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Xu Zhiyong, November 19, 2017
Dr. Xu Zhiyong (许志永) was released on July 15, 2017 after serving four years for organizing social movements such as the New Citizen Movement and the equal education rights campaign. He is a 44-year-old legal scholar, a pioneer of China’s rights defense movement, and a founders of the Open Constitution Initiative (Gong Meng 公盟) in 2003 which offers legal assistance to the disempowered and the wronged. — The Editors
After getting out of prison I discovered a pessimistic sentiment in many of my friends. Some of them fled China. Others said that the Chinese people aren’t worth saving. With this totalitarian surveillance state and its repressed people, it feels like history is running in reverse. But I’m an optimist at heart and I remain optimistic. I see that authoritarianism is actually weakening, while the strength of liberty and democracy is on the rise. More and more citizens have woken up.
The authoritarian ideology, once powerful beyond compare, is in rout. The last few years have seen challenges to economic growth and nationalism—the pillars of legitimacy in the age of reform and opening up [China’s economic and social reforms beginning in the 1980s]. The economy is in recession, and nationalism has met with setbacks in the Diaoyu Islands and along the Sino-Indian frontier. Confucianism and other aspects of traditional Chinese culture are incompatible with Communism. A privileged class predicated on profit is sure to be brittle and weak. As we can see from the example of Yuan Shikai (袁世凯),* rule by vested interests betrays the current of history. When the time comes, it collapses overnight.
China’s finances are in a bad way. The economy relies on a monetary policy of forced stimulation that has reached a dead end. Endless sums are created, lent, and spent on inefficient infrastructure investments, betraying the principles of economics and making financial crisis unavoidable. The split Party and civil administration are almost like a double government, the hierarchies are multitudinous, and the burden upon the people is among the highest in the world. State revenues decrease while the cost of maintaining stability rises rapidly. Just like the imperial dynasties in their final years, today’s financial situation is dire.
However, the biggest uncertainty comes from the central leadership. Chinese officials are unenthusiastic and shirk their responsibilities by deferring everything to orders from above. Totalitarian systems are doomed to grow weaker over the generations as factional compromise saps the regime’s core strength and places mediocrities in positions of power. Even if there is someone who wants to restore the old order, his efforts will lead nowhere. He is ridiculed, not revered, by the majority. The leader is the greatest uncertainty of the system and indeed of the entire country.
Meanwhile, society is marching forward. Private wealth is increasing. Technology is improving, the world is becoming one. Pro bono lawyers, entrepreneurs of social care, independent intellectuals, and victims of the powers-at-large, the number of awakened Chinese citizens has increased during these four years [while I was in prison].
But we are still relatively scattered. How to concentrate the powerful energy of civil society is an urgent task that demands our full responsibility.
What does China need most for its social transformation? A mature civil society. If there is a mature civil society, we will incur fewer costs and a beautiful future awaits. Revolution is not the design of any one individual. Our responsibility is not to knock down walls—though of course, living freely and candidly is equal to knocking down walls. It would be irresponsible for us to wait for change. Our responsibility lies in construction, constructing ourselves as a civil body.
Is civil society possible? There is space for it. The critical matter is what is to be done, how it is to be done, and to which degree. We need to be wise and methodical. To build civil society and unite those Chinese who seek democracy and constitutional rule on one platform, I offer six key phrases.
The citizen is a common identity. This identity conveys rich inner meanings of power and responsibility, it implies a society and nation of citizens. The day that 1.3 billion Chinese are citizens is the day that China is truly beautiful. To become genuine citizens is our present and final objective. More importantly, citizenship can be an identity—yours, mine, everyone’s common identity. We can’t say “you are democracy, I am democracy,” but we can say “you are a citizen, I am a citizen.” This concept has roots in China over a century old. It cannot be taken from us or censored. However fearful people may be in private, all can come out and say “I am a citizen.”
Freedom, Justice, and Love are our shared core values. These values ought to be the new height following freedom, equality, and fraternity, the desired values of a future society. Freedom is the true sovereignty of individual action and existence, its scope expands with the development of civilization. Justice means a fair and just society—its meaning is richer than the egalitarianism that was once applied to the stratified French society. It is a society with democracy, rule of law, and rational boundaries between individuals—each to his own, each to his ability, each is provided for. Love is more generous and profound than fraternity; it is the wellspring of life and happiness.
One day these will become the core values of Chinese civilization. They don’t come from our ancestors. The core values of France—liberté, égalité, fraternité—were not those of the nobility, they were created by the people of France during their great revolution. Creating Freedom, Justice, and Love is the struggle of our generation of Chinese. For our ancient people and their civilization, these values will usher in renaissance and take common root across all humanity.
