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Yaxue Cao, April 17, 2018
On April 10, China’s State Administration of Radio and Television ordered the permanent closure of the Neihan Duanzi (translated roughly as ‘quirky skits’) app and website. In its announcement, the authorities denounced the app and its public WeChat account as having an “improper orientation and vulgar style” that supposedly “evoked the great disgust of netizens.” Though the Chinese government has closed numerous popular entertainment websites over the last couple of years, the targeting of Neihan Duanzi triggered a storm of discontent, and observers said that the authorities had “stirred up a hornet’s nest.” The episode has brought to wider attention a large, little-known group in society, and observers are trying to grapple with its social and political significance.
Neihan Duanzi is primarily a mobile app on which users share inside jokes and absurdist videos. The platform first appeared on the website ‘Today’s Headlines’ (今日头条), also known in its pinyin form ‘Jinri Toutiao’ or Toutiao, in May 2012. The parent company that created both the app and the website, Bytedance, writes on its homepage that “We are building the future of content discovery and creation.” Neihan Duanzi was in fact the first product of Toutiao, predates the latter by three months, and quickly recruited the app’s first group of users. By 2017, Bytedance, established just five years prior, had leapt to number 41 on the official list of China’s Top 100 Internet Companies.
Neihan Duanzi encompasses a variety of short video sketches (funny, moving, musical, playful, and cute videos), genius retorts or responses (脑洞神评论, highlighted comments on Neihan Duanzi), hilarious images, and humorous sketches of all taste and manner.
The joke culture in China is a huge market. According to Bigdata Research’s 2nd quarter 2017 China joke app market research report, as of the end of June there were over 28 million users of these apps, a year on year growth rate of 5.7%. Bigdata Research notes that in July 2017 Neihan Duanzi was the most popular in this universe of apps, with 21.7 million users. Searching for ‘Neihan Duanzi’ in QQ groups, another popular Chinese social media platform, shows hundreds of chat groups dedicated to it.
Toutiao boasts a market value of over $20 billion. With its combination of data mining and AI algorithms that draw on user profiles and interests, its apps make targeted recommendations for news, music, movies, and games, and attract a massive inflow of users. Toutiao currently reports having 600 million active users, with 120 million daily actives.
Protests by ‘Skit Friends’
Neihan Duanzi’s enormous user base skews young. They call themselves ‘skit friends’ (段友), and organize ‘skit gatherings’ (段友会) in many cities, big and small, in China. They have formed their own online and offline communities, and have their own coded language. Many of them have Neihan Duanzi-inspired bumper stickers, sold by numerous merchants on Taobao, the Chinese equivalent of Ebay.
Videos shot by Neihan Duanzi users show the amusement they derive from greeting one another with coded messages in public: beeping, opening car trunks, and citing their codes back and forth. Some of the best known phrases include the likes of: “When skit friends go to battle, the grass ceases to grow” (段友出征，寸草不生); “Beer and crayfish, skit friends are one family” (啤酒小龙虾，段友是一家); or “Heaven king conquers earth tiger, chicken stews with mushrooms” (天王盖地虎，小鸡炖蘑菇).
Clearly, these interactions are a source of tremendous enjoyment and entertainment for the participants.
After Neihan Duanzi was closed, videos of previous gatherings of skit friends began to be shared widely online. Several of them show the remarkable scene of dozens of cars arrayed in formation late at night, together sounding out the calling card of the community: ‘Beep. Beep beep.’
According to Radio Free Asia, protests against the closure of the platform have taken place in Nantong (南通), Changsha (长沙), Yingkou (营口), Wuxi (无锡), Beijing (北京), and elsewhere. Protesters use the ‘beep, beep beep’ signal to initiate communication, which is met with response beeps and double blinking of car lights. Footage of the public events is often shot with drones and uploaded (here, here, and here.)
During a skit friend assembly of unclear date in Changzhou, Jiangsu Province, about 200 people formed a circle and, like the students of the Hong Kong umbrella movement, held their cellphones aloft as torches and sang. The chosen piece of the night was popular singer Wang Jianfang’s ‘On Earth’ (王建房《在人间》):
Maybe I can’t win over Heaven and Earth.
Maybe I’ll hang my head and weep.
Maybe a June snowfall will enter my heart.
There’ll be a Berlin Wall I can’t get over.
Suffering will neighbor me all my days.
What has the grand era already snatched from you?
Who lives on earth as though it’s not a prison?
I won’t cry. I’ve no more dignity to abandon.
When the day comes that those dreams drown in the crowds
Don’t be sad, let them go, and sing this song at the funeral.
‘On Earth’ has come to be known as the theme song of Neihan Duanzi, and renditions of it have been widely spread on the platform (here, for example).
The CEO’s Apology
On April 11, the founder and CEO of Jinri Toutiao Zhang Yiming (张一鸣) issued “Apologies and Reflections.” “Jinri Toutiao will shut down once and for all its ‘Neihan Duanzi’ app and its public accounts. Our product took the wrong path, and content appeared that was incommensurate with socialist core values, that did not properly implement public opinion guidance — and I am personally responsible for the punishments we have received [as a result].”
His confession confirms that the real reason for shutting down the app is political — what young people are consuming and how they are entertain themselves are not to the liking of the Party. “We prioritised only the expansion of [platform] scale, and we were not timely in strengthening quality and responsibility, overlooking our responsibility to channel users in the uptake of information with positive energy. We were insufficiently attentive, and in our thinking placed insufficient emphasis on our corporate social responsibility, to promote positive energy and to grasp correct guidance of public opinion.”
The young CEO with an engineering background promised to “[strengthen] the work of Party construction, carrying out education among our entire staff on the ‘four consciousnesses,’ socialist core values, [correct] guidance of public opinion, and laws and regulations, truly acting on the company’s social responsibility.”
He also promise to strengthen content review by humans, raising the current number of review staff from 6,000 to 10,000 persons. That is, for each person hired for content production, almost two are hired for review and sales, according to one report.
Last week, Xinhua published an editorial criticizing the online viral video as an entertainment form, saying: “In a society where it’s easier and easier to get clicks, at the same time that internet videos give the public novel experiences, because some of the content has no bottom line, some of these clicks spread poison and harm the public, especially young people.”
The same editorial cited an unnamed ‘expert’ who said: “These internet video websites get hundreds of millions of viewers, allowing ‘demons and goblins’ to warp the value system of adolescents, turning it into a trend to imitate and copy.”
An April 13 (unverified) work instruction from the Changsha Municipal Public Security Bureau Intelligence Command Center was circulated online, saying that four gatherings of ‘skit friends’ took place on April 11 in the city, and that the provincial public security bureau demands “public security organs in every locale engage in a thorough search for an evidentiary trail and online detection work, prevent assemblies that would lead to hype and unstable factors.”
As for skit friends gathering on the streets or in public spaces, the Zhejiang Haimen Public Security Bureau said in an April 8 announcement: “Any citizens convening crowd-style assembly activities must act strictly according to legal provisions,” or else “public security organs will pursue legal responsibility against the responsible parties.” The notice invoked “Law on Assemblies, Processions and Demonstrations” (《中华人民共和国集会游行示威法》) the “Road Traffic Safety Law” (《中华人民共和国道路交通安全法》), and the “Public Security Administration Punishments Law” (《中华人民共和国治安管理处罚法》).
