By Mo Zhixu, April 13, 2016
“When the Southern activists stood amidst heavy traffic and photographed themselves holding placards of protest, the feeling it gives is a little surreal….”
On April 8, 2016, after a year and half in detention, two activists arrested in 2014 for holding banners on the streets of Guangzhou in support of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement—Wang Mo (王默) and Xie Wenfei (謝文飛, real name Xie Fengxia 謝豐夏)—were sentenced to four and a half years imprisonment by the Guangzhou Intermediate People’s Court. In addition, they will be deprived of political rights for three years. On the same day Zhang Shengyu (張聖雨, real name Zhang Rongping 張榮平), who held a placard in support of the Hong Kong students, was sentenced to four years.
That all three were convicted of “inciting subversion of state power” is no surprise. During the trial last November, Wang Mo and Xie Wenfei not only shouted pro-freedom slogans in court, but their defense statements were upfront, and were disseminated widely online. About them was none of the oft-seen attempts to depoliticize their stance, or hide their positions; instead, each man voiced their ideals openly and directly. In doing that, they represented the ethos of today’s new wave of activists.
Xie Wenfei, Wang Mo, and Zhang Shengyu all recognize themselves, and are recognized by others, as members of the “Southern Street Movement” (南方街頭運動). This “movement” sprung up in the last few years, and has a distinct character: It contains a thoroughgoing opposition to the political system, promulgating slogans like “abandon one-party dictatorship” and “establish a democratic China.” Further, the Southern Street Movement doesn’t focus on interacting with the regime as a path to change, but instead directly appeals to the people. The movement treats itself as a match, attempting to set ablaze a conflagration of mass protests across the country and thus activating a comprehensive transformation. For all these reasons, the movement is often seen as a radical form of political opposition.
Political opposition movements have always been around in mainland China, despite the ever-present threat of harsh crackdowns by the dictatorship. After 1989, there was the Liberal Democratic Party (自由民主黨) in 1992, the secret campaign to organize the Social Democracy Party (社會民主黨), the campaign to openly form the China Democratic Party (中國民主黨) in 1998, the joint signature campaign around Charter 08 in 2008, and so on. All of these movements are deeply tied to the 1989 student movement, and carried on the basic demands of the 1989 student movement: among the chief demands has always been to call for a full re-evaluation of the historical incidents in China—referring to previous political campaigns like the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and the massacre of students—and to make known the truth of history. The key representatives in this movement had often participated in the student movement and other democratically-inclined protests. Because of all this, these post-89 groups are seen as opposition movements led by elites who rebelled against the system from which they had come.
In contrast, the Southern Street Movement was only in its embryonic stages a few years ago in Guangzhou. Most of its membership was composed of new social classes: entrepreneurs, small business owners, laborers. So the movement came to have about it a genuine grassroots feel, and it demonstrated new mechanisms in which democratic movements can take rise. Specifically, it was the incursion of free markets that augmented the formation of these new social classes—but they found that the fruits of their own innovation were systematically robbed from them, that their basic rights as citizens had been stripped away, and that any attempts to demand their rights or benefits would be met with total suppression.
It was the recognition that they were being systematically deprived of their rights and interests that became fertile soil for a tendency toward opposition among this newly formed population. New social classes empowered by markets are able to readily apprehend that there exists between them and the political system a vast and deep chasm of opposing interests. It’s no accident that the movement sprung from Guangdong, the most fertile ground for the new social classes.
While the 1989 student movement and subsequent political movements were inspired by ideals and historical memory, the Southern Street Movement makes a clear break from that in the guiding ethos of its resistance: it’s a new creature brought about by contemporary circumstances. In an information-rich age, the movement didn’t have a design; instead it learned from many popular civil society movements over the last decade or so. Like other movements that sprung up around the same time, such as the New Citizens Movement (新公民運動), the Southern activists would hold periodic events like “criminal feasts” (飯醉; the Chinese term literally means “eat and drink” but is a homophone for “commit a crime”), or organize flash mobs, or get on Twitter and QQ groups to transmit their message to the people. Clearly, in the face of a “stability maintenance” system that becomes more harsh by the day, the Southern activists’ stance and mobilization tactics were bound to meet with suppression. And this is precisely what has happened: it was attacked from the very beginning, and the brutal clean-up operations against Southern members continues to this day.
Due to the zero-tolerance policy toward dissent by the authorities, most people have never even heard of political opposition, whether it’s the Southern Street Movement or otherwise. Meanwhile, its stance of total opposition to the government, and plans for thorough political transformation, actually differ quite significantly from mainstream liberal thought.
What the mainstream liberals really hope for is that liberal developments take place from within the system, to arrive at a gradual transformation via a kind of dialogue with the regime. Thus, they’re more apt to recognize and support the more restrained and gradualist agenda of the New Citizens Movement, and not the radical approach of the Southern Street Movement. For all this, since the birth of the Southern movement till today, it has not only needed to face down attacks by the regime but also survive in the absence of any support from mainstream liberals. It’s been a lonely struggle all along. Wang Mo and others have engaged in lengthy disputes with liberals on Weibo about this.
Though the Southern activists like to see themselves as a match that lights a fire, the unfortunate fact of the matter is that, in the face of a neo-totalitarian system that is strengthening its power by the day, this agenda is too simplistic. The regime has ample resources and means of identifying and weeding out activists. On the eve of the recent court judgement, for instance, due to suspicions that there would be protests on the day, Guangzhou police mounted a sudden raid on over a dozen activists while they while were eating dinner together. They were all given a criminal summons and several of them were forcibly escorted back to the place of their household registration.
Just as the New Citizens Movement went quiet after being hit with an intense and rapid succession of crushing blows in 2013, the Southern movement will likely also be forced to give in as the Party’s continuous siege drags on. Nevertheless, the conflicts and antagonisms between the marketized neo-totalitarian system and the people are only escalating, and one match could very well spark a blaze. The sacrifices of the Southern activists may come to nil, but they can’t be said to be mistaken.
When the Southern activists stood amidst heavy traffic and photographed themselves holding placards of protest, the feeling it gives is a little surreal: one struggles to understand how those strolling past maintain their indifference, or how the action fails to gain more support and attention online. It invites curiosity, and makes one wonder how grassroots activists like Xie Wenfei, Wang Mo, and Zhang Shengyu, maintain such firm conviction, such extraordinary courage, to not only resist blows from the dictatorship, but also withstand glaring indifference.
Perhaps this is inseparable from their own experiences: their deep recognition that their opposition to the unfairness of the system is right and correct, and that the goals they pursue are legitimate and indisputable. All this is what sustains them and allows these lonely warriors to light up our age.
Mo Zhixu (莫之许), pen name of Zhao Hui (赵晖), is a Beijing-based Chinese dissident intellectual and a frequent contributor of Chinese-language publications known for his incisive views of Chinese politics and opposition. He is the co-author of “China at the Tipping Point? Authoritarianism and Contestation” in the January, 2013, issue of Journal of Democracy.
Guangzhou Activists Sentenced to Jail After Backing Hong Kong Protests, the New York Times, April 8, 2016.
Grassroots Activist Tells Court: I Committed No Crime Trying to Subvert the Communist Regime, Wang Mo, November 22, 2015.
The Southern Street Movement, China Change, October, 2013.
China activists push limits, protest dictatorship, AFP, December, 2013.
Also by Mo Zhixu on China Change: