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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.
Zhuang Liehong, January 17, 2017
“Soon after, a dozen public security agents came to his house and forced him to sign his name to a document they provided, under the watch of three SWAT officers in his living room, who had their submachine guns pointed at his chest and head.”
On December 26, 2016, the Haifeng Court in Guangdong sentenced nine villagers from Wukan (six men and three women) to between two and ten years imprisonment, punishing them for participating in protests that swept Wukan for the second time, from June to September 2016, in response to the imprisonment of their democratically-elected village head Lin Zulian (林祖恋).
The protests were repressed by armed police and SWAT teams, and scores of villagers were arrested, including my father.
The trial and sentencing threw all procedural requirement out the window. The villagers were never indicted, the families not notified of their right to retain counsel. Nine villagers were tried during the course of one day on December 17, 2016, and sentenced in less than 30 minutes on December 26. Thirteen more villagers await trial.
Since the sentencing, I have been working with lawyers on appeals. None of the nine villagers plead guilty and all said they would appeal in court. Given that villagers are very afraid and Wukan has been under lockdown since the protests were put down, I felt that I must do everything I can to not only appeal for my father but also help others lodge appeals on behalf of their loved ones.
Of the nine villagers, Wei Yonghan (魏永汉) received the heaviest sentence — 10.5 years. On January 1, I contacted Wu Jijin (吴吉金), a young Wukan villager working at a coffee shop in Futian, Shenzhen, through the secure messaging application Signal, and through him reached Wei Huizhuan (魏慧转), Wei Yonghan’s niece. Her father, Wei Yongjian (魏永监), is the younger brother to Wei Yonghan. He initially believed that appealing his brother’s case would be tantamount to going against the government, and said: “It’s impossible to resist the government in Wukan now; otherwise we risk going to prison.” I spoke with Wei Yongjian about Wei Yonghan’s rights for three days, finally convincing him that appealing is simply the legal right of a defendant, that it’s the duty of the family, and that it’s entirely in accordance with the law. Wei Yongjian agreed to appeal on Wei Yonghan’s behalf, and he signed a power of attorney letter as well as a letter authorizing defense counsel, and sent them to the Bai Juming Law Firm in Guangxi Province (广西百举鸣律师事务所).
The very same day, Qin Yongpei (覃永沛) of the Bai Juming Law Firm was summoned for questioning by local security police and advised that “it would be best if you didn’t get involved in the sensitive Wukan affair.” On January 7, Qin Chenshou (覃臣寿) of the same law firm had his phone and computer hacked. All the case files were deleted, and he wasn’t able to access any of his social media accounts either.
The following day, after the sons of Hong Yongzhong (洪永忠) and Li Chulu (李楚卢) heard the news, each of them contacted me separately and prepared their own papers — powers of attorney and letters authorizing defense counsel. But before the documents could be sent off, that same night Hong Yongzhong’s son was hauled into the local police station where he was interrogated and intimidated. The outcome was that none of the documents were dispatched.
Then, just two days ago, the son of Yang Jinzhen (杨锦贞), who was of the view that the sentence given to his mother was simply preposterous, went to the Haifeng County People’s Court upon the direction of his lawyer and requested the official judgement. He was refused. He then went to the Wukan market asking villagers to attest to the innocence of his mother. This met with his immediate arrest by public security officials. He was threatened and forced to write a “guarantee statement” that he would not appeal. Yang’s son then took his father and left the village. The word is that they went back to Tianjin where he’d previously worked, and that before they left he said “history will be the judge of all this.”
Before I made contact with these family members, Wu Fang’s (吴芳) son had reached out to me and said that he was looking for a lawyer to appeal on his mother’s behalf. Soon after, a dozen public security agents came to his house and forced him to sign his name to a document they provided, under the watch of three SWAT officers in his living room, who had their submachine guns pointed at his chest and head.
On the afternoon of January 10, my cousin Zhuang Bing (庄冰), who attends university in Foshan, had her coach to Wukan intercepted. A dozen public security personnel came aboard and hauled her off for questioning, threatening her to the point of tears. Her computer used for schoolwork and cellphone were searched, and only after they established that she’d had no contact with me did they let her go.
Later that evening the young Wukan villager Wu Jijin, who had helped me to connect with Wei Yonghan’s relatives, contacted me on Signal: “Brother Zhuang! I’m in trouble. I have to make myself scarce for a while. From now on you’re not to send me any messages.” I assumed that Wu had been summoned by the police. It’s already been four or five days and Wu Jijin’s whereabouts are still unknown. His family hasn’t received any news from the police.