Chinese young people generally pay scant attention to politics and they have been criticized for ‘amusing themselves to death.’ But entertainment has, it appears, come to give the Communist Party a severe headache. Using the phraseology of Xinhua, the jokers are seen as ‘demons and goblins’; their whimsical, irreverent attitude is seen as a strong rejection of autocratic authority and control. Perhaps, inside the ruling party, this movement has given rise to a strong sense of unease — not to mention that the style of humor itself is at times imbued with the implicit wish for freedom and dignity. We could even say that these young people are a ‘new form’ of Chinese person, the first generation to have been born and come of age entirely in the era of reform and opening up. They are the digital generation. They seem to take a great deal of pride in their own idiosyncratic way of life.
The news outlet Duowei, whose political allegiances have always been ambiguous, cited unidentified ‘voices’ who explained that the fundamental reason the Communist Party shut down Neihan Duanzi is because the app’s user base had begun to look like an embryonic political movement. Users are spread across China’s provinces, in small-, large-, and medium-sized cities; they come from all walks of life; they have formed their own community, with attendant slogans, signals, and an initial form of behavioral standards (such as the ‘three don’t laughs’: no laughing at natural disasters, no laughing at man-made disasters, and no laughing at illness). Between them, skit friends have a strong sense of cohesion, identity, belonging, and group honor. One of their slogans is ‘skit friends are one big family,’ and ‘if you’re in trouble, find a skit friend.’ The Party is afraid of all of this.
Searching on Baidu for + (城市+段友会) brings up related organizations almost anywhere. On rear windshields and car bumpers in cities around the country, Neihan Duanzi slogans can be seen. Photographs and videos from their meetings indicate that skit friends often have their own vehicles, and sometimes camera-equipped drones. In some cities they even have clubhouses.
It’s being pointed out that these skit friends grew up on shoot-em-up video games. Now that they have a chance for real conflict, they think it’s exciting. Shutting down Neihan Duanzi shows these young people the pain of having their freedom stripped away — it’s that simple.
The Beijing-based historian Zhang Lifan (章立凡) gave an example of shooting oneself in the foot on Twitter: “Before the former president of Egypt Hosni Mubarak lost power, the Egyptian government at one point cut off the internet, leading to countless people who were happy to be at home playing video games to take to the streets… everyone knows what happened next.”
Dissident writer Hu Ping (胡平) noted that “Xi Jinping doesn’t like ‘vulgarity’ among the masses, and wants to force men, young and old, to all be ideologically acceptable to the Party. This is a peculiarity of totalitarianism. Vulgarity is an important part of life, and if the regular people in society still have the space to enjoy humor, it means that the power of the state has not yet infiltrated everything and everywhere.”
Another dissident and author Li Xuewen (黎学文) believes that, “simply in the context of China’s new totalitarianism, the slogans and activities of Neihan Duanzi users set a worthy example for all who oppose the regime. Relying on internet culture to create a set of mobilization slogans is highly novel; and with a few horn beeps crowds can be gathered, as the symbols of an online community are shared and used as codes for mobilization — these qualities have not been seen in any mainland resistance movement to date.”
An Twitter user in Changsha said that on Tuesday when he was out walking in the evening, he spotted two cars near his home with ‘Neihan Duanzi’ and ‘Douyin’ (抖音, another app by Toutiao) stickers.
Another Chinese Twitter user, location unknown, posted on Friday: “Today I personally heard skit friends beeping at each other. One can feel the undercurrent. Maybe a big era has begun just like that.”
Beep. Beep beep.
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @YaxueCao
Recent posts on China Change:
Eight Detained for Organizing Humanitarian Assistance for Political Prisoners and Their Families, China Change, April 15, 2018
Crushing a Rose Under Foot: Chinese Authorities Target Internet Chat Groups, China Change, April 4, 2018
Who Are the Young Women Behind the ‘#MeToo in China’ Campaign? An Organizer Explains, Xiao Meili, March 27, 2018.
With Its Latest Human Rights Council Resolution, China Continues Its Assault on the UN Human Rights Framework, Andrea Worden, April 9, 2018.
The Might of an Ant: the Story of Lawyer Li Baiguang (1 of 2), Yaxue Cao, March 20, 2018
The Might of an Ant: the Story of Lawyer Li Baiguang (2 of 2), Yaxue Cao, March 21, 2018
China Change, April 15, 2018
A WeChat group dedicated to raising money for Chinese prisoners of conscience and their families has recently been shut down by Chinese police, and its administrators targeted. One of the administrators of the ‘National Tourism Chat Group’ (全国旅游群), Guo Qingjun (郭庆军), was arrested by domestic security police in Changchun, Jilin Province, at his workplace on April 11. Guo’s wife, Zhang Yuying (张宇英), sent out a message that the couple’s house had been raided and Guo’s computer confiscated. At least seven other individuals associated with the group from around China have also been targeted, including Bao Luo (保罗), Lu Bi (卢比), Liu Chunlin (刘春林), Dai Xiangnan (戴湘南), Sun Wenke (孙文科), Li Xiaohong (李小红), and an individual known as Meizi Qingxuan (梅子轻旋).
Guo’s family is aware that though he was arrested in Changchun, it is in fact police from his hometown in Ganzhou, Jiangxi Province, that are handling his case. On April 12 Guo’s wife received the official notification of criminal detention, which stated that he was suspected of “provoking quarrels and stirring up trouble.”
An individual familiar with the circumstances of the case said that apart from the eight people arrested, over 100 members of the chat group have been summoned and questioned by domestic security police. Guo, under pressure from the authorities, had already announced the disbanding of the National Tourism Chat Group several days prior to his arrest.
According to Radio Free Asia, citing an individual familiar with the case, the chatgroup was focused on prisoners of conscience, petitioners, and rights defenders in difficult circumstances. Guo’s National Tourism Chat Group kept books on donations, and sent money to individuals that donors wanted to help. This is known as ‘food delivery.’ The Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch website explained that, for instance, the National Tourism Chat Group sent money to cover basic living expenses for the families of political prisoners Chen Jianxiong (陈剑雄), Yuan Bing (袁兵), Huang Wenxun (黄文勋) and others, to enable them to get through trying periods.
The locations at which the other seven targeted individuals are being detained is as yet unknown.
In China, providing relief to prisoners of conscience and their families is an act fraught with peril. As a way of not tipping off the authorities to the purpose of the group, and thus have it immediately shut down, the group managers took the name of ‘National Tourism,’ so they’d be able to help the families over the long term.
An activist who did not reveal his identity for safety reasons told Radio Free Asia that Guo Qingjun was one of the founders of the recently targeted ‘Rose chatgroups,’ as well as an important member of China Human Rights Observer (中国人权观察).
Guo lives in Changchun with his family; his day job is at a foreign-invested enterprise, and for years he has been involved in rights defense and citizen activism. He has largely tried to keep a low profile, though has been repeatedly warned to stop his activism by Chinese secret police.
Below is the limited information currently available on the individuals targeted:
Dai Xiangnan (phone number 13410097523) was a graduate of Peking University. In recent years he has been involved in NGO work in Shenzhen. In late 2015 when Guangdong-based labor NGOs were rolled up in a crackdown, he signed an open letter to the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee, the National People’s Congress, and the State Council, demanding that the authorities rationally and legally respond to the efforts of workers to collectively defend their rights, as well as labor rights NGOs.
Lu Bi (phone number 13316556166) is an activist in Shenzhen. He was taken away from his residence on April 11.
Liu Chunlin (phone number 13725526191) is an architect.
One of the detained is a civil servant in Shenzhen. The identity of the others has not yet been verified.
A member of the chatgroup, Zhou Xiaolin (周筱霖), the owner of the Guyang Teahouse (古养茶馆) in Shenzhen, was summoned by police for questioning on April 13.
The Ganzhou public security bureau refused to answer a reporter’s questions about the case.
