By Xiao Shu, published: December 22, 2013
The first trial of the New Citizens Movement — or so it is called, that of the Xinyu Three (Liu Ping, Wei Zhongping, and Li Sihua), made headlines here and around the world as it got underway December 3.
The following day saw the cases of fellow New Citizens Movement members Xu Zhiyong, Zhao Changqing and Ding Jiaxi sent up to state prosecutors, indication their trial will begin soon.
On December 5, Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post newspaper reported that high-profile entrepreneur Wang Gongquan, a New Citizens Movement supporter who had already been held for over two months, has pled guilty and video of his confession might be broadcast on CCTV.
In order to make way for the Third Plenary Session of the 18th CPC Central Committee and keep prosecutions of the New Citizens Movement quiet, formal launch of proceedings has been held until now.
As this stands to be the largest-scale series of political cases in China this century, comparable to Taiwan’s Kaohsiung Incident of yore, it’s worth the world’s time to stand around and bear witness.
The New Citizens Movement is a rights-based movement initiated by a group of Chinese grassroots activists, the main purpose of which is to see the implementation of the human and civil rights provided for in China’s constitution and laws.
Dr. Xu Zhiyong, who initiated this movement, is a prominent public intellectual in China who rose to prominence in 2003 as one of the three young legal scholars who brought an end to use of custody and repatriation detention.
Since then, Xu has dedicated his time to the rights defense movement (weiquan), through which he established the grassroots rights defense group Open Constitution Initiative (公盟，Gongmeng). When Gongmeng was forced to dissolve in 2009, Xu himself was detained for more than a month.
After regaining his freedom, rather than withdraw Xu Zhiyong chose to pitch himself back into battle. In 2010 he initiated the well-received “Citizens’ Commitment” online campaign, an invititation to the like-minded to sign on and hold each other to a personal commitment both to the fulfilment of civic duty and the pursuit of civil rights.
This in fact was a turning point for social movements in China, an upgrade from the traditional weiquan movement to a citizens’ movement. Where weiquan focused traditionally on specific incidents and individual interests on a case-by-case basis, this civic movement differed in its approach to quality of life issues from the perspective of universal rights.
More than mere relief for specific difficulties, this was an attempt to resolve causes of suffering in the context of the way society is structured. Rather than a bottom-up attempt at violent revolution, this was a bottom-up growth process for civil society. It was an attempt, through the power of growth, to change China and push for peaceful transition, and provide China a soft landing for the crisis in which it is now deeply stuck.
Thus the mould was cast for this civic movement: forward-looking, rational and moderate. And it was these qualities that drew participation from every sector and ethnic group in society, growing like a rolling snowball.
The public disclosure of officials’ assets called for by the movement became a central topic of discussion in China in 2012; the equal access to education called for by the movement has not only come into public focus, but left the Ministry of Education no choice but to make changes, and adjustments to the national university entrance examination (‘gaokao’) have benefited tens of millions from lower-income backgrounds; the movement’s same-city “citizen” dinner parties have brought together more than 5,000 participants in over 10 cities nationwide.
The biggest problem faced by social movements in China has always been one of marginalization—being limited in scale and unable to achieve sizeable influence within society.
The New Citizens Movement was evidently able to break free of this and—similar to the way Antaeus was only able to gain real power with feet firmly on the ground—begin to engage mainstream society. For social movements in China, this was an historical breakthrough.
And it was precisely this that led to a backlash by authorities, for whom the biggest taboo is citizens organizing among themselves.
The New Citizens Movement took great pains to avoid this high-voltage tripwire, keeping things both deinstitutionalized and decentralized: voluntary cooperation based solely on consensus and tacit agreement.
In spite of such restraint, to authorities it was still unacceptable.
Since the days of Jiang Zemin, the philosophy of governance has been to nip all forms of grassroots organization in the bud, to deliver a crushing blow at the earliest sign of existence rather than let anything grow to infancy, keeping civil society scattered in the wind rather than allowing any space for it to grow. While the New Citizens Movement has no organization, objectively it does hold the power to bring people together.
From the way it operates to its core principles, the instant it started to gain acceptance from mainstream society the response was intense—and the New Citizens’ Movement’s doom.
