Wu Qiang, July 6, 2016
As we were readying to post this translation, we learned that two lawyers met with Lu Yuyu and two other lawyers met with Li Tingyu on July 6 in the Dali Detention Center, Yunnan Province. — The Editors
“June 13, Monday, 94 incidents,” Lu Yuyu’s last tweet read on June 15. On June 24, the news spread that Lu Yuyu (卢昱宇) and his girlfriend Li Tingyu (李婷玉) were detained for “provoking disturbances.”
Open his blogpost that day and you can see the 94 incidents grouped into categories, 5 of them highlighted, each with a link to the original post on Chinese social media (though some have long been censored). We learn that on June 13, in 21 provinces and 3 municipalities directly under the central government, workers protested for unpaid wages; taxi drivers blocked roads in protest against Didi Dache, a Chinese version of Uber; farmers protested against environmental degradation or land expropriation; property owners protested various forms of exploitation and fraud; investors protested scams that robbed them of years of savings; veterans lodged a petition for fair treatment; passersby protested police brutality…
This is what Lu Yuyu and Li Tingyu have been doing for four years every day: researching, tallying, and publishing information about protests in China. He knew this day would come. Nor am I surprised.
I first met Lu Yuyu in a cafe in Fuzhou in July, 2013. I was an academic researcher on social movements and he was a frontline citizen reporter. As such, he was a unique participant in the events he recorded. The notes from that two-hour interview became the raw material for my research paper, but I never sorted them out and published it. Now that he is detained, I re-opened my notes to recall “Lao Lu” (Old Lu) — as activists affectionately called him.
Lu Yuyu was born in 1979 and didn’t finish college. In October, 2011, he was identified by police in Shanghai and called in for an interrogation after he re-posted news about the blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng. He didn’t make a fuss over it, online or off. Instead, he began a one-man protest. Between April and September 2012, he alone picketed the government, demanding that officials disclose their assets and that citizens be given the right to vote. Picketing was once the main activity of the Southern Street Movement. But Lu Yuyu realized that, while his protest tested his courage, it made little impact.
Eventually he was driven out of Shanghai by police. He stayed in Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Fuzhou. Everywhere he was, he was driven away — a common practice by the Chinese police against activists. In some cases, the police would threaten the landlord who rent them the apartment, or the friends providing a play to stay. These days, local security police drive away activists in their jurisdiction as part of their stability maintenance obligations. Lu Yuyu stayed in Fuzhou somewhat longer than elsewhere, and that was how we met for the interview.
Also around April 2012, Lu Yuyu began to collect information about rights defense incidents across the country, then sorting and publishing them. Soon after he started, foreign media outlets began picking up the news, some even contacting him directly to verify information. In the process, he grew more meticulous about verifying data, including seeking multiple sources, and contacting participants and internet posters directly. Lu became a unique citizen journalist.
Lu Yuyu told me that he searches Weibo, QQ, and BBSs everyday, identifying the basic information about each incident through text and photos posted online. Then he searches other sources to verify the information, including time, location, cause, demands, scale, and whether there was a crackdown, before posting it online. As with his post on June 15, he also sorts the incidents by day, week, month, region, and nature of the protest, as well as highlighting incidents involving more than 1,000 protesters.
For instance, in June 2013 Lu recorded 53 mass incidents in which people fought for the protection of their rights. Among these, nearly half involved violent clashes. The majority were in response to expropriation of land and forced demolitions, as well as labor protests, with 13 and 11 incidents in each category. There were 9 incidents caused by government non-action and 7 caused by police or urban enforcement brutality. Finally there were 5 protests respectively in response to environmental issues and corruption. The groups that were most involved were rural people, with 22 incidents, and urban workers and residents, also with 22 incidents, while the rest were single-issue business proprietors, students, teachers, taxi drivers, and petitioners. Geographically, most of the resistance was in Guangdong (12 cases), while the rest were in Guangxi (5), Jiangsu (4), Zhejiang (4), with progressively fewer in more inland and less developed areas. Protest statistics increased only slightly in July, for a total of 59 cases. But the number of worker strikes in Guangdong jumped up significantly, reflecting a burgeoning workers movement in the Pearl River Delta. This trend continued all the way until 2015 when the authorities began their crackdown on labor organizing.
Whether for someone like me, a researcher of social movements, or for anyone who takes an interest in China’s rights defense incidents, Lu Yuyu’s record-keeping is unique and irreplaceable. In particular, it’s important to note that the Chinese government stopped publishing statistics on “mass incidents” in 2008. The trend of protests with more than 10 people had begun at 10,000 in 1994, increasing steadily every year, with 58,000 in 2003, 74,000 in 2004, and an estimated total of more than 100,000 in 2008. Statistics on the incidents involving over 1,000 people is retained as internal information and isn’t published. The media can only go by the fragmentary information reported online, given that there’s no official continuous statistics. Social movement researchers have an even more difficult time, often only able to piece together trends gleaned from the limited information in printed publications. These printed materials are often highly susceptible to propaganda restrictions and whatever the policies of the day happen to be. Though the incidents of resistance catalogued by Lu Yuyu using new media platforms are far less in number than what official sources had been reporting a decade ago, they have been the only independent source of information that the outside world has had recourse to.
