Protest and dissent in China

Last updated on 8 September 2017

In spite of restrictions on freedom of association and of speech, a wide variety of protests and dissident movements have proliferated in China, particularly in the decades since the death of Mao Zedong. Among the most notable of these were the 1959 Tibetan uprising against Communist Party rule, the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, which was put down with military force, and the 25 April 1999 demonstration by 10,000 Falun Gong practitioners at Zhongnanhai. Protesters and dissidents in China espouse a wide variety of grievances, including corruption, forced evictions, unpaid wages, human rights abuses, environmental degradation, ethnic protests, petitioning for religious freedom and civil liberties, protests against one-party rule, as well as nationalist protests against foreign countries.

The number of annual protests has grown steadily since the early 1990s, from approximately 8700 “mass group incidents” in 1993[1] to over 87,000 in 2005.[2] In 2006, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences estimated the number of annual mass incidents to exceed 90,000, and Chinese sociology professor Sun Liping estimated 180,000 incidents in 2010.[3][4] Mass incidents are defined broadly as "planned or impromptu gathering that forms because of internal contradictions", and can include public speeches or demonstrations, physical clashes, public airings of grievances, and other group behaviors that are seen as disrupting social stability.[5]

Despite the increase in protests, some scholars have argued that they may not pose an existential threat to Communist Party rule because they lack “connective tissue;”[6] the preponderance of protests in China are aimed at local-level officials, and only a select few dissident movements seek systemic change.[7]

Legal framework

The Constitution of the People's Republic of China asserts that "citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession, and of demonstration." In practice, however, the practice of these rights is tightly proscribed, generally under the auspices of maintaining "social stability." While guaranteeing freedoms, the constitution also declares it to be the duty of Chinese citizens to "fight against those forces and elements [...] that are hostile to China's socialist system and try to undermine it." Poorly defined anti-subversion laws, such as article 105 of the criminal code, may be used to criminally prosecute individuals seeking to exercise the rights of assembly, free speech, or demonstration. Other citizens engaged in various forms of protest may face administrative punishment, such as sentencing to forced labor terms.

Tactics

Chinese dissidents and protesters have employed numerous different tactics to express dissatisfaction with authorities, including petitioning of local governments or appeals offices, Weiquan lawyering, demonstrations on Tiananmen Square, signing support for dissident manifestos such as Charter 08, boycotts, marches, and occasionally violent rioting.

The majority of protests in China concern local grievances, such as the corruption of county- or township-level government or Communist Party officials, exploitation by employers, excessive taxation, and so on. Protests targeting specific, local grievances, and where citizens propose actionable remedies, are more likely to succeed than alternative forms of protests.[8]

As the rights consciousness of the Chinese populace has grown since the 1980s and 1990s, a growing number of citizens have adopted semi-institutionalized forms of protest known as “rightful resistance,” whereby they make use of the court system, petitioning channels, or of central government decrees and policies to bring grievances against local authorities.[9] Such protests are occasionally successful, but are often frustrated if authorities determine that it is not in the party’s interest to heed protesters’ demands.

The failure of semi-institutionalized means of protest can eventually lead citizens to adopt more overt and public forms of resistance, such as sit-ins, picketing, coordinated hunger strikes,[10] or marches. When petitioning to local authorities fails, many citizens take their grievances to the capital in Beijing, occasionally staging demonstrations in Tiananmen Square.

In isolated instances disaffected citizens have turned to rioting, bombings of government buildings and related targets,[11] or suicide as a form of protest.[12] In December 2011, residents of the village of Wukan expelled Communist Party authorities following land requisition protests.[13]

In the case of pro-nationalist protests, citizens have engaged in boycotts against foreign goods or companies,[14] officially sanctioned marches, and occasionally targeted foreign embassies for violence.[15]

Technology has become an increasingly important part of the arsenal of Chinese protesters and dissidents. Some protests occur almost entirely in the realm of online activism and engagement, taking the form of citizens signing online petitions, issuing statements online rejecting the Communist Party, of signing support for dissident manifestos like Charter 08. Cyber-vigilantes make use of the internet to publicize and publicly shame government officials and others who are perceived as corrupt, have committed human rights abuses, or have otherwise offended collective values. SMS text messages have also been used to organize and coordinate protests.[16][17]

