The first overview in English.
By China Change, published October 19, 2013
In recent years, street banner protests have become an emerging phenomena in China. We often see photos of petitioners rolling out banners to protest injustice or forced demolitions. But prior to this year, when the Chinese government launched a more severe crackdown in an attempt to put an end to these activities, cities such as Guangzhou, Shenzhen and others had seen frequent street banner protests. Different from rights defense demonstrations, these street protests called for government officials to publicly disclose their finances and, more broadly, for democratic freedoms. They are a form of direct, conscious political behavior.
37-year-old Wang Aizhong (王爱忠)attended a university in Guangzhou in the 1990s and has since lived in the southern metropolis. He is a senior manager for a company, and one of the earliest initiators of the Southern Street Movement (南方街头运动). Mr. Wang recently told Radio France Internationale (RFI) in a telephone interview: “At the beginning, around August, 2011, we felt that we had only been staying online to voice our opinions and expressed our concerns on various issues, and the actual impact of online expression had been very small. Later, several people in Guangzhou, including myself, Liu Yuandong (刘远东), Ou Longgui (欧龙贵) and Yang Chong (杨崇), worked on the idea of ‘Moving from the Internet to the Public Square.’ We initiated a monthly gathering at the Huanghuagang Memorial Park (黄花岗烈士陵园) where we met on the last Sunday of each month at two o’clock in the afternoon. You could say that this was the start of the Southern Street Movement. Pretty soon a dozen more people joined us, including attorney Tang Jingling (唐荆陵) and Yuan Xiaohua (袁小华). Later on, we not only had native Guangzhou participants, but also people from Shenzhen, Zhongshan, Zhuhai and Huizhou. Further along, we even had people from neighboring Hunan and Guangxi provinces. As the number of participants grew, it didn’t take long before the authorities cracked down on us.”
Wang Aizhong said that the so-called Southern Street Movement is not an organization. In its current state, the term merely refers to activities related to making a political expression on the streets or in public sphere, and because it emerged in the south, it has been called the Southern Street Movement. In addition to the aforementioned ones, participants include Zhang Shengyu (张圣雨), Sun Desheng (孙德胜), Jia Pin(贾榀), Xu Lin(徐琳), Zhang Wanhe (张皖荷), Chen Jianxiong (陈剑雄), Huang Wenxun(黄文勋) and Yuan Fengchu (袁奉初). There are a lot of them. They come from all walks of life, including college graduates, businessmen, lawyers, laborers, the unemployed, and the petitioners.
Yu Gang (余刚) was 20 years old when the June 4th Tiananmen democracy movement took place in 1989. He was a third-year college student and participated in the demonstrations. He has been a businessman for years and now lives in Shenzhen. In an interview this May, he told RFI, “In the twenty years since the June 4, 1989, incident until 2009, I saw little democratic progress in China. My friends and I wanted to take actions to change China. Starting in 2010, we gradually took to the street to hold demonstrations.”
In China, street demonstrations require courage and are often difficult to initiate. It had a rough start and the mobilization didn’t go well either. However, as Yu Gang and his friends persevered, their actions have received more and more response and grown increasingly daring. They include going downtown to publicly mobilize the people. “In 2010, we only held one event,” says Yu Gang. “We went to the heart of the Shenzhen downtown area to hold banner protests and give speeches. We demanded that the Chinese government hold general elections to choose leaders and abolish the ‘one-party’ political system. The entire demonstration lasted only one and a half hours. In 2011, we held four demonstrations, all in Guangzhou, demanding general elections, promoting World Human Rights Day, and supporting Wukan’s fight against local corruption. In 2012, we took to the streets seven or eight times, promoting democracy, criticizing the government, or calling for asset disclosure by officials. This year we have already held 40 demonstrations in Guangzhou and Shenzhen. During the Southern Weekend Incident at the beginning of the year, we went out in full gear, holding heated on-site demonstrations for three days in a row.”
As for why these street activities can emerge and flourish in cities like Guangzhou and Shenzhen, Yu Gang’s explanation is that Guangdong, close to Hong Kong, has always been China’s frontier for openness, and people enjoy relatively free thinking. “In the last 100 years of modern history,” said Yu Gang, “Guangdong has been the frontrunner in leading China towards a more westernized civilization. In their daily life, Guangdong people have always discussed politics in bold ways, and are not as afraid as people in the north.”