Truth shall be the common guiding principle in our actions. To be a true citizen. To uphold the citizen’s identity, rights, and responsibilities. To uphold and proactively implement the freedoms and rights written in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Chinese Constitution. Late-stage totalitarianism also preaches democracy and liberty, but it doesn’t really mean it. In its crowning absurdity, the core values of socialism have become sensitive phrases and subject to online censorship. We uphold these things. The truth is the ultimate deconstruction of lies and absurdity, and the greatest tool for building a beautiful China. The 1.3 billion Chinese need not take radical action. If they all took the rights contained in the Constitution seriously, China would change.
A Beautiful China is our common direction. The China of our dreams is not only beautiful, but also free, just, and happy. A beautiful China encompasses beauty, but even more so embodies deeper values of democracy, rule of law, and freedom. Freedom, Justice, and Love is our direction, it is our mission and glory. Ours shall be a beautiful country reborn on the land where authoritarianism reigned for thousands of years. This is our purpose in life.
Citizens are not an isolated circle. Say not “you citizens,” but “we citizens.” Do not reject the noble identity of citizen just because some unscrupulous people may appropriate this title. Lawyers, entrepreneurs, intellectuals, judges, civil servants, regardless of your wealth, social class, you are citizens. All us Chinese shall identity as citizens. We may not necessarily all eat at the same table, lawyers and entrepreneurs may have their own circles, but our identity is a common one—the citizen.
The force of liberal democracy must be united. The identity of “citizen” is the best platform and the most solid cornerstone. Regardless of your social status or group, we are working forward together to a common goal. Communities of citizens can rise in each region and every industry. Assemble together, stay in touch with current affairs, and when the timing is favorable, take steps to coordinate with each other, for example by meeting on the last Saturday of each month. When millions and millions of Chinese assemble with the same identity, the same core values, and discuss the fate of the country and the people, they will have begun to form a civil body.
Being a citizen and building civil society does not equal being under someone’s leadership or joining some organization, it means independently wanting to be a citizen among citizens. Citizens in different regions act autonomously and make progress of their own accord. A community of citizens and civil society is necessarily an organic development.
Being a citizen, especially being a community of citizens, means standing up to oppression. If you abandon your identity in the face of pressure and don’t even want to be a citizen anymore, then you will have nothing to show for it. As the common body that shows the way towards social progress, the only way to build strength is to experience oppression and learn from the experience. If even the simple act of a same city dinner gathering (同城聚餐) means suppression, so be it. But this requires our perseverance. When the days comes that we are not even allowed to eat, there is still no problem: just go on hunger strike for a day. Even better, everyone go on hunger strike for a day. Have faith: your identity as a citizen can withstand oppression. It cannot be taken away from you.
I earnestly beseech every one of my compatriots seeking democracy and liberty to know their identity as a citizen and its significance. Be a dignified and upright citizen together with those who share your ideals and ambition, discuss with them when you meet, follow current affairs, spread the citizen’s ideal, and uphold social justice. If you are entrepreneurs, you can seek like-minded friends among your business circles and gather as citizen entrepreneurs. If you are lawyers, you can seek the like-minded among your legal circles and gather as citizen lawyers. If you are judges, you can discover the like-minded and gather as citizen judges. You have common ideals regardless of your professional fields, your wealth, or status. Seek out and join hands with the citizens by your sides.
I am a citizen, we are citizens. This is a pious faith. This is our responsibility to an ancient people. This is the struggle of our generation of Chinese, its undertaking, and its glory.
Citizen Xu Zhiyong (许志永)
*Yuan Shikai was a general of the former Qing Dynasty who manipulated China’s republican movement in an attempt to establish his own dictatorship. His actions contributed to the chaotic warlord era.
Who Is Xu Zhiyong — An Interview with Dr. Teng Biao, Part 1 of 2, April 10, 2014.
Who Is Xu Zhiyong — An Interview with Dr. Teng Biao, part 2 of 2, April 13, 2014.
China Change, July 15, 2017
Dr. Xu Zhiyong (许志永), leader of the New Citizens Movement, was released from prison on July 15, after serving a 4-year sentence.
Xu Zhiyong’s defense lawyer Zhang Qingfang (张庆方) confirmed that Dr. Xu has returned home in Beijing. He was picked up earlier by the security police, a source said.
Yesterday, scores of citizens traveled to the vicinity of Kenhua Prison in Ninghe District in Tianjin where Xu Zhiyong had been imprisoned since he was sentenced in February 2014. Dr. Xu, 44 years old, is a legal scholar and the founder of Gongmeng, a civil society group that pioneered China’s “rights defense movement” and in recent years campaigned for equal education rights for migrant workers’ children in large cities, and engaged in citizen activism under the banner “Freedom, Justice, and Love.”
The crackdown on the New Citizens Movement began in April 2013. Xu Zhiyong was arrested in July 2013.
Friends who tried to visit Xu this morning were blocked by three plainclothes security agents at the entrance of his residential compound. It’s unclear whether Dr. Xu will be placed under some kind of restriction in his movement and communications — illegal but common practices used by the Chinese government against leading dissidents.
Yesterday, activists who went to the prison to welcome Dr. Xu found that the roads around the prison were closed, allowing only inbound traffic. During the night, police raided the guest rooms of the activists. On the morning of the 15th, police stopped activists approaching the prison, telling them that Xu Zhiyong had been released already.
On July 13, Liu Xiaobo, the founder of China’s political opposition movements and the only imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate in the world, died in custody from liver cancer, marking, some say, the end of an era and with it the hope of a gradual transition to democracy in China.
Dr. Xu is a leader of the younger generation of Chinese activists; he returns, four years later, to a much harsher environment for political opposition.
The China Manifesto – detained activist Xu Zhiyong calls for end to ‘barbaric’ one party rule, The Telegraph, January 23, 2014.
Who Is Xu Zhiyong — An Interview with Dr. Teng Biao, Part One, April 10, 2014.
Who Is Xu Zhiyong — An Interview with Dr. Teng Biao, Part Two, April 13, 2014.
November 1, 2016
Updated on November 17: 5-minute BBC video tells everything you need to know about Chinese elections.
Yaxue Cao: This year is also an election year in China, with county- and district-level elections of People’s Representatives on November 15. Independent candidates have sprung up everywhere, and China Change recently ran an article about the independent candidates from Beijing, including the group of 18 organized by Beijing resident Ye Jinghuan (野靖环). Over the months leading up to the vote, they’ve held training sessions on election law and the electoral process — some of which was presented by lawyers. But since their announcement of candidacy, they’ve been harassed by police. On the first day (October 24) of their neighborhood campaign, police came and stopped some of them from leaving home, and blocked interviews with foreign media. Some candidates elsewhere in China have been subject to criminal or administrative detention.
Hu Ping: Right, that’s what happened. I’ve also been following this news.
Yaxue Cao: This is unbelievable given that we both experienced the Haidian District People’s Representatives elections at Peking University in the fall of 1980. You were a graduate student in philosophy at the time, one of candidates who got elected. Now, 36 years later, China has changed in almost every way — yet in all these 36 years, no progress has been made to expand elections. Not only has it not changed, in fact it’s worse than it was 36 years ago. This is why I wanted to speak with you about elections in China today: the fact that there has been zero change on this, over more than three decades, is an important lens through which to evaluate China politically.
So first, please explain to us: what are “grassroots elections”?
Hu Ping: There are two kinds of grassroots elections in China: those at the county and district level for electing the deputies to the People’s Congress, and those for electing the head of a village. Both are direct elections. Before the Cultural Revolution there were similar elections that I participated in once when I was in senior high school — it was a single-candidate election (等额选举). This means that when you wanted to elect a representative, there was only one candidate. And that candidate had been selected in advance by the higher-ups — there was no competitive process, and the whole thing was just a formality. It was a joke.
After the Cultural Revolution, Chinese society had been ravaged, and there was a sense that China needed democracy. Even the Party conservatives thought that these were just grassroots elections, and allowing the people to vote in a few petty bureaucrats wouldn’t impact anything. In 1980, the Party center promulgated a new election law, which said that apart from the regular channels of nominating candidates—social organizations [affiliated with the Party], Party organizations, and unions [controlled by the Party]—individual citizens can also nominate themselves to be candidates, as long as they have three people to second their nomination. The updated rules also stated that candidates could engage in publicity. This was an opening for electioneering in China.
Back then, the elections weren’t held at the same time across the country. For instance, Shanghai’s and Sichuan’s were a bit earlier in the year, and Beijing’s was held last. This was probably because Beijing is the political capital, and political passions there run hotter than elsewhere. Stacking Beijing last was about limiting the influence of the elections.
As elections were held around China, university campuses became very active. At Fudan University in Shanghai, undergraduates in the Chinese language department, philosophy department, and also graduate students, became candidates. This was reported in “China Youth Daily.” The elections in Beijing were held in November, and Haidian District, which has a concentration of universities, came last. Back then Li Shengping (李胜平), who was studying in Xicheng District at one of Peking University’s branch campuses, stood for election and won. He was one of the activists involved in the Democracy Wall (民主墙) and an editor of the “Beijing Spring” (北京之春) magazine. He was also involved in the April 5th incident, 1976.
Because Haidian District had so many universities, the election activities there were especially active. Peking University was divided into two electoral constituencies: one for faculty, workers, and their families, and another for students and graduate students. The constituency for undergrads and graduate students elected two representatives, and 20-30 people ran as candidates. A range of activities were held to attract votes, including public debates, question-and-answer sessions, and so on. For about a month or more Peking University was soaked in the atmosphere of the election.
An important feature of the Peking University elections is that even though the post was for a largely irrelevant district representative, the political ideas proposed were of national significance: namely, how to foster the democratization of China. Actually, everyone was clear on what was really going on, which is that we were simply using the platform of an election to express our views to the government. I suspect that this is something the authorities didn’t anticipate. They thought that because the issues county- and district-level deputies can get involved in are so minor, there’s no political significance to the process at all.