Rural protests

An estimated 65 percent of the 180,000 annual "mass incidents" in China stem from grievances over forced land requisitions, whereby government authorities—often in collusion with private developers—seize land from villages with little to no compensation. Since 2005, surveys have indicated a steady increase in the number of forced land requisitions. Every year, local government expropriates the land of approximately 4 million rural Chinese citizens.[18] 43 percent of villagers surveys across China report being the victims of land grabs. In most instances, the land is then sold to private developers at an average cost of 40x higher per acre than the government paid to the villagers.[18]

Petitioning

Since imperial times, among the main avenues for citizens to voice grievances and seek redress from authorities was through petitioning channels. The People's Republic of China preserved the institution, establishing petitioning and appeals offices at local, provincial, and national levels. The petitioning bureaus are charged with receiving appeals and complaints from citizens and assisting them in resolving their grievances. In most instances, individuals begin the petitioning process at the local level, and escalate to the provincial or national level when they are unable to find redress.

The number of petitioners in China—and in particular, those who travel to the capital of Beijing to seek out the central appeals office—has risen precipitously since the early 1990s. Some of the common complaints brought through petitioning channels relate to land requisitions and forced home demolitions, environmental damage, official corruption, excessive or predatory taxation, and human rights abuses. Although the petitioning system is a viable means for some citizens to find resolutions, the system as a whole is strained and largely ineffective. Many petitioners, rather than finding justice, land in "black jails" or other detention facilities for attempting to protest abuses.

Pro-democracy protests

Democracy Wall

In 1978, as Deng Xiaoping pursued a course of reform based on the theory of “four modernizations” in China’s economy, pro-democracy dissidents began posting writings, news and ideas on a wall in the Xicheng district in Beijing. Activist Wei Jingsheng began advocating for democracy and greater political freedoms as a “Fifth Modernization.” The Democracy Wall, as it was called, was tolerated for a time, but was shut down in 1979 when authorities deemed that its criticisms against single-Party rule and current Party leadership had gone too far.

1989 Tiananmen Square protests

In the Spring of 1989, hundreds of thousands of students, laborers and others gathered in Tiananmen Square to mourn the death of CCP General Secretary Hu Yaobang. The non-violent gathering soon morphed into a movement advocating greater transparency, reform, and eventually, democracy. In the early morning of 4 June 1989, the People’s Liberation Army was mobilized to disperse the crowds by using weapons to open fire on the crowd, killing several hundred to thousands of Chinese citizens.

2011 pro-democracy protests

Inspired by “jasmine” protests in North Africa and the Middle East, in February 2011 Chinese dissidents began calling for pro-democracy demonstrations in multiple Chinese cities. Though organizers initially proposed that participants shout slogans, they later revised their plans to encourage citizens to stroll innocuously around particular locations at pre-determined times. In response, Chinese authorities launched a concerted crackdown on dissidents, journalists, rights lawyers, artists, and others who had agitated for democratic reform.

Ethnic protests

China has 55 minority ethnic groups, several of which experience recurring tensions with the majority Han ethnic group, and/or the Chinese authorities. The Tibetan, Uyghur, and Mongolian populations, in particular, have long-standing cultural and territorial grievances, and to varying degrees reject the rule of the Chinese Communist Party in their respective homelands. Perceived suppression of minority cultures and rights, societal discrimination, or economic imbalances sometimes lead to ethnic protests or rioting.

Tibet

Tibet has historically been the scene of several large-scale protests and uprisings against Communist Party rule, most notably in 1959, 1989, and 2008. Tibetan protester’s main grievances include pervasive human rights abuses and a lack of religious freedom and cultural protection. Tibetan protesters often make demands for greater political autonomy, independence, and the right to practice their religion free of interference. Several protests in Tibet have been suppressed with force, sometimes ending with the imprisonment of activists and the killing of civilians.

Xinjiang

Ethnic minorities in Xinjiang have engaged in protest and uprisings—sometimes violent—against Communist Party rule. The ethnic Uyghur people, in particular, identify most strongly with their Central Asian kin, rather than with Han Chinese rule. Many have advocated for an independent East Turkistan, and greater political and religious freedoms. Ethnic tensions have risen in recent decades as a growing Han Chinese population in the region has threatened to dilute the Uighur culture. In 2009, ethnic riots broke out in the capital of Ürümqi. Ethnic Hui people in the region also experience tensions with the Han population.

Mongolia

Like Tibetan and Uighurs, some ethnic Mongolians residing in Inner Mongolia have sought greater autonomy, if not outright independence from China. The province is home to ethnic tensions between Han and Mongolians, which have sometimes resulted in protests. In 2011, a Mongolian herdsman was attempting to obstruct a Chinese mining company from entering his pastureland in Xilinhot. A Han Chinese truck driver ran over and killed the man, sparking multiple protests.