The ‘food delivery’ charity work that these individuals were engaged in is one of the many forms of activism that human rights defenders in China have developed to help the families of individuals who have been arrested and punished for political reasons. Yet, as the authorities suppression of rights defenders intensifies, even this modest act has come under the purview of the official crackdown. In 2013 the authorities forcibly disbanded a ‘Food Delivery Party’ (送饭党) led by Guo Yushan (郭玉闪) in Beijing. Guo was later himself arrested, tortured, and had his Transition Institute (传知行研究所) dismembered and banned.
The crackdown against the ‘National Tourism Chat Group’, as well as the attack on the ‘Rose chatgroups,’ is ongoing, and it’s likely that more members of these loose online networks will be summoned, interrogated, and in some cases formally arrested and charged with crimes.
Crushing a Rose Under Foot: Chinese Authorities Target Internet Chat Groups, China Change, April 4, 2018.
Buffett-Style Dinner Bids Woo Chinese for Just Society, Bloomberg News, August 20, 2013.
As the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders Turns 20, China Wages a Multi-Pronged Attack on Rights Defenders
Andrea Worden, March 14, 2018
“Everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, to promote and to strive for the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
The Chinese government attacks human rights defenders (HRDs) – those who peacefully defend and promote human rights – on a range of fronts. First, and most critically, are the government’s attacks on HRDs at home. The relentless crackdown on human rights defenders has gone from bad to worse under Xi Jinping, and we can expect the downward trend to accelerate now that Xi is no longer constrained by term limits. While the resilience of China’s beleaguered HRDs is remarkable, their numbers are shrinking; a few prominent examples of HRDs detained, disappeared, or dead at the hands of the state include: Ilham Tohti, Liu Xiaobo, Tashi Wangchuk, Wang Quanzhang, Li Baiguang, and Cao Shunli.
Second, China harasses, obstructs, and jails HRDs who attempt to engage with the UN human rights mechanisms. A recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report details the various ways the Chinese government interferes with civil society engagement at the UN, from restrictions on travel and detention (to prevent activists, as in the case of Cao Shunli, from traveling to Geneva), to reprisals and threats against family members of HRDs.
Third, and the focus of this article, China challenges the concept and even the term “human rights defenders” at the UN. With the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders (Declaration) celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, and China undergoing its third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in November, this is an important moment to press China on its utter lack of compliance with the Declaration.
I recently wrote at China Change about China’s aggressive promotion of “human rights with Chinese characteristics” at the Human Rights Council (HRC) to undermine settled international human rights norms and push its vision for “global human rights governance.” This article will look at China’s recent moves in its long-term effort to dilute the concept and “harmonize” the term “human rights defenders,” while at the same time appearing to be a “responsible actor” on human rights at the UN. This two-fold strategy was on display in November 2017, when the Third Committee of the General Assembly adopted by consensus a resolution marking the 20th anniversary of the Declaration, which China joined, while it sought at the same time to weaken the text and the impact of the resolution.
The Declaration on Human Rights Defenders in Brief
The term “human rights defender,” surprisingly, does not appear in the text of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders (the Declaration’s sobriquet), nor in its unwieldy official title: “Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individual, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.” Thus, not surprisingly, the Declaration lacks a precise definition of the term “human rights defender.” Article 1 of the Declaration states simply: “Everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, to promote and to strive for the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms…” Those who exercise this right (through peaceful, nonviolent means) are human rights defenders; human rights defenders are identified first and foremost by what they do.
The Declaration highlights those rights that HRDs (and others) already have pursuant to international human rights law –– such as those set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and other human rights instruments –– which are fundamental for the defense of human rights. These rights include, among others, the rights to peaceful assembly and association, freedom of expression and opinion, free flow of information, the right to participate in public affairs, the right to due process and an effective remedy for violations of human rights defenders’ rights, and the right to solicit and receive funds for rights defense work. (See inter alia, arts. 5-9, 12,13; and discussion in Chinese here.)
States have various duties and responsibilities under the Declaration, including “to protect, promote and implement all human rights and fundamental freedoms” and to create a safe and enabling legal and administrative environment for the effective guarantee and enjoyment “of all those rights and freedoms in practice.” (Art. 2.)
China’s Role in the Drafting of the Declaration
The drafting of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders took 14 years and was described by Amnesty International as “tortuous” in a 1995 account. The glaring absence of the term “human rights defenders” from the Declaration’s title and text –– despite the usage of the term during negotiations of the text –– speaks to the contentiousness of the process that brought the Declaration into being.
In 1985, the UN Commission on Human Rights (predecessor to the Human Rights Council), created a working group to draft the Declaration. At first, the former Soviet Union and Eastern bloc countries were primarily responsible for moves that hindered progress on the draft text; however, in the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and other geopolitical shifts, the States most responsible for obstruction and delay on the draft were Cuba, China, and Syria, with Mexico and Iran playing supporting antagonistic roles.
In 1994, according to Amnesty’s account, China and Cuba argued to remove from the draft an article relating to the right to solicit and obtain resources for the work of HRDs. In 1995, China and Cuba also pushed for inclusion of wording that would have limited defenders to the right to peacefully oppose only violations of their own rights, rather than human rights abuses suffered by others. In addition, China supported a proposal offered by Cuba that would have created numerous limitations on the work of HRDs, including restricting the work of HRDs to its “humanitarian essence.” Amnesty concluded at the time that the “root problem is that a small group of governments seem determined to prevent the creation of a useful instrument for the defence of human rights.”
The fractious working group eventually reached agreement on a final text, and on December 9, 1998, the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders by consensus ( i.e., without a vote). The adoption was timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the General Assembly (December 10, 1948). Although the Declaration on HRDs is not legally binding, its adoption by consensus –– despite the struggle it took to reach an agreed text –– is a sign of political will among UN Member States for the principles, language, and action items contained in the Declaration.
China Pushes Back Against Growing Momentum for Protection of HRDs
During the past 20 years, however, countries have differed greatly in the extent to which they have embraced, or opposed, the Declaration and the changes it helped catalyze. China has continuously undermined protection for human rights defenders at the UN, and persistently wages war on the term, regardless of where it may show up (e.g., HRC resolutions in June 2016 on the elimination of discrimination against women and violence against women). As HRW notes in its recent report, The Costs of International Advocacy, during the June 2016 session, a Chinese diplomat stated that the HRC “should not promote such a controversial concept.”
As human rights defenders have become recognized as a vital part of the international human rights mechanisms, and the UN creates more space for civil society, China and other States (e.g., China’s friends in the so-called Like-Minded Group) have intensified their efforts to silence them. A UN official quoted by HRW said: “The whole UN machinery tries to make space for civil society while the PRC machinery works the other way, trying to shrink the space for NGOs.”
The tactics used by China and other authoritarian regimes to silence those who try to engage with the UN human rights mechanisms has led to a greater focus on the issue of reprisals at the Human Rights Council and in the UN system as a whole. In September 2017, China abstained from an HRC resolution on cooperation with the UN human rights mechanisms and reprisals. Earlier, China challenged the treaty body chairs’ adoption of the San Jose Guidelines, measures aimed to protect civil society actors from reprisals for their efforts to engage with the treaty bodies.
