Reform not revolution – Thoughts on the New Citizens’ Movement

Yesterday we posted Xu Zhiyong’s essay calling for a New Citizens’ Movement. Today I want to highlight a few of the aspects that make this piece especially interesting to me, and why I believe this essay lays out a realistic path for change.

Reform not Revolution

What has been made clear time and again in Global Times and Peoples Daily is that the Chinese people have little appetite for revolution, they aren’t wrong about this. After all, they got their fill of the chaos that revolution brings during Mao’s reign. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, and a successful movement is going to have to reassure the people that what they are doing is not going to turn China into Libya, Egypt or Syria. I think in this respect, the New Citizens’ Movement accomplishes this by stressing reform not revolution.

The goal of the movement is a democratically elected gov’t and a country ruled by law. Few revolutions have managed this without bloodshed, but those who have seen growing prosperity and stability. In Chinese history, revolution has been a bloody and violent affair (and this is stressed for political reasons in Chinese text books), and revolution creates a new group of winners and losers that can severely limit the success of the new system. Reform strips the Party of these lines of argument.

The New Citizens’ Movement also smartly caches its goals within China’s current laws that are enforced at the whims of the Party. By reforming law from a tool of the Party to a means of protection for the people, it appears as a more palatable choice than starting yet again from scratch.

Unity instead of Division

Several months ago I had the opportunity to do a podcast with Xu Zhiyong about rural education and migrant schools. I made a comment related to the tension between locals and migrant workers that Xu rightly countered. For China to leave this current system behind, it has to abandon the idea that for someone to win, someone else has to lose. In the podcast he pointed out that a better education for the children of migrant workers created a better workforce and a better environment for the urban residents. Furthermore he argued that the hukou system must be abolished in order to tear down these artificial divisions that have been created in Chinese society that keep people from recognize their common hopes and frustrations.

The New Citizens’ Movement successfully argues that even though China has many different problems affecting society, that there is a common solution to these – a gov’t responsible to the citizens. Whether it is the environment or forced evictions, an elected gov’t would not suppress these voices as they have tried to do in Wukan and Shifang. At the moment, China’s various activist groups are all calling for the gov’t to resolve a variety of problems, but this helps to demonstrate that even though there may be many different directions there is only one destination.

Furthermore, the essay recognizes that a successful reformation can not exclude groups from the benefits it would create. Even though the Party would likely fall from power as a result of these reforms, the movement does not aim to make Party members into enemies. If you re-read the essay, you will notice that Xu does not attack the Party, but the problems endemic to the current political system. Power-holders are unsurprisingly reluctant to forfeit power, but allowing them a space in a new system is a step that I believe is a requirement for peaceful transition (which would look something like reconciliation in post-apartheid South Africa).

Breaking the cycle

The third aspect, and one that I think is especially useful, is that the New Citizens’ Movement realizes that motivating the gov’t to reform itself is an unrealistic path, and instead encourages individuals to refuse to participate in actions that perpetuate the system. After Shifang, much was made of the riot police beating protesters. This is the kind of violence that the current system demands, but a corrupt system cannot function without corrupt individuals. This is one of the central points of the New Citizens’ Movement, that through reforming one’s self the gov’t will be reformed.

Xu Zhiyong himself is an excellent example of this principle. In his account of his detention he refused to co-operate with police who were operating outside of the law. Imagine the kind of change that would take place if gov’t officials refused bribes, judges ruled by the laws, and individuals refused opportunities to make quick, illicit profits. I think this is a far more effective approach to stem many of China’s social problems than calling for more laws that will not be enforced.


Reading Xu’s essay the first time reminded me of an argument I had had with a Chinese friend back around Christmas. My friend was making the claim that democracy was not suitable for China, and that it was a tool of the West to trip China up. After an hour or so of rather heated discussion, another Chinese friend in the room stood up and told our friend to shut-up. “When do I get a say in my country?” he pleaded, “I’m Chinese, I want democracy. Don’t I count? Don’t I deserve a say?”

While I doubt that the New Citizens’ Movement is going to sweep over China at any point soon, I find it hopeful in that it lays a clear framework for what China’s future could be. By pushing for meaningful reform, the unity of social movements and the Chinese people, and individual reform, Chinese activists are once again asserting their desire for a democratic China that is ruled by law. I find it incredibly frustrating that while Xu Zhiyong is currently under house arrest for his work with the New Citizens’ movement (and a number of other projects), the New York Times is wasting ink on a laughable op-ed calling for the establishment of a Confucian gov’t.

5 responses to “Reform not revolution – Thoughts on the New Citizens’ Movement”

  1. Dave says:

    But what is a government responsible to its citizens? It certainly isn’t the shallow democracy of liberal states in the West. What about Chinese experiences? What about the Shanghai Commune? How does this concept of the citizen address questions of class? We know from liberal societies that formal political equality doesn’t compensate for real differences in wealth and power. And how would it address that in a capitalist global economy that the organisation of production is coordinated through the movements of value, and not directed by people for human needs and desires?

    • Tom says:

      I think even though democracy is not perfect, having people choose their officials does have measurable benefits compared to the current system (ChinaGeeks did a recent post on this and Kevin O’Brien has done several papers on this topic in rural China).
      My response to “but what about class” would be that the Communist Party has created a system that institutionalizes class with the Hukou system, for 60 years this system has been used to give the lion’s share of benefits to urban residents. The democracy purposed by the New Citizens’ Movement would do away with this system making the citizens legal equals. Democracy also is a valuable component in reducing corruption and illicit gains, this would help reduce the differences in both wealth and power. Democracy does not instantly cure China’s problems, but, I think it has been shown time and again throughout history, that democracy does seem to be a component in resolving these problems over time.
      My counter would be to ask if these issues are being addressed by the Party? I find it hard to argue that they are.

      • Dave says:

        No of course they aren’t addressed by the Party – but some of these questions were by some of the rebel factions during the CR. I want to prize about the automatic equation of democracy with liberal capitalism, as the later is ultimately anti-democratic. This is the point Wang Hui makes about both China and the West. And legal equality doesn’t mean that class doesn’t exist – look at any liberal society.
        The struggles in China that appear the most promising – the New Rural Reconstruction, the workers movements, strikes and riots and the peasant resistance to land privatization, are contrary to a liberal vision. But the point should be made is that this is because the real antagonisms in China aren’t simply between Party and Reform, but between capital accumulation based on the rule of the Party and many of the arguments of the neo-liberal ‘neo-authoritarians’ (as Wang Hui calls them) and the yet embryonic struggles of (to go all Maoist) ‘the masses’ which are often based on a defense of some of the social provisions that were won during the Maoist period ( despite the brutality of the Party-State). I think Joel Andreas’ work shows this

      • Tom says:

        Who’s talking about expanding liberal capitalism? I’m talking about a citizen’s ability to have a voice in how they are governed. This is not a pro capitalism or pro communism issue, but has to do with how a person is ruled and how to transition to such a system. I would say that for any economic system to work in the idealized versions that exist on the right or left, some measure of democracy is a prerequisite.

  2. Dave says:

    Agreed. But ‘what is democracy?’ is the crucial question. The original article has clear liberal assumptions and believes that market processes lead to increased freedoms. I think we should question that theoretically and historically. You can’t have democracy in a meaningful sense ( which is something fuller than parliamentary elections) and the accumulation of capital. Also some of the experiences and experiments of the rebel factions during the CR might have lessons for us.

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