Falun Gong

Among the most vocal and consistent opponents of the Communist Party rule in the last decade are practitioners of Falun Gong. Falun Gong is a qigong-based practise of meditation with a moral philosophy based on Buddhist traditions.[19] It was popularized in China in the 1990s, and by 1999, it was estimated to have 70 million practitioners. [20][21]

Some among the Communist Party’s leadership were wary of the group’s popularity, independence from the state, and spiritual philosophy, and from 1996 to 1999, the practise faced varying degrees of harassment from Communist Party authorities and Public Security Bureaus and criticism in the state-run media. Falun Gong practitioners responded to media criticism by picketing local government or media offices, and were often successful in gaining retractions.[22] One such demonstration in April 1999 was broken up by security forces in Tianjin, and several dozen Falun Gong practitioners were beaten and arrested. In response, on 25 April Falun Gong mobilised the largest demonstration in China since 1989, gathering silently outside the Zhongnanhai central government compound to request official recognition and an end to the escalating harassment against them.[23] Falun Gong representatives met with Premier Zhu Rongji, and reached an agreement.[24] Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin reportedly criticized Zhu for being “too soft,” however, and ordered that Falun Gong be defeated.[25] On 20 July 1999, the Communist Party leadership initiated a campaign to eradicate the group through a combination of propaganda, imprisonment, torture, and other coercive methods.[26][27]

In the first two years of the crackdown, Falun Gong practitioners in China responded by petitioning local, provincial, and national appeals offices. Efforts at petitioning were often met with imprisonment, leading the group to shift tactics by staging daily, non-violent demonstrations on Tiananmen Square.[28] These demonstrations, which typically involved practitioners holding banners or staging meditation sit-ins, were broken up, often violently, by security agents.[29] By late 2001, Falun Gong largely abandoned protests in Tiananmen Square, but continued a quiet resistance against the persecution campaign. Although the group claims to have no political orientation or ambitions, it has since 2004 actively advocated for an end to Communist Party rule.[30]

Online protests

Chinese dissidents have increasingly embraced the internet as a means of expressing and organizing opposition to the government or Communist Party leadership, and technology tools have become a principle way for Chinese citizens to spread otherwise censored news and information. Although the internet in China is subject to severe censorship and surveillance, the relative anonymity and security in number that it offers has made it a preferred forum for expressing dissenting views and opinions.

Blogging and microblogging platforms such as Weibo regularly contain such views, though these platforms are also subject to censorship and offending comments may be deleted by administrators.

A number of prominent Chinese dissidents, scholars, and rights defenders, and artists maintain blogs to which they post essays and criticisms of the Communist Party. One innovative use of the internet as a medium for protest was a video created by artist Ai Wei Wei, in which different Chinese citizens were filmed reading the names of victims from the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, who died due to poor school construction.[31]

Several high-profile instances of human rights abuses have sparked online protests. The 2009 arrest of 21-year-old Deng Yujiao, who killed a local government official in self-defense when he tried to sexually assault her, sparked outrage among Chinese netizens, resulting in some four million posts online.[32] Charges against Deng were eventually dropped in response to the outcry.

Internet vigilantes dubbed "human flesh search engines" seek to exact justice against corrupt authorities or other individuals by posting personal information about the offenders, and inviting the public to use this information to humiliate and shame them.[33]

In 2008, a pro-democracy manifesto authored by a group of intellectuals titled Charter 08 circulated online, eventually collecting approximately 10,000 signatures and earning one of its authors, Liu Xiaobo, a Nobel Peace Prize.[34] The Falun Gong-affiliated Dajiyuan newspaper maintains a website that allows Chinese citizens to post anonymous, symbolic withdrawals from the Communist Party, Communist Youth League, or Young Pioneers. The site claims tens of millions of people have posted such statements, though the number is not independently verified.[35]

Nationalist protests

The 2005 anti-Japanese demonstrations showcased anti-Japanese sentiment.

Official response

Chinese authorities have pursued a variety of strategies to quell protests. This includes the use of coercive measures of suppression, censorship, the imprisonment or "re-education through labor" of dissidents and activists, and the creation of a vast domestic security apparatus. Authorities have also attempted in some cases to address the causes of frustrations, such as by launching anti-corruption drives and seeking to reduce income inequality in rural areas.

