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.”

 

Advertisements

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.

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.

IMG_5200IMG_5196

New Citizen’s Movement

Under House arrest since April 2013, outspoken human rights defender and citizen lawyer Xu Zhiyong was formally detained on 16 July 2013 and arrested on 22 August 2013 under charges of ‘gathering crowds to disrupt public order,’ a patently spurious charge for someone under house arrest. These charges are merely another set in the on-going manipulation of domestic law by the Chinese state, pretending to act with legitimacy by framing its persecution of rights defenders in the garb of national law. It is not the first time Xu Zhiyong has been the victim of government abuse. A detailed chronology of abuses suffered by Xu Zhiyong can be accessed through Human Rights in China. ((Updated: Xu Zhiyong was sentenced to 4 years on charges of ‘gathering a crowd to disturb public order’ article 291 of the Criminal Law on 26 January 2014. He was tried on 22 January 2014)

Xu Zhiyong was placed under house arrest and later arrested in direct response to his activism regarding the New Citizen Movement in China. It is a theoretical framing for citizen rights defense, an active and individual approach to transforming the Chinese state and enhancing the rule of law. His arrest comes just over one year from the posting of the New Citizen Movement manifesto. Below is the letter in translation.

This translation originally appeared on Seeing Red in China on July 11, 2012. It can be seen here.

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.

In the 20th century, China experienced many movements: the Xinhai Revolution, the New Culture Movement, the New Life Movement, etc. In trying to bid farewell to autocracy, they changed the Chinese people’s living habits and spiritual realms. Due to internal and external problems, however, the Republican Era ended quickly. These historical progressive movements were unable to complete fundamental changes in the political system; they were but a flash in the pan. After 1949, China’s totalitarian regime launched a flurry of movements—land reform, the suppression of counter-revolutionaries, the socialist transformation, the anti-rightist movement, and everything from the Great Leap Forward through the Cultural Revolution. These regressive movements against the tides of history were destined to have tragic endings. In the 1980s, the Communist Party of China initiated the “five stresses, four beauties, and three loves” campaign, but a social reform movement initiated by a dictator, tainted by self-interest, cannot bring real change in society.

Today, China still has not been able to leave behind authoritarianism, power monopolies, rampant corruption, the wealth disparity, violent housing demolitions, education imbalance, and the black hole of social security … the root of these weighty social problems is autocracy; the Chinese nation needs a great citizens’ movement that moves with the historic tide, moving from bottom to top, from political and social to cultural, from the awakening of individual citizens to the revitalization of the entire Chinese civilization.

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.

The core of the New Citizen’s Movement is the citizen. This is an individual concept as well as a political and social concept. The citizen is not a subjectthe citizen is an independent and free entity, and he or she obeys a rule of law that is commonly agreed upon. He or she does not have to kneel down to any given person. The citizen is not a laymanthe citizen is the master of the country. The ruler’s power must come from election by the entire citizenry, bidding farewell to the barbaric logic of  “ruling by the barrel of a gun.” Citizens are neither docile nor mob-like; they share happiness and bear of responsibilities in the order of justice; and they are upstanding, magnanimous, moderate, and rational.

The “new” in New Citizens’ Movement refers to new historical conditions, new forms of behavior, and a new liberal order. The counterpart of the new citizen is not the citizen, but the subject, of the past. The new historical conditions include technological advancement, market economies, ideological pluralism, and the common democratic trend in human society. The new forms of behavior are the lawful defense of citizens’ rights, citizens’ non-violent non-cooperation, and peaceful democracy movements, all under a new system of ideas and discourse. The new liberal order is the constitutional order of democracy, rule of law, republicanism. The social background of the New Citizens’ Movement is new, the model of behavior is new, the movement’s goal is new, and thus it is called the New Citizens’ Movement.

The big change in Chinese society needs direction and spirit. The New Citizens’ Movement advocates the New Citizen Spirit, which is the direction and spirit of great change.

