What is often remembered of that last prophetic I’ve Been to the Mountaintop speech is King’s, “And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!” The speech is haunting in retrospect because it almost seemed as if King were prophesizing, much like Christ at the last supper, his impending assassination. But what drew King to Memphis that day is less repeated in popular retelling.

Dr. James Lawson, who like King had been baptized in the late 1950s by the nonviolent tradition of Ghandi and was a powerful figure in the movement, had encouraged Dr. King to join him in Memphis to show support at the Memphis sanitation worker strike that had begun two months earlier. The catalyzing incident for the strike was the gruesome death of two black sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, crushed to death because of city rules that stated black sanitation workers were only allowed to shelter from the elements in the back of their garbage trucks. The incident served to highlight years of gross labor violations and sparked the strike, along with boycotts, sit-ins and other acts of civil disobedience in support of the workers attempt to engage in collective bargaining for better working conditions. This episode in Memphis was about racial discrimination but it was also about abhorrent labor rights and the exploitation of the poor.

King often reiterated the call to struggle against all forms of atrocity, violence against people of color and violence against the poor, as they are inextricably linked, and so too is war, the enemy of the poor, as Cornel West and Tavis Smiley are wont to repeat. Or in his own words from the August 16th, 1967 Where do We go From Here, “when I say questioning the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated.”

The day after standing in solidarity with the Memphis strikers, King was gunned down by James Earl Ray, an outspoken racist and active campaign volunteer for George Wallace’s pro-segregationist presidential campaign. Despite the prima facie connection between Ray’s racism and the assassination, Vincent Harding is convinced that the most contributing factor to King’s murder was his vociferous condemnation of the war in Vietnam and his outspoken denouncement of American imperialism and militarism. We do at least know that the last poll taken on King’s popularity revealed that indeed fifty-five percent of black community and seventy-two percent of Americans at large had turned against King because of his opposition to the war.

By the late 1960s the US government, under the Johnson administration, had slowly become prepared to tolerate some of the notions of increasing racial equality and access to public space but the apex of intellectual and symbolic power, the capitalist war machine, was aghast that King would enter their world. The structure of power was warming to the idea of tolerating King the civil rights leader and desegregationist but it was unwilling to desegregate the symbolic power to be analyzed and critiqued. It is a segregation of thought and a demonization of those who would criticize America that still haunts whistleblowers and activists in Obama’s America today. It was King’s sophisticated and emboldening challenge to capitalist morality and militaristic or imperialistic motives that needed to be sterilized before he could become a politically viable symbol.

In a recent piece for Salon, historian David L. Chappell outlines the history of congressional objections to the creation of an MLK federal holiday. His article serves to refute the odd conservative claims to the legacy of civil rights going back to Lincoln, because of textual similarity in the name of their party. A few days after the assassination, Michigan Democratic congressman, John Conyers, first proposed honoring Martin Luther King Jr. with a federal holiday. Illinois was the first state to adopt MLK Day as a state holiday in 1973. Ten years later, North Carolina senator Jesse Helms loudly objected to honoring King with a federal holiday, specifically citing King’s stance on Vietnam and his war on poverty, calling him a Marxist and Communist. As reported at the time, Helms’ fanatical objections were crushed by a ‘scathing denunciation’ by senator Edward Kennedy and similar criticism from Republican presidential hopeful Bob Dole. But two recent Republican presidential candidates, Ron Paul and John McCain were among those who agreed with Helms in objecting a federal holiday for MLK. After nearly two decades of discussion and puerile character assassination, Congress eventually passed Conyers’ proposal to remember King with a federal holiday. Reagan signed the bill in 1983 and it took effect in 1986. Shockingly not until 2000 did all 50 states recognize it as a state holiday. South Carolina was the last.

In observation of the 28th MLK day it is a moral duty to ensure that the legacy observed is honest to the content of his character. We should repeat his rhetorical question of August 16th, 1967. In his own words, “When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalist economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society.”

King broadened the target of his resistance to encapsulate the totality of an oppressive power structure, moving beyond purely race-based grievances. The abhorrent racism prevalent in King’s America and its mutated contemporary manifestations are a byproduct of this power but King’s speeches reveal a more diverse synthesis for resistance. It was this unwavering challenge of the very foundations of that structure of power that needed to be sterilized, lest his posthumous words serve their intentions to mobilize. By stripping him of his radicalism, and simplifying his challenges against power to a selection of sound-bite grievances, the institutions of oppression maintained their monopoly on symbolic power and rebranded Martin Luther King into more comfortable and narrowly confined terms.