A few days ago, a dozen public security agents and government people came to my family home again. They walked around, covertly took some photos, and left. My mother said that since my father was arrested this has happened countless times. The purpose appears to be to create an atmosphere of terror. Previously, my mother, along with my brother who has physical and cognitive disabilities, were tricked into signing and thumbprinting a document whose contents they were not apprised of. The government personnel had folded part of the paper down when getting the signature, and it was only a few days after she was forced to sign it that my mother realized that they had probably been duped.
Ever since myself and a few friends began trying to seek legal aid for the nine illegally sentenced Wukan villagers, the authorities have been extremely on edge. First the security police called the lawyers in for questioning, then they fooled or threatened the family members into signing documents, including statements terminating legal representation. These are identical tactics to those used in the first wave of crackdowns against Wukan, targeting Hong Ruichao (洪锐潮), Yang Semao (杨色茂) and Lin Zulian, who were given jail sentences of four years, two years, and three years and one month respectively. The authorities have been completely unrestrained, unscrupulous, and lawless in their trampling on human rights to repress Wukan villagers.
On January 8 myself and a number of friends inside and outside China began a petition on WeChat, a popular Chinese social media app, to tell more people in China about what’s going on in Wukan and to support the lawful efforts of Wukan villagers to defend their rights. Two days later WeChat shut down the petition. By then 491 people had signed on in support.
As of the present, every one of the family members of the nine villagers who’ve been sentenced and who were prepared to appeal has been forced to back down. Wei Yonghan’s younger brother, who had already secured legal representation for Wei, on January 10 signed a “Statement on the Termination of Power of Attorney,” and withdrew from appealing. Currently we’re the only family who has persisted.
For the sake of my people in Wukan, I won’t be silent and won’t give up. I am currently the only involved Wukan villager who lives in a free country, and I’m going to use my freedom to keep speaking out, to let the world know what’s happening in my hometown.
Zhuang Liehong (庄烈宏)
New York City
January 14, 2017
Zhuang Liehong was one of the leaders of the 2011 Wukan uprising. He was elected a member of the Village Committee in March 2012. In early 2014 he left China to seek political asylum in the United States. He currently lives in New York.
Translated from Chinese by China Change.
Zhuang Liehong, January 5, 2017
Ten days ago on December 26, 2016, the Haifeng Court in Guangdong sentenced nine villagers from Wukan to between two and ten years imprisonment, as a means of punishing them for participating in protests. My father Zhuang Songkun (庄松坤) was among them. Through this article I hope readers outside China will gain an understanding of these arrests and the circumstances of the trial, and that the situation in Wukan will receive greater international attention.
From 2009 villagers in Wukan engaged in collective petitions and protests against collusion between government officials and businessmen, who were expropriating collectively-owned village land for personal profit. After years of being ignored by the government, mass protests broke out at the end of 2011. I was one of the organizers of the protests, and was arrested and temporarily jailed in 2011. Another protest leader, Xue Jinbo (薛锦波), was tortured to death in prison. Given the enormous international attention the protests attracted at the time, the then-Guangdong Party Secretary, Wang Yang (汪洋), made a number of positive overtures. He affirmed that the demands of Wukan villagers were legitimate and lawful, and promised that they would be resolved. In 2012, under the international spotlight, an election was held in Wukan to democratically form the village committee.
But retaliation was swift. From 2013 to 2016 the authorities arrested and sentenced respectively Zhang Dejia (张德家) and three rights defense leaders (Hong Ruichao 洪锐潮, Yang Semao 杨色茂, and Lin Zulian 林祖銮). As one of the seven elected village committee members, I fled China to the United States on January 27, 2014, to escape persecution and apply for political asylum.
Large-scale demonstrations erupted again in Wukan last year in protest against the authorities’ persecution of the head of the Wukan village committee, Lin Zulian. From June 19 to September 12, a total of 85 days, around 4,000 villagers took to the street every day in protest marches.
At about 3 a.m. on September 13, a large number of armed police moved on the village, raiding houses and arresting two dozen or so villagers that the government considered to be the most high-profile, including my father, Zhuang Songkun.
Come dawn, thousands of fully-armed People’s Armed Police locked down village street intersections, dividing the crowd and then crushing the protest. They fired countless rounds of rubber bullets, and volleyed canisters of tear gas and shock grenades into the unarmed villagers. Then they began surrounding and violently beating villagers, without regard to whether they were old, women, or children. Faced with this violent, armed suppression, villagers resorted to throwing rocks and bricks. Hundreds of villagers were injured during the conflict.
A few days later my mother received a “notice of criminal detention,” pertaining to my father. Twice my family sent cash and clothing to him, but they weren’t allowed to see him. Other detainees reported similar treatment. The nine have been detained in Haifeng County Detention Center (汕尾市海丰县看守所).
On December 14, a member of the village committee led government agents to my family home, telling my mother that my father would be tried between December 16 and 18, and that only two relatives could attend. My family had not yet received any notice that he was being indicted, neither was he, or any of the others, allowed to secure counsel.
On the morning of December 17 the government ferried the dozen-or-so family members of the nine defendants in a bus to the Haifeng County People’s Court for the trial. The entire day was spent with the judge reading aloud laws and statutes and enumerating the crimes of the nine villagers. Court sessions were frequently adjourned and then begun again.
All nine villagers pleaded not guilty, and the court said it would announce a verdict at a later date.
On December 25, family members were told that court would be in session the following day.
On December 26 at 8:00 a.m., relatives of the defendants were once again bused to the Haifeng People’s Court. Arriving sometime after 9:00 a.m, they were brought into court around 10:00 a.m. As they were led inside, they were told to sit in the second and third rows, separated from each other by government personnel on each side. The first few rows were filled with government people.
Before the court session, a harsh voice could be heard from an anteroom bawling the names of the nine villagers. At 10:10 a.m. the villagers were separately escorted by two police into the court. My mother could catch only the faint outline of my father’s head, given how far back she was sitting. When she craned her neck to the side and leaned in to try see him more clearly, immediately one of the government staff sitting beside her stopped her with his hand and ordered her not to move or say a word.
None of the nine defendants were allowed to speak through the proceedings.
The judge then began reading out sentences (now available on the court’s website), and the entire session lasted less than 30 minutes:
The judgement of the court has determined that: the defendants Wei Yonghan (魏永汉), Hong Yongzhong (洪永忠), Yang Jinzhen (杨锦贞), and Wu Fang (吴芳), disturbed public order with severe circumstances, forcing the cessation of production and business operations, and causing great damage; the defendants Wei Yonghan and Hong Yongzhong were the leaders, the defendants Yang Jinzhen and Wu Fang were active participants, and their actions constitute the crime of gathering a crowd to disturb public order.
Defendants Wei Yonghan, Hong Yongzhong, Yang Jinzhen, Wu Fang, Cai Jialin (蔡加麟), Zhuang Songkun, Li Chulu (李楚卢) and Chen Suzhuan (陈素转) failed to submit their petitions to the relevant authorities according to the law and gathered an assembly, performing marches and protests, without permission; after the admonishment of relevant government authorities, they refused to comply with an order to disperse, dealing severe damage to social order. They are all directly responsible parties, and their conduct constitutes the crime of illegal assembly, marching, and demonstration.
Defendants Zhuang Songkun and Cai Jialin gathered a crowd to block traffic with severe circumstances, they were both leaders, and their conduct constitutes the crime of gathering a crowd to disturb traffic order.
Defendants Wei Yonghan and Li Chulu used violent means to prevent officers of the state to carry out their duties according to the law, actions which constitute the crime of endangering public affairs.
Defendant Zhang Bingchai (张炳钗) deliberately promulgated information online that he clearly knew was false, severely disturbing social order; his actions constitute the crime of deliberately disseminating false information.
Defendants Wei Yonghan and Li Chulu violently attacked police officers who were discharging their duties, committing the crime of endangering public affairs, which demands severe punishment.
Defendants Wei Yonghan, Hong Yongzhong, Yang Jinzhen, Wu Fang, Zhuang Songkun, Cai Jialin and Li Chulu have committed multiple crimes, and should, according to the law, be punished for them concurrently.
With consideration to the defendants’ crimes, the criminal circumstances, and the damaging repercussions, the court makes the following sentences:
Wei Yonghan: Ten years, six months;
Yang Jinzhen: Six years;
Hong Yongzhong: Six years, six months;
Wu Fang: Five years;
Zhuang Songkun: Three years;
Cai Jialin: Three years;
Li Chulu: Three years;
Chen Suzhuan: Three years;
Zhang Bingchai: Two years.
After the sentences were announced, the judge asked the nine villagers whether they accepted the decisions and whether they would appeal. All nine said they would appeal. Then they were taken out of the courtroom. Again, their names were heard being called out loudly in the anteroom, while their relatives in the audience were taken to the hallway where they were made to stand and wait. The police siren sounded and the nine villagers were taken away. A bus then took the relatives back to Wukan.
From my father’s arrest to his sentence, my family received nothing from the authorities except for a notice of his criminal detention. The situation for the other eight was the same.
The Guangzhou-based human rights lawyer Sui Muqing (隋牧青) pointed out that the trial of the nine villagers violated procedural law in that: 1) based on relatives’ description of the courtroom scene, the trial was obviously not an open trial as it should have been; 2) it seems that none of the defendants had defense lawyers, and it was likely that the defendants were forcibly deprived of their rights to legal counsel.“Illegal procedure means an unjust trial,” said lawyer Sui Muqing. “I believe that the local authorities abused their power in trying the nine Wukan villagers, and similar to trials of Lin Zulian, Hong Ruichao, and other Wukan villagers, this trial is also a retaliation against the people of Wukan.”
