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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.
By Xu Zhiyong
China’s rights movement through the work of Gong Meng.
April 25, 2003, as SARS emptied out the streets in Beijing, I sat in front of my computer reading about the Sun Zhigang (孙志刚) coverage, tears quietly welling up in my eyes. Over the second half of 2002, I had started to investigate the laws concerning custody and repatriation (of migrant populations), and knew what Sun had gone through. Following Sun’s tragedy, Yu Jiang (俞江), Teng Biao (滕彪) and I proposed a constitutional review of the case. We mailed our recommendation on May 14 because, on the 13th, the propaganda department of the government banned further “hype” about Sun’s case. Headlines like “Three PhDs Request Constitutional Review” gave the media new fodder, and our action was a part of the public opinion campaign.
More than a month later, while I was interviewing a boy who had been given aid in a room in Tianjin’s Custody and Repatriation Center, I turned my head and saw CCTV’s Evening News announcing the abolition of the Custody and Repatriation system.
For many, that was a moment of joy and hope, and it became a symbol of the “new politics” of Hu and Wen. That night, the three of us talked on the phone, thankful for the moment but also full of regret – we were afraid the constitutional review we had hoped for was not going to happen. And it didn’t.
We moved on in 2003, registering a public interest organization. We represented Sun Dawu’s (孙大午) case, and we promoted the election of the People’s Congress. Starting from the Sun Zhigang case, we focused on individual cases that had wide significance for the defense of civil rights and the push for system building. Many people referred to 2003 as the start of what would be known as citizens’ rights movement.
Ten years on, Sun Zhigang has become taboo for media coverage; Teng Biao and I have become dissidents of this country; Dingjia Xi, Zhao Changqing, Dong Yuan, and many other brave citizens have been locked up in prison. A media friend asked me the other day: How do you evaluate this past decade, have we progressed or regressed? Suddenly I feel that this is a rather complex question to answer, and it prompted me to think about the path we have come along.
In July 2003, the Southern Metropolis Daily was first, and then repeatedly, investigated by Guangzhou’s judiciary and law enforcement system as a result of its vigorous reporting on the Sun Zhigang case. By the end of the year, the investigation “found” that there had been procedural violations when the paper’s management distributed a bonus of RMB 580,000 a few years back, and its general manager Yu Huafeng (喻华峰) was arrested on charges of graft and bribery. Our entire team got involved in the case, and I was one of the defense lawyers. It was also our first encounter with the stability maintenance. Our website was closed down, and the third meeting with netizens to spread the truth was “harmonized.” The day the “Sunshine Constitutionalism” website (阳光宪政网) was shut down, I wrote We Are Still Sincere:
“Perhaps we will face more difficulties even after constitutionalism is realized. We know very well that, there is the shadow of 2000 years of autocracy on this land, and the road to constitutionalism is bound to be long and arduous. But the endeavor for justice must be made by someone, and that’s why we are making it. …We are a group of Chinese citizens who take up this responsibility…… We are not just critics; we are also builders.”
In the second half of 2004, I was in the United States to study its constitution and elections, experiencing firsthand how an ordinary voter participated in politics as a grassroots volunteer for a presidential candidate. In the meantime, Guo Yushan and Teng Biao hosted the people’s representative election forum in our office in Huaqing Jiayuan (华清嘉园, a residential neighborhood in Beijing’s university district). In September, when Peking University’s “yi ta hu tu” bbs (一蹋糊涂) was shut down, Teng Biao, Yu Jiang and I co-authored a letter of protest while the students staged a lawn assembly to demonstrate in Jing Yuan (静园). Our action drew attention from “the relevant organ” and we were forced to suspend the use of the office. In March 2005, six private organizations for public service were shut down without being given any reasons, including the research center we had registered as well as Mr. Mao Yushi’s Unirule Institute of Economics (天则经济研究所). What I heard was that these NGOs caused someone to fear a “color revolution.” I asked the local director of Industry and Commerce why, and he said it was an order from his superiors. We gave up without bringing a lawsuit. In June, we registered Gong Meng, or the Open Constitution Initiative.
