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The Lesson of Venezuela: Regime Change Can Only Happen When People Take to the Streets

Wang Dan, February 5, 2019

On February 2, tens of thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets again, demanding change. This article by 1989 Tiananmen student leader Wang Dan (王丹) was published in Chinese by Radio Free Asia on January 25. After teaching in Taiwan for years, Wang Dan now lives in the Washington, DC area and heads the new Dialogue China think tank. – The Editors

On January 23, tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of the Venezuelan capital to protest the ruling party and President (Nicolás) Maduro. In front of a dense cheering crowd, waving their arms in support, the 35-year-old opposition leader (Juan Guaidó) proclaimed himself “interim President” and immediately received recognition from Western countries led by the U.S. and Latin American neighbors. The current Venezuelan administration faces severe challenges, and an alternation in regime will very likely succeed peacefully. What happened in Venezuela once again tells us one thing: that is, it is only when people take to the streets that regime change is possible.   

Why, you might ask? Simply because in countries with authoritarian dictatorships like China and North Korea, there’s no mechanism for people to change the regime through elections and other means within the system. Even in democratic countries, people taking to the streets is the most effective and direct way to effect a change in political power.

Venezuela is not a completely authoritarian state. It has long possessed a constitutional democracy. But a democratic system cannot guarantee that a corrupt regime will, on its own accord, correct its own mistakes. During Chavez’s four-term presidency and the tenure of his successor, Maduro, it’s not that the opposition did not try to overthrow their rule through elections, but they could not shake the entrenched power. This was in part due to the irrational choices of Venezuelan voters, and in part due to the fact that the opposition could not come together and jointly agree on a leader to put forward.

But in recent years the Venezuelan opposition party has continued to explore ways to solve problems within the system, and the majority of public opinion supported the opposition. In the December 2015 parliamentary elections, the opposition won 112 seats of 167 seats and took control of the National Assembly. The outside world thought that this would effectively check the anti-democratic behavior of the current government. However, on August 18, 2017, Maduro also used a method from within the system to announce the establishment of the Constituent Assembly. This Constituent Assembly, with direct legislative power, meant that the National Assembly was deprived of its main powers, making it impossible for the will of the people to be expressed through the system. Through manipulation by the government, the judicial system– another built-in check and balance mechanism – was, likewise, unable to play its role. The Supreme Court opposed the National Assembly’s exercise of its right to effect change in political power.

It was only when all means within the system were exhausted and there were no other ways to force a regime that had lost popular support to step down, that the people took action. Heeding the call of the opposition party, tens of thousands of people took to the streets. And this led to the moving scene witnessed by the whole world: the self-proclamation of a takeover of the regime by the young opposition leader.

It remains to be seen whether the alternation of political power in Venezuela will be realized smoothly. In addition to the crucial factor of whether the military’s support for the current government will change, the attitude of the United States and Latin American neighbors, such as whether or not to intervene militarily, and their influence, is also crucial. Regardless, at present we can already see there is hope for solving the political deadlock that has long troubled Venezuela.

Losing the recognition of the international community and facing large-scale street protests, the future prospects for President Maduro don’t look good. Even if he can manage to hold onto office, it’s unlikely that his rule will proceed smoothly. All that has happened is predicated on the people taking to the streets in large numbers, and peacefully displaying their desire for change.

It is often said that street demonstrations are a radical form of protest, which can easily lead to large-scale violent conflicts and undermine the democratic process. But in fact, throughout the ages, the vast majority of regime change took place when people went to the streets. Without the pressure of people taking to the streets, few rulers will take the initiative to step down on their own. At the same time, we also have seen that, without the support of street demonstrations, mechanism from within the system can easily be defeated by all manners of political manipulation. Although people taking to the street may lead to large-scale violent conflicts, there are many examples of peaceful demonstrations that have forced a peaceful change in the regime. The resistance on the street, which occurs outside the system, will provide an opportunity for the opposition party within the system, and it is only such an opportunity that can lead to success for the opposition within the system. This is root cause for why street demonstrations are the only method to change a regime, and what happened in Venezuela proves this point again.