The New Citizens’ Movement is a political campaign. China inevitably needs to complete the civilized transformation of politics, establish a free China that is completely democratic and ruled by law. The New Citizens’ Movement is a social campaign. The solution to a monopoly over power, rampant corruption, wealth disparity, education imbalance, and similar problems is not merely dependent on a democratic political system, but also must rely on the continual implementation of the social reform movement. The New Citizens’ Movement is a cultural campaign. It completely transforms tyrannical culture, which is corrupt, downfallen, wretched, and hostile; it founds a new nationalist spirit of “freedom, righteousness, and love.”

There must be an end to tyranny, but the New Citizens’ Movement is far from being just a democratic reformation; the New Citizens’ Movement’s discourse is not “overthrow,” but “establish.” It is not one social class taking the place of another social class, but letting righteousness take its place in the Chinese nation. It is not hostility and hate, but universal love. The New Citizens’ Movement pursues facts and justice, but from the aspiration and hard work of not giving up and settling differences. In the process of societal change, there must be new kind of spiritual coalescing of the Chinese people as a whole, from the individual citizen to the entire country.

The New Citizen’s spirit can be summarized as “free, righteous, and loving.”

Freedom implies the sovereignty of belief, thought, expression, life, the pursuit of independence, and the unrestrained, authentic selfhood. People’s freedom is the end goal of society, country, and law. Righteousness: it is the fair justice of this world; it is the ideal status of the country and the society; it is equal opportunity.

The strong will have restriction; the weak will have protection, and every person, to the best of their abilities, will build on their strengths, perform their duties, and do what they want. Righteousness implies democratic rule of law is the cornerstone of the system. It implies individual responsibility, defends and pursues rights, cares for the common good, and respects the boundaries of other people’s rights. Love is the source of humanity’s well-being; it is the highest state of the New Citizen’s mind. A people’s mind must contain love as well as erase hate and hostility entirely, founding a free and well-off civil society.

The New Citizens’ Movement includes the citizens’ rights movement, the citizens’ non-cooperation movement, and the democracy movement. It follows the lead of the New Citizen’s spirit in China’s magnificent movement toward peaceful transformation.

The citizens’ rights movement is the soil of the democracy movement. It includes the social movement for the defense of the rights of individual cases, rights of building demolition [property rights], rights of ex-servicemen, rights of the environment, right of the freedom of belief, and right of opposing the housing registration system, which strives for the rights and interests of the group.

The citizens’ rights movement emphasizes an individual’s or an individual group’s demand for rights. However, China’s internal power monopoly, rampant corruption, wealth gap, black hole of social security, and other serious societal problems have already reached the point of needing a political solution. The citizens’ rights movement, after developing to a certain point, will inevitably enter into a democratic political movement.

The citizens’ non-cooperation movement runs through the entire rights movement and democracy movement, including the negative resistance of authoritarianism and the positive protection of free rights. As compared to the citizens’ non-cooperation movement, the New Citizens’ Movement moreover emphasizes establishment. The establishment of a civil society will do away with tyranny, not only putting an end to tyranny, but also establishing the future of civilized politics and civil society.

In a broader sense, the New Citizens’ Movement also includes a campaign appearing in many recent democratic countries that is centered on the demands for fairness and justice. Background to the morally-upright fourth wave of democratization is new technology changing peoples’ societal structure. China’s New Citizens’ Movement gathers the previous democratic era’s civil rights movements and democratic revolutions as well as the social revolutions of democratic countries.

The New Citizens’ Movement already has a social basis. Thirty years of Reform and Opening Up has established the economic basis of private property and the market process. It has also brought with it a pluralistic society. The party in power has gone from a totalitarian regime to an authoritarian regime and then to an oligarchic regime; the forces of tyranny have already become weak, and therein the citizens’ movement already has a certain amount of leeway. The Internet, telecommunications, and other new technologies have sped up China’s enlightenment and the formation of citizens’ interpersonal networks. The trend of international democratization is transforming and restraining autocratic violence, and imbuing the political movements in newly democratic countries with the peaceful and rational spirit of world citizens.