2005 was a year full of moving moments. In April, I lived in a petitioners’ village, and witnessed too much unwarranted suffering. At the hutong where the State Bureau of Letters and Calls was located, many petitioners were beaten, and my pants were covered with footprints after I passed through that alleyway packed with petitioners and those sent by local governments to intercept them. In May, we prayed for Christian Cai Zhuohua in a church in Poshang village, located next to the Party School of the Central Committee of the CCP, who had been arrested for printing Bibles. In July, Teng Biao and I visited a small town in Yulin, Shaanxi province, in an attempt to rescue lawyer Zhu Jiuhu who had been thrown in prison for his involvement in the case of a private oilfield development in northern Shaanxi. There we witnessed how greedy and domineering the regional government was and how utterly helpless the local private enterprises were. In October, lawyer Li Fangping and I were beaten by guards at Dongshigu village when we tried to visit Chen Guangcheng. That day, Chen Guangcheng broke through the line of guards, and, in the midst of over a hundred villagers and guards pushing one another, we hugged each other in a tight embrace. At the end of 2005, Asia Weekly (《亚洲周刊》) in Hong Kong named China’s human rights lawyers as their people of the year, and it marked the emergence, for the first time, of a citizen group outside the existing structure that had the ability to take sustained actions.
This group of rights lawyers was dealt a blow in the summer of 2006 as Chen Guangcheng and Gao Zhisheng were imprisoned. The rights movement dropped to its lowest point since 2003. For all these years, I had been feeling guilty for their imprisonment. I was Gao Zhisheng’s representative in his firm’s penalty hearing, and I was a member of the defense team as well as the coordinator of support actions in Chen Guangcheng’s case, but I was unable to help either of them. By September, circumstances improved, and it was again election time for the district/county-level People’s Congress. We sent letters to a few hundred of Property Management Committee directors in residential neighborhoods, to NGOs, and to more than a thousand lawyers, to encourage them to become candidates. We organized teams of volunteers to help various candidates design and distribute their posters and organize election gatherings for them. Thanks to the support of faculties and students at Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, where I was employed, thanks to my election team led by Jin Huaiyu and Gu Xin, and also thanks to the University’s party secretary Zhang Shulin who openly supported the election, I was elected the people’s representative to Haidian District’s People’s Congress.
In 2007, we provided legal assistance to victims of illegal brick kilns in Shanxi province in administrative compensation suits, but to no avail. (In fact, lots of the cases we have provided legal assistance to have gone nowhere, such as the robbery case of Chen Guoqing and three others in Chengde. The four innocent men have served 19 years already, and in the 9 years when we have been representing them, we have made countless petitions, each in vain.) What was most shocking to me, in my first trip to the black brick kilns, was that the brickyard didn’t have encircling walls and it was right next to a village, less than one hundred meters away from the nearest house. Because of the fear from living under ruthless violence, because of the corrupt government that didn’t do its job, and because of the numbness commonly found in the Chinese countryside, all the Chen Xiaojuns were openly enslaved in a land that had lost its sense of right and wrong, good and evil. So big is this land of injustice that those who are underprivileged and powerless may never see an end to their suffering in their lifetimes.
A lot of things happened in 2008. Apart from the Olympics, there were the March 14 Unrest in Tibet, Wenchuan Earthquake, the poisonous milk powder scandal, and more. In August, we sent an investigative team to Tibet to find out about the economic and social causes of the March 14 unrest. In September, we organized a team of lawyers to provide legal assistance to child victims of the melamine-tainted milk formula. In the first stage, it took us three month of work to push the government to announce a compensation plan, but for many victims, the compensation fell far short of the harm they had suffered. In some cases, parents had spent close to RMB 100,000 on surgery for their sickened children alone, but were only compensated with RMB 30,000. Peng Jian, Li Xiongbing, Li Fangping and over 100 other pro bono lawyers continued to bring cases to the Supreme Court as well as to a few hundred local courts, but all in all, they succeeded in getting only ten cases filed, and of the ten cases, only two were tried and none received a verdict. The lawyers did everything they could, all the way to suing the largest shareholder of SanLu Group in a Hong Kong court. By September 2011 when the project concluded, we had fought for, and secured, compensation for more than 200 child victims in addition to the government’s compensation plan. The biggest single compensation was RMB 350,000, thanks to a court in Zhejiang that forced Yili Group to make concessions by insisting on a trial. The largest compensation settlement from a single source was almost the result of “blackmailing” a company. We had discovered falsehood in the company’s advertisement, and we sued them as consumers. Haidian Court in Beijing accepted the filing, and we told the company’s CEO quite frankly, when he came to Beijing to negotiate with us, that all we wanted was for his company to compensate the 50 or so victims of its brand. The CEO was moved by our sincerity and decency. Right around the time when Gong Meng was raising money to pay for the government fine on a trumped-up charge meant to destroy the organization, Lin Zhengzheng in the south sent a reparation of RMB one million yuan to the victims.
No matter how we upheld our conscience and our sense of justice, the regime was intuitively hostile to any entity that existed independently outside its grip. By 2009, our team had grown considerably, our office in Huajie Building became busier than ever, and we had provided legal services in the dog culling incident in Hanzhong, Shaanxi, the Green Dam uproar, and the Deng Yujiao case. In July, Gong Meng, the not-for-profit, public interest organization was fined for “tax evasion,” and Zhuang Lu (the accountant) and I were arrested. But thankfully, we live in a time when technology gives us room for expression, when NGOs for public interest mushroomed after the Wenchuan earthquake, and, more importantly, when people have elevated moral standards. The arrest upset many ordinary citizens, and in four days Gong Meng received more than RMB 400,000 in donations in a fundraising campaign to pay for the fine. Jiang Ping and Mao Yushi of the older generation made appeals in support of us. Hong Kong high school student Zheng Yongxin wrote an open letter to Wen Jiabao, and friends we had never known we had protested with T-shirts, pins and postcards. Confronted by powerful waves of support, the authorities retreated. We moved forward.
In a routine meeting at the end of 2009, Wang Gongquan, one of our members, proposed a new initiative: campaign to abolish the household registration, or hukou, requirement for children to take college entrance exams where they live. We had been pushing for hukou reform, and with this initiative we found a new focal point. We had the four parents, who had made the initial call for help, work as volunteers with our team to collect signatures. Two years later, we collected more than 100,000 signatures, and organized petitions in front of the Ministry of Education on the last Thursday every month. We also mobilized several thousand people’s representatives to submit proposals; we organized panel discussions of experts; we researched and drafted a plan for children living with their parents without a local hukou to take college entrance exams where they live, not where their hukous were; and we organized the “new Beijingers” to plant trees in parks. Two-and-a-half years on, we made a breakthrough when the Ministry of Education adopted a policy allowing youth to take the national entrance exams where they currently live, not where their hukous are. By the end of the year, 29 provinces and municipalities implemented, or promised to implement, the policy. However, the Ministry of Education’s policy was met with obstacles in Beijing and Shanghai where tens of thousands of parent volunteers had worked the hardest to push for the policy, but in the end were denied of its benefits. I am deeply sorry for them. They’ve strived for three years under the slogan “abolish hukou restrictions for the national college exams by 2012,” but as they themselves put it, they “succeeded in liberating all of China except for ourselves!” We need to continue the fight against the last two fortresses.
From the abolition of the Custody and Repatriation System, triggered by the Sun Zhigang case, that allowed millions upon millions of new immigrants to move away from home without fear of being captured and repatriated, to the equal education movement that enabled millions of children to attend schools where their parents work and live, we have labored for ten years to break the hukou segregation and to fight for the freedom and equality of new immigrants.
After the trumped-up “tax evasion” case in 2009, we registered a new company although Gong Meng was still a legal entity. Regardless, such a name ceased to mean much any longer, for it was far from enough to have a small group of brave citizens. The pursuit of democracy and constitutionalism requires broad participation by as many people as possible. We gave up on the name Gong Meng, and began to use a name that’s not a name–Citizen. “Citizen” is the common identity of all who are pro-democracy, and it serves as an open platform that belongs to every citizen who shares the same aspiration for democracy and constitutionalism.