In arresting and trying the villagers, the Chinese government once again demonstrated that it has no regard to the law when it comes to suppressing any form of dissent. It is unacceptable that such barbaric and fraudulent methods were used against the good people of Wukan. I will do everything I can to lead the relatives of the nine villagers to appeal the despicable sentences against them. We will do all we can to resist.
Thirteen more Wukan villagers are currently held at the Lufeng Detention Center (汕尾市陆丰看守所) awaiting trial.
Wukan nowadays is a ravaged place. The villagers have been facing more pressure on their livelihoods because they haven’t been able to recover their land lost to corruption. Since last September, Wukan’s streets and alleys have been patrolled by armed police day and night, and powerful floodlights have been set up around the entire village. Wukan villagers live in a big prison, and they need your attention and support.
I can be reached at email@example.com, or 1-(929) 500-1008
Special Report: Freedom fizzles out in China’s rebel town of Wukan, James Pomfret , Reuters, Feb. 2013.
For Over 36 Years, Grassroots Elections in China Have Made No Progress – An Interview With Hu Ping, China Change, November, 2016.
Translated from Chinese (《抗议对九名乌坎村民的非法审判》) by China Change.
Wu Qiang, December 14, 2016
“They had merely to sit on the edges of Tianfu Square wearing smog masks for police bring them in for interrogation until the early hours of the morning — this is a clear show of how deeply anxious Chengdu authorities are about protests against smog.”
For the last week, inland China has been enveloped in smog. Some cities issued emergency smog warnings; others cancelled outdoor activities at schools. In Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, the government banned gatherings in Tianfu Square (天府广场)— as though they were afraid of something. And just as expected, on the weekend, Chengdu residents came out in numbers on Chunxi road in the central business district and on Tianfu Square. Some sat down quietly wearing pollution masks, others held up banners of protest.
In the frigid winter night of a smog-enclosed 2016, the protest of Chengdu residents was like the flash of a shooting star.
These are the “smog politics” of contemporary China. The smog question has almost transformed the landscape of Chinese politics since February 2015, with the broadcast of the documentary “Under the Dome” (穹顶之下) by former CCTV journalist Chai Jing (柴静). The government has been busy: Under the aegis of unifying the Jing-Jin-Ji (Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei) conurbation, Beijing has embarked on a project of social engineering aimed at resolving the smog problem: heavily polluting industries in Hebei have been forced to lower output, stop production, or shutter; Beijing has embarked on a program of “low-end population congestion relief;” and villages on the outskirts of Beijing are in the midst of converting from coal-based to to natural gas energy for heating. Meanwhile, smog continues to enshroud China now and then, and saturating social media is the discontent of the Chinese middle-class, only interrupted from time to time by a variety of other politically-tinged incidents — the “poisoned running tracks,” “the Lei Yang incident,” the “Luo Er fundraising scandal,” and bullying at the Zhongguancun No. 2 Elementary School.
It is as though a new middle class, as full of uncertainty as it is of energy, is rapidly forming its own class politics in the shroud of China’s smog. There is, for instance, the movement to “make a fortune and get out as soon as possible,” referring to emigration. There are also large collectives of underground discontent who express themselves on social media. And then there are always the unexpected small-scale protest actions in the streets.
Even as the authorities move to suppress human rights lawyers and emphasize once again political thought work in schools, a politically-awakened middle-class, oriented around the politics of pollution, is forming in a rapidly urbanizing China. With their own series of often indecisive demands and modes of expression, they’ve begun to displace the rights defense movement that came before, and their numbers are quietly growing.
For instance, on the evening of December 11 in Tianfu Square, the majority of those in the sit-in were local artists and culture workers — they’d either come of their own initiative, or were mobilized by emphatic protest slogans shared on social media in the last few days. The online posts advertising the protest seemed to be inspired by the confluence of art and politics over the last few years: the various artistic creations of Ai Weiwei (艾未未), for instance, or the protest performances of the Song Zhuang art circle (北京宋庄艺术圈子), or the anti-smog demonstrations during the Beijing Marathon. They had merely to sit on the edges of Tianfu Square wearing smog masks for police to bring them in for interrogation until the early hours of the morning — this is a clear show of how deeply anxious Chengdu authorities are about protests against smog. Local social media users on Monday even circulated an official notice that the wearing of masks is prohibited during school assembly, and that air purifiers were not going to be installed. It’s as though wearing a face mask is mobilizing for a color revolution.
The deep fearfulness of the regime makes clear the power of middle-class politics “under the dome”: they need barely to raise a crowd — simply holding a small-scale protest action, even when unlikely to have any real effect, makes the authorities extremely nervous, and they rally the troops like it was the eve of battle. The Pengzhou petrochemical project (彭州石化项目), close to Chengdu and most likely to have a deleterious impact on the environment, probably won’t be scrapped because of this. But leading officials in Sichuan and Chengdu know they don’t have the option of putting their feet up and blaming everything on the policies of those who came before. Quite the opposite: it’s likely that in the weeks and months ahead, they’ll be stewing over the protests, like they’re sitting on the mouth of a volcano. Perhaps this is precisely the homogenizing character of smog: concentrated in major cities, yet inescapable to all.
This is where smog politics differs from the NIMBY movement of the past few years. When the Pengzhou petrochemical plant got going, Chengdu didn’t erupt in mass protests like those against the paraxylene plant in Xiamen in 2013. That requires a small number of committed environmental activists coupled with widespread public engagement — but now the prophylactic and suppressive power of the security forces has grown so quickly, they’re able to shut such protests down.
Smog is different. Within just a few years, it’s turned all city dwellers into collective victims — and amplified the sense of frustration and grievance of those who are trying, and every day failing, to enter the middle class. The most aggrieved among them aren’t rights defenders that the authorities have already identified, ready to apprehend at a moment’s notice. Now, no matter how small the protest is — even if it’s just a selfie with a slogan written on paper — as soon as it happens, the homogenizing character of China’s pollution politics means that everyone soon hears about it, and it becomes a general protest.
All this means that everyone — not just those in North China, or denizens along the Yangtze river or coast, but the central and local governments too, and the state-backed “environmental experts” who were brought out to defend the Pengzhou petrochemical plant, as well as the nationalists like Zhou Xiaoping (周小平) — now finds themselves in an uncertain and unprecedented gambit. There’s no solution: only the arrival of a crisp northern gale, or a summer typhoon, is able to temporarily lift the stifling smog.
But these two natural forces are no help to those in the Chengdu basin. As long as the smog doesn’t clear, protests in Chengdu will continue to serve as a model specimen of China’s pollution politics, keeping the discussion alive among the urbanized middle class, fanning debate, and inviting citizens elsewhere to emulate. This will be a test of whether or not China has something like a “civil society,” and whether its middle class has political significance. Like France on the eve of 1789, any spontaneous protests by Chengdu citizens could turn into a movement demanding clean air. When that happens, the final stage of pollution politics will have arrived.
Dr. Wu Qiang (吴强) holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany. He is a researcher of social movements and a freelance writer.
Also by Wu Qiang:
Huang Simin, October 13, 2016
“If you want to understand your own country, then you’ve already stepped on the path to criminality.” — Ai Weiwei
“Do you think there is dignity in living a good life in this country?” — Li Tingyu
Born and raised in Guangdong, Li Tingyu (李婷玉) was a student at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou where she majored in English but dropped out in senior year. She had been working with her boyfriend Lu Yuyu (卢昱宇) on the self-published media known as 非新闻 (“Non-News”) until the couple’s detention on June 16 this year. The two were charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” and are currently detained in the Dali Detention Center, Yunnan.
Li Tingyu and Lu Yuyu have become well-known online in recent years for their dogged work, through the Non-News blog, in searching, collating, and publishing information about mass incidents around China.
As Li Tingyu’s lawyer, I came to understand her personal background and history in the course of representing her and meeting her in custody. She gave her permission for me to set it down.
Childhood Encounter with Migrant Workers
The question “How’d you end up here?” sounds like the beginning of an interrogation. When I asked Li Tingyu, she wasn’t put off. She laughed, then told me her story.
Li was born in 1991 in a small, well-off village in Foshan, Guangdong Province. She grew up in complete comfort, attended elementary school in the village, and had not the slightest understanding of the outside world. The village had a large number of “migrant workers,” however, and her best friend was from Chongqing — the daughter of a migrant worker. The girl’s mother collected trash for a living, and her father worked in a factory. They had to pay very high tuition — a few thousand yuan, which was a big chunk of household income — for the daughter to attend school in the village. The girl one day invited Li Tingyu to her place to play, and Li was shocked by the overcrowded ghetto of shanty houses. She couldn’t understand why the other villagers, of which she was a part, could do nothing but collect rent and lead a life of leisure, while migrant workers had to wear themselves down with arduous manual labor. In the end the friend from Chongqing had to go back home to continue her studies.
Later on, her readings exposed her to the issues of the Hukou system and workers’ rights, and she grasped at once what was going on — the experiences and observations of her childhood had left her with a deep impression.
A Petite Rebel
When she was in junior high school in the early 2000s, Li developed an appetite for devouring books and news stories online, mostly on politics, society, and the economy. She was fascinated by pedagogy, and after learning about the educational systems elsewhere in the world, penned an earnest letter to her headmaster demanding that he not “ruin us students with exam-oriented education.” Of course, the principal of a middle school in China is not going to follow this sort of advice. But at that age Li Tingyu was already developing independent ideas about how things were, and making her own choices. She managed to spend the minimum effort to get through the exams and still got grades near the top of her class, and used the rest of her time to read what she wanted. It was a boarding school, so Li would often burrow under the blanket with a flashlight and a book deep into the night.