The most obvious change was after 2013, when the proportion of land dispute cases dropped and the number of labor disputes and urban protests increased. Labor rights protests often revolve around unpaid wages and social security issues, while urban resistance mostly related to “Not-In-My-Back-Yard” activism and other specific complaints — for instance, equal access to education, the taxi system, opposition to police violence, and so on. This shows that rights defense activities have become increasingly urbanized , and that urban residents and workers are becoming the key actors in the rights defense movement in China.
Lu Yuyu summed it up by saying that, given the same protest, those in rural areas are more likely to be suppressed, while urbanites are more likely to be successful. Mass protests in rural areas are often swiftly followed by violent suppression, and this happens less in urban settings.
Although, after 2014 this contrast also began to change. As the number of large-scale urban protests increased, the number of violent clashes climbed. This very much shows the shifting power of Chinese social movements and their changing trends: As the middle-class rises and urban residents are more empowered, city protests have quietly replaced the more dispersed rural protests since the 1990s; protesters are also finding that they are able to resolve their demands through their struggle. On the other hand, the old model of rights defense in rural areas, of “resisting according to the law,” has instead often been terminated by harsh repression. As a result, more and more rural people have been shepherded into cities, and the rate of urban-based protests has also accelerated.
Another aspect to it is that, entering 2014, the frequency of mass incidents involving more than 1,000 people dropped, stabilizing at an average of 30 per month, apparently showing that rights defense mobilization has been effectively suppressed. Post-2014, the authorities used more severe preventative suppression, including “cleansing the internet” campaigns, attacking “big Vs,” apprehending activists, news disseminators, and NGO workers. All this decreased the likelihood of large-scale protest incidents. For those spontaneous and sudden mass protests, along the lines of the Weng’an model (瓮安模式) of some years ago, it was quite effective. Similarly, for the forms of public resistance that rely on a high-degree of organization, like the Wukan protests, it was also effective. The kind of prophylactic form of suppression also made Lu Yuyu’s work of compiling and spreading such news suddenly more dangerous.
Since 2015, Lu Yuyu found that the number of protests involving 10 or more people shot up. He recorded 28,950 incidents in 2015, a 34% increase from 2014. In the first half of 2016 the number continued to climb, while the number of large protests involving 1,000 people or more reached about 40 per month. What do all these numbers mean? Did social conflicts continue to escalate as the regime adjusted its stability maintenance policies? Or is it that a souring economy engendered more labor unrests, which spread to Henan and other heartland provinces?
What will it lead to as these protests grow in number and coalesce on cities? Lu Yuyu’s statistics do not provide answers, but they have helped inform much research on China, including my own. At the same time, the Chinese government has come to see high-frequency protests as the biggest threat to its regime because, as in Tunisia, they can trigger an avalanche of protest. These perceived threats are driving China to transition from a stability maintenance mode to a mechanism of total security lockdown.
The regime’s ubiquitous menace of power has had a profound effect on the daily lives and activities on practically all activists in China over the last few years, and has gradually pushed many of them to the margins of society. Resistance has thus become a way of life for those on the fringes. Lu Yuyu was spending 4 to 5 hours every day online dedicated to searching for traces of protests. (At the beginning it took him sometimes over 10 hours.) To ensure that he’d have continuous statistics, he had no choice but to quit his job. Due to the obvious dangers of his work, Lu never used a fixed IP address to publish his information, but would instead make his way about the city, borrowing open WiFi connections. In early 2013, a student at Sun Yat-sen University took note of his work and began sharing the burden. They pushed updates on Sina Weibo and Twitter, and ran a blog for the publication of the statistics and preliminary categorizations. Li Tingyu, having gradually become part of Lu’s solitary enterprise and life, also became his partner. She decided to drop out of university, live on the margins, and to lead a life of resistance. It’s full of danger, but also full of purpose.
This was their own form of protest.
(The essay has been edited with permission of the author.)
Dr. Wu Qiang (吴强) holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany. He is a researcher of social movements and a freelance writer.
Also by Wu Qiang on China Change:
The Death and Life of Middle Class Politics in China, June 2016.
In the Wake of the Sino-American Summit, the Potential for a New Cold War, October, 2015.
Urban Grid Management and Police State in China: A Brief Overview, August, 2014.
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