Yaxue Cao: At that time I was a freshman still finding my ways on campus, and I remember during the elections there were people crowded near the The Triangle (三角地) every day, looking at the election-related big and small character posters. Even though I didn’t quite understand what was going on, I browsed some of them. I remember the back walls of the glass display board at The Triangle were covered too, and I remember reading an A4-sized poster titled “John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty.”
Hu Ping: Also, during the elections students organized their own media, reporting on all the electoral developments. Some candidates also organized their own election teams. Back then the president of Peking University was very open-minded about it and provided the school auditorium for the debates. I myself held two debates at that auditorium.
Li Shengping’s triumph in the Xicheng District election put some of the old conservatives in Beijing on guard. The municipal government dispatched an internal notice demanding that party members not get involved in elections. This shows that the conservatives at the time were terrified of the idea of even a grassroots vote. But the entire social atmosphere was pursuing change, student passions were high, and most of the campus leaders and administrators were fairly open-minded and liberal — because so many people had experienced horrifying political persecution in the past.
At the end of 1980 the Solidarity Movement in Poland was formed. The conservative Hu Qiaomu (胡乔木) wrote an internal letter saying that the same sort of thing might transpire in China, and the Party elite started to get very nervous. The whole political atmosphere quickly became much more stern. After the election there was a rumor saying that the top Party leadership were very unhappy with the elections and wanted to crack down — they only reason they didn’t was because of internal disagreement.
Later they revised the election law and limited a number of election activities. At the next election in 1983 (they were held every three years), the Communist Party was running the so-called “anti-spiritual pollution” political campaign (反精神污染运动), and the political atmosphere was heavy, so there weren’t very many election activities held then.
Yaxue Cao: I was still on campus in 1983, but I don’t have any memory of the elections that year — so it mustn’t have been anything like 1980. In 1980, Chen Ziming (陈子明) was elected as a representative for the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. You wrote in an essay that he was the convenor of the group of representatives drawn from universities in Haidian District. What did all you do as representatives?
Hu Ping: We proposed some draft resolutions, voted against or abstained from voting on some government work reports, and so on. It was all trivial stuff. Nothing we did had any impact on the big picture.
By the time 1986 came around, the atmosphere had loosened up again, and election activities started up once more. For instance, at Peking University Li Xianbin (李淑贤), a lecturer in the physics department, was elected as a representative, and she was of course the wife of Fang Lizhi (方励之). Professor Fang had already gained national prominence and influence at universities around China for his involvement in pro-liberalization and democratization activities, and the Communist Party saw him as an enormous headache. Fang was engaged in his own enthusiastic electioneering at the China University of Science and Technology in Hefei, Anhui. Then the 1986 student movement started, beginning at CUST and then spreading to Shanghai and Beijing, with students taking to the streets. The police made some arrests, but when this stirred up even more students to go to Tiananmen Square to protest, they quickly let them go.
The lively political atmosphere throughout 1986 struck dread into the Communist Party leadership, and they made a major decision: they expelled Fang Lizhi, Liu Binyan (刘宾雁), and Wang Ruowang (王若望), and others, from the Party — and the reform-minded Party Secretary Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦) was also forced out. The political atmosphere once again became severe.
What all this means is that before the 1989 movement, the hardliners at the top of the Communist Party had already lashed out against a tide of liberalism and democracy, but because China was still just emerging from the calamity of the Cultural Revolution, social elites — including some members of the top echelon of the Party — all actually sought some degree of freedom and democracy, especially the youth and the intellectuals. The yearning was deep. In China at that time, everyone was increasingly dissatisfied with the half-hearted opening up that the authorities had engaged in. This was followed up with a half-hearted repression, which didn’t truly strike fear into people’s hearts, and thus aroused even more disaffection. It was against this backdrop that the democracy movement of 1989 exploded.
After the June 4 massacre, the Communist Party was completely panicked and they viewed every collective activity as a major threat, and their attacks on dissent became fiercer. The whole political atmosphere of the 1990s was desolate and grim.
By the end of the 1990s and the early 2000s, independent candidates began appearing again, such as Xu Zhiyong (许志永) and others. And again, it was at the universities — for instance Xu Zhiyong was a teacher at the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications when he was elected. But these elections were nothing like the 1980s, where all the talk was about national politics, and ideals; in the latter case, the election was limited to how they’ll discharge their duty as people’s representatives. For all that, independent candidature in and of itself represents a strong orientation toward democratic principles and values, so these elections are still enormously meaningful. Furthermore, grassroots elections are the only way that Chinese citizens can actually cast votes.
Yaxue Cao: Xu Zhiyong was elected a People’s representative in both 2003 and 2006, but by 2011 (at that point elections had been changed to once every five years), the authorities resorted to all sorts of measures to prevent him from being re-elected. A few years ago you wrote an article about grassroots elections, noting that after three decades, the bureaucratic level of the posts haven’t risen — it remains at county- and district-level People’s Congresses, and village elections. Another observation you made is that the quality of them has dropped, which has manifested in the general lack of interest in the elections by voters, given that they’ve often simply become a show manipulated by officials, who receive bribes and crush independent competitors. So, given that the authorities have absolutely no intention to roll out genuine elections, why don’t they just abolish them and appoint the representatives or village officials directly themselves? Isn’t that the outcome anyway? Why go to the trouble of staging them?
Hu Ping: After June 4, the Party began to regard liberalization and democratization as the number one enemy, and there was basically no one at the top echelon of the Party who had any sympathy or support for democracy. The suppression never let up, and China’s entire political ecology underwent a fundamental change. But the authorities don’t really have any need to promulgate a law abolishing the grassroots election system altogether, because it’s too insignificant. With continuous repression in the 20 some years following the June 4 massacre, cynicism is rampant in Chinese society, and the majority of Chinese people feel no attachment or sympathy with the past movement of liberalization and democracy, and they don’t get involved. So, the fact that there are so many people now stepping forward as candidates is just amazing. The risks they’re taking are so much greater than those we took back then, so it’s worthy of our wholehearted support and close attention. Every single person who runs as an independent candidate, without exception, becomes a target for the authorities to attack. The corollary to this is that it proves that independent candidature is itself a challenge, regardless of what your policies or politics are.
Yaxue Cao: I remember during the Wukan incident [in 2011] a group of public intellectuals traveled there to offer their support, and to get involved and be election observers. A few days ago I was chatting with He Depu (何德普) about this, and he said that this year public intellectuals didn’t have the slightest enthusiasm in the elections. Might this reflect the current political atmosphere in China?
Hu Ping: Since taking power, Xi Jinping has taken systematic steps to shut down the space for expression for Chinese liberal-leaning intellectuals, which had been constrained to begin with. Even the Gongshi (Consensus) website and the Yanhuang Chunqiu magazine have been shut down and are no longer tolerated — and you can well imagine the terrorizing effect this has. I believe that the international community, including the United States and other Western countries, is seeing more and more clearly that the Chinese regime has had no intention of carrying out political and democratic reforms. On the contrary, as the Chinese economy grows bigger and bigger, the regime has become more confident and armed with more resources. These are obvious developments, and even some of the China apologists in the West are seeing that things are not panning out as they expected.
Yaxue Cao: U.S. policy toward China has for decades been built on the assumption that, once China develops and the middle class grows strong, democracy will naturally come. Many have been dazzled by changes in China. China watchers are awed, some even succumbed to admiring the efficiency of authoritarian rule. But at the same time, elections in China have made no progress whatsoever, in terms of both level and quality. Stacking these two pictures of China together, you can’t support the assumption that the course of economic development will nurture the course of democratization.
Hu Ping: It was predicated on a mistaken theory to begin with — and yet just what lies at the heart of the Communist Party, and just how the regime has made it through all these years, I believe Western observers still don’t have a clear understanding of. Not only are they unclear, but probably a lot of Chinese aren’t clear, because the twists and transformations of the Party have no precedent that we can reference. Actually, the principle is quite simple: After the extreme centralism of the Mao era resulted in widespread political terror and total economic collapse, after Mao died Chinese society from top to bottom, inside and outside the Party, experienced a strong impetus toward political and economic reform, and the 1980s was a reflection of this. The Soviet Union and Eastern European countries also went through their own democratic transition via this route. But in China the June 4 massacre reversed the trend and history — and also changed the history of the world. You cannot have any hope that a regime built on such a massacre is going to engage in any liberalization and democracy. And so not only the Chinese people, but the entire world is faced with a stubborn and powerful dictatorship. I think people haven’t realizes the seriousness of this problem and haven’t devoted enough attention and understanding to it.
Yaxue Cao: In early October, professor Arthur Waldron at the University of Pennsylvania, gave a speech in New York that we published on the China Change website. He said that his greatest concern was that Western countries didn’t see autocracy as a feature of communism, but as a feature of China.
Hu Ping: What’s needed right now is to have a complete narrative of China’s political course over the past three decades, letting people know that China has undergone a very special process that has led to today’s China. As you examine this process, you will see that the Chinese are not any different from foreigners. So when assessing China don’t just extrapolate from economic determinism to a claim of Chinese exceptionalism. The damage this does is divert attention from how to counter the challenges and deal with the threat posed by a communist dictatorship, to instead being about how to accommodate and accept them. This is dangerous. You should be changing it, not accepting it. When the bar is continually lowered to: “We are fine with it as long as we avoid war,” isn’t that aiding them?