China’s Efforts to Undermine HRDs in the General Assembly’s Third Committee in 2017
In October 2017, during the interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders on his annual report in the General Assembly’s (GA) Third Committee –– a key component of the UN human rights infrastructure –– a Chinese diplomat delivered a statement that summarizes some of the key arguments China marshals against HRDs at the UN (English) (Chinese). Ms. Qu Jiehao stated:
“China is of the view that as there is no clear and universal definition worked out through intergovernmental negotiation on “human rights defenders”, countries have different views on who can be defined as ‘human rights defenders.’ All people should enjoy the same human rights and fundamental freedoms on an equal basis. Human rights defenders should not be regarded as a special group to be granted special rights and status. Those who have violated law or engaged in criminal activities in the name of ‘human rights defenders’ to undermine the interests of the majority of people or public order should be brought to justice according to law.”
China and other countries that are not friendly toward HRDs use the absence of a definition of the term “human rights defenders” in the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders to argue that the term and concept “human rights defenders” is ambiguous and controversial–– notwithstanding the robust and expanding UN (not to mention regional and national) infrastructure on human rights defenders.
Moreover, China speciously argues that the Declaration on HRDs creates “special rights” for HRDs. The text of the Declaration is clear, however, that the rights highlighted therein are contained in the UDHR and other core human rights instruments, and are specifically emphasized because they are critically important to the defense of human rights. The Chinese government also invokes its domestic laws (e.g., those that in practice are used to criminalize peaceful speech and assembly) to argue that HRDs are engaged in “illegal conduct,” and thus are not only undeserving of protection, but also criminally liable. China also invokes “non-interference in internal affairs” on this issue, as it does with so many issues at the UN.
A resolution on human rights defenders, with different themes and emphases, is introduced biennially, in alternating years, in the GA’s Third Committee in New York and the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Norway takes the lead on the HRD resolutions, as it did in November 2017 in the Third Committee, and strives to achieve a consensus text to signal to HRDs around the globe that the UN unanimously supports them.
On November 20, Ambassador May-Elin Stener, the Deputy Permanent Representative for Norway to the UN, introduced the draft resolution on human rights defenders (A/C.3/72/L.50/Rev.1) in the 51st meeting of the Third Committee of the GA’s 72nd session (UN Web TV @ 14:00). The resolution calls for an end to violence and reprisals against HRDs and the active promotion of the Declaration and its implementation during 2018. The resolution also provides for a high-level plenary meeting of the General Assembly during its 73rd session in 2018 on the promotion of the Declaration, and requests the Secretary-General to “undertake a comprehensive assessment and analysis of progress, achievements and challenges” on how the UN mechanisms can better assist States in “strengthening the role and security of human rights defenders.”
After Ambassador Stener presented oral revisions to the draft resolution (beginning @ 17:44) that reflected further negotiations, she invited the Committee to adopt the resolution by consensus, as orally revised, so “the Third Committee can send a clear message of unanimous support of human rights defenders in all parts of the world.”
Estonia, speaking for the EU (beginning @ 31:05), expressed a certain degree of dissatisfaction with the text. Estonia stated that the EU welcomed “the aim of this resolution” to use the 20th anniversary of the Declaration “in a manner that is supportive of the work of the human rights defenders around the world.” But he expressed the EU’s concern that there were “a number of areas” that “could have benefitted from a strengthening of the text, including more accurate references to existing official UN documents and the removal of unnecessary qualifiers.” But in the interests of achieving consensus, the EU agreed to the final text.
Although China also joined the consensus on the adoption of the resolution, and did not call for a vote, as it had in 2015, it nevertheless issued a statement challenging certain aspects of the resolution.
The Chinese delegate (beginning @ 33:10) welcomed the tabling of the resolution and said that it joined the consensus after oral amendments. In particular, the delegate expressed China’s appreciation for Norway accepting its proposals on a few specific paragraphs, including preambular (i.e., introductory) paragraph 7 (discussed below). He then laid out China’s positions and reservations.
With respect to preambular paragraph (PP) 9, which describes rights defenders’ work as “positive, important, and legitimate,” China stated:
“Preambular paragraph 9 contains preconceived notions that the roles and activities of human rights defenders are legitimate. China reiterates that … human rights defenders must carry out their activities in a peaceful and lawful way. Human rights defenders, if acting in violation of domestic law, shall be equally sanctioned by the law as others. No state shall employ the issue of human rights defenders as a tool to interfere in other countries’ internal affairs.”
China also expressed concern about operative (i.e., action-oriented) paragraph (OP) 7, which condemns the criminalization of, and intimidation and violence against human rights defenders for reporting and seeking information on human rights abuses, and OP 8, which urges States to protect the right of everyone to interact with international human rights bodies. China stated that these two paragraphs “go beyond the scope of the application of the Declaration.”
With respect to the paragraph calling for a high-level meeting of the GA in its next session (OP 14), the Chinese delegate stated, “the paragraph is ambiguous about the nature of the meeting.” He continued: “China wishes to highlight that this meeting shall be of a commemorative nature and its purpose is to promote the declaration. China is not in favor of the adoption of an outcome document in this meeting.”
The Chinese delegate noted that China had called for a vote on the human rights defenders’ resolution two years earlier in 2015 but this year (2017) it joined the consensus, because it believed that the current text had improved compared with the 2015 resolution. The call for a vote in 2015 by China and Russia was unprecedented; at the time, Amnesty expressed concern about “actions taken by some Member States to undermine the crucial principles of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders adopted in 1998.”
With respect to the 2017 resolution, China’s change to PP 7 is potentially significant ––a footnote was added to the term “human rights defenders.” The footnote states: “The term human rights defenders applies consistent with the purposes, principles and provisions of the Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individual, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.” This unnecessary addition, which China took responsibility for, is perplexing. It may be an opening salvo in a bid to undermine the common understanding of the work of HRDs and their rights, and the States’ responsibility to protect them. The fact that the representative of the Russian Federation (beginning @ 37:30) expressed support for the footnote is cause for concern. The delegate stated that Russia was “pleased to see” in the orally amended document “specifications regarding the term human rights defenders.”
Moreover, Switzerland expressed concern about China’s addition of the footnote (beginning @ 47:45), stating: “we regret the addition of a footnote under PP 7, which seeks to define the term human rights in the resolution. Switzerland believes that this footnote is applicable only in the context of this resolution on the 20th anniversary of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, and we reserve our position for the future.”
Different iterations of the draft resolution also reflect a struggle over its title. The title of the first version of the resolution tabled in late October 2017 (A/C.3/72/L.50) included a parenthetical with the shorthand name for the Declaration’s cumbersome title: “Twentieth anniversary and promotion of the Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (commonly referred to as the Declaration on human rights defenders).” [Emphasis added.] The parenthetical didn’t last long. In the next version of the negotiated text (A/C.3/72/L.50. Rev.1), the “commonly referred to as” language was moved to a footnote, and in the final version of the resolution that was adopted by the Third Committee, the footnote had disappeared, and the “commonly referred to as” language resurfaced in an easy-to-miss spot at the end of the third preambular paragraph.
In late December 2017, the GA adopted by consensus the Third Committee’s final draft resolution on the 20th anniversary of the Declaration. Now that we are well into 2018, it’s incumbent upon all stakeholders to proactively promote the Declaration and work towards strengthening its implementation.
* * *
What can be done at the UN during the 20th anniversary year of the Declaration?
There are several significant opportunities for civil society engagement on China and the issue of human rights defenders in 2018.
First, China’s next Universal Periodic Review (UPR) will take place in November 2018. The deadline for NGO submissions is March 29. China’s national report is due in July 2018. Despite the fact that States are obligated to consult with domestic civil society in the process of drafting their National reports, China’s practice, not surprisingly, has been to enlist GONGOs in an effort to appear to “satisfy” this requirement.