In May 2012, we began to promote the “New Citizens’ Movement” in which we became real citizens working and moving forward together. We have been holding same-city dinner gatherings (同城聚会) across China to meet, and exchange views with, each other; we push for democracy and rule of law through legal assistance and civil actions such as demanding that officials disclose personal assets. Through these collective activities, we want to grow to be a healthy force outside the existing structure and to help eventually transition China peacefully toward a constitutional civilization. It is a movement for social change, but more importantly, it is a political movement for democratic constitutionalism. We don’t shun politics; in a jungle-like society where power is uninhibited and corruption rife, conscience is politics. We strive to tread out a new path for the Chinese nation, a path toward liberty, justice and love. Fear and hatred are the foundation on which tyranny has thrived, but overthrowing tyranny doesn’t necessarily mean the disappearance of its foundation. Until we dispel the fear and hatred that cloud over the deepest recesses of our hearts, we will not have a free and democratic China.
We have been the opposition throughout the last ten years. We oppose authoritarianism, we oppose autocratic culture, and we oppose lies, false accusations, and unscrupulousness whether they are on the part of the power holders or anyone else. We have been pious builders promoting social progress and building rule of law and civil society rationally. In the Investigation on the Mechanism of Letters and Calls in China that we issued, we pointed out that the authoritarian system was the root of the petition problem, and recommended judiciary independence and initiation of political reform through direct election on the county level. In our Report on the Investigation over the Truth about the Death of Qian Yunhui, we published our findings that Qian’s death was a traffic accident despite overwhelming public opinion that believed otherwise, and criticized the unfair land policies that were the underlying causes of the incident. In our Legal Opinions Concerning Compensation for Personal Injury in the High-Speed Train Accident on July 23rd, we criticized the government for offering too little compensation, of RMB 500,000, and recommended compensation over RMB 900,000. Public opinion forced the government to quickly accept our recommendation. In the equal education movement that fought against hukou segregation, our Plan for Children Living with Parents without Local Hukou to Take the National College Entrance Exam Locally has been accepted by most provinces and cities. Just before the ten citizens were arrested in Beijing, we had been preparing to draft a law concerning publishing officials’ personal assets. We are a group of responsible citizens. We oppose for the sake of building.
For ten years we have persevered to build the foundation, next to the decaying palace of the dictatorship, for a lasting democracy and constitutionalism. In our fight for freedom over the last ten years, it has become a commonplace for many of us to lose our own freedom fighting for freedom of strangers. We are proud to be living in this era. From the “citizens’ rights movement” to the “new citizens’ movement,” we have been walking on the same road, the road of conscience, the road toward liberty, justice and love.
The last ten years have been years of progress. With the fireworks of the Olympics, China continued to mix with the world; new immigrants have settled down; high-speed trains have compressed time and space; the remotest villages began to have rudimentary social security coverage; and internet and communication technologies connect different civilizations. Over the last ten years, the goodness in human nature has been reviving in China, the market economy has been deconstructing totalitarianism, and an independent spirit has been sprouting bit by bit. Public opinion condemns barbaric demolition; ten thousand people came out to lay flowers at the site of a fire disaster in Shanghai. The “Red Cross” might be dead, but the conscience is growing. Over these ten years, the new contended with the old, but the old does not just go away: the custody and repatriation policy was gone, but there have been black jails. The Criminal Procedure Law was amended, but the little bit of judiciary independence was taken away. The Electoral Law of the National People’s Congress and Local People’s Congresses was amended, but during the 2011 election, the media as a whole was forced to keep their mouths shut. The gap between the rich and the poor has continued to widen, graft and privilege are more rampant than ever, and the chasm between the government and the people is growing ever greater and deeper.
Entering 2013, China bid goodbye to the ten years of “raising no havoc” (Hu Jintao’s watchword) and arrived at the threshold of change. At the moment, the ten citizens have been arrested for advocating disclosure of officials’ assets, and the Citizen’s community in general is being dealt a new round of persecution. But on the other hand, more and more docile subjects are stepping out to become real citizens. I firmly believe that, after 2000 years of suppression and over 100 years of suffering, this is the time when the Chinese nation will be reborn for liberty, justice and love. We have chosen a beautiful road worthy to be the pursuit of a lifetime. We’ll not turn away from it no matter how trying it is ahead. It is a new road, long and arduous, but it’s the only road leading to a bright future.
Citizen Xu Zhiyong
May 16, 2013
(A translation by China Change.)