Authorities initiated targeted crackdowns in March this year. One-by-one, New Citizens Movement participants were taken down: Zhao Changqing (赵常青) and Ding Jiaxi (丁家喜) in Beijing, Li Huaping (李化平) in Shanghai, Liu Jiacai (刘家财) in Hubei, and Liu Ping (), Wei Zhongping (魏忠平) and Li Sihua (李思华) in Xinyu, Jiangxi province.
The repression reached its peak in July this year with the arrests of New Citizens Movement advocates Xu Zhiyong and Guo Feixiong. Prominent entrepreneur Wang Gongquan was also detained for his support of Xu, and remains held by authorities today.
In just half a year, more than 20 New Citizens Movement participants were arrested, well in excess of the scale of repression seen following the release of Charter 08. Among the victims are the economically disadvantaged such as Liu Ping, intellectuals like Xu Zhiyong, and professionals like Ding Jiaxi, not to mention entrepreneurs such as Wang Gongquan, in all comprising nearly every layer of intermediate society.
Arresting people is easy; keeping them locked up, not so much.
When the Xinyu Three trial opened on December 3, the Third Plenary Session blueprint to establish a degree of judicial independence and in particular the decision to ensure judicial protection of human rights had recently been announced.
On the day the Xinyu trial got underway, president of the Supreme People’s Court Zhou Qiang ordered all judges to swear an oath of loyalty to the law. Launching a harsh crackdown against the New Citizen’s Movement while at the same time reaffirmations of rule of law abound is a flat-out contradiction.
What’s even more outrageous is that despite an 6-month-long investigation forensic in its totality, during which nearly every available tactic was deployed, police still weren’t able to find hard proof of any New Citizens Movement crimes—because there was never any to find.
With a background such as this, the Xinyu Three trial was clearly a test. Authorities may think Xinyu is remote enough, that the Xinyu Three are minor enough in influence, that the costs of suppression can be kept under relative control by kicking off trial proceedings in Xinyu.
The facts, however, indicate authorities overplayed their hand.
When the Xinyu Three trial began, standing next to the defendants was one of China’s toughest dream teams of defense attorneys; up against lawyers like these, government prosecutors didn’t stand a chance and were left weak and vulnerable.
Talking domestic politics over dinner? Against the law. Dissatisfaction with the political system? Against the law. Uploading photos taken in open empty spaces? Against the law. Demanding officials publicly disclose personal assets? Against the law. Demanding equal access to education? Against the law. Demanding the National People’s Congress ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights it signed years ago? Against the law.
In a word, fulfillment of civic duties and the pursuit of civil rights has essentially been criminalized. The absurdity of these and other trial details that leaked out left people in disbelief.
While all domestic media had no choice but to keep their mouths shut, the indictment documents and Xinyu Three defense arguments were all put online by one of their lawyers and spread far and wide through social media; in terms of media impact, the result was no less in comparison to open reports at the time of the Kaohsiung Eight trial in Taiwan. The internet is saturated now with both condemnation and ridicule of authorities, who are now as helpless as it gets.
And that was just the Xinyu trial; how Xu Zhiyong’s Beijing trial, Guo Feixiong’s in Guangzhou, as well as trials for Zhao Changqing and Ding Jiaxi, will turn out is even easier to see. What’s certain is that barring a departure from legal procedure, each of these trials will put the majesty of the New Citizens Movement and human rights lawyers on full display.
Where the law fails to deliver, resolution through discussion becomes an obligation.
According to a December 5 article in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, not only has Xu Zhiyong supporter Wang Gongquan pled guilty, he’s also agreed to sever his relationship and all connections with Xu—and video of Wang’s confession might be aired on CCTV. Of course, authorities would never broadcast such a so-called confession on CCTV; they know that to do so would be to give the New Citizens Movement its greatest advertisement ever.
As for a Wang-Xu split, when I asked the lead lawyers for both Wang Gongquan and Xu Zhiyong, Chen Youxi (陈有西) and Zhang Qingfang (张庆方), both dismissed it as fabrication. The South China Morning Post report, it appears, is inaccurate.