This is the alchemical disregard for truth that has attempted to warp the spirit of King’s radicalism for political expediency. It has become a convenient platform for some to spin King’s radicalism into a defanged demand for racial harmony and a colorless society, where claims of reverse racism are mingled with blanket denouncements of racial violence because we live in a post-racial America. It is a twisted appropriation of King’s words to blame the victim of abuse for continued victimization, and we see this in the surprisingly bipartisan attacks on the poor and people of color. For some, King’s Reverend status has become an argument for injecting fundamentalist evangelicalism into politics, as we noticed of Beck above.

These are the most flagrant bastardizations but what is more frustrating is the popular amnesia, the collective will to accept the sterilized form and neglect the righteous indignation that demands coordinated action in the face of all injustice. This is not to neglect active resistance such as the Occupy movement and myriad other campaigns. However, in certain contemporary radical movements we find the negative effects of the simplification of King’s sophisticated analysis of the diversity of oppression and the need for coordinated, strategic resistance. We can see this in the balkanization of resistance on the left, where interests vie for prominence rather than seeking consensus. A continuing frustration for those who have carried on with King, Lawson, and others’ efforts is the abandonment of strategic nonviolence, or treating King as nothing more than a symbolic tactic, for the same kind of commoditized radicalism that has made radical democratic theory or Anarchism a fashion accessory.

It is King’s righteous indignation at injustice everywhere and profound challenge to all forms of abusive power that should be reenacted in his name,  not the political pageantry of Obama’s community service. With that radical reenactment we must respond to the question “where do we go from here?” Dr. Cornel West hazarded a response in 2011, noting that rather than a holiday King would have wanted a revolution.

In China: Rightful Resistance and the UN Human Rights Council

This article was originally published under the headline Internationalizing rights-based resistance in China: the UN Human Rights Council and the citizen at openDemocracy.net on 15 November 2013. But in light of today, UN Human Rights Day, it seems appropriate to share again.

On the morning of 22 October, special envoy Wu Hailong led Beijing’s delegation in Geneva as China began its once every four year Universal Periodic Review (UPR) under the UN Human Rights Council (HRC). On 12 November the UN General Assembly voted to fill 14 vacancies on the Human Rights Council and China was elected to a third three-year term on the council. The country served two consecutive terms from 2006 to 2012 but was ineligible to run again until this year. After Jordan announced the withdrawal of its candidacy, the four vacant seats for the Asia Pacific region left Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, The Maldives, and China uncontested. But many analysts have remarked with frustration that even before Jordan’s surprising withdrawal, China’s bid had little chance of defeat due in large part to its permanent status on the Security Council – despite strong objections from rights groups. Considering the egregious record of these four countries, their entry to the rights body could mark an atavistic turn for the council.

Leading up to the Universal Periodic Review and China’s UN Human Rights Council election, one source of testimony has been conspicuously absent from China’s official reporting. Despite efforts by certain NGOs and international organizations, and shallow consultation by the Chinese government, input and participation by Chinese civil society in these important mechanisms for monitoring and upholding their country’s human rights obligations has been withheld. The Chinese government has acted to block civil society participation and engaged in reprisals against civil resistance geared to these international human rights mechanisms. It appears that when Wu Hailong’s delegation announced that, “The Chinese are in the best position to know the situation of human rights in China,” he wasn’t referring to the hundreds of notable Chinese citizens and groups who have been learning to frame their dissent in the language of international human rights as well as those who have been directly campaigning for broader civil participation in the drafting and international reporting on China’s human rights.

In the months leading up to the late July deadline for China to submit its official report to the HRC and the review itself on 22 October, Chinese activists organized a series of actions in multiple locations around the country culminating in a sit-in at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) in Beijing beginning on 18 June. The organizers, who chose an area around the East Gate of the Ministry building because of its proximity to the Human Rights Division, had planned to maintain the demonstration until 22 October.

The organizers, among them Cao Shunli, claimed that the principal grievances behind the sit-in were the ongoing refusals by the ministry to respond to a series of open information disclosure requests, eventually leading the ministry to claim that the UPR process was a matter of state security. At the high point, the sit-in attracted around 200 participants, mostly women. Cao Shunli remarked to Chinese Human Rights Defenders that, “We just want to have all the participants in the sit-in to have a dialogue with officials, to know how the country’s human rights report is produced and who should be part of the process.”