Yesterday we posted Xu Zhiyong’s essay calling for a New Citizens’ Movement. Today I want to highlight a few of the aspects that make this piece especially interesting to me, and why I believe this essay lays out a realistic path for change.
Reform not Revolution
What has been made clear time and again in Global Times and Peoples Daily is that the Chinese people have little appetite for revolution, they aren’t wrong about this. After all, they got their fill of the chaos that revolution brings during Mao’s reign. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, and a successful movement is going to have to reassure the people that what they are doing is not going to turn China into Libya, Egypt or Syria. I think in this respect, the New Citizens’ Movement accomplishes this by stressing reform not revolution.
The goal of the movement is a democratically elected gov’t and a country ruled by law. Few revolutions have managed this without bloodshed, but those who have seen growing prosperity and stability. In Chinese history, revolution has been a bloody and violent affair (and this is stressed for political reasons in Chinese text books), and revolution creates a new group of winners and losers that can severely limit the success of the new system. Reform strips the Party of these lines of argument.
The New Citizens’ Movement also smartly caches its goals within China’s current laws that are enforced at the whims of the Party. By reforming law from a tool of the Party to a means of protection for the people, it appears as a more palatable choice than starting yet again from scratch.
Unity instead of Division
Several months ago I had the opportunity to do a podcast with Xu Zhiyong about rural education and migrant schools. I made a comment related to the tension between locals and migrant workers that Xu rightly countered. For China to leave this current system behind, it has to abandon the idea that for someone to win, someone else has to lose. In the podcast he pointed out that a better education for the children of migrant workers created a better workforce and a better environment for the urban residents. Furthermore he argued that the hukou system must be abolished in order to tear down these artificial divisions that have been created in Chinese society that keep people from recognize their common hopes and frustrations.
The New Citizens’ Movement successfully argues that even though China has many different problems affecting society, that there is a common solution to these – a gov’t responsible to the citizens. Whether it is the environment or forced evictions, an elected gov’t would not suppress these voices as they have tried to do in Wukan and Shifang. At the moment, China’s various activist groups are all calling for the gov’t to resolve a variety of problems, but this helps to demonstrate that even though there may be many different directions there is only one destination.
Furthermore, the essay recognizes that a successful reformation can not exclude groups from the benefits it would create. Even though the Party would likely fall from power as a result of these reforms, the movement does not aim to make Party members into enemies. If you re-read the essay, you will notice that Xu does not attack the Party, but the problems endemic to the current political system. Power-holders are unsurprisingly reluctant to forfeit power, but allowing them a space in a new system is a step that I believe is a requirement for peaceful transition (which would look something like reconciliation in post-apartheid South Africa).
Breaking the cycle
The third aspect, and one that I think is especially useful, is that the New Citizens’ Movement realizes that motivating the gov’t to reform itself is an unrealistic path, and instead encourages individuals to refuse to participate in actions that perpetuate the system. After Shifang, much was made of the riot police beating protesters. This is the kind of violence that the current system demands, but a corrupt system cannot function without corrupt individuals. This is one of the central points of the New Citizens’ Movement, that through reforming one’s self the gov’t will be reformed.
Xu Zhiyong himself is an excellent example of this principle. In his account of his detention he refused to co-operate with police who were operating outside of the law. Imagine the kind of change that would take place if gov’t officials refused bribes, judges ruled by the laws, and individuals refused opportunities to make quick, illicit profits. I think this is a far more effective approach to stem many of China’s social problems than calling for more laws that will not be enforced.
Reading Xu’s essay the first time reminded me of an argument I had had with a Chinese friend back around Christmas. My friend was making the claim that democracy was not suitable for China, and that it was a tool of the West to trip China up. After an hour or so of rather heated discussion, another Chinese friend in the room stood up and told our friend to shut-up. “When do I get a say in my country?” he pleaded, “I’m Chinese, I want democracy. Don’t I count? Don’t I deserve a say?”
While I doubt that the New Citizens’ Movement is going to sweep over China at any point soon, I find it hopeful in that it lays a clear framework for what China’s future could be. By pushing for meaningful reform, the unity of social movements and the Chinese people, and individual reform, Chinese activists are once again asserting their desire for a democratic China that is ruled by law. I find it incredibly frustrating that while Xu Zhiyong is currently under house arrest for his work with the New Citizens’ movement (and a number of other projects), the New York Times is wasting ink on a laughable op-ed calling for the establishment of a Confucian gov’t.