Second, as Tess McEvoy of the NGO International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) notes, the resolution marking the 20th anniversary of the Declaration “gives human rights defenders the opportunity to channel analyses and recommendations related to implementation into UN processes, with the ultimate aim of establishing better implementation and procedures.” The high-level meeting of the General Assembly on the situation of human rights defenders will take place sometime during the fall of 2018, and input from HRDs worldwide will be sought in advance for a report to be presented at that meeting.
Andrea Worden is a human rights activist, lawyer, and writer. She has worked on human rights and rule of law issues involving China throughout much of her career, and previously held positions as the Acting Executive Director of Asia Catalyst, Advocacy Director with the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), and Senior Counsel at the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC). Her essays and articles on human rights issues in China have appeared in such publications as the The Pro-Democracy Protests in China: Reports from the Provinces, Yale-China Review, Georgetown Journal of International Law, South China Morning Post, and China Rights Forum, among others.
Follow her on Twitter @tingdc
Website of the current UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of human rights defenders, Mr. Michel Forst
Janika Spannagel, Declaration on Human Rights Defenders (1998), November 2017 http://www.geschichte-menschenrechte.de/en/schluesseltexte/erklaerung-zu-menschenrechtsverteidigern-1998/
International Service for Human Rights, Third Committee of the UN General Assembly: A Practical Guide for NGOs (2017)
Sonya Sceats with Shaun Breslin, China and the International Human Rights System (Chatham House, October 2012)
Human Rights Watch, The Costs of International Advocacy (September 2017)
Chinese Human Rights Defenders, Repression & Resilience: Annual Report on Situation of Human Rights Defenders in China (2017)
Mo Zhixu, February 4, 2018
“Rather, reform has been used as a kind of calibrating tool for the system to retain complete control in the political, economic, social, and cultural spheres.”
In 1981, Polish president Wojciech Jaruzelski ordered a crackdown on the growing Solidarity movement. Eight years later, under pressure of internal unrest as well as a cultural thaw in the Soviet Union, the Polish Communist government and Solidarity held roundtable talks. On June 4, 1989, free parliamentary elections were held in Poland and the Communists suffered a crushing defeat. Jaruzelski resigned in 1990 and Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa took his place as president. Poland marked its transition to democracy without shedding a drop of blood.
Poland’s case is unique among the political transitions in the collapse of the Soviet and Eastern European communist bloc. Unlike the Soviet Union, where reform was led primarily by Communist Party bureaucrats and went through a chaotic implementation, or Czechoslovakia, where change came through the sudden mass demonstrations of the Velvet Revolution, Polish democracy emerged as a product of the state coming to an agreement with society.
In the view of political scientist Juan José Linz, this phenomenon has to do with Poland’s unique political and social structure. Unlike other Eastern European countries, Poland was not a totalitarian system even though it was also a communist country.
After World War II, Poland did not experience agricultural collectivization. Land remained privately owned and private economy had had a significant percentage in agriculture — a strong contrast with events in other Soviet satellite states.
In addition, the traditional influence of the Catholic Church in Poland remained intact through decades of Communist government. In 1978, Karol Józef Wojtyła from the Krakow parish was selected to become Pope John Paul II of the Roman Catholic Church. As the history’s first Polish pope, his nationality played a major role in shaping the social movement in his homeland. Each of Pope John Paul II’s returns to Poland to celebrate Mass was tantamount to a large-scale social mobilization and at the same time a demonstration of the power of civil society.
A few years ago, my friends Jia Jia (贾葭), Murong Xuecun (慕容雪村) and Michael Anti (安替) met with former Polish President Wałęsa and inquired about his country’s experiences in the transition to democracy. To their surprise, Wałęsa stated bluntly, “My friends, the Polish transition can’t be a model for China. We were blessed to have a Polish Pope.” At a loss for words, Anti replied: “God bless Poland!”
The fact that Poland was not a totalitarian state left room for the growth of civil society. Because of it, organizations like Solidarity could arise in Poland and garner widespread support against the Communist regime.
Following China’s market reforms, Chinese citizens gained more personal, economic, social, and cultural autonomy. Mainland Chinese society seemed to have departed from the familiar dictatorial style, giving many hope that civil society would appear in China and form a local version of the Solidarity movement that would bring peaceful democratic change.
Until a few years ago, this prospect didn’t seem too far-fetched. Limited marketization did bring a handful factors favorable to the growth of civil society, such as the emergence of new social classes, market-oriented media outlets, the establishment of judicial institutions that have the appearance of rule of law, and the growing space for expression on internet. These developments resulted in the spread of the ideas of universal freedom and civil rights, the rise of rights defense activities, and the willingness of participation of the the emerging social classes. People were encouraged by these phenomenon and began to harbor an optimistic picture that the growth of civil society would be tolerated by the regime, that a healthy interaction would develop between the government and the civil society, and that China could thus transition toward democracy.
This optimistic vision was quickly shattered.
After some initial observation, the authorities tightened control over all of these rising social fields: the media and internet were brought under ever-stricter control; human rights defenders and NGOs also faced mounting pressure. Furthermore, the government has been strengthening its grip on the new social classes by establishing party cells in what it calls “the new economic organizations and the new social organizations.”
Some might think these measures are only a product of Chinese leaders’ regimented political mindset, and their optimistic vision is still viable as long as the leaders of the regime change their way of thinking.
But upon closer examination of contemporary China’s political and social structure, you will see that the problem lies not in the mindset of the leadership, but is deeply built into the system.
China’s reform toward marketization has also been called a marginal revolution. This revolution developed as agrarian land was contracted to households, individuals were allowed to create their own businesses, enterprises cropped up in towns and villages, and special economic zones were established in coastal cities. The authorities adjusted accordingly, fuelling the hope that such reforms would eventually make inroads to systemic change, or the most difficult “deep water of reform.”
But in practice, little change has been effected on the system. On the contrary, the reforms on the margins have been adapted to reinforce the system. Specifically, the Party, government, and military saw little substantial change; the Party retained control over the core economic departments, strengthening itself through financial avenues — a phenomenon reflected in the fact that the government has grown more in power and resources while the masses have been regressing. In terms of society and culture, the regime’s monopoly has remained strong but at the same time it has introduced some market elements to strengthen itself.
Thus, the economic progress achieved during the marginal reforms reinforced the regime’s financial capacity and allowed it to double down on its control over society. Contrary to what the optimists had envisioned, market reforms have not touched the root of the political system. Rather, reform has been used as a kind of calibrating tool for the system to retain complete control in the political, economic, social, and cultural spheres.
With the system still firmly in control, factors that optimists believed would herald social change never got off the ground, and the gains civil society made were lost. For example, reacting to the demands of the the new social class, market-oriented media outlets developed a liberal trend for a limited period, but because the industry is subject to Party monopoly, they have ultimately bent to the will of the political system. Faced with combined political and economic pressure, the fate of the internet was similar.
The limited market reform in mainland China didn’t relax the political system’s need for absolute control. It’s more apt to see China as a neo-totalitarian regime with characteristics of a market economy — it can by no means be called merely “authoritarian,” as some do. The neo-totalitarianism does afford the Chinese masses a certain degree of personal, economic, and cultural freedom as well as some social space. Yet that social space is tightly controlled by the state and given little potential for free growth.
In the face of the neo-totalitarian regime’s total control and persistent suppression, the prospect that a civil society born of social movements will usher in progressive political transformation seems increasingly distant and elusive. But history continues. In the 1980s, Poland’s non-totalitarian nature permitted democratic transition through state-society negotiation. Other Communist countries made the transition all the same, whether through peaceful mass demonstrations or violent regime change.