Yaxue Cao: Once the free world begins to make concessions on universal values, the world order will change.
Hu Ping: It’s already changing. If accommodation becomes the new engagement policy, the West will inflict disasters on itself. China is not North Korea. North Korea has no ability to corrupt other countries, but China will corrupt the whole world.
Yaxue Cao: In looking back on the 1980 elections in Peking University, you refuted the idea that “democratization depends on a market economy and a strong middle class.” You pointed out that, in 1980, the Cultural Revolution had just ended, and few people knew what democracy or freedom actually looked like. You wrote: “We discovered, spontaneously and indigenously, the idea of constitutional democracy and its operation.”
Hu Ping: The New York Times interviewed me recently, and I also talked about this. Chinese propaganda wants you to believe that the concept of freedom and democracy is a Western one, but where did the Westerners get it? It was a response to lasting religious wars, persecution, and terror. People were persecuted for different beliefs, for different interpretations and views, and this led to demand for tolerance, for freedom of belief, and freedom of expression. Following the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese wanted tolerance, and it was spontaneous.
When Eastern Europe democratized in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it had no middle class, no market economy. Mongolia had no market economy when it democratized. Xi Jinping’s father Xi Zhongxun (习仲勋), while in office, proposed that China needs a law to protect dissent. He had had no western education, where did he get that idea? Because he was persecuted for his speech, and he came to the realization that a line should be drawn between the rights of the people and the power of the government, and that certain freedoms must be granted and protected. The popular demand for freedom was the real cause of the 1989 Tiananmen protests. But the June 4 massacre changed not only the course of China, but also the course of the world.
Yaxue Cao: Yes. The world has yet to confront this reality. Thank you.
Hu Ping (胡平) lives in New York and edits Beijing Spring (《北京之春》), “a monthly Chinese-language magazine dedicated to the promotion of human rights, democracy and social justice in China.”
Yaxue Cao (曹雅学) edits the China Change website. Follow her on Twitter @YaxueCao
Translated from report by CHRD, published: March 8, 2016 and updated on March 9
(China Change exclusive: Guo Feixiong attending a citizen meeting in Beijing on July 28, 2012, with Dr. Xu Zhiyong, who has been serving a four-year sentence since July 2013 for leading the New Citizens Movement, in the audience. Video recorded by Xiao Guozhen, subtitle by @ and @.)
On Friday March 4 we received news that Guo Feixiong, the renowned human rights leader who was wrongfully sentenced to six years last November, had on February 22 been sent to the remote the Yangchun Prison in Guangdong (广东阳春监狱) to serve his sentence. On February 29 his older sister, Yang Maoping (杨茂平), went to see him in prison, and found that his physical condition had deteriorated substantially. He looked emaciated and had lost nearly half of his weight.
Yang Maoping said: “I saw Maodong [Guo Feixiong’s legal name] on the afternoon of February 29, bringing a letter from his daughter Xixi, and news of his son Jinbao having recently won an award. Because we only had half an hour, we were very rushed. He said that he’d arrived at the jail on February 21. If they didn’t let him read books he would go on a hunger strike. He said his case is an injustice, and if he wasn’t granted access to a lawyer he would also protest.”
Guo Feixiong told his sister that “there are over a dozen people in the cell, there are no surveillance cameras, and it’s extremely noisy. The people cooking food in the morning shuffle back and forth outside the cell, and I can only sleep three hours a night.”
She added that he looked much worse than he did during a previous period of captivity, in the Tianhe Detention Center. “His face was pallid, he body thin, and his eyelids drooping. He said that there is something seriously wrong with his health, and that on February 22 he was unable to get up after sitting down, on three occasions.”
His sister pleaded that he cease the hunger strike for the sake of his health. “I thought he looked about three-fifths of his regular weight, and I’m not exaggerating. When I arrived this time he was already sitting. Earlier, in the courtroom, when I saw him walking it didn’t look normal. So I suspect that he’s suffered a spinal injury. As we spoke, a commissar in the political division of the prison was there, watching us the whole time.”
“Yang Maodong’s protesting by hunger strike is really dangerous,” she said. “The person from the political division of the jail said that he has to do labor during his sentence. I responded: ‘Yang Maodong’s health is already ruined. He can’t work. If you don’t believe it, go and perform an MRI on his back. I can pay for it.’”
The other concern is that there’s no surveillance camera in his cell. Guo Feixiong was beaten in Meizhou Prison in Guangdong when serving a five-year sentence from 2006-2011, and the continued absence of any monitoring means he could again be subject to violence, perpetrated by other prisoners, at the order of guards. “I might lose my life here,” he told his sister, “I won’t be a suicide.”