By Xu Zhiyong, published: July 11, 2012
On May 29th, 2012, Dr. Xu Zhiyong published an article titled “New Citizens Movement,” it was quickly censored by the Chinese authorities, but here we present it in English for the first time with the permission of Xu Zhiyong. This essay and Xu’s activism are truly deserving of further coverage overseas as it offers a comprehensive path for reform in China. – Editor
China needs a new citizens’ movement. This movement is a political movement in which this ancient nation bids utter farewell to authoritarianism and completes the civilized transformation to constitutional governance; it is a social movement to completely destroy the privileges of corruption, the abuse of power, the gap between rich and poor, and to construct a new order of fairness and justice; it is a cultural movement to bid farewell to the culture of autocrats and subjects and instead create a new nationalist spirit; it is the peaceful progressive movement to herald humanity’s process of civilizing.
In the 20th century, China experienced many movements: the Xinhai Revolution, the New Culture Movement, the New Life Movement, etc. In trying to bid farewell to autocracy, they changed the Chinese people’s living habits and spiritual realms. Due to internal and external problems, however, the Republican Era ended quickly. These historical progressive movements were unable to complete fundamental changes in the political system; they were but a flash in the pan. After 1949, China’s totalitarian regime launched a flurry of movements—land reform, the suppression of counter-revolutionaries, the socialist transformation, the anti-rightist movement, and everything from the Great Leap Forward through the Cultural Revolution. These regressive movements against the tides of history were destined to have tragic endings. In the 1980s, the Communist Party of China initiated the “five stresses, four beauties, and three loves” campaign, but a social reform movement initiated by a dictator, tainted by self-interest, cannot bring real change in society.
Today, China still has not been able to leave behind authoritarianism, power monopolies, rampant corruption, the wealth disparity, violent housing demolitions, education imbalance, and the black hole of social security … the root of these weighty social problems is autocracy; the Chinese nation needs a great citizens’ movement that moves with the historic tide, moving from bottom to top, from political and social to cultural, from the awakening of individual citizens to the revitalization of the entire Chinese civilization.
The goal of the New Citizens’ Movement is a free China ruled by democracy and law, a just and happy civil society with “freedom, righteousness, love” as the new national spirit.
The core of the New Citizen’s Movement is the citizen. This is an individual concept as well as a political and social concept. The citizen is not a subject—the citizen is an independent and free entity, and he or she obeys a rule of law that is commonly agreed upon. He or she does not have to kneel down to any given person. The citizen is not a layman—the citizen is the master of the country. The ruler’s power must come from election by the entire citizenry, bidding farewell to the barbaric logic of “ruling by the barrel of a gun.” Citizens are neither docile nor mob-like; they share happiness and bear of responsibilities in the order of justice; and they are upstanding, magnanimous, moderate, and rational.
The “new” in New Citizens’ Movement refers to new historical conditions, new forms of behavior, and a new liberal order. The counterpart of the new citizen is not the citizen, but the subject, of the past. The new historical conditions include technological advancement, market economies, ideological pluralism, and the common democratic trend in human society. The new forms of behavior are the lawful defense of citizens’ rights, citizens’ non-violent non-cooperation, and peaceful democracy movements, all under a new system of ideas and discourse. The new liberal order is the constitutional order of democracy, rule of law, republicanism. The social background of the New Citizens’ Movement is new, the model of behavior is new, the movement’s goal is new, and thus it is called the New Citizens’ Movement.
The big change in Chinese society needs direction and spirit. The New Citizens’ Movement advocates the New Citizen Spirit, which is the direction and spirit of great change.
The New Citizens’ Movement is a political movement. China needs to complete a political transformation, establish a free, democratic China with the rule of law. The New Citizens’ Movement is a social movement. The solution to power monopoly, rampant corruption, wealth disparity, education imbalance, and similar problems does not solely depend on a democratic political system, but also rely on the continuous social reform. The New Citizens’ Movement is a cultural movement. It aims to rid of the tyrannical culture, which is degenerate, depraved, treacherous, and hostile, and build a new nationalist spirit of “freedom, justice, and love.”
