By Xiao Shu, published: January 8, 2015
A verdict awaits the pioneer of China’s rights movement after he stood trial the second time last November. Veteran commentator Xiao Shu, writing originally in the New York Times Chinese, places Guo Feixiong in the larger picture of the rights struggle in China. – The Editor
A civil rights movement has been unfolding in China. As Martin Luther King Jr. was to the American civil rights movement, essential figures have been emerging from the movement in China. Guo Feixiong (郭飞雄), who was tried on November 28 for “gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place,” is one of them.
While the American Civil Rights Movement fought for the rights of millions of African Americans, the Chinese civil rights movement is fighting for the rights of all but every Chinese citizen. For in China, it is not just the powerless who do not have rights; those who are in power are not protected by the law either, once they lose out in power struggles. Almost every Chinese can identify with African Americans fighting for civil rights in the 1960s, except that he or she is in an even worse lot where there is no freedom, equality or justice.
This is precisely why Guo Feixiong has devoted himself to the rights movement. Guo Feixiong, whose legal name is Yang Maodong (杨茂东), was born in Gucheng, Hubei province (湖北谷城) in 1966, and graduated from East China Normal University in Shanghai in 1988. He would have had excellent career prospects had he chosen to stay in the system and submit himself to all its constrains. Pursuing an independent publishing enterprise, he was successful enough to afford a luxury apartment in one of Guangzhou’s best neighborhoods. In 2001, however, he gave up his thriving business and chose the thorny path of an activist.
In 2005, Guo Feixiong came back to Guangdong as a legal advisor of Beijing Zhisheng Law Office [lawyer Gao Zhisheng’s law office] where he took part in the rights struggles in Nanhai (南海), Foshan (佛山) and Panyu (番禹), forging a bond with civil rights activists in Guangdong. The incident in Taishi Village (番禺太石村) drew international attention at the time in which villagers demanded the impeachment of corrupt village officials for financial irregularities, and the township government used hundreds of policemen to put down the demonstrations and arrest scores of protesters. As the confrontation escalated, Guo Feixiong, who represented the villagers, mobilized prominent intellectuals, journalists and lawyers to join the campaign, pioneering a multi-pronged civil engagement in rights defense cases that became a model for later cases. It was also the beginning of a trend in which the system is challenged at the lowest level.
The death of Sun Zhigang in a repatriation center in 2003 was considered to have ushered in China’s rights movement, but the incident of Taishi village in 2005 was considered the beginning of a movement for political and civil rights.
Around the same time as the Taishi incident in Guangdong, Gongmeng (公盟) was founded by Xu Zhiyong, Teng Biao and Guo Yushan in Beijing; in Shandong, the barefoot lawyer Chen Guangcheng was imprisoned for standing up for people’s rights. These three major rights defense incidents took place in close succession, making 2005 the beginning year of the civil rights movement in China, and Guo Feixiong was one of its earliest initiators, architects and die-hard practitioners.
For his actions, he was subjected to cruel retaliation and has paid an enormous price. Over the last nine years since 2005, he has been arrested four times for “gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place.” On his third arrest in 2006 he was sentenced to five years in prison. He has undergone over 200 interrogations, including a marathon session that lasted for 13 days and 13 nights without him being allowed to sleep. Beatings, hair-pulling, and electrocution were all designed to destroy his will power, force him to surrender, and compel him to withdraw from rights activities.
But his persecutors underestimated his strength. Instead of giving in, he became steeled, setting a record of a total of 186 days on several hunger strikes.
In September, 2011, after being released from prison, he promptly returned to the civil rights struggles, working with activists in Guangdong to strengthen their ranks and fight tough battles. His most notable achievement was in organizing the street protests in connections with the widely-reported Southern Weekly Incident at the beginning of 2013. It was the first bold attempt at political assembly in China since 1989 in which citizens took the initiative and came out on the street to claim and exercise their political rights. Guo Feixiong was the leader among them. Immediately afterwards, he planned and led a signature campaign demanding the ratification of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) by the National People’s Congress. He organized the so-called “eight-city flash campaign,” sending small teams to eight cities to publicize rights efforts, and once again, breaking new ground in pushing for political assemblies.