Without the New Citizen, there can be neither a new civil society nor a constitutional China; the New Citizens’ Movement emphasizes the New Citizen, from the individual and the small matters on upward; it practices citizen responsibilities and does not obey the despotism of unspoken rules. It is not concurrent with privilege and corruption, believing instead in democratic rule of law, in the pursuit of freedom and fairness, civil movements, and a constitutional China.

The New Citizens’ Movement includes all types of current social movements and political movements: the “Grass Mud Horse” campaign, the displaced residents campaign, the campaign to oppose the household registration stratification, the campaign to remember June Fourth, the freedom of belief campaign, the blogging campaign, the environmental protection campaign, the food and health safety campaign, the campaign to elect deputies to people’s congresses, the microblog-based campaign attacking human trafficking, the campaign to oppose monopolies, the campaign to oppose corruption. These social and political movements are brought together by way of the New Citizens’ Movement.

The New Citizens’ Movement advocates the practice of the New Citizen spirit and societal responsibility in every sector: the New Citizen judge is impartial and evenhanded, loyal to the law and of good conscience. He or she does not pervert the law for the sake of dominance and selfishness. The New Citizen policeman is an impartial implementer of the law, removing the evil and content with the good, never torturing for confession, uncorrupted by dark and evil forces. The New Citizen public prosecutor is loyal to the country’s laws, does not appease corruption, does not pervert the course of justice and does not indulge in crime. The New Citizen deputy to the people’s congress has the courage to carry out the law for the benefit of the public; it is not a voting machine and rubber stamp.

The New Citizen teacher loves his or her students, never passing lies onto them. The New Citizen physician loves patients and does not accept bribes, arbitrarily prescribe medications, or discriminate against patients. The New Citizen lawyer abides by the law, lawfully defends the rights and interests of clients and does not bribe judges. The New Citizen accountant abides by accounting regulations and does not cook the books. The New Citizen editor and reporter seek the truth and do not report lies.

The New Citizen college student diligently studies, cares for the society—does not cheat on tests or plagiarize essays. The New Citizen scholar seeks truth with professionalism—does not flatter or ingratiate, or use another’s ideas as his or her own. The New Citizen artist expresses truth, goodness, and beauty and rejects unspoken rules. The New Citizen sports referee makes calls with impartial independence—does not blow the whistle unfairly. The New Citizen athlete competes fairly—does not throw competitions for profit. The New Citizen entrepreneur faces the market and runs business honestly—does not parlay favor with bigwigs. The New Citizen industrial worker guarantees the quality of products—does not use inferior materials to turn out substandard products or make fake, shoddy products. The New Citizen food manufacturer does not mix in poisonous and harmful materials. And so on.

To push forward the New Citizens’ Movement, the New Citizen can:

Disseminate the New Citizen Spirit: Explain the “freedom, righteousness, and love” of the New Citizen Spirit by way of online posts, street fliers, t-shirt slogans, and any other method of spreading the New Citizen Spirit. The New Citizen Spirit must appear on the Internet, flourish in the streets, and, most of all, take root in the deepest part in our hearts.

Practice New Citizen Responsibility: Promise to practice New Citizen Responsibility, stand fast to New Citizen behavioral standards, reject corruption in one’s life, reject the practice of seeking private gain at the expense of the public, be loyal to good conscience and do not actively do evil, do good service for society, and mutually supervise one another to carry out this promise. The New Citizen Spirit is the spirit of commitment, sacrificing one’s profit to be an example, to maintain good conscience and righteousness, up until righteousness exists all over the Chinese nation.

Use the “Citizen” sign or other identifying methods: Citizens design their own “Citizen” insignias, and strengthen their own Citizen status and self-affirmation by wearing the insignias in everyday life.

Participate in civic life: Hold regular mealtime talks, discuss current political situation, pay close attention to people’s livelihood, care for public service as well as public policy, help the weak, serve society, promulgate fairness and justice. Every place has a group of modern citizens. Everybody needs to group together for society to progress. Unity begins with acquaintance.

Unite to share labor and coordinate work. 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.