See also

References

  1. ^ Murray Scot Tanner, "China Rethinks Unrest", The Washington Quarterly, Summer 2004.
  2. ^ The Economist, “Protest in China: The Cauldron Boils”, 29 September 2005.
  3. ^ Will Freeman, 'The accuracy of China's 'mass incidents', Financial Times, 2 March 2010.
  4. ^ Forsythe, Michael (6 March 2011). "China's Spending on Internal Police Force in 2010 Outstrips Defense Budget". Bloomberg. Archived from the original on 16 December 2011. Retrieved 16 November 2011.
  5. ^ Tao Ran, China's land grab is undermining grassroots democracy, The Guardian, 16 December 2011.
  6. ^ David Shambaugh, China’s Communist Party: Atrophy and Adaptation, (Washington DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2008) p 32.
  7. ^ Wright, Teresa. Accepting Authoritarianism: State-Society Relations in China’s Reform Era. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010)
  8. ^ Cai Yongshun, Collective Resistance in China: Why Popular Protests Succeed or Fail, (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010).
  9. ^ Kevin J. O'Brien and Li Lianjiang, "Rightful Resistance in Rural China." Cambridge University Press, 2006.
  10. ^ Eva Pils, 'Asking the Tiger for His Skin: Rights Activism in China', Fordham International Law Journal, Volume 30, Issue 4 (2006).
  11. ^ Chinese bomber receives outpouring of sympathy online 2011-05-27 The Christian Science Monitor
  12. ^ 'China's real estate bubble and its victims', Washington Post, 18 June 2011.
  13. ^ Malcolm Moore, "Rebel Chinese Village of Wukan 'has food for ten days'", Telegraph, 14 December 2011.
  14. ^ BBC, 'Carrefour faces China boycott bid', 15 April 2008.
  15. ^ 'China gives green light to embassy protests, but warns against violence' CNN, 9 May 1999.
  16. ^ Jim Yardley, 'A Hundred Cellphones Bloom, and Chinese Take to the Streets', 25 April 2005.
  17. ^ Laura Sydell, 'Free Speech In China? Text Me', NPR, 11 July 2008.
  18. ^ a b Elizabeth C. Economy, A Land Grab Epidemic: China’s Wonderful World of Wukans, Council on Foreign Relations, 7 February 2012.
  19. ^ Penny, Benjamin (2001). "The Past, Present, and Future of Falun Gong". Retrieved 6 October 2009. The best way to describe Falun Gong is as a cultivation system. Cultivation systems have been a feature of Chinese life for at least 2 500 years.
  20. ^ Seth Faison (27 April 1999) "In Beijing: A Roar of Silent Protestors", The New York Times
  21. ^ Joseph Kahn, "Notoriety Now for Movement’s Leader," New York Times, 27 April 1999
  22. ^ David Ownby. “Falun Gong and the Future of China.” Oxford University Press, 2008.
  23. ^ Ethan Gutmann, “An Occurrence on Fuyou Street” National Review, 13 July 2009.
  24. ^ James Tong, Revenge of the Forbidden City, Oxford University Press (2009)
  25. ^ Danny Schechter, Falun Gong's Challenge to China: Spiritual Practice or Evil Cult?, Akashic books: New York, 2001
  26. ^ Amnesty International 'China: The crackdown on Falun Gong and other so-called "heretical organization"' 23 March 2000
  27. ^ Human Right Watch; M Spiegel (2001). Dangerous meditation: China's campaign against Falungong. New York
  28. ^ Ian Johnson, "Defiant Falun Dafa Members Converge on Tiananmen", The Wall Street Journal, 25 April 2000.
  29. ^ Elisabeth Rosenthal, "Falun Gong Holds Protests On Anniversary of Big Sit-In." New York Times. 26 Apr 2001.
  30. ^ Hu Ping, “The Falun Gong Phenomenon,” in Challenging China: Struggle and Hope in an Era of Change, Sharon Hom and Stacy Mosher (ed) (New York: The New Press, 2007).
  31. ^ Holland Cotter, 'An Artist Takes Role of China’s Conscience', New York Times, 5 April 2011.
  32. ^ Michael Wines, 'Civic-Minded Chinese Find a Voice Online', The New York Times, 16 June 2009
  33. ^ Hannah Fletcher, 'Human flesh search engines: Chinese vigilantes that hunt victims on the web', The Times Online, 25 June 2008.
  34. ^ A Nobel Prize for a Chinese Dissident, The New York Times, 20 September 2010
  35. ^ Caylan Ford, 'An underground challenge to China's status quo', Christian Science Monitor, 21 Oct 2009.

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