There must be an end to tyranny, but the New Citizens’ Movement is far from being just a democratic reformation; the New Citizens’ Movement’s discourse is not “overthrow,” but “establish.” It is not one social class taking the place of another social class, but letting righteousness take its place in the Chinese nation. It is not hostility and hate, but universal love. The New Citizens’ Movement pursues facts and justice, but from the aspiration and hard work of not giving up and settling differences. In the process of societal change, there must be new kind of spiritual coalescing of the Chinese people as a whole, from the individual citizen to the entire country.
The New Citizen’s spirit can be summarized as “free, righteous, and loving.”
Freedom implies the sovereignty of belief, thought, expression, life, the pursuit of independence, and the unrestrained, authentic selfhood. People’s freedom is the end goal of society, country, and law. Righteousness: it is the fair justice of this world; it is the ideal status of the country and the society; it is equal opportunity.
The strong will have restriction; the weak will have protection, and every person, to the best of their abilities, will build on their strengths, perform their duties, and do what they want. Righteousness implies democratic rule of law is the cornerstone of the system. It implies individual responsibility, defends and pursues rights, cares for the common good, and respects the boundaries of other people’s rights. Love is the source of humanity’s well-being; it is the highest state of the New Citizen’s mind. A people’s mind must contain love as well as erase hate and hostility entirely, founding a free and well-off civil society.
The New Citizens’ Movement includes the citizens’ rights movement, the citizens’ non-cooperation movement, and the democracy movement. It follows the lead of the New Citizen’s spirit in China’s magnificent movement toward peaceful transformation.
The citizens’ rights movement is the soil of the democracy movement. It includes the social movement for the defense of the rights of individual cases, rights of building demolition [property rights], rights of ex-servicemen, rights of the environment, right of the freedom of belief, and right of opposing the housing registration system, which strives for the rights and interests of the group.
The citizens’ rights movement emphasizes an individual’s or an individual group’s demand for rights. However, China’s internal power monopoly, rampant corruption, wealth gap, black hole of social security, and other serious societal problems have already reached the point of needing a political solution. The citizens’ rights movement, after developing to a certain point, will inevitably enter into a democratic political movement.
The citizens’ non-cooperation movement runs through the entire rights movement and democracy movement, including the negative resistance of authoritarianism and the positive protection of free rights. As compared to the citizens’ non-cooperation movement, the New Citizens’ Movement moreover emphasizes establishment. The establishment of a civil society will do away with tyranny, not only putting an end to tyranny, but also establishing the future of civilized politics and civil society.
In a broader sense, the New Citizens’ Movement also includes a campaign appearing in many recent democratic countries that is centered on the demands for fairness and justice. Background to the morally-upright fourth wave of democratization is new technology changing peoples’ societal structure. China’s New Citizens’ Movement gathers the previous democratic era’s civil rights movements and democratic revolutions as well as the social revolutions of democratic countries.
The New Citizens’ Movement already has a social basis. Thirty years of Reform and Opening Up has established the economic basis of private property and the market process. It has also brought with it a pluralistic society. The party in power has gone from a totalitarian regime to an authoritarian regime and then to an oligarchic regime; the forces of tyranny have already become weak, and therein the citizens’ movement already has a certain amount of leeway. The Internet, telecommunications, and other new technologies have sped up China’s enlightenment and the formation of citizens’ interpersonal networks. The trend of international democratization is transforming and restraining autocratic violence, and imbuing the political movements in newly democratic countries with the peaceful and rational spirit of world citizens.
Without the New Citizen, there can be neither a new civil society nor a constitutional China; the New Citizens’ Movement emphasizes the New Citizen, from the individual and the small matters on upward; it practices citizen responsibilities and does not obey the despotism of unspoken rules. It is not concurrent with privilege and corruption, believing instead in democratic rule of law, in the pursuit of freedom and fairness, civil movements, and a constitutional China.