By the time Li Tingyu was in high school, the atmosphere online was fairly liberal [the years leading up to the Olympics in 2008] — at least, much better than it is today — and blogs were all the rage. Li read them avidly, and gained an ever deeper understanding of Chinese society. She said that this period was a kind of awakening for her.
Li recalled her politics teacher in senior high school — he personally participated in the 1989 student movement, was punished by local authorities, and in 1991 left his hometown and came with the son to Guangzhou, finally winding up in this small town teaching high school. This teacher wasn’t like the others, forcing students to woodenly parrot political texts — instead, he often ended up speaking about his experiences in the student movement. He encouraged students to go and read up about what really happened. This teacher left a deep impression on the students. Luckily — and unexpectedly — the teacher wasn’t reported to the authorities.
Li Tingyu also recalled how her classmates would pass around Zhao Ziyang’s memoirs on QQ, a Chinese messaging app. Through all this, her understanding of China continued to evolve.
The GoAgent ‘Savior’
At some point during senior high school Li read an essay by Zhang Ming, a well-known academic and liberal intellectual, analyzing the wreck that is China’s university system. From that point on Li held a low regard for life at university. She chose English for two reasons: she was good at it and she saw English as a tool for assimilating more information. Knowing that books in Chinese were often censored in facts and interpretation, she often went straight to English. The Sun Yat-sen University library had a number of English volumes on the June 4 movement, and she read them all.
Li says that, to a large extent, the internet changed her life — especially in the third year of undergraduate studies, when she learnt how to “jump the Great Firewall” with a VPN called GoAgent. She had installed GoAgent on the computers of at least 50-60 of her friends. There were teachers at the university who asked her help to install the software. Li said that through all this she experienced an ineffable “savior”-type feeling: only through being able to access free information was it possible to understand the reality in China. Even if her fellow students only wanted to read celebrity news to begin with, as time went on, they’d start paying attention to social issues. She was once reported by a fellow student for “politically incorrect” speech, and her school counselor urged her to be a more careful about who she revealed her thoughts to.
A ‘Good Life’ Without Dignity
Li recalled a conversation she once had with a friend online about the “reincarnation party” (an internet term, primarily used on Weibo, that refers to individuals who have had their accounts deleted, and who then re-establish a second, third, or fourth ‘life’ on Weibo to continue their protest). The friend was a graduate student of sociology at Peking University, doing research on the topic. The friend remarked, with an obvious sense of superiority, about how the internet at Peking University wasn’t restricted, that he can find find out whatever information he wants easily, and how he would emigrate to live a better life.” I interjected that there are plenty of people who think like this. Li recalled, still indignant, “he didn’t care about fighting against the information restrictions; instead, he bragged about his privilege of having more access than others.”
“Do you think there is dignity in living a good life in this country?” she asked him.
I fell silent. Indeed, having a true life of dignity in China comes at an enormous cost. In a society that lacks the most basic rights, the “dignity” that most people enjoy is as false and fleeting as soap bubbles. In reality, it’s the Li Tingyus of China, now in jail, who are actually living with dignity.
The Turning Point
Everyone has a turning point at some time in their lives — the episodes that drive us to do what we do now. A few years ago I was in the office of lawyer Li Heping, looking over files and documentary materials on the “Leping death penalty case,” when I violently broke into tears. In the end, I forgot I had to catch my train. From that point on things inside me changed. Li Heping, though, is now in detention for supposed “subversion of state power.”
I asked Li Tingyu whether she had a turning point. She mentioned a few episodes that did it. Once, doing homework on media studies, she stumbled across a website in India that contained an account of self-immolations in Tibet. The news stunned her. During the “Southern Weekend incident,” in which her friends from senior high school went along to support, and in the end were taken into custody. She and her friends used Weibo to get the message out about the friends’ detention. That was the first time that Li had been that close to a specific act of resistance. Later, she encountered activists, and that also brought changes to her life.
I asked why she quit university when she was in the fourth and final year. She responded, earnestly, that she’d figured it out years ago that the diploma meant little to her. I responded that I’d also been something of a rebel, but I couldn’t do something like that — especially given that it only requires sticking at it for a few more months until graduation.
She thought quietly for a moment, and said she grew up with her grandparents, and after they died she moved in with her mom and dad, but they never really communicated. “No one really looked after my life,” she said.
I didn’t probe further. So many of our feelings are so deep inside. How much solitude and suffering must one silently bear to gain that level of resolve and courage? All I can say is: I wish you well, Li Tingyu.
