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Wu Qiang, June 30, 2017
These actions show that Liu Xiaobo is not only a hardworking dissident author, but also a leader and organizer of political opposition. His superb leadership ability and political acumen allowed him to establish, during the course of the first decade of the 21st century, in a strict authoritarian environment, a movement that inherited the spirit of the Tiananmen democracy movement, an organizational network, and a nationwide opposition platform. In each instance he changed the pessimistic attitude people had toward the political “circumstances,” and helped Chinese citizens stop waiting around and watching from the sidelines, instead inspiring them to actively work for change themselves. — Wu Qiang
The news of Liu Xiaobo’s (刘晓波) terminal liver cancer emerged over the last few days on Chinese social media and in the international press and, remarkably, was met with official confirmation. Amidst the shock and grievance, an open letter by Chinese intellectuals, dissidents, and activists has been published demanding that Liu be released to receive medical treatment. Many are now wondering: How will the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize laureate spend the final days of his life? Will he be able to actually receive the prize from the Norwegian Nobel Committee? Will his life and death alter China’s destiny? In particular, in the crucial period before the Chinese Communist Party’s 19th National Party Congress this fall, the deterioration of Liu Xiaobo’s health, as well as his status as a political symbol, have become sensitive questions that could play a role in political developments and have potentially explosive implications.
It must, of course, be acknowledged that accurately evaluating Liu Xiaobo’s political contribution and assessing the impact of his death is exceedingly difficult. The influence of Liu Xiaobo on the minds of the majority of the Chinese citizenry isn’t as great as his supporters sometimes imagine. The older generation is likely to have a vague impression of him being maligned by the government after the June 4 massacre as a “black hand behind the scenes,” while younger people are apt to have no idea at all who he is — just as they have no memories of the Tiananmen movement itself.
Even in the world of Chinese political activists, opinions on Liu Xiaobo are polarized, and this has to a large degree also impacted his exposure among the public. The most controversial item is no doubt the last sentence of Liu’s statement, delivered to the court on November 23, 2009 (and later adapted as his Nobel acceptance speech in absentia): “ I Have No Enemies.” A significant number of committed democracy activists in China have for years strongly maintained that this pledge was no less than Liu’s capitulation. They facetiously call him “No Enemy Liu,” and dismiss his path of nonviolent resistance. This, however, is precisely why the Norwegian Nobel Committee thought so highly of him, and it’s likely also the reason that so many Chinese activists are proud of him and see him as China’s own Mandela, Ghandi, Aung San Suu Kyi, or Xanana Gusmão. Though it also led to another view, which was that the civil society in China has no need to call for Liu’s amnesty, as this would simply be an acknowledgement of the legitimacy of the sentence against him. This has been a view propagated precisely by the activists who purportedly support Liu.
The result of all this has been that, while Liu Xiaobo spent nearly a long decade in jail, not only was his wife Liu Xia (刘霞) put under house arrest and isolated by the authorities, but the so-called Liu Xiaobo supporters, who supposedly had “no enemies,” created a conceptual rift between Liu Xiaobo and the public. They not only failed to proactively expound on his theories of nonviolent resistance — the failure to do which goes against what Liu stood for in the first place — but in fact ended up playing the role of isolating him, and dampening the awareness of his political contribution among the Chinese citizenry. It must be observed, of course, that this circumstance to some degree reflects the fragmented and chaotic state of opposition politics, and the attenuation of civil society in post-2008 China, when Liu was detained and jailed. For all these reasons, evaluating afresh Liu Xiaobo’s remarkable contribution to Chinese opposition politics, including from the perspective of the Norwegian Nobel Committee when they gave him the prestigious award, will be a profitable exercise.