On 1 July, the first of three police raids dispersed the demonstrators. Around 9 a.m., hundreds of officers descended on the gathering and rounded them up in two groups. Activists from Beijing were taken away in one vehicle, while those from outside of Beijing were removed to separate locations in four different police vehicles. After 12 hours of interrogation, with some reports of physical abuse, almost all of the activists were released. Many of them returned to the ministry to resume the sit-in. The police would clear the sit-in two more times, on 22 August and on 3 October, holding activists separately by region and subjecting them to exhausting questioning.

Similarly, seizing the spotlight of the UPR – a common tactic among Chinese activists, to capitalize on sensitive dates and anniversaries – many have campaigned against China’s inclusion in the Human Rights Council. In Hangzhou, dissident writer Chen Shuqing and fellow organizers Lu Gengsong and Gao Haibin circulated an open letter denouncing China’s entry to the human rights body. The petition received hundreds of signatures from activists in over ten provinces. The organizers of this campaign were later detained on suspicion of ‘inciting to subvert state power.’ Similar campaigns took place in other parts of the country and some overseas organizations claim to have gathered over 10,000 signatures from Chinese both inside and outside of the country. International Chinese activists also staged actions in Geneva on the opening day of the Review.

During the UPR, Human Rights in China announced, that the Chinese government had continued to detain and question individual activists who had persisted in civil resistance pegged to China’s international human rights obligations, which prompted several Special Rapporteurs to specifically criticize China’s crackdown on peaceful assembly related to the UPR. The day before, on 21 October, Guo Feixiong, an outspoken rights defender from Guangzhou, was formally placed under criminal detention in reprisal for organizing a petition in March calling for the ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The ratification of this core instrument was a major issue during China’s first review in 2009. At the time of his arrest, Peng Lanlan, a Tujia minority and human rights defender from Hunan, had already been under criminal detention for a year under charges of ‘obstructing official business.’ Reportedly tortured in police custody, Peng Lanlan was the first activist to be arrested for pushing for civil society participation in the UPR and challenging the country’s entry to the Human Rights Council. She was targeted after several years of activism. In addition to relying on open petitions such as Guo Feixiong, mentioned above, Peng Lanlan utilized China’s 2008 Freedom of Information Act, also commonly relied upon by Cao Shunli and others.

On 14 September Cao Shunli was taken into police custody at the Beijing International Airport. Meanwhile, at about the same time, over two thousand kilometers to the South, fellow MFA sit-in organizer Chen Jianfeng was apprehended by airport security in Guangzhou. The two women had been on their way to Geneva to attend a training program on the UPR and other international human rights mechanisms. Although Chen Jianfeng was eventually released after intimidating questioning, Cao Shunli remained disappeared even after the UPR had begun. Activists involved in demonstrations related to the UPR told multiple sources that during interrogations police were forceful in questioning related to Cao Shunli, apparently working to contrive charges against her. Front Line Defenders has noted that state tactics of repression are increasingly relying on the manipulated prosecutions of activists.

Like Peng Lanlan, both Chen Jianfeng and Cao Shunli had been engaged in campaigning for transparency in UN reporting and civil society participation in China’s domestic and international human rights since before the first review in 2009. In addition to collective action and open information requests, the women had previously gone so far as to sue relevant ministries over transparency issues. Unlike the majority of her fellow demonstrators, Cao, who exhibited a sophisticated understanding of international human rights, had filed a report with the HRC under the name of the Rights Campaign, based out of Jiangsu Province. Her submission, which called attention to the persecution of civil society demands for participation in human rights plans, was included in the official UPR stakeholder analysis, a fact that has very likely contributed to maximizing her reprisals by the state, which understandably seemed less concerned with acts of collective action that generate limited attention than those generating more official condemnation.

Government reprisals against activists campaigning for broader civil society participation in China’s human rights implementation and reporting demonstrate that the Chinese government is at least somewhat concerned by the possible content of independent reviews of its internal human rights. That Chinese activists are gradually strengthening the framing of domestic grievances with the vocabulary of international human rights marks a departure from locality-specific episodes of contention. Although issue and locality-specific activism and rights defense remains the norm, activists such as Guo Feixiong and Cao Shunli are gradually turning to international norms and seeking training by international human rights experts, when unimpeded by the authorities, in addition to contained tactics like sit-ins and petitions.

Although a number of actors in civil resistance, such as at the MFA sit-in, still participate to draw attention to individual grievances or merely to express general disgust with the government, increasing exposure to concepts of international rights will have an impact on the development of their resistance in the future.