September 5, 2016
Huang Simin (黄思敏) is a Hubei-based lawyer.
What Do Lu Yuyu’s Statistics of Protest Tell Us About the Chinese Society Today, by Wu Qiang, July, 2016
Wu Qiang, July 6, 2016
As we were readying to post this translation, we learned that two lawyers met with Lu Yuyu and two other lawyers met with Li Tingyu on July 6 in the Dali Detention Center, Yunnan Province. — The Editors
“June 13, Monday, 94 incidents,” Lu Yuyu’s last tweet read on June 15. On June 24, the news spread that Lu Yuyu (卢昱宇) and his girlfriend Li Tingyu (李婷玉) were detained for “provoking disturbances.”
Open his blogpost that day and you can see the 94 incidents grouped into categories, 5 of them highlighted, each with a link to the original post on Chinese social media (though some have long been censored). We learn that on June 13, in 21 provinces and 3 municipalities directly under the central government, workers protested for unpaid wages; taxi drivers blocked roads in protest against Didi Dache, a Chinese version of Uber; farmers protested against environmental degradation or land expropriation; property owners protested various forms of exploitation and fraud; investors protested scams that robbed them of years of savings; veterans lodged a petition for fair treatment; passersby protested police brutality…
This is what Lu Yuyu and Li Tingyu have been doing for four years every day: researching, tallying, and publishing information about protests in China. He knew this day would come. Nor am I surprised.
I first met Lu Yuyu in a cafe in Fuzhou in July, 2013. I was an academic researcher on social movements and he was a frontline citizen reporter. As such, he was a unique participant in the events he recorded. The notes from that two-hour interview became the raw material for my research paper, but I never sorted them out and published it. Now that he is detained, I re-opened my notes to recall “Lao Lu” (Old Lu) — as activists affectionately called him.
Lu Yuyu was born in 1979 and didn’t finish college. In October, 2011, he was identified by police in Shanghai and called in for an interrogation after he re-posted news about the blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng. He didn’t make a fuss over it, online or off. Instead, he began a one-man protest. Between April and September 2012, he alone picketed the government, demanding that officials disclose their assets and that citizens be given the right to vote. Picketing was once the main activity of the Southern Street Movement. But Lu Yuyu realized that, while his protest tested his courage, it made little impact.
Eventually he was driven out of Shanghai by police. He stayed in Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Fuzhou. Everywhere he was, he was driven away — a common practice by the Chinese police against activists. In some cases, the police would threaten the landlord who rent them the apartment, or the friends providing a play to stay. These days, local security police drive away activists in their jurisdiction as part of their stability maintenance obligations. Lu Yuyu stayed in Fuzhou somewhat longer than elsewhere, and that was how we met for the interview.
Also around April 2012, Lu Yuyu began to collect information about rights defense incidents across the country, then sorting and publishing them. Soon after he started, foreign media outlets began picking up the news, some even contacting him directly to verify information. In the process, he grew more meticulous about verifying data, including seeking multiple sources, and contacting participants and internet posters directly. Lu became a unique citizen journalist.
Lu Yuyu told me that he searches Weibo, QQ, and BBSs everyday, identifying the basic information about each incident through text and photos posted online. Then he searches other sources to verify the information, including time, location, cause, demands, scale, and whether there was a crackdown, before posting it online. As with his post on June 15, he also sorts the incidents by day, week, month, region, and nature of the protest, as well as highlighting incidents involving more than 1,000 protesters.
For instance, in June 2013 Lu recorded 53 mass incidents in which people fought for the protection of their rights. Among these, nearly half involved violent clashes. The majority were in response to expropriation of land and forced demolitions, as well as labor protests, with 13 and 11 incidents in each category. There were 9 incidents caused by government non-action and 7 caused by police or urban enforcement brutality. Finally there were 5 protests respectively in response to environmental issues and corruption. The groups that were most involved were rural people, with 22 incidents, and urban workers and residents, also with 22 incidents, while the rest were single-issue business proprietors, students, teachers, taxi drivers, and petitioners. Geographically, most of the resistance was in Guangdong (12 cases), while the rest were in Guangxi (5), Jiangsu (4), Zhejiang (4), with progressively fewer in more inland and less developed areas. Protest statistics increased only slightly in July, for a total of 59 cases. But the number of worker strikes in Guangdong jumped up significantly, reflecting a burgeoning workers movement in the Pearl River Delta. This trend continued all the way until 2015 when the authorities began their crackdown on labor organizing.