December 10, 2010, was the two year anniversary since Liu Xiaobo’s involvement in the “Charter 08” movement; it was also the United Nations’ Human Rights Day; and it was the day that the Norwegian Nobel Committee left an empty chair for Liu Xiaobo at the ceremony in which they awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize. The award ceremony speech recollected the history of Liu Xiaobo’s activism, from the 1989 Tiananmen student protests to the “Charter 08” movement, and praised him for his commitment to nonviolent activism; on this topic the chairman of the committee quoted Liu’s own words: “The greatness of non-violent resistance is that even as man is faced with forceful tyranny and the resulting suffering, the victim responds to hate with love, to prejudice with tolerance, to arrogance with humility, to humiliation with dignity, and to violence with reason.”
This is obviously an entirely appropriate summation and praise of Liu Xiaobo’s struggle for human rights — and yet, it still doesn’t fully make clear the special contribution Liu made to promoting resistance in China and political transition over the over 20 years since 1989. Liu is closer to an Aung San Suu Kyi than a Mandela, who at one point embraced armed resistance, or a Gusmao, the leader of East Timor’s resistance movement. Liu’s work far exceeds either the narrow praise or attacks afforded it by his typical supporters and critics. Liu Xiaobo’s contribution and influence has successors among today’s social and political activists. Every year during the June 4 memorial in Hong Kong, the seed that Liu planted can be seen, grown and blooming once again.
Simply put, when he was released from prison the second time in 1999, Liu picked up the pen instead of the sword, quickly becoming an active voice for political dissent. But more importantly, in the short period in which he was free, he was involved in the founding of three movements and organizations that were the embryonic form of China’s political opposition — this is what gives Liu his stature as China’s equivalent to a Mandela-type political figure.
Firstly, in 2000 Liu Xiaobo helped Ding Zilin (丁子霖), Zhang Xianling (张先玲), and others, to initiate the “Tiananmen Mothers” (天安门母亲) movement. By 2004, 15 years after the Tiananmen movement, Tiananmen Mothers had collated a name list of 126 mothers of those killed; on May 16 of that year, 40 Tiananmen Mothers mourned together in a joint ceremony. The significance of this was that it turned what was in 1990 a small-scale group of mothers who were petitioning and writing appeals, into a social movement that enjoyed widespread public support and international currency. Tiananmen Mothers persists to this day, having become something like the Chinese version of Argentina’s “Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo.” This is just an example of the precious value of the example set by Liu’s nonviolent ideals that encourages more and more mothers and wives of human rights victims to join the struggle — the latest manifestation of which is the group of wives of the “709” human rights lawyers.
Secondly, in 2001, Liu Xiaobo and the exile democrats Bei Ling (贝岭), Meng Lang (孟浪), and others, together established what would become the Independent Chinese PEN Center (独立中文笔会); he also served as its president for two terms. It was an attempt to appeal to the widest possible number of Chinese political dissidents and writers. He turned the Center into a meeting ground for China’s rights defense activists and political dissidents, and planted the seed for China’s opposition movements and online presence.
Thirdly, in 2008, 60 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was promulgated, 30 years after the Xidan Democracy Wall movement, and 10 years after China signed (but did not ratify) the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Liu Xiaobo, Zhang Zuhua (张祖桦) and others, in imitation of Czechoslovakia’s “Charter 77” movement, initiated a “Charter 08” for China. The goal was to mobilize, to the maximum extent, China’s forces of political opposition and to initiate a “gradual, peaceful, orderly, and manageable” transition to constitutional governance. Liu Xiaobo was arrested for this, charged with “inciting subversion of state power,” and sentenced to 11 years imprisonment.
These actions show that Liu Xiaobo is not only a hardworking dissident author, but also a leader and organizer of political opposition. His superb leadership ability and political acumen allowed him to establish, during the course of the first decade of the 21st century, in a strict authoritarian environment, a movement that inherited the spirit of the Tiananmen democracy movement, an organizational network, and a nationwide opposition platform. In each instance he changed the pessimistic attitude people had toward the political “circumstances,” and helped Chinese citizens stop waiting around and watching from the sidelines, instead inspiring them to actively work for change themselves.