No matter the methods, when a totalitarian regime imposes absolute control over society and robs the people of their rights, it does so against popular support. Social progress may be hindered, but the people will continue to resist the system from within. When the window of opportunity presents itself, history will bring change — at once unpredictable yet in hindsight inevitable.
Mo Zhixu (莫之许), pen name of Zhao Hui (赵晖), is a 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. He currently lives in Guangzhou.
Chinese original 《莫之许：新极权下没有所谓公民社会》
Also by Mo Zhixu on China Change:
Yaxue Cao, January 15, 2018
As of January 15, 2018, human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang (王全璋) had been held incommunicado for 920 days. This makes him the only 709 detainee who hasn’t been heard from since the notorious 709 Crackdown began in July 2015.
Last Friday, two lawyers, a former client, and three wives of 709 victims travelled from Beijing to arrive early morning at the First Detention Center in Tianjin, a half hour ride by high-speed train. The sun had risen, and a rich orange hue cloaked everything. A large-character slogan ran the length of the walls of the Detention Center: “Be Loyal to the Party, Serve the People, Enforce the Law with Fairness.” They were the first visitors waiting for the reception room to open. The three women were unable to deposit “meal charges” for Wang after calling a number thirty or so times and arguing with a female officer. The two lawyers, requesting a meeting with their client, were shown a piece of A4 paper that read “lawyers are not allowed to see Wu Gan and Wang Quanzhang.” Over the 30 months since Wang was arrested, his lawyers have made so many trips to Tianjin that they’ve lost count.
In August 2016, two 709 detainees were given heavy sentences and two others were given suspended sentences. By May 2017, more 709 lawyers and activists were released on bail or given suspended sentences after the government succeeded in forcing them to admit guilt in one form or another. By December 26, 2017, three of the last four 709 detainees received sentences or, as in Xie Yang’s case, were exempted from punishment.
The fate of Wang Quanzhang has been weighing on the minds of many, particularly as those who have been released reveal details of horrific torture. These include electric shocks so strong that they knock the victim unconscious on the spot; the “water cage” torture, where at least one detainee was locked in a submerged cage, with only the head above water; force feeding with unknown drugs; extreme sleep deprivation; beatings; and verbal and psychological abuses.
That Wang Quanzhang must have suffered the worst for refusing to yield is the consensus shared by the human rights community. Some fear that he may have been so physically debilitated that the authorities are now hiding him. Some worry that he’s already dead.
The latter fear was lifted last July after Chen Youxi (陈有西), a well-known state-connected lawyer, met with Wang (against the wishes of his wife) and tried to make him sign a Power of Attorney authorizing Chen to represent him. Wang refused. Chen later came under heavy criticism after describing the meeting on social media. “Chen Youxi was sent to help the government frame my husband,” said Wang’s wife Li Wenzu (李文足).
Indeed, in all the 709 trials, the government-assigned lawyers imposed on the detainees were part of the admit-guilt-for-leniency deal, acting as intermediaries between the government and the 709 detainees, and helping the government get what it wanted.
Wang Quanzhang’s Work
Wang Quanzhang, 42, was a lawyer with the Beijing Fengrui Law Firm when he was swept up along with scores of other lawyers and activists in July 2015. Wang was born and raised in rural Shandong, and graduated from Shandong University in 2000 with a law degree. He was one of the earliest defenders of Falun Gong: while still in college, he provided legal assistance to practitioners not long after the brutal, nationwide suppression against it began in 1999. As a result, he was threatened and his home raided by police. A judge, it was said, wrote a letter to the university advising them not to issue his diploma. (He still received it).
After college, while working at the provincial library in 2005, Wang took up volunteer work for an NGO that had set up an experimental community school in a village near Jinan, the provincial capital. For the next three years, he gave free lessons about Chinese law to villagers on Saturdays for three years, paying his own travel costs. He taught them cases concerning land rights and other legal issues common in rural areas, and debated with them about whether it was power, or the law, that was supreme. The peasants believed that in China, power rules — not the law.
They were right then, and they’re right now.
In Jinan, Wang was subject to constant threats for his legal aid work. He was chased on the street, and at one time had to hide in the home of his friend, a professor, for days on end as plainclothes agents milled around outside the apartment building. He would later recount these episodes to friends as if they were someone else’s adventures.
In 2008 he moved to Beijing in part to escape the dangers of Jinan. A colleague thus called him “a lawyer on the run.”
In Beijing, Wang worked for an NGO called the “Empowerment and Rights Institute” (仁之泉工作室), one of the many small rights NGOs, like the school for villagers in Shandong, that sprung up in China around that time. He also did a stint at a think tank called the “World and China Institute” (世界与中国研究所). In 2009 he co-founded the Chinese Urgent Action Working Group NGO (China Action, 中国维权紧急援助组) with Peter Dahlin and Michael Caster, young Swedish and American activists respectively whom he had met at the “Empowerment and Rights Institute.” Peter and Michael came to China at a time when the country seemed eager to “integrate” with the world.
Through China Action from 2009 to 2013, Wang worked to expand access to legal assistance for victims, organize more structured trainings for fellow lawyers, and train victims to become citizen lawyers capable of dealing with the judiciary. After 2013, he stopped work at China Action and focused on defending individual cases in court.
In addition to Falun Gong cases, Wang also took on cases of illegal and unfair land expropriation, labor camp victims, prison abuses, and political prisoners such as journalist Qi Chonghuai (齐崇怀) and New Citizen Movement activists.
In the midst of all of the above, he found time to write articles commenting on current events using the pen name “Gao Feng” (高峰) — though samples of his writings are hard to come by.
The Repeatedly Beaten Lawyer
Lawyer Liang Xiaojun (梁小军), who has known Wang Quanzhang since 2010, described him as shy and unknown to his peers. That changed in April 2013, when Wang was given a 10-day “judicial detention” by a court in Jingjiang, Jiangsu (江苏靖江), towards the end of the trial of a Falun Gong case, for supposedly “violating court order.” From the account of his assistant, he defended his client ferociously despite frequent interruptions by the judge, whom he vowed to file a complaint against. His “not guilty” defense made the judge furious — merely practicing Falun Gong is a crime, according to the Party.
No lawyer had ever previously been detained inside the court during proceedings. Scores of human rights lawyers and citizen activists from all over the country descended on Jingjiang and protested in front of the courthouse. Having never witnessed such a scene before, the court relented and released Wang Quanzhang two days later.
In recent years Wang dealt almost exclusively with Falun Gong cases. For that, he took a lot more beatings inside and outside the court, as brutality against Falun Gong defendants, and sometimes their lawyers, occurs frequently. Many human rights lawyers such as Wang Yu (王宇), and more recently lawyer Lu Tingge (卢廷阁), can attest to this travesty unthinkable in a country with the rule of law.
In April 2014, Wang Quanzhang was among a number of lawyers and activists who went to Jiansanjiang (建三江) in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang to rescue four other lawyers who had been detained after they themselves sought to rescue Falun Gong practitioners illegally detained in a black jail called “Legal Education Base.” In the middle of the night he was hauled out of his sleeping bag, he wrote in the Chinese’ edition of The New York Times. “Two men quickly tied me up with ropes, with my arms behind me, pulling a black hood over my head.” He was put on a bus to a police station, where after some wrangling, two policemen hit his head against the wall. More violence was threatened until he agreed to sign a statement promising that he would not to take part in “illegal gatherings in Jiansanjiang.”