It exhibits an innovation in the framing and substance of civil resistance in China that challenges the often repeated claims of the Chinese government, when their human rights record is criticized, that universal values are incommensurate with Chinese values. On the contrary, it could be that the more Chinese activists become aware of universal rights the more they will include them in the framing of domestic civil resistance to counter attempts by the government to manipulate the discourse from within the Human Rights Council.

American Prisons versus the World Population

The United States of America has the highest incarceration rate in the world. With 716 people in prison for every 100,000, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies, that is a higher percentage of total population than any other country. Furthermore, based on a new report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), A Living Death: Sentence to Die Behind Bars for What?, there are more than 3,000 Americans serving life without parole for non-violent offenses. For some the offense that earned them life in prison was stealing tools from a shed or being the middleman in a $10 marijuana sale. The ACLU estimates that nationwide 65% are Black; while, in Louisiana, with its infamous Angola Prison, the number rises to 91%, a quantified testament to serious unresolved racism in the country. These numbers are appalling in their own terms but when they are compared to the prison populations of other countries, the ‘land of the free’ becomes an even more frustratingly antiquated trope for the United States.

Adam Liptak, Supreme Court correspondent for the New York Times, offers a simple explanation:

The United States leads the world in producing prisoners, a reflection of a relatively recent and now entirely distinctive American approach to crime and punishment. Americans are locked up for crimes — from writing bad checks to using drugs — that would rarely produce prison sentences in other countries. And in particular they are kept incarcerated far longer than prisoners in other nations.

The United States incarcerates 716 people out of every 100,000 citizens. Liptak noted in 2008 that if only adults were factored into the count then the United States incarcerates 1 out of every 100 citizens. Following the United States in incarceration rates as a percentage of the national population is St. Kitts and Nevis with 649. Rwanda incarcerates 527 out of every 100,000 people, followed by Cuba with 510 and Russia with 490. Belarus holds 438 and Azerbaijan 407. Not a particularly glowing list of human rights respecting countries. While China incarcerates far less than the United States, 121 people for every 100,000, the country does boast the highest number of prisoner executions in the world, based on estimated figures in light of China’s refusal to make these numbers transparent.

How do these figures compare with other democratic, advanced nations? Mexico holds 210 citizens per 100,000, and they are in the middle of a protracted civil war induced by the US led War on Drugs. Turkey holds 179 and the Czech Republic 154, while Argentina, Spain, and Scotland are tied at 147 per 100,000. The Netherlands and Switzerland both 82. Sweden incarcerates 67, while India only puts 30 out of every 100,000 people in prison.

Sweden recently announced that it is closing four prisons and many remand centers in response to a drastic decline in the number of inmates, the result, many analysts are saying, of a robust emphasis on rehabilitation and lenient sentencing, a stark refutation of the deterrent argument lobbied by many in the United States in favor of the prison industrial complex. The estimated additional cost to US taxpayers, says the ACLU, for current life without parole incarceration levels is around 1.8 billion dollars, a sizable earning for the nation’s many privatized prisons.

General social and political ideology, economic development, and quality of life in many European countries no doubt have played a role in decreasing levels of crime and prison populations compared to the USA. The differences between most of Europe and the United States when it comes to crime and incarceration are drastic, particularly with respect to prosecuting and sentencing non-violent offenders. In many ways the increase in life sentencing is a product of stalled death penalty reform, but a mandatory life sentence for violent and especially for non-violent offenses merely approaches capital punishment from an oblique and superficial understanding of why it is wrong and not from the perspective of fundamental human rights. The ACLU report’s author Jennifer Turner notes:

…today, the US is “virtually alone in its willingness to sentence non-violent offenders to die behind bars.” Life without parole for non-violent sentences has been ruled a violation of human rights by the European Court of Human Rights. The UK is one of only two countries in Europe that still metes out the penalty at all, and even then only in 49 cases of murder.

The Huffington Post reported that the advance 2012 statistics by the Bureau of Justice Statistics notes that the prison population in the United States for the previous year was 1,571,013, which marks a decline for the third consecutive year. However, when local and city jails are included, the article continues, the population exceeds 2 million, 25 percent of the world’s prison population. The same ACLU report noted above puts the incarcerated population at around 2.3 million people. That number is difficult to fathom outside of abstractions that either gloss over or do not register the severity. This number does not reflect the millions others, family members and loved ones, whose lives are irrevocably changed or shattered by a belligerent and flawed criminal justice system. Recent studies such as the one by the ACLU should engender a serious national discussion on prison reform in the United States. But the narrative continues to be dominated by politicized interests and the manipulated discourses of fear and otherness.

