By Xu Zhiyong
China’s rights movement through the work of Gong Meng.
April 25, 2003, as SARS emptied out the streets in Beijing, I sat in front of my computer reading about the Sun Zhigang (孙志刚) coverage, tears quietly welling up in my eyes. Over the second half of 2002, I had started to investigate the laws concerning custody and repatriation (of migrant populations), and knew what Sun had gone through. Following Sun’s tragedy, Yu Jiang (俞江), Teng Biao (滕彪) and I proposed a constitutional review of the case. We mailed our recommendation on May 14 because, on the 13th, the propaganda department of the government banned further “hype” about Sun’s case. Headlines like “Three PhDs Request Constitutional Review” gave the media new fodder, and our action was a part of the public opinion campaign.
More than a month later, while I was interviewing a boy who had been given aid in a room in Tianjin’s Custody and Repatriation Center, I turned my head and saw CCTV’s Evening News announcing the abolition of the Custody and Repatriation system.
For many, that was a moment of joy and hope, and it became a symbol of the “new politics” of Hu and Wen. That night, the three of us talked on the phone, thankful for the moment but also full of regret – we were afraid the constitutional review we had hoped for was not going to happen. And it didn’t.
We moved on in 2003, registering a public interest organization. We represented Sun Dawu’s (孙大午) case, and we promoted the election of the People’s Congress. Starting from the Sun Zhigang case, we focused on individual cases that had wide significance for the defense of civil rights and the push for system building. Many people referred to 2003 as the start of what would be known as citizens’ rights movement.
Ten years on, Sun Zhigang has become taboo for media coverage; Teng Biao and I have become dissidents of this country; Dingjia Xi, Zhao Changqing, Dong Yuan, and many other brave citizens have been locked up in prison. A media friend asked me the other day: How do you evaluate this past decade, have we progressed or regressed? Suddenly I feel that this is a rather complex question to answer, and it prompted me to think about the path we have come along.
In July 2003, the Southern Metropolis Daily was first, and then repeatedly, investigated by Guangzhou’s judiciary and law enforcement system as a result of its vigorous reporting on the Sun Zhigang case. By the end of the year, the investigation “found” that there had been procedural violations when the paper’s management distributed a bonus of RMB 580,000 a few years back, and its general manager Yu Huafeng (喻华峰) was arrested on charges of graft and bribery. Our entire team got involved in the case, and I was one of the defense lawyers. It was also our first encounter with the stability maintenance. Our website was closed down, and the third meeting with netizens to spread the truth was “harmonized.” The day the “Sunshine Constitutionalism” website (阳光宪政网) was shut down, I wrote We Are Still Sincere:
“Perhaps we will face more difficulties even after constitutionalism is realized. We know very well that, there is the shadow of 2000 years of autocracy on this land, and the road to constitutionalism is bound to be long and arduous. But the endeavor for justice must be made by someone, and that’s why we are making it. …We are a group of Chinese citizens who take up this responsibility…… We are not just critics; we are also builders.”
In the second half of 2004, I was in the United States to study its constitution and elections, experiencing firsthand how an ordinary voter participated in politics as a grassroots volunteer for a presidential candidate. In the meantime, Guo Yushan and Teng Biao hosted the people’s representative election forum in our office in Huaqing Jiayuan (华清嘉园, a residential neighborhood in Beijing’s university district). In September, when Peking University’s “yi ta hu tu” bbs (一蹋糊涂) was shut down, Teng Biao, Yu Jiang and I co-authored a letter of protest while the students staged a lawn assembly to demonstrate in Jing Yuan (静园). Our action drew attention from “the relevant organ” and we were forced to suspend the use of the office. In March 2005, six private organizations for public service were shut down without being given any reasons, including the research center we had registered as well as Mr. Mao Yushi’s Unirule Institute of Economics (天则经济研究所). What I heard was that these NGOs caused someone to fear a “color revolution.” I asked the local director of Industry and Commerce why, and he said it was an order from his superiors. We gave up without bringing a lawsuit. In June, we registered Gong Meng, or the Open Constitution Initiative.
2005 was a year full of moving moments. In April, I lived in a petitioners’ village, and witnessed too much unwarranted suffering. At the hutong where the State Bureau of Letters and Calls was located, many petitioners were beaten, and my pants were covered with footprints after I passed through that alleyway packed with petitioners and those sent by local governments to intercept them. In May, we prayed for Christian Cai Zhuohua in a church in Poshang village, located next to the Party School of the Central Committee of the CCP, who had been arrested for printing Bibles. In July, Teng Biao and I visited a small town in Yulin, Shaanxi province, in an attempt to rescue lawyer Zhu Jiuhu who had been thrown in prison for his involvement in the case of a private oilfield development in northern Shaanxi. There we witnessed how greedy and domineering the regional government was and how utterly helpless the local private enterprises were. In October, lawyer Li Fangping and I were beaten by guards at Dongshigu village when we tried to visit Chen Guangcheng. That day, Chen Guangcheng broke through the line of guards, and, in the midst of over a hundred villagers and guards pushing one another, we hugged each other in a tight embrace. At the end of 2005, Asia Weekly (《亚洲周刊》) in Hong Kong named China’s human rights lawyers as their people of the year, and it marked the emergence, for the first time, of a citizen group outside the existing structure that had the ability to take sustained actions.
This group of rights lawyers was dealt a blow in the summer of 2006 as Chen Guangcheng and Gao Zhisheng were imprisoned. The rights movement dropped to its lowest point since 2003. For all these years, I had been feeling guilty for their imprisonment. I was Gao Zhisheng’s representative in his firm’s penalty hearing, and I was a member of the defense team as well as the coordinator of support actions in Chen Guangcheng’s case, but I was unable to help either of them. By September, circumstances improved, and it was again election time for the district/county-level People’s Congress. We sent letters to a few hundred of Property Management Committee directors in residential neighborhoods, to NGOs, and to more than a thousand lawyers, to encourage them to become candidates. We organized teams of volunteers to help various candidates design and distribute their posters and organize election gatherings for them. Thanks to the support of faculties and students at Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, where I was employed, thanks to my election team led by Jin Huaiyu and Gu Xin, and also thanks to the University’s party secretary Zhang Shulin who openly supported the election, I was elected the people’s representative to Haidian District’s People’s Congress.
In 2007, we provided legal assistance to victims of illegal brick kilns in Shanxi province in administrative compensation suits, but to no avail. (In fact, lots of the cases we have provided legal assistance to have gone nowhere, such as the robbery case of Chen Guoqing and three others in Chengde. The four innocent men have served 19 years already, and in the 9 years when we have been representing them, we have made countless petitions, each in vain.) What was most shocking to me, in my first trip to the black brick kilns, was that the brickyard didn’t have encircling walls and it was right next to a village, less than one hundred meters away from the nearest house. Because of the fear from living under ruthless violence, because of the corrupt government that didn’t do its job, and because of the numbness commonly found in the Chinese countryside, all the Chen Xiaojuns were openly enslaved in a land that had lost its sense of right and wrong, good and evil. So big is this land of injustice that those who are underprivileged and powerless may never see an end to their suffering in their lifetimes.
A lot of things happened in 2008. Apart from the Olympics, there were the March 14 Unrest in Tibet, Wenchuan Earthquake, the poisonous milk powder scandal, and more. In August, we sent an investigative team to Tibet to find out about the economic and social causes of the March 14 unrest. In September, we organized a team of lawyers to provide legal assistance to child victims of the melamine-tainted milk formula. In the first stage, it took us three month of work to push the government to announce a compensation plan, but for many victims, the compensation fell far short of the harm they had suffered. In some cases, parents had spent close to RMB 100,000 on surgery for their sickened children alone, but were only compensated with RMB 30,000. Peng Jian, Li Xiongbing, Li Fangping and over 100 other pro bono lawyers continued to bring cases to the Supreme Court as well as to a few hundred local courts, but all in all, they succeeded in getting only ten cases filed, and of the ten cases, only two were tried and none received a verdict. The lawyers did everything they could, all the way to suing the largest shareholder of SanLu Group in a Hong Kong court. By September 2011 when the project concluded, we had fought for, and secured, compensation for more than 200 child victims in addition to the government’s compensation plan. The biggest single compensation was RMB 350,000, thanks to a court in Zhejiang that forced Yili Group to make concessions by insisting on a trial. The largest compensation settlement from a single source was almost the result of “blackmailing” a company. We had discovered falsehood in the company’s advertisement, and we sued them as consumers. Haidian Court in Beijing accepted the filing, and we told the company’s CEO quite frankly, when he came to Beijing to negotiate with us, that all we wanted was for his company to compensate the 50 or so victims of its brand. The CEO was moved by our sincerity and decency. Right around the time when Gong Meng was raising money to pay for the government fine on a trumped-up charge meant to destroy the organization, Lin Zhengzheng in the south sent a reparation of RMB one million yuan to the victims.
No matter how we upheld our conscience and our sense of justice, the regime was intuitively hostile to any entity that existed independently outside its grip. By 2009, our team had grown considerably, our office in Huajie Building became busier than ever, and we had provided legal services in the dog culling incident in Hanzhong, Shaanxi, the Green Dam uproar, and the Deng Yujiao case. In July, Gong Meng, the not-for-profit, public interest organization was fined for “tax evasion,” and Zhuang Lu (the accountant) and I were arrested. But thankfully, we live in a time when technology gives us room for expression, when NGOs for public interest mushroomed after the Wenchuan earthquake, and, more importantly, when people have elevated moral standards. The arrest upset many ordinary citizens, and in four days Gong Meng received more than RMB 400,000 in donations in a fundraising campaign to pay for the fine. Jiang Ping and Mao Yushi of the older generation made appeals in support of us. Hong Kong high school student Zheng Yongxin wrote an open letter to Wen Jiabao, and friends we had never known we had protested with T-shirts, pins and postcards. Confronted by powerful waves of support, the authorities retreated. We moved forward.
In a routine meeting at the end of 2009, Wang Gongquan, one of our members, proposed a new initiative: campaign to abolish the household registration, or hukou, requirement for children to take college entrance exams where they live. We had been pushing for hukou reform, and with this initiative we found a new focal point. We had the four parents, who had made the initial call for help, work as volunteers with our team to collect signatures. Two years later, we collected more than 100,000 signatures, and organized petitions in front of the Ministry of Education on the last Thursday every month. We also mobilized several thousand people’s representatives to submit proposals; we organized panel discussions of experts; we researched and drafted a plan for children living with their parents without a local hukou to take college entrance exams where they live, not where their hukous were; and we organized the “new Beijingers” to plant trees in parks. Two-and-a-half years on, we made a breakthrough when the Ministry of Education adopted a policy allowing youth to take the national entrance exams where they currently live, not where their hukous are. By the end of the year, 29 provinces and municipalities implemented, or promised to implement, the policy. However, the Ministry of Education’s policy was met with obstacles in Beijing and Shanghai where tens of thousands of parent volunteers had worked the hardest to push for the policy, but in the end were denied of its benefits. I am deeply sorry for them. They’ve strived for three years under the slogan “abolish hukou restrictions for the national college exams by 2012,” but as they themselves put it, they “succeeded in liberating all of China except for ourselves!” We need to continue the fight against the last two fortresses.
From the abolition of the Custody and Repatriation System, triggered by the Sun Zhigang case, that allowed millions upon millions of new immigrants to move away from home without fear of being captured and repatriated, to the equal education movement that enabled millions of children to attend schools where their parents work and live, we have labored for ten years to break the hukou segregation and to fight for the freedom and equality of new immigrants.
After the trumped-up “tax evasion” case in 2009, we registered a new company although Gong Meng was still a legal entity. Regardless, such a name ceased to mean much any longer, for it was far from enough to have a small group of brave citizens. The pursuit of democracy and constitutionalism requires broad participation by as many people as possible. We gave up on the name Gong Meng, and began to use a name that’s not a name–Citizen. “Citizen” is the common identity of all who are pro-democracy, and it serves as an open platform that belongs to every citizen who shares the same aspiration for democracy and constitutionalism.
In May 2012, we began to promote the “New Citizens’ Movement” in which we became real citizens working and moving forward together. We have been holding same-city dinner gatherings (同城聚会) across China to meet, and exchange views with, each other; we push for democracy and rule of law through legal assistance and civil actions such as demanding that officials disclose personal assets. Through these collective activities, we want to grow to be a healthy force outside the existing structure and to help eventually transition China peacefully toward a constitutional civilization. It is a movement for social change, but more importantly, it is a political movement for democratic constitutionalism. We don’t shun politics; in a jungle-like society where power is uninhibited and corruption rife, conscience is politics. We strive to tread out a new path for the Chinese nation, a path toward liberty, justice and love. Fear and hatred are the foundation on which tyranny has thrived, but overthrowing tyranny doesn’t necessarily mean the disappearance of its foundation. Until we dispel the fear and hatred that cloud over the deepest recesses of our hearts, we will not have a free and democratic China.
We have been the opposition throughout the last ten years. We oppose authoritarianism, we oppose autocratic culture, and we oppose lies, false accusations, and unscrupulousness whether they are on the part of the power holders or anyone else. We have been pious builders promoting social progress and building rule of law and civil society rationally. In the Investigation on the Mechanism of Letters and Calls in China that we issued, we pointed out that the authoritarian system was the root of the petition problem, and recommended judiciary independence and initiation of political reform through direct election on the county level. In our Report on the Investigation over the Truth about the Death of Qian Yunhui, we published our findings that Qian’s death was a traffic accident despite overwhelming public opinion that believed otherwise, and criticized the unfair land policies that were the underlying causes of the incident. In our Legal Opinions Concerning Compensation for Personal Injury in the High-Speed Train Accident on July 23rd, we criticized the government for offering too little compensation, of RMB 500,000, and recommended compensation over RMB 900,000. Public opinion forced the government to quickly accept our recommendation. In the equal education movement that fought against hukou segregation, our Plan for Children Living with Parents without Local Hukou to Take the National College Entrance Exam Locally has been accepted by most provinces and cities. Just before the ten citizens were arrested in Beijing, we had been preparing to draft a law concerning publishing officials’ personal assets. We are a group of responsible citizens. We oppose for the sake of building.
For ten years we have persevered to build the foundation, next to the decaying palace of the dictatorship, for a lasting democracy and constitutionalism. In our fight for freedom over the last ten years, it has become a commonplace for many of us to lose our own freedom fighting for freedom of strangers. We are proud to be living in this era. From the “citizens’ rights movement” to the “new citizens’ movement,” we have been walking on the same road, the road of conscience, the road toward liberty, justice and love.
The last ten years have been years of progress. With the fireworks of the Olympics, China continued to mix with the world; new immigrants have settled down; high-speed trains have compressed time and space; the remotest villages began to have rudimentary social security coverage; and internet and communication technologies connect different civilizations. Over the last ten years, the goodness in human nature has been reviving in China, the market economy has been deconstructing totalitarianism, and an independent spirit has been sprouting bit by bit. Public opinion condemns barbaric demolition; ten thousand people came out to lay flowers at the site of a fire disaster in Shanghai. The “Red Cross” might be dead, but the conscience is growing. Over these ten years, the new contended with the old, but the old does not just go away: the custody and repatriation policy was gone, but there have been black jails. The Criminal Procedure Law was amended, but the little bit of judiciary independence was taken away. The Electoral Law of the National People’s Congress and Local People’s Congresses was amended, but during the 2011 election, the media as a whole was forced to keep their mouths shut. The gap between the rich and the poor has continued to widen, graft and privilege are more rampant than ever, and the chasm between the government and the people is growing ever greater and deeper.
Entering 2013, China bid goodbye to the ten years of “raising no havoc” (Hu Jintao’s watchword) and arrived at the threshold of change. At the moment, the ten citizens have been arrested for advocating disclosure of officials’ assets, and the Citizen’s community in general is being dealt a new round of persecution. But on the other hand, more and more docile subjects are stepping out to become real citizens. I firmly believe that, after 2000 years of suppression and over 100 years of suffering, this is the time when the Chinese nation will be reborn for liberty, justice and love. We have chosen a beautiful road worthy to be the pursuit of a lifetime. We’ll not turn away from it no matter how trying it is ahead. It is a new road, long and arduous, but it’s the only road leading to a bright future.
Citizen Xu Zhiyong
May 16, 2013
(A translation by China Change.)