As a civil rights activist, Guo Feixiong is rare for being fearless and unwavering, but his moderation and practicality are even more admirable. This was best manifested during the Southern Weekend incident. On the morning of January 7, at the suggestion of policemen on the scene, protestors agreed to withdraw from the front gate of Nanfang Metropolis Media Group on Guangzhou Avenue, a thoroughfare, taking up positions instead on sidewalks in order not to block traffic. Nor were the sidewalks crowded enough as to block pedestrians. The street demonstration lasted three days, peaceful and orderly from beginning to end. This has been corroborated by many witnesses as well as journalists of Nanfang Metropolis Media Group. This outcome had a lot to do with Guo Feixiong. At the beginning of the street protest, he set a clear scope and objectives. On the scene, he helped to direct the protesters, urging them to leave at 5:00 pm on January 7. As Guo put it later, “Our political aspiration is serious, our objectives are temperate, and our operation is aboveboard, peaceful and respectful.” The “eight-city flash campaign” that followed was conducted similarly, falling well in line with international norms – demonstrating in parks and sidewalks without disrupting order in public places.
Guo Feixiong has proved himself to be as courageous as he is wise. Having suffered unspeakable torture and brushes with death, he harbors no hatred or radicalism. His healthy humanity transcends the Maoist you-die-I-live philosophy of struggle and his goal is to secure civil rights. To allege as the Chinese authorities do that he does what he does to take revenge on the regime or to usurp power is a slur on him. His conviction to civil rights and constitutional democracy is akin to a religion and what he has pursued is a transcendental idealism rather than short-lived power. As a citizen, he insists on practicing what he preaches, honoring self-restraint and a balance between freedom and order. He is a determined opponent, but also a responsible and constructive one who is keen on civilized and peaceful political opposition that will also serve as an example for the kind of political transition that will surely arrive in China, one that skews chaos and destruction.
The words “civil rights movement” conjure up the American civil rights movement in the 1960s. However, constitutional democracy of the United States was compatible with civil rights, and the American civil rights movement was not about fighting against the political architecture but about perfecting it. Public support aside, Martin Luther King’s work was supported by three presidents (Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson), the Congress, as well as the Supreme Court. The result was political and societal synergy.
In China, it’s a different picture. Guo Feixiong has faith in humanity, including the humanity of those working in and for the system, but a totalitarian system exists by being rigid, unyielding to change. People within the system might stage a righteous uprising for which Guo Feixiong has always hoped, but the system itself will never be anything that’s compatible with civil rights. The civil rights movement in China is bound to be arduous and tragic. The dictatorship does not permit any challenge; it does not bow down to pressure; it does not tolerate growth of any social capital, be it intellectual or moral, and will kill any of it in its infancy. Consequently, the civil rights movement in China will inevitably go through many cycles of surging and failing. It’s not an exaggeration to say China’s transition to a constitutional democracy will be one of the most difficult political projects in human history.
For individuals, it takes extraordinary perseverance and willpower to commit to a cause that offers no light in sight. Guo Feixiong has known all along what he is doing. He further believes that there must be people who are equipped with courage as well as reason to make such a commitment to a steadfast and secure transition which minimizes social cost, helps the population overcome fear of change, and inspires confidence in its eventual success.
Nationalism, the people’s livelihood and civil rights have been the three basic themes of the last hundred years in China. Now that the problems of national independence and subsistence are behind us, civil rights takes the central place for the Chinese as a nation. We need a crash course in civil rights. It is imperative for the 1.3 billion Chinese to become true sovereigns, without being falsely represented, without being discriminated against and abused, free at last from the institutionalized separation that denies them of their political and civil rights. Rights alone will allow people to identify with the country, and rights alone will instill a sense of responsibility in them. Only then can the country become a community that enjoys peace, reconciliation, cooperation and a future. No other solution is in store. Technical solutions can buy some time in a limited scope, but even that is diminishing.
China has come to a crucial moment where civil rights are the only path left to confront its problems. Guo Feixiong once said, those who oppose constitutional democracy are traitors to the nation. Similarly, those who persecute Guo Feixiong and his comrades-in-arms are also traitors to the nation. While the dictatorial system is powerful and difficult to counter, it has been met with a still more powerful force, or a trend. This is the trend of the civil rights movement in which hundreds of millions of powerless people are awakening to claim their rights. All the Guo Feixiongs might be insignificant in their material possessions, but their ideals and aspirations are that of our time, and those in power should understand this.
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.
- The Sovereignty of the People: My Conviction and My Dream, Guo Feixiong’s court statement, November 28, 2014
Meet Guo Feixiong, a profile by Xiao Guozhen, July 23, 2014.
Guo Feixiong: Willing to Be Cannon Fodder, Will Be a Monument, by Xiao Shu, July 7, 2014.
(Translated by Xiao Hua with the author’s permission)