Wu Kuiming (吴魁明) is a lawyer who has been living in Guangzhou for more than 20 years. He has represented many human rights cases, and has a unique perspective of the street movement. He told RFI in a recent interview: “the street movement participants are mostly grassroots laborers, very different from our generation of college students in ‘89. They are non-locals who have come here to work. Most of them were born in the 1970s or 1980s, and weren’t influenced by liberal ideas in the 1980s as my generation had been. They entered adulthood in the 1990’s, a relatively constrained and oppressed era. Their arousal of political and civic consciousness was completely self-motivated. As the internet, Weibo, and QQ messenger have made communications convenient, they have become more confident, and were able to band together to flourish.”
In regards to the significance of the street movement, Mr. Wu gave unambiguous affirmation. He even believes that the people participating in the street movement are the driving force for reform. “In China’s current environment,” he told RFI, “the government, the business community, and the bureaucrats basically have no motivation to change. In every dynasty, intellectuals and students are supposed to be the progressives of the time, but when you look at China today, it’s no longer the case. Students have been completely brainwashed and indoctrinated. Intellectuals and social media opinion leaders (otherwise known as Big Vs) are more inclined towards reform within the system, and a lot of ideas about change just won’t work in China’s current societal structure. Therefore, there definitely needs to be more initiative and more pressure for the society to undergo sufficient reform. From this perspective, I think that the role of the street movement participants is very significant, and the impact of such grassroots activism on propelling the whole society forward cannot be overlooked. Of course, their overall ability to influence, including their ideas and knowledge, is weaker than previous generations, for example the ‘89 generation, but in today’s Chinese society, I highly value the contribution they are making.
From the start, the street movement has never been tolerated by the authorities. The suppression has been continuous and gotten steadily worse.
Up until the Southern Weekend Incident at the beginning of this year, according to Wang Aizhong, the Guangdong authorities had been relatively tolerant. When three or four people held up signs on the street, or in the park, the police would intervene but were by and large lenient. They seldom took the participants into custody, let alone criminally detained them. Even administrative detentions were used sparsely. At most the authorities would summon the participants “to drink tea”, or make a record of the event.
Prior to this year, the most serious crackdown occurred at a picketing activity on the afternoon of March 30, 2012. That day, a dozen or so activists staged a street protest on the Long Dong pedestrian street (龙洞步行街) in the Tianhe District of Guangzhou, and the signs they held read “Fairness, Justice, Freedom, Equality, Human Rights, Legality, Democracy, Republicanism,” “Without elections, there is no future,” “Hu Jintao take the lead and publicize your finances,” and more. Their activities attracted some hundreds of onlookers, and they weren’t subsequently dispersed by the police. In early April, five of them were first administratively detained, then criminally detained, for “allegedly illegal assembly, parade, and demonstration.” After their lawyers intervened, and thanks to the overwhelming online support, four of them were released on bail awaiting trial, while Yang Chong was sent back to his hometown in Jiangxi where he was sentenced to one year in prison.
Since the Southern Weekend Incident at the beginning of this year, Mr. Wang told RFI , criminal detention has been directly applied to people who have participated in street demonstrations. In February, biologist and businessman Liu Yuandong (刘远东), an important player in the Southern Street Movement, was arrested. He has been held without a trial ever since, far beyond the legally prescribed time limit. Recent reports said Mr. Liu has been mistreated in jail.
In May, Huang Wenxun, Yuan Fengchu and a number of others, all of them regular participants in the Southern Street Movement, were detained in Chibi, Hubei. They were all beaten up by the police, and Huang Wenxun was tortured with electrical shocks. Other participants were also detained. After Shenzhen resident Yang Lin (杨林) had been missing for a month, his family received a notice of his arrest and learned that he had been accused of “inciting subversion of state power.”
The crackdown is clearly nationwide. Since April, China has detained close to 200 dissidents and activists, including Dr. Xu Zhiyong, billionaire investor Wang Gongquan (王功权) in its crackdown on the New Citizens Movement and the prominent Guangzhou-based dissident Guo Feixiong (郭飞雄).
Right now the situation is severe, but the Southern Street Movement participants have not backed down from their aspirations. Wang Aizhong said, “We must unwaveringly continue on with the street movement, influencing more people through our actions, and making the street movement bigger and bigger. Of course, facing the current suppression, we do our very best to avoid unnecessary losses. Our consensus is that we need to lie low for the time being, suspending our street activities for a while and focusing instead on developing strength. Our ultimate goal is to build a China that is democratic, constitutional, and that conforms to modern political civilization.”
Yaxue’s exchanges with Mr. Wang Aizhong
(Translated by Jake Clark and Carolyn Tilney)