In June, 2015, in Liaocheng, Shandong (山东聊城), about a month before the 709 crackdown began, Wang Quanzhang was co-counsel with two other lawyers in the trial of several Falun Gong practitioners. At the end of the trial, which was marked by a fierce defense, the judge, Wang wrote: “Suddenly ordered the bailiffs to remove me from the courtroom for disrupting court order. A dozen or so bailiffs rushed into the courtroom. Some gripped me by the arm, one clenched me by the throat, and they hauled me out. At this point, someone had started fiercely punching me in the head; others were hurling abuse… I was dragged into a room on the first floor of the courthouse, and was ordered by one of the police to kneel. I refused. They started beating me again.”
The Chinese Government’s Fictitious Case Against Wang Quanzhang
Like all other 709 detainees, Wang Quanzhang was placed under “residential surveillance at a designated place” for six months. He was likely held in the same building as other Beijing lawyers, such as Wang Yu and Xie Yanyi, who have since been released and written about their ordeals.
For example, in A Record of 709, 709 lawyer Xie Yanyi (谢燕益) described the sounds emanating from the room above between October 1 and 8 in 2015: “At about 9 a.m. on October 1, I distinctly heard someone above me fall hard onto the floor. There was a soft groan, then no more sound. It seemed like someone had just been given an electric shock. From October 1 to 10, nearly every day I heard interrogations and howling and moaning in the middle of the night in the room above me.” He wondered whether it was Wang Quanzhang or Hu Shigen. “The fact that there has been no information whatsoever about Wang Quanzhang for more than two years is an act of terrorism,” he wrote.
On January 8, 2016, after the six months of secret detention were over, Wang Quanzhang was formally arrested for alleged “subversion of state power.” Over the twelve months that followed, the police used extended custody and a prosecutorial time delay technique, known as “returning case to police for further investigation” (退回补充侦查), to hold Wang without indictment or trial. This is a common practice used against political prisoners.
Into the later part of the 709 crackdown, the government has dispensed with such pretenses altogether, holding Wang Quanzhang indefinitely without any legal basis, real or otherwise.
On January 3, 2016, the Swedish national Peter Dahlin was detained in Beijing. In an interview with China Change, Dahlin said that lawyer Wang Quanzhang was at the center of the police interrogations. “The focus was to try to find an angle to smear Wang Quanzhang. Considerable time had been spent on calling Wang a criminal, despite me pointing out almost daily that his case had not even been transferred to prosecutor, let alone having resulted in a conviction. Similarly, they refused to point out any activity by Wang that was actually a crime, except saying his work threatened national security, and that he has defended ‘evil cult’ practitioners and used his social media to highlight his work as a lawyer.”
Back in his hometown in Shandong, toward the end of April 2016, local police, admitting that they were under orders from Tianjin, visited Wang Quanzhang’s aging parents and siblings. They talked Wang’s father into speaking on camera, advising his son to admit guilt in exchange for leniency. His sister, an average village woman who had never questioned the government until the crash course she went through with the disappearance of her younger brother, asked the police: “What crime has my brother committed?” The police told her that Wang defended Falun Gong practitioners, and doing so is opposing the Communist Party because Falun Gong was an “evil cult.”
In mid-February, 2017, Wang Quanzhang was indicted for “subversion of state power.” But neither his lawyers nor his wife were given a copy of the indictment despite their persistent demands for it. We don’t know how the Communist Party has built its case against him. We do know that they have been eager to have him admit guilt, without success: the hometown police told his family that “Wang Quanzhang has been very uncooperative.”
A human rights lawyer who represented another 709 detainee and made many trips to Tianjin, and who wishes to remain anonymous, shared an interesting observation: he believed that the government didn’t have a plan when it rounded up the lawyers and activists in July 2015. Instead, they devised it as they went along, using torture to subdue them and have them admit guilt. “The government could find no evidence of crimes against them in the existing laws; but they felt they must muzzle the lawyers, and used illegal methods to do so. That is, they arrested the lawyers and activists first, then looked for or fabricated ‘evidence’ against them. The purpose is to terrorize and deter the rights defense community through criminal punishment.”
The propaganda machine has worked in sync to disseminate the Party’s evolving narrative and belittle some of China’s most courageous citizens: when the 709 lawyers and activists were first detained, Party mouthpieces churned out articles and TV segments describing them as “the bad horses that hurt the entire herd.” By the time Hu Shigen (胡石根), Zhou Shifeng (周世锋), Zhai Yanmin (翟岩民) and Gou Hongguo (勾洪国) were tried in August, 2016, the activities of human rights lawyers and activists was recast into a conspiratorial “color revolution” with “anti-China foreign forces” behind the scenes. In the more recent TV confessions, lawyers Xie Yang (谢阳) and Jiang Tianyong (江天勇) were made to say that they were “exploited by Western anti-China forces” and brainwashed by “Western constitutionalism and other erroneous ideas.”
Free Wang Quanzhang
In the two and a half years of his disappearance, Wang Quanzhang’s toddler son has grown bigger. His wife Li Wenzu (李文足), who had never taken much interest in her husband’s professional work, has become his most vocal and effective advocate, enduring unceasing harassment from the police. She was recently awarded the inaugural Outstanding Citizen Award by a network of activists inside China for her courage and perseverance.
No statements from foreign governments, no inquiries from United Nations committees, no amount of media scrutiny, seems sufficient to unseat the Communist Party’s determination to use an iron fist to subdue any citizen it deems “dangerous” in its increasingly paranoid outlook on the world.
By all indications, it seems that Wang Quanzhang is not yielding either. Foreseeing what was to come, Wang left a letter for his parents in July 2015:
No matter how despicable and ridiculous we appear to be in the portrayal by the manipulated media, Mother, Father, please believe your son, and please believe your son’s friends.
I have never abandoned the qualities Father and Mother instilled in me: honesty, kindheartedness, integrity. In all these years, I have used these principles to guide my life. Even though I’ve often been steeped in despair, I have never given up thoughts for a better future.
My taking up the work—and walking down the path—of defending human rights wasn’t just a sudden impulse. Instead, it came from a hidden part of my nature, a calling that has intensified over the years—and has always been slowly reaching up like the ivy.
This kind of path is doomed to be thorny, tortuous, rocky.
But when I think of the difficult road we have gone through together, this path seems commonplace.
Dear Father and Mother, please feel proud of me. Also, no matter how horrible the environment is, you must hang on and live, and wait for the day when the clouds will disperse and the sun will come out.
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @YaxueCao
After Four Detainees of the ‘709 Incident’ Are Indicted, Chinese State Media Name Foreign News Organizations, a US Congressman, & Three Embassies in Beijing as ‘Foreign Anti-China Forces’, China Change, July 15, 2016.
Crime and Punishment of China’s Rights Lawyers, Mo Zhixu explains why Chinese government is out to get them, China Change, July 23, 2015.
Xu Zhiyong, November 19, 2017
Dr. Xu Zhiyong (许志永) was released on July 15, 2017 after serving four years for organizing social movements such as the New Citizen Movement and the equal education rights campaign. He is a 44-year-old legal scholar, a pioneer of China’s rights defense movement, and a founders of the Open Constitution Initiative (Gong Meng 公盟) in 2003 which offers legal assistance to the disempowered and the wronged. — The Editors
After getting out of prison I discovered a pessimistic sentiment in many of my friends. Some of them fled China. Others said that the Chinese people aren’t worth saving. With this totalitarian surveillance state and its repressed people, it feels like history is running in reverse. But I’m an optimist at heart and I remain optimistic. I see that authoritarianism is actually weakening, while the strength of liberty and democracy is on the rise. More and more citizens have woken up.