The New Citizens’ Movement includes all types of current social movements and political movements: the “Grass Mud Horse” campaign, the displaced residents campaign, the campaign to oppose the household registration stratification, the campaign to remember June Fourth, the freedom of belief campaign, the blogging campaign, the environmental protection campaign, the food and health safety campaign, the campaign to elect deputies to people’s congresses, the microblog-based campaign attacking human trafficking, the campaign to oppose monopolies, the campaign to oppose corruption. These social and political movements are brought together by way of the New Citizens’ Movement.
The New Citizens’ Movement advocates the practice of the New Citizen spirit and societal responsibility in every sector: the New Citizen judge is impartial and evenhanded, loyal to the law and of good conscience. He or she does not pervert the law for the sake of dominance and selfishness. The New Citizen policeman is an impartial implementer of the law, removing the evil and content with the good, never torturing for confession, uncorrupted by dark and evil forces. The New Citizen public prosecutor is loyal to the country’s laws, does not appease corruption, does not pervert the course of justice and does not indulge in crime. The New Citizen deputy to the people’s congress has the courage to carry out the law for the benefit of the public; it is not a voting machine and rubber stamp.
The New Citizen teacher loves his or her students, never passing lies onto them. The New Citizen physician loves patients and does not accept bribes, arbitrarily prescribe medications, or discriminate against patients. The New Citizen lawyer abides by the law, lawfully defends the rights and interests of clients and does not bribe judges. The New Citizen accountant abides by accounting regulations and does not cook the books. The New Citizen editor and reporter seek the truth and do not report lies.
The New Citizen college student diligently studies, cares for the society—does not cheat on tests or plagiarize essays. The New Citizen scholar seeks truth with professionalism—does not flatter or ingratiate, or use another’s ideas as his or her own. The New Citizen artist expresses truth, goodness, and beauty and rejects unspoken rules. The New Citizen sports referee makes calls with impartial independence—does not blow the whistle unfairly. The New Citizen athlete competes fairly—does not throw competitions for profit. The New Citizen entrepreneur faces the market and runs business honestly—does not parlay favor with bigwigs. The New Citizen industrial worker guarantees the quality of products—does not use inferior materials to turn out substandard products or make fake, shoddy products. The New Citizen food manufacturer does not mix in poisonous and harmful materials. And so on.
To push forward the New Citizens’ Movement, the New Citizen can:
Disseminate the New Citizen Spirit: Explain the “freedom, righteousness, and love” of the New Citizen Spirit by way of online posts, street fliers, t-shirt slogans, and any other method of spreading the New Citizen Spirit. The New Citizen Spirit must appear on the Internet, flourish in the streets, and, most of all, take root in the deepest part in our hearts.
Practice New Citizen Responsibility: Promise to practice New Citizen Responsibility, stand fast to New Citizen behavioral standards, reject corruption in one’s life, reject the practice of seeking private gain at the expense of the public, be loyal to good conscience and do not actively do evil, do good service for society, and mutually supervise one another to carry out this promise. The New Citizen Spirit is the spirit of commitment, sacrificing one’s profit to be an example, to maintain good conscience and righteousness, up until righteousness exists all over the Chinese nation.
Use the “Citizen” sign or other identifying methods: Citizens design their own “Citizen” insignias, and strengthen their own Citizen status and self-affirmation by wearing the insignias in everyday life.
Participate in civic life: Hold regular mealtime talks, discuss current political situation, pay close attention to people’s livelihood, care for public service as well as public policy, help the weak, serve society, promulgate fairness and justice. Every place has a group of modern citizens. Everybody needs to group together for society to progress. Unity begins with acquaintance.
Unite to share labor and coordinate work. Repost messages, file lawsuits, photograph everyday injustices, wear t-shirts with slogans, witness everyday events [specifically referring to the phenomenon of standing in a circle around someone causing a scene to witness it], participate or openly refuse to participate in elections, transcribe [things that you see happen], hold gatherings or marches or demonstrations, do performance art, and use other methods in order to jointly promote citizens’ rights movements and citizens’ non-cooperation campaigns—such as assets reporting, openness of information, opposition to corruption, opposition to housing registration stratification, freedom of beliefs, freedom of speech, and the right of election. Practice the New Citizen Spirit in action. Citizens’ power grows in the citizens’ movement.
(Translated by an anonymous friend of seeingredinchina.com)