Twenty-Eight Years After – An Interview With Wang Dan, October 25, 2017.

The Chinese Communist Party Should Fade Into History Peacefully, Avoiding Violence and Minimizing Social Unrest, Zheng Yefu, January 25, 2019.

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The Young Man with the Coolest Sign in the World

By Yaxue Cao, published: March 12, 2013


黄文勋深圳举牌March 10 was a warm, sunny day in the subtropical, southernmost city of Shenzhen. Twenty past three in the afternoon, a young man named Huang Wenxun (黄文勋) appeared on Huaqiang Road (华强路), wearing a shirt with the print “Rather be dead than live without freedom,” and holding a big sign, the size of 1 X 1.2 meters. It reads, on a blue background of Bright China logo and his name Huang Wenxun (also Huang Zi),

Do not fear!

Overthrow the Chinese Communist Party!

Overthrow the dictatorship!

Long live democracy, freedom, constitutionalism, human rights, and equality!

Build a democratic China!

We are really the masters of the country!

His plan was to walk all the way to the municipal government. People stopped, watched, and followed him. Within minutes though, policemen emerged and surrounded him. One of the police, according to a series of photos taken by a friend that recorded the whole process, looked nervously outward, apparently to observe the street scene for signs of disruption. After some physical contact, Huang Wenxun was in dragged away by the police.

A Shenzhen-based lawyer Fan Biaowen (范标文) said he had learned that Huang Wenxun was being held in Huaqiang North police station (华强北派出所). He had already contacted Huang Wenxun’s lawyer Wang Quanping (王全平), who would be following up on the matter.

Huang Wenxun

Huang Wenxun

Huang Wenxun is 23 years old, originally from Boluo county, Huizhou, Guangzhou province (广东惠州博罗县). After high school, he worked in Guangzhou while taking classes at Sun Yat-sen University. On March 30, 2012, he and five others demonstrated in the street of Guangzhou, holding signs reading “No vote, no future”, “Hu Jintao needs to take the lead to disclose assets.”  He was detained for a month. On February 1, 2013, he was beaten by Shenzhen police while supporting police-turned-dissident Wang Dengchao outside the court where Wang’s second trial was held.


Knowing he would be arrested, Huang Wenxun left a letter to the public, in which he says, “My compatriots, do not fear please. When you witness, or suffer from, injustice, you must stand up and speak out. When good conscience and sense of justice live in you, you are not alone; you are with God, with tens of thousands of fellow citizens. ……The reason I, Huang Zi, am protesting is because I want to let the CCP know this: you cannot intimidate me with white terror anymore, and your jails can no longer imprison my beliefs. My compatriots, I know for sure that we will all eventually overcome our fear, because we love our homes, our loved ones, our children, and we want to bring security to those we love and the homes we live in. It is my deepest belief that love will give us courage, the courage to overcome fear!”

He continues, “… A few days ago, my friend Zhao Haitong told me when we were protesting in front of Tencent: “We want to tell our fellow Chinese how to cure our fear by taking actions.”

On the same day, another young man named Shi Yong (时勇) also demonstrated on the street of Shenzhen. He wore three signs questioning Shen Jilan (申纪兰), a people’s representative for over sixty years from Shanxi province, and calling for officials to disclose their assets. He too was arrested.

Huang Wenxun and Shi Yong are among the small number of Chinese who are taking actions. This blog will bring the latest development about them to our readers. I thought as I wrote this post: Huang Wenxun is 23 years old, born right around 1989, and of the same age as those in the Tian’anmen Square 23 years ago. Another generation has grown up from the ashes of the ’89 era, yet China is still not free. The least we can do is to stand with him, make sure that the Chinese government does not succeed in throwing him in jail and that he and his friends are free to speak their mind. If the Party does not like their messages, then it’s time for the Party to change, or face the masses.