What’s odd about this is the South China Morning Post didn’t interview its two key sources, Chen nor Zhang, but instead relied solely on a secondary source with no contact with either Wang or Xu, and reported hearsay as fact. And yet this report somehow managed to pass through the newspaper’s strict editing process. The South China Morning Post report was then quoted widely by media around the world, giving Wang Gongquan no chance to defend himself from his cell.
So then what is the truth?
I can quote Chen Youxi verbatim as saying authorities have wasted no effort on Wang Gongquan, that in the 70-odd days since his detention he’s been interrogated on more than 92 occasions. Throughout early November, 3-4 interrogations were conducted every single day.
This sort of nonstop rapid-fire approach to interrogation amounts simply to coerced confession by placing Wang under immense emotional distress.
During one mid-November meeting with his lawyers, Wang told Chen authorities had ordered him to pen a confession. Chen immediately objected, which infuriated authorities who then announced the Beijing detention center in which Wang was being held was to undergo “plumbing renovation”, and for that reason Wang could no longer meet any lawyers.
Wang, held in isolation without light, cut off from all assistance or contact with the outside world, remained under authorities’ unrelenting psychological assault until his emotional collapse, following which he finally wrote a lengthy confession.
In spite of this confession, Wang Gongquan has nonetheless retained his dignity. Lawyer Zhang Qingfang described to me feeling “very moved” in reading Wang’s confession, and how in it Wang managed to “step up”.
In the confession, Wang on one hand openly admits his desire to regain his freedom and return home as early as possible, and for that reason admits he “underestimated the government’s tolerance”, how he disrupted what the government defines as “public order”. He also pledges to “keep distance” from Xu upon his release, to spend more time with family, write poems, give support to younger entrepreneurs, and enjoy his later years.
At the same time, however, he insists Xu Zhiyong and other initiators of the New Citizens Movement do not seek to pitch the country into chaos, but work rather toward social progress.
Without question, Wang doesn’t intend to turn himself into a martyr. But he has stayed true to his conscience; as Zhang Qingfang puts it: “he hasn’t distorted any facts or betrayed any friends.”
So it’s a confession, delivered from the depths of prison, that authorities view as their last-minute deliverance, and then rushed to air using foreign media, embellishing details and attempting to use the accused’s “guitly plea” to justify their repression of the New Citizens’ Movement.
The Xinyu Three trial and media coverage of Wang Gongquan’s “confession” were just two battles leading up to the long war that will be the New Citizens Movement series of trials—one battle against the law and the other against the news agenda.
And with warm-up battles as spectacular as these, the subsequent main act is guaranteed to be brilliant, and of course free of any suspense.
No matter which way they scramble, authorities won’t be able to free themselves from their predicament: the hole they dug for themselves through repression of the New Citizens’ Movement.
They proclaim full adherence to the constitution, then cast the strictly constitutionalist New Citizens Movement as an enemy of the state; they want the comfort of a dictatorship, but also the legitimacy derived from upholding rule of law; they want to persecute, but they also want to maintain appearances; they want it all, which is impossible. Civilization or barbarism? You can’t have both, so authorities need to make a decision.
Let Wang Gongquan go home. Let Xu Zhiyong go home. Let Guo Feixiong and all citizens who lost their freedom simply for striving for their civil rights go back to their homes.
These aren’t pleas, these are decrees based in natural law. What’s needed now are the voices of civil society from around the world, rising together in one loud roar.
Xiao Shu (笑蜀), the pen name of Chen Min, is a former columnist for the Chinese newspaper Southern Weekly and the Chinese magazine Yanhuang Chunqiu, and an active participant in the New Citizens Movement. He is currently a visiting scholar at National Chengchi University in Taiwan.
(Translated by John Kennedy.)
The Last Ten Years, by Xu Zhiyong, in which he reviews, among other things, how the equal education rights movement started, its triumphs and regrets.
“Xu Zhiyong Committed No Crime, I Testify.” Parents who were part of the equal education right campaign in Beijing speak out on video.
The Chinese original was published in the December 22 issue of Asia Weekly (Yazhou Zhoukan), Hong Kong.