Some of these activities were publicized and learned about abroad, while others were kept quiet, and only those deeply involved knew what really happened. The organizers were as circumspect and low-key as Liu Xiaobo — silently and diligently working away in the post-1989 period of social transformation, advocating gradual transition like Liu Xiaobo. They gradually but steadfastly got past the muddled sense of opposition they felt during the 1989 movement, the vague “self-reflection” they went through in the early 1990s. They bid farewell to the often noisy and chaotic “overseas democracy movement” set off by the Xidan Democracy Wall and followed by large-scale exile after 1989. Instead, they worked to build the framework, in the era of China’s economic takeoff, social transformation and Internet, for a clear and purposeful opposition movement that would have a far-reaching impact on China’s development and the direction of its future political transition. Liu Xiaobo led this transition of China’s political opposition, exactly the way he abruptly left the U. S. as a visiting scholar in the later half of the 1989 student movement to exercise leadership. In both instances, his actions were rooted in mature thinking.
More valuable again was Liu Xiaobo’s continued insistence on non-violent resistance and political opposition, despite being sentenced to 11 years in prison. This is the dual meaning of Liu’s “I have no enemies” statement: persevering in non-violent resistance — rather than adopting a “fight to the death” style — is the only way to preserve space for political opposition in a highly authoritarian state, as well as to preserve the flexibility, possibility, and longevity of the opposition movement. Characteristic of this is Liu Xiaobo’s insistence in court of upholding Article 35 of the Chinese constitution, regarding the rights to freedom of speech, the press, assembly, organization, marches, and demonstrations. In so doing he turned the criminal accusations against him into a political defense of his own constitutional rights and an examination of the judicial system. This is another important way for political opposition movements in China to engage in lawful struggle.
Apart from being welcomed by the opposition movement itself, this mode of resistance also has a strong appeal to the wider Chinese citizenry, including the burgeoning middle class, whose pursuit of the “good life” and social order it fits in well with. As Walter Benjamin writes in Theological-Political Fragment, the secular order founded in and oriented around the good life is constituted by a value outlook based on love, lenience, humility, dignity, and rationality — it transcends the relationship between the public and the sovereign or its police agents, as well as the ruling structure. This spirit was continued in the “New Citizens Movement” (新公民运动) of Xu Zhiyong (许志永) and others. That movement emphasized “liberty, justice, love” and was an attempt to, through the concept of “transparent, constitutional government” and the demand for “equality in education,” and so on, mobilize a growing urban middle class, and transform them into a new political force.
Thus, precisely in an authoritarian, materialist state full of human rights abuses, Liu Xiaobo’s voice in the courtroom that “I have no enemies,” injected into China’s human rights struggle and political opposition the Buddhist-inspired spirit of compassion of Aung San Suu Kyi, a spiritual power that shows a specially Asian character in its vision of the struggle for human rights and the transition to democracy. This was not only enough to sustain Liu through his imprisonment; it will also become part of his precious moral heritage and political legacy; it will win him wider public support; and it will have a long-lasting influence on the future of political opposition in China.
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:
Translated from a revised version of this article: https://theinitium.com/article/20170628-opinion-wuqiang-liuxiaobo/
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:
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:
By Wu Qiang, published: October 12, 2015
“The coming new Cold War will be nothing less than a fight for our own freedom, a conflict in which the free world will be forced to contend with a China that is reverting to a 1984-style totalitarian state.”
Perhaps Sino-American relations really have reached a turning point: during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent week-long official visit to the United States, his only contact with American President Barack Obama was one state dinner and a single day of talks. Nor did the long-awaited summit – the run-up to which began on September 3, 2015, with a massive military parade in Beijing to mark the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in WWII – yield any stunning achievements. At press conferences before and after the summit, the discrepancies between the two sides were very much in evidence. Not since Deng Xiaoping’s state visit in 1979 has a China-U.S. summit been marked by such stark differences of opinion.
How serious are these differences of opinion, and how much will they matter in the long run? What impact will they have on the diplomatic assessment of Xi Jinping’s official visit? To answer these questions, we must look to the fundamentals of Sino-American diplomacy.
The Sino-American relationship has long been China’s top diplomatic priority
We know that from 1949 to the present, Sino-American relations have been defined by the efforts of two generations of political strongmen: first Mao Zedong, then Deng Xiaoping. In his later years, Mao Zedong used Kissinger and Nixon’s visit to China as an opening to normalize Sino-American relations and to help China emerge from its Cold War isolation and the chaos of the Cultural Revolution.
For those in the Communist camp, Sino-American détente was the turning point in a long chain of destabilizing events – the death of Stalin, the 1953 East German uprising, the 1956 Poznań protests in Poland, Khrushchev’s secret speech denouncing Stalin, the Hungarian Uprising, and the “Prague Spring” of 1968 – that threatened to upset the political equilibrium and expose splits within the Communist bloc. All of the achievements of China’s current “reform & opening” [economic liberalization] policies are built upon this political legacy. Deng Xiaoping both inherited and continued Mao’s policies: soon after taking office, Deng made an official visit to the U.S. that inaugurated a “honeymoon period” in Sino-American relations, while at the same time launching a border war with Vietnam and consolidating his political power at home.
The technocratic leaders who succeeded Deng Xiaoping have invariably made the Sino-American relationship their main diplomatic priority: focusing on issues such as access to American markets, China’s most-favored-nation trading status, and 21st century counter-terrorism operations has allowed them to maintain stability, promote economic development and ensure uncontested political dominance at home. Despite some ups and downs, both sides have employed active diplomacy to defuse conflicts ranging from the minor (the 1999 Yinhe container ship incident and the 1999 Wen Ho Lee case) to the major (the 1989 Tiananmen Square killings, the 1999 U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, and the 2001 collision of a U.S. Navy spy plane and a PLA jet fighter near Hainan Island), so as not to disrupt the overarching theme of Sino-American cooperation.
The 2015 Sino-American summit: reversing course
On Xi Jinping’s first official visit to the U.S., made three years after he assumed office, something seems to have gone awry. Other than a few agreed-upon topics such as climate change and technical cooperation, there was scant progress in resolving major differences, particularly in the areas of Internet security, South China Sea, and human rights.
Regarding Internet security, although Xi led a large Chinese delegation to Seattle where they spent three days wooing Internet giants, they were unable to mitigate the fundamental differences on Internet security that emerged during bilateral discussions with the White House. Regarding human rights, although Xi Jinping and China’s First Lady Peng Liyuan (彭丽媛) personally stepped up by making appearances at the United Nations General Assembly in New York and the Global Leaders’ Meeting on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment: A Commitment to Action, where they pledged support for the High-level Roundtable on South-South Cooperation and a women’s poverty alleviation fund, respectively, neither could match up to Hillary Clinton’s one-word rejoinder about China’s hypocrisy on the women’s rights front: “shameless.”
For the first time, a Sino-American summit backed by years of preparation – including an ostentatious September 3 military parade held in Beijing during the run-up to the summit – yielded no strategic consensus, no common ground on which to base strategic cooperation, and no softening of the serious differences of opinion on either side. This is an inauspicious beginning. For the first time, China’s senior leadership did not exert sufficient personal influence to patch rifts in the Sino-American relationship or to stabilize U.S.-China bilateral cooperation. Even the predictably cautious diplomacy of the Jiang Zemin-Hu Jintao era would have been an improvement over this summit, in which Sino-American relations seem to be a back-sliding course since Kissinger’s 1971 visit to China.
In fact, beginning with his policy speech in Seattle, Xi’s diplomatic rhetoric already paved the way for the failure of this summit. His speech was filled with negative syntax, repudiations of fact, refusals to take responsibility, and a generally dismissive attitude toward Sino-American differences of opinion regarding Internet security, navigation rights in the South China Sea, and human rights conflicts. This is the habitual Chinese bureaucratic response to dispute resolution: the only surprise was that it was being applied so cavalierly to the competing core national interests of two major world powers. It seems cut from the same cloth – or at least informed by the same mindset – as the Japanese approach to dealing with similar conflicts before the outbreak of the Pacific War, and it probably carries a similar potential for danger.
The results of the summit were unsurprising: during the post-summit press conference, Obama made no attempt to gloss over the differences between the two sides, and even expressed doubts about Xi’s willingness to resolve those differences. Judging from the response within American political and media circles, both before and after the summit, it is clear that there are enormous differences between the U.S. and China, and that future conflict is all but unavoidable. You would expect the diplomatic corps to have done everything to ensure that Xi Jinping, during his trip to Washington D.C., had the opportunity to speak to the U.S. Congress, to meet face to face with American legislators, and to mitigate and explain his positions on a variety of issues. The fact that it did not happen is a diplomatic failure of the greatest magnitude.
The fact that the diplomatic corps threw so much effort into a largely symbolic speech at the U.N. General Assembly and yet was unable to create a better opportunity to address the more significant challenges of Sino-American diplomacy not only demonstrates the rigidity and timidity of the bureaucracy, it also highlights the ad-hoc nature of President Xi’s foreign policy and his tendency to underestimate the severity of diplomatic disputes.
Internet security: the main battleground in the “New Cold War”
There are two disagreements at the heart of Sino-American diplomacy: one is the issue of the South China Sea; the other is the issue of Internet security. Despite U.S. insistence that it is a disinterested party with a responsibility to ensure freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, and despite China’s denials of any strategic intent in its large-scale program of island construction, the South China Sea dispute is well-trodden geopolitical ground that touches on oil supply, free trade, and the balance of power in Southeast and Northeast Asia. In that “Mediterranean of the Pacific,” that nexus of extraordinarily sensitive overlapping national interests, all of the neighboring Southeast Asian disputants are emerging nation-states whose hyper-nationalist sentiments are, if anything, even stronger than China’s. Given the tense state of affairs in the South China Sea, neither China nor the U.S. would risk any rash action; the more likely path is détente, with both parties exploring channels that would lead to a negotiated solution.
The issue of Internet security and Internet freedom is a thornier problem, however: because it lies outside the customary purview of geopolitics and challenges traditional notions of the nation-state, it is the most explosive and unpredictable element in the future of Sino-U.S. relations.
To put it in slightly different terms, when war broke out in the Caucasus in 2008, some international voices (this author included) called it the beginning of a new Cold War, but not many agreed. Most felt that it was simply a continuation of old-style regional conflict, and that it was a matter of sheer luck that Russian troops managed to pass through the Roki Tunnel without being thoroughly annihilated. It was only after last year’s Ukrainian and Crimean crises that the world seemed to come to its senses at last and resolve to impose multilateral sanctions against Russia.
The small-scale conflicts that we see now are a prelude to a new Cold War characterized by a clash of ideology.
With the small number of world leaders standing beside Xi and Putin on the Tiananmen Square rostrum during the Chinese military parade on September 3rd, it was clear that some kind of new Cold War international alliance had made its appearance. Prior to that, China had already followed in Russia’s footsteps by enacting strict controls on foreign NGOs and the Internet, and stifling civil society and press freedom. All signs seemed to point to the rapid formation of a global bloc opposed to civil society and Internet freedom. Looking back at Xi Jinping’s tenure, his successive overtures toward Africa and Latin America, and his “One Belt, One Road” or “economic Silk Road” initiative, it is not hard to discern a strategy to export and expand the Chinese model of authoritarian control. And Xi’s recent speech at the U.N. General Assembly seemed intent on using the United Nations as a platform from which to entice southern hemisphere nations to join China’s “bloc” in exchange for economic assistance.
Against this backdrop, the old Cold War conflict – “U.S. vs. U.S.S.R.” or “capitalism vs. socialism” – has been replaced by a conflict over Internet security, thus transforming the Internet into a new ideological battleground. Examples include American and Israeli use of a computer virus to attack Iranian nuclear plants, as well as the blackouts that hit the U.S. in 2003 (an investigation into the cause of the blackouts found that after hackers had penetrated the power grid and realized the damage they caused, they posted a Chinese-language message that read “Zao le!” or “Oh shit!”) Other conflicts touch on Internet freedom and freedom of speech, as when the Chinese government launched a series of initiatives to “clean up” the Internet. Almost all of these restrictions on Internet public opinion – such as the arrests and public denunciations of “Big Vs” [opinion leaders whose Chinese micro-blog accounts boast a large number of followers], the crackdown on independent NGOs, the support and training of the “50-cent army” or “little pinks” [paid pro-government or pro-Chinese Communist Party online commentators] – have been incorporated into China’s new draft National Security Law under the broad category of “Internet sovereignty” that continues to exist within an outmoded nation-state framework.
Today, however, the Internet is so highly integrated into the power grid, the Internet of things, and most every aspect of political, economic and social life, that even a small, local error could trigger a cascade of events that in turn cause the collapse of the entire system. Small individual choices can, like the flick of a switch, set off a series of high-frequency, small-scale shocks that eventually trigger larger-scale transformations, such as the 2011 Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia. Therefore, the Internet has a dual significance, with implications for both national security and for social revolution. It is imbued with great ideological value, and capable of becoming both a battlefield and a weapon. Simply put, Internet warfare will become the main ground of the new Cold War. This is why, in recent years, both China and the U. S. have spared no effort in developing their cyber-warfare capabilities.
There is no escape from Internet totalitarianism
The Xi-Obama summit’s inability to forge a path toward resolving differences between the two parties signals an intensification of the conflict, but it is not yet clear what shape this conflict will take. A recent article on the Foreign Policy website reveals that the U.S. National Security Agency is constructing a massive new computing center; the sheer size of the center, and the scale of the pumping station needed to cool the facility, may be a concrete emblem of a new Cold War. But U.S. President Obama has recently rejected a proposal to retaliate with nuclear weapons in the event of an outbreak of cyber warfare or the destruction of this new facility, so perhaps thermonuclear war will not figure in the calculations of a new and quiet Cold War. But if economic and other forms of cooperation and exchange prove insufficient to dispel the most recent and deep-seated ideological divisions – that is, if there ever comes a time when Silicon Valley Internet companies’ market prospects in China are not enough to deter conflict – then the Internet will become the inevitable battleground in a new ideological Cold War.
We have moved beyond the old-fashioned geopolitical “oil- and carbon-based production and consumption model” and into a “silicon-based political order” centered on the transmission of information. For this reason, we may find that freedom and freedom of thought come at a much higher price than ever before. Restricting freedom of thought requires no nuclear weapons or machine guns, only more law enforcement, more Internet police. The coming new Cold War will be nothing less than a fight for our own freedom, a conflict in which the free world will be forced to contend with a China that is reverting to a 1984-style totalitarian state.
When it comes to the Chinese Communist Party’s totalitarian control of the Internet, no one is immune. For example, during China’s “July 9 crackdown” involving large-scale arrests of human rights lawyers, a German-based server of the Telegram instant messaging system [which some say has enabled Chinese human rights lawyers to carry out their work] experienced an unprecedented DDOS attack. The future has already begun, and it may well prove tragic.
Fear of Losing Control: Why China Is Implementing an Internet Security Law, by Mo Zhixu, China Change, October 4, 2015.
The Coming Information Totalitarianism in China, by Mo Zhixu, April 6, 2013
中文原文《吳強：中美峰會之後可能到來的新冷戰》, translated by China Change.