Guo Feixiong has been imprisoned and tortured by the authorities on numerous occasions. On August 8, 2013 he was locked in the Tianhe detention center in Guangzhou and not allowed a day of fresh air for over two and a half years. Many of his supporters were infuriated by this treatment, but multiple attempts by lawyers to lodge complaints about this abuse were rejected. Lawyers believe that this is the most severe, vile, and blatant attack on human rights during a time of peace. Article 25 of China’s own “Regulations on Detention Centers” clearly stipulated: “Criminals should be given between 1-2 hours of activity time outdoors per day.”
In December 2007, when Guo Feixiong was sent to the Meizhou Prison, he was also subject to cruel torture. When the prison guards forced him to crouch on the ground with his hands behind his head, and he refused, they called another detainee over and directed him to beat Guo. This inmate kicked Guo down a flight of stairs, then kept beating him as Guo rolled around on the ground trying to dodge the blows. This continued until the rest of the roughly 200 other detainees began making a hissing sound in disapproval, upon which time one of the jail administrators appeared and told the assailant to cease, lest Guo be killed.
Zhang Lei, Guo Feixiong’s defense lawyer, said in a statement to the Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group on March 9: “After Yang Maoping (Guo Feixiong’s older sister) saw Guo in prison, she explained to me his situation. Guo told her that there’s no surveillance camera in his cell, so he is extremely anxious about his personal safety and feels highly insecure. Prisons in China are an extremely complex place, in a way that’s difficult for outsiders to imagine. Normally there is always a camera set up in every cell, monitoring it 24 hours a day. Then, if anything happens, the recording can be checked. If every other cell is being monitored, and his isn’t, then he’s worried that he’s exposed to assault and attack, and that if anything were to happen, there would be no way to know. Firstly, the jailers wouldn’t know, and secondly, in his words ‘if I died, no one would even know how it happened.'”
The human rights community is concerned with Guo Feixiong’s condition, and will continue following the news and make his case known to the outside world.
Chinese Rights Advocate Known as Guo Feixiong Convicted of Unexpected New Charge, November 27, 2015.
Activist Guo Feixiong Held 743 Days Without Yard Time, August 21, 2015.
To Obama: Why China Does Not Have a Nelson Mandela, September 23, 2015.
A translation of a VOA report in Chinese, published: March 11, 2015
Professor Xia Min of CUNY: “Xi’s fear is exactly that the maturing of civil society will organically provide, with the organizing capacity and solidarity within Chinese society, a platform for the building of political parties.”
A documentary produced by the well-known investigative journalist Chai Jing, formerly with CCTV, Under the Dome, has struck a deep chord in China. At the end of the documentary, Chai mentions that as China’s revised Environmental Protection Law is implemented, civil society environmental groups will have the unprecedented right to bring public interest lawsuits against polluting companies.
However, according to a Beijing News (《新京报》) article , since the law went into effect in January 2015, only three suits have been brought out of more than 700 environmental groups accredited to bring public interest litigation. The newspaper reports that most of these are organizations run by the government, including many trade associations, that are lukewarm at best about such lawsuits. Only a handful of civil society groups are “both able and willing” to try. The vast majority of civil society NGOs often lack both funding and energy for such an undertaking, nor do they have law professionals on board.
The dilemma of public interest litigation Chinese environmental NGOs face is a reflection of what Chinese civil society looks like today. According to available statistics, China has more than half a million NGOs that are registered with the Ministry of Civil Affairs. However, a significant number of these are semi- or quasi-official organizations, some of which indeed only parade with an NGO front in order to qualify for government funding. The vast majority of the small number of independent civil society groups work in areas that are not considered politically sensitive, such as charity, environmental protection and the rights of women and children. In addition, China has another 1.5 million civil society groups that are not formally registered. These groups are likely to meet with pressures from the government if they venture into politically sensitive areas such as worker rights, the rule of law, or the rights of HIV patients [infected through government-sanctioned malfeasance].
Deteriorating Conditions for Independent Civil Society Groups
According to the New York Times, China’s independent civil society groups have “…long struggled to survive inside China’s ill-defined, shifting margins of official tolerance.” However, this sliver of margin for NGOs is shrinking further. Within the last several months, the Chinese government has targeted many NGOs.
Chinese human rights lawyer and former member of Open Constitution Initiative (Gongmeng, 公盟), Teng Biao, said that since Xi Jinping assumed power, the environment for independent NGOs has deteriorated. “Groups that used to be able to do things, such as the Transition Institute (传知行) and Liren rural libraries (立人图书馆) that were not considered too sensitive, have now been shut down. A lot of the people in charge of the groups were arrested and sentenced. The government’s controls on funding sources, as well as its ideological control, are clearly tightening,” he said.
In May 2013, the General Office of the Communist Party Central Committee issued, for internal circulation, the “Report on the Current Status in the Area of Ideology,” known as “Seven Don’t” for short, in which Party members are asked to wage a struggle against “dangerous” Western values. “Do not mention civil society” ranks third among the seven forbidden topics.
Xia Ming, a professor of political science at CUNY, said that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), with Xi Jinping at its center, sees ideas about civil society and “small government, big society,” promoted by the West, as two prominent and gigantic traps Western nations set up for China. “This is why last year we saw enormous destruction visited on some Chinese NGOs, with the most symbolic landmark incident being the arrest of Xu Zhiyong and approximately one hundred other people in his team; he himself got a four-year sentence,” Xia said.
The founder of Open Constitution Initiative (OCI) and constitutional scholar Xu Zhiyong was sentenced to four years in January 2014. Beijing No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court ruled that Xu was guilty of “gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place.” Xu Zhiyong’s imprisonment, as well as the long-term harassment of other civil society groups, throws into relief the Chinese rulers’ zero-tolerance policy toward any societal force that may pose a threat to its power. Teng Biao said: “They are afraid that civil society NGOs, including some human rights defense groups and defenders, are growing in strength, and thereby becoming a challenge to the government. To be blunt, they are afraid that peaceful evolution, Color Revolution, will endanger the party’s rule.”
Limited Space for Civil Society Organizations
Other viewpoints hold, however, that the Chinese government does not take a monolithic stance towards NGOs. According to the Economist, some Party members believe that it is impossible to completely bar the growing middle class from social participation, and carefully limited participation can help the CCP win popular support. By 2014, four types of civil society groups can freely register, and they are trade associations, science and technology groups, charity groups, and groups dedicated to social service. Karla Simon, author of the book Civil Society in China, is confident that as the registration threshold is lowered, Chinese NGOs are likely to double within the next several years.
Tightening Control on Funding Sources of NGOs
Even so, CCP still insists on tightly controlling the funding sources of NGOs. The Economist reports that money for a lot of Chinese NGOs comes directly from local governments. In 2012, Guangdong provincial government gave as much as 466 million RMB to NGOs, while Yunnan province spent 300 million. However, in order to receive funding, civil society groups need sponsorship from entities with government ties, and they are not allowed to solicit funds from the public, even though they have permission to receive corporate and individual funding. This means that, through funding channels, the government can effectively rein in the vast majority of NGOs.
In addition, the Chinese government has recently stepped up monitoring of NGOs that receive foreign donations. In November 2014, Guangzhou government issued “Management Rules of Social Organizations,” putting in place the requirement that, effective January 1, 2015, NGOs that receive foreign funding must submit a written report to registration and relevant authorities 15 days before the receipt of funds at the latest. This requirement in effect blocks the funding conduit for the majority of labor NGOs which rely on foreign funding. According to the New York Times, employees of Transition Institute said that the bulk of the 3-4 million RMB of their organization’s budget is from overseas. Such overseas connections increasingly convince the Chinese government that Transition Institute is a dangerous entity. In its opinion, overseas funding is a tool for subversion.
Sometimes, even when NGO funding is domestic, they are still targeted by the government. Xia Ming of CUNY said, “Even when your money is from within China, the government still targets you quite harshly. One of the more obvious examples is Xu Zhiyong getting money from Wang Gongquan (王功权), a billionaire, who was arrested for a time too. This is the best kind of warning to make sure that Chinese private entrepreneurs would not get mixed up in supporting civil society organizations.” Wang Gongquan is a co-founder of the New Citizens Movement headed by Xu Zhiyong. On September 13, 2013, the Beijing police placed Wang in criminal detention, allegedly for “gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place.” Wang was paroled in January, 2014.
China is also ramping up controls on foreign NGOs in China. Fu Ying, a spokesperson for the National People’s Congress (NPC), told the media before the Third Session of the 12th NPC began, that China needs to better manage foreign NGOs from the standpoint of national security. She said that legislation will be undertaken so that foreign NGO activities can abide by them. According to Chinese media reports, the Foreign NGO Management Law will require foreign NGOs to register and receive government approval before setting up branches in China.
Anxiety about a Color Revolution in China
Chan Kin-man (陈健民), a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Director at the Civil Society Research Centre, believed that even though Chinese NGOs are growing exponentially in number, the space for their activities is shrinking. Xia Min of CUNY said that CCP will not, in all probability, allow independent civil society groups to develop unfettered. “The outcome of deepening civil society development must be the organizing of political parties,” he said. “Therefore, I think Xi’s fear is exactly that the maturing of civil society will organically provide, with the organizing capacity and solidarity within Chinese society, a platform for the building of political parties.”
Judging from the series of steps the government has taken towards NGOs recently, while it may have sensed already the enormous potential of these groups, they are held to be dispensable up against the goal of sustaining CCP rule.
 I was unable to find this article in Beijing News. It might have been censored. – The editor.
National security? China ready to slam door on foreign NGOs, the Christian Science Monitor, March 10, 2015.
In China, Civic Groups’ Freedom, and Followers, Are Vanishing, New York Times, February 26, 2015.
Chinese civil society: Beneath the glacier, The Economist, April, 2014.
(Translated by Louisa Chiang)