The authoritarian ideology, once powerful beyond compare, is in rout. The last few years have seen challenges to economic growth and nationalism—the pillars of legitimacy in the age of reform and opening up [China’s economic and social reforms beginning in the 1980s]. The economy is in recession, and nationalism has met with setbacks in the Diaoyu Islands and along the Sino-Indian frontier. Confucianism and other aspects of traditional Chinese culture are incompatible with Communism. A privileged class predicated on profit is sure to be brittle and weak. As we can see from the example of Yuan Shikai (袁世凯),* rule by vested interests betrays the current of history. When the time comes, it collapses overnight.
China’s finances are in a bad way. The economy relies on a monetary policy of forced stimulation that has reached a dead end. Endless sums are created, lent, and spent on inefficient infrastructure investments, betraying the principles of economics and making financial crisis unavoidable. The split Party and civil administration are almost like a double government, the hierarchies are multitudinous, and the burden upon the people is among the highest in the world. State revenues decrease while the cost of maintaining stability rises rapidly. Just like the imperial dynasties in their final years, today’s financial situation is dire.
However, the biggest uncertainty comes from the central leadership. Chinese officials are unenthusiastic and shirk their responsibilities by deferring everything to orders from above. Totalitarian systems are doomed to grow weaker over the generations as factional compromise saps the regime’s core strength and places mediocrities in positions of power. Even if there is someone who wants to restore the old order, his efforts will lead nowhere. He is ridiculed, not revered, by the majority. The leader is the greatest uncertainty of the system and indeed of the entire country.
Meanwhile, society is marching forward. Private wealth is increasing. Technology is improving, the world is becoming one. Pro bono lawyers, entrepreneurs of social care, independent intellectuals, and victims of the powers-at-large, the number of awakened Chinese citizens has increased during these four years [while I was in prison].
But we are still relatively scattered. How to concentrate the powerful energy of civil society is an urgent task that demands our full responsibility.
What does China need most for its social transformation? A mature civil society. If there is a mature civil society, we will incur fewer costs and a beautiful future awaits. Revolution is not the design of any one individual. Our responsibility is not to knock down walls—though of course, living freely and candidly is equal to knocking down walls. It would be irresponsible for us to wait for change. Our responsibility lies in construction, constructing ourselves as a civil body.
Is civil society possible? There is space for it. The critical matter is what is to be done, how it is to be done, and to which degree. We need to be wise and methodical. To build civil society and unite those Chinese who seek democracy and constitutional rule on one platform, I offer six key phrases.
The citizen is a common identity. This identity conveys rich inner meanings of power and responsibility, it implies a society and nation of citizens. The day that 1.3 billion Chinese are citizens is the day that China is truly beautiful. To become genuine citizens is our present and final objective. More importantly, citizenship can be an identity—yours, mine, everyone’s common identity. We can’t say “you are democracy, I am democracy,” but we can say “you are a citizen, I am a citizen.” This concept has roots in China over a century old. It cannot be taken from us or censored. However fearful people may be in private, all can come out and say “I am a citizen.”
Freedom, Justice, and Love are our shared core values. These values ought to be the new height following freedom, equality, and fraternity, the desired values of a future society. Freedom is the true sovereignty of individual action and existence, its scope expands with the development of civilization. Justice means a fair and just society—its meaning is richer than the egalitarianism that was once applied to the stratified French society. It is a society with democracy, rule of law, and rational boundaries between individuals—each to his own, each to his ability, each is provided for. Love is more generous and profound than fraternity; it is the wellspring of life and happiness.
One day these will become the core values of Chinese civilization. They don’t come from our ancestors. The core values of France—liberté, égalité, fraternité—were not those of the nobility, they were created by the people of France during their great revolution. Creating Freedom, Justice, and Love is the struggle of our generation of Chinese. For our ancient people and their civilization, these values will usher in renaissance and take common root across all humanity.
Truth shall be the common guiding principle in our actions. To be a true citizen. To uphold the citizen’s identity, rights, and responsibilities. To uphold and proactively implement the freedoms and rights written in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Chinese Constitution. Late-stage totalitarianism also preaches democracy and liberty, but it doesn’t really mean it. In its crowning absurdity, the core values of socialism have become sensitive phrases and subject to online censorship. We uphold these things. The truth is the ultimate deconstruction of lies and absurdity, and the greatest tool for building a beautiful China. The 1.3 billion Chinese need not take radical action. If they all took the rights contained in the Constitution seriously, China would change.
A Beautiful China is our common direction. The China of our dreams is not only beautiful, but also free, just, and happy. A beautiful China encompasses beauty, but even more so embodies deeper values of democracy, rule of law, and freedom. Freedom, Justice, and Love is our direction, it is our mission and glory. Ours shall be a beautiful country reborn on the land where authoritarianism reigned for thousands of years. This is our purpose in life.
Citizens are not an isolated circle. Say not “you citizens,” but “we citizens.” Do not reject the noble identity of citizen just because some unscrupulous people may appropriate this title. Lawyers, entrepreneurs, intellectuals, judges, civil servants, regardless of your wealth, social class, you are citizens. All us Chinese shall identity as citizens. We may not necessarily all eat at the same table, lawyers and entrepreneurs may have their own circles, but our identity is a common one—the citizen.
The force of liberal democracy must be united. The identity of “citizen” is the best platform and the most solid cornerstone. Regardless of your social status or group, we are working forward together to a common goal. Communities of citizens can rise in each region and every industry. Assemble together, stay in touch with current affairs, and when the timing is favorable, take steps to coordinate with each other, for example by meeting on the last Saturday of each month. When millions and millions of Chinese assemble with the same identity, the same core values, and discuss the fate of the country and the people, they will have begun to form a civil body.
Being a citizen and building civil society does not equal being under someone’s leadership or joining some organization, it means independently wanting to be a citizen among citizens. Citizens in different regions act autonomously and make progress of their own accord. A community of citizens and civil society is necessarily an organic development.
Being a citizen, especially being a community of citizens, means standing up to oppression. If you abandon your identity in the face of pressure and don’t even want to be a citizen anymore, then you will have nothing to show for it. As the common body that shows the way towards social progress, the only way to build strength is to experience oppression and learn from the experience. If even the simple act of a same city dinner gathering (同城聚餐) means suppression, so be it. But this requires our perseverance. When the days comes that we are not even allowed to eat, there is still no problem: just go on hunger strike for a day. Even better, everyone go on hunger strike for a day. Have faith: your identity as a citizen can withstand oppression. It cannot be taken away from you.
I earnestly beseech every one of my compatriots seeking democracy and liberty to know their identity as a citizen and its significance. Be a dignified and upright citizen together with those who share your ideals and ambition, discuss with them when you meet, follow current affairs, spread the citizen’s ideal, and uphold social justice. If you are entrepreneurs, you can seek like-minded friends among your business circles and gather as citizen entrepreneurs. If you are lawyers, you can seek the like-minded among your legal circles and gather as citizen lawyers. If you are judges, you can discover the like-minded and gather as citizen judges. You have common ideals regardless of your professional fields, your wealth, or status. Seek out and join hands with the citizens by your sides.
I am a citizen, we are citizens. This is a pious faith. This is our responsibility to an ancient people. This is the struggle of our generation of Chinese, its undertaking, and its glory.
Citizen Xu Zhiyong (许志永)
*Yuan Shikai was a general of the former Qing Dynasty who manipulated China’s republican movement in an attempt to establish his own dictatorship. His actions contributed to the chaotic warlord era.
Who Is Xu Zhiyong — An Interview with Dr. Teng Biao, Part 1 of 2, April 10, 2014.
Who Is Xu Zhiyong — An Interview with Dr. Teng Biao, part 2 of 2, April 13, 2014.