In an effort to lend more gravity to the discussion, below is a list of countries with entire national populations less than the US prison population. The following list has been composed using country population figures available through wikicommons.

Prison population of the United States… around 2,300,000.

List of the 100 Countries with a national population less than the US prison population:

1. Namibia… 2,113,007. 2. Lesotho… 2,074,000. 3. Slovenia… 2,061,349. 4. Macedonia… 2,062,294. 5. Qatar… 2,035,106. 6. Botswana… 2,024,904. 7. Latvia… 2,014,000. 8. Gambia… 1,849,000. 9. Guinea-Bissau… 1,704,000. 10. Gabon… 1,672,000. 11. Equatorial Guinea… 1,622,000. 12. Trinidad and Tobago… 1,328,019. 13. Estonia… 1,286,540. 14. Mauritius… 1,257,900. 15. Swaziland… 1,250,000. 16. Bahrain… 1,234,571. 17. Timor-Leste… 1,066,409. 18. Djibouti… 864,618. 19. Cyprus… 862,000. 20. Fiji… 858,038. 21. Reunion (France)… 821,136. 22. Guyana… 784,894. 23. Bhutan… 740,740. 24. Comoros… 724,300. 25. Montenegro… 620,029. 26. Macau (China)… 582,000. 27. Western Sahara… 567,000. 28. Solomon Islands… 561,000. 29. Luxembourg… 537,000. 30. Suriname… 534,189. 31. Cape Verde… 491,875. 32. Malta… 416,055. 33. Guadeloupe (France)… 403,355. 34. Martinique (France)… 394,173. 35. Brunei… 393,162. 36. Bahamas… 351,461. 37. Iceland… 325,010. 38. Maldives… 317,280. 39. Belize… 312,971. 40. Barbados… 274,200. 41. French Polynesia (France)… 268,270. 42. Vanuatu… 264,652. 43. New Caledonia (France)… 258,958. 44. French Guiana (France)… 229,040. 45. Mayotte (France)… 212,600. 46. Samoa… 187,820. 47. Sao Tome and Principe… 187,356. 48. Saint Lucia… 166,526. 49. Guam (USA)… 159,358. 50. Curacao (Netherlands)… 150,563. 51. Saint Vincent and the Grenadines… 109,000. 52. Kiribati… 106,461. 53. United States Virgin Islands (USA)… 106,405. 54. Grenada… 103,328. 55. Tonga… 103,036. 56. Aruba (Netherlands)… 101,484. 57. Federated States of Micronesia… 101,351. 58. Jersey (UK)… 97,857. 59. Seychelles… 90,945. 60. Antigua and Barbuda… 86,295. 61. Isle of Man (UK)… 84,497. 62. Andorra… 76,246. 63. Dominica… 71,293. 64. Bermuda (UK)… 64,237. 65. Guernsey (UK)… 62,431. 66. Greenland (Denmark)… 56,370. 67. Marshall Islands… 56,086. 68. American Samoa (USA)… 55,519. 69. Cayman Islands (UK)… 55,456. 70. Saint Kitts and Nevis… 54,000. 71. Northern Mariana Islands (USA)… 53,883. 72. Faroe Islands (Denmark)… 48,509. 73. Sint Maarten (Netherlands)… 37,429. 74. Saint Martin (France)… 36,979. 75. Liechtenstein… 36,842, 76. Monaco… 36,136. 77. San Marino… 32,509. 78. Turks and Caicos Islands (UK)… 31,458. 79. Gibraltar (UK)… 29,752. 80. British Virgin Islands (UK)… 29,537. 81. Aland Islands (Finland)… 28,502. 82. Caribbean Netherlands (Netherlands)… 21,133. 83. Palau… 20,901. 84. Cook Islands (NZ)… 14,974. 85. Anguila (UK)… 13,452. 86. Wallis and Futuna (France)… 13,135. 87. Tuvalu… 11,323. 88. Nauru… 9,945. 89. Saint Barthelemy (France)… 8,938. 90. Saint Pierre and Miquelon (France)… 6,081. 91. Montserrat (UK)… 4,922. 92. Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha (UK)… 4,000. 93. Svaldbard and Jan Mayen (Norway)… 2,655. 94. Falkland Islands (UK)… 2,563. 95. Norfolk Island (Australia)… 2,302. 96. Christmas Island (Australia)… 2,072. 97. Niue (NZ)… 1,411. 98. Vatican City… 800. 99. Cocos (Keeling) Islands (Australia)… 550. 100. Pitcairn Islands (UK)… 56.

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