Whether for someone like me, a researcher of social movements, or for anyone who takes an interest in China’s rights defense incidents, Lu Yuyu’s record-keeping is unique and irreplaceable. In particular, it’s important to note that the Chinese government stopped publishing statistics on “mass incidents” in 2008. The trend of protests with more than 10 people had begun at 10,000 in 1994, increasing steadily every year, with 58,000 in 2003, 74,000 in 2004, and an estimated total of more than 100,000 in 2008. Statistics on the incidents involving over 1,000 people is retained as internal information and isn’t published. The media can only go by the fragmentary information reported online, given that there’s no official continuous statistics. Social movement researchers have an even more difficult time, often only able to piece together trends gleaned from the limited information in printed publications. These printed materials are often highly susceptible to propaganda restrictions and whatever the policies of the day happen to be. Though the incidents of resistance catalogued by Lu Yuyu using new media platforms are far less in number than what official sources had been reporting a decade ago, they have been the only independent source of information that the outside world has had recourse to.
The most obvious change was after 2013, when the proportion of land dispute cases dropped and the number of labor disputes and urban protests increased. Labor rights protests often revolve around unpaid wages and social security issues, while urban resistance mostly related to “Not-In-My-Back-Yard” activism and other specific complaints — for instance, equal access to education, the taxi system, opposition to police violence, and so on. This shows that rights defense activities have become increasingly urbanized , and that urban residents and workers are becoming the key actors in the rights defense movement in China.
Lu Yuyu summed it up by saying that, given the same protest, those in rural areas are more likely to be suppressed, while urbanites are more likely to be successful. Mass protests in rural areas are often swiftly followed by violent suppression, and this happens less in urban settings.
Although, after 2014 this contrast also began to change. As the number of large-scale urban protests increased, the number of violent clashes climbed. This very much shows the shifting power of Chinese social movements and their changing trends: As the middle-class rises and urban residents are more empowered, city protests have quietly replaced the more dispersed rural protests since the 1990s; protesters are also finding that they are able to resolve their demands through their struggle. On the other hand, the old model of rights defense in rural areas, of “resisting according to the law,” has instead often been terminated by harsh repression. As a result, more and more rural people have been shepherded into cities, and the rate of urban-based protests has also accelerated.
Another aspect to it is that, entering 2014, the frequency of mass incidents involving more than 1,000 people dropped, stabilizing at an average of 30 per month, apparently showing that rights defense mobilization has been effectively suppressed. Post-2014, the authorities used more severe preventative suppression, including “cleansing the internet” campaigns, attacking “big Vs,” apprehending activists, news disseminators, and NGO workers. All this decreased the likelihood of large-scale protest incidents. For those spontaneous and sudden mass protests, along the lines of the Weng’an model (瓮安模式) of some years ago, it was quite effective. Similarly, for the forms of public resistance that rely on a high-degree of organization, like the Wukan protests, it was also effective. The kind of prophylactic form of suppression also made Lu Yuyu’s work of compiling and spreading such news suddenly more dangerous.
Since 2015, Lu Yuyu found that the number of protests involving 10 or more people shot up. He recorded 28,950 incidents in 2015, a 34% increase from 2014. In the first half of 2016 the number continued to climb, while the number of large protests involving 1,000 people or more reached about 40 per month. What do all these numbers mean? Did social conflicts continue to escalate as the regime adjusted its stability maintenance policies? Or is it that a souring economy engendered more labor unrests, which spread to Henan and other heartland provinces?
What will it lead to as these protests grow in number and coalesce on cities? Lu Yuyu’s statistics do not provide answers, but they have helped inform much research on China, including my own. At the same time, the Chinese government has come to see high-frequency protests as the biggest threat to its regime because, as in Tunisia, they can trigger an avalanche of protest. These perceived threats are driving China to transition from a stability maintenance mode to a mechanism of total security lockdown.
The regime’s ubiquitous menace of power has had a profound effect on the daily lives and activities on practically all activists in China over the last few years, and has gradually pushed many of them to the margins of society. Resistance has thus become a way of life for those on the fringes. Lu Yuyu was spending 4 to 5 hours every day online dedicated to searching for traces of protests. (At the beginning it took him sometimes over 10 hours.) To ensure that he’d have continuous statistics, he had no choice but to quit his job. Due to the obvious dangers of his work, Lu never used a fixed IP address to publish his information, but would instead make his way about the city, borrowing open WiFi connections. In early 2013, a student at Sun Yat-sen University took note of his work and began sharing the burden. They pushed updates on Sina Weibo and Twitter, and ran a blog for the publication of the statistics and preliminary categorizations. Li Tingyu, having gradually become part of Lu’s solitary enterprise and life, also became his partner. She decided to drop out of university, live on the margins, and to lead a life of resistance. It’s full of danger, but also full of purpose.
This was their own form of protest.
(The essay has been edited with permission of the author.)
Dr. Wu Qiang (吴强) holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany. He is a researcher of social movements and a freelance writer.
Also by Wu Qiang on China Change: