President Xi Jinping taking his cue from the Queen
For the second year in a row, China’s president, Xi Jinping (pronounced See Gin-ping) has taken a page from democracy’s playbook addressing the Chinese people directly in an annual New Year message broadcasted throughout the country. Think the Queen’s annual Christmas message but without the pearls, British accent or lavender dress.
This year, Xi spoke with more confidence about the direction of his rule: deepen reform, continue the corruption crackdown and rule the country in accordance with law. Expect 2015 to bring more corruption inquiries against Chinese Communist Party members both high and low. But what should be made of “rule the country in accordance with law ” (依法治国)? According to Xi, rule the country in accordance with law should “safeguard the rights of people” and “maintain social justice.” But since taken power, Xi has made it clear that this “safeguarding” and “maintaining” is to come from the Party itself, not from the people.
Rights activist & Lawyer Teng Biao
Unlike the U.S. President’s weekly radio address, there is no opposition party response because in China, there is no meaningful opposition party. But if anything comes close to countering Xi’s speech it would be Teng Biao’s (pronounced Tongue Beow) recent op-ed in the Washington Post. Teng, a Chinese human rights lawyer, notes the hollowness of Xi’s mantra of “rule in accordance with the law” in light of the fact that civil rights activists and lawyers have repeatedly been persecuted, prosecuted and in the case of citizen activist Cao Shunli (pronounced Tsow Shun-lee), killed in custody.
Teng also highlights the limitation of reform in China. Contrary to Xi’s speech, legal reform – or at least the version Xi seeks to implement – is not about the people’s rights. Rather it is a way to enhance the Party’s legitimacy. Even the anti-corruption campaign is not about officials following the law; it is a necessity for the Party to maintain its power. But ultimately, if these reforms are to have true success, they will have to undermine the Party’s rule.
Good Times! Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg with Chinese Censor Extraordinaire, Lu Wei
While Teng warns of Xi’s empty promises, the question still remains, does anyone – especially business leaders – care. China has become a huge market force that cannot be ignored. Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook appears to be toying with the idea of entering the Chinese market even though under Chinese law he would be required to conduct the Chinese government’s censorship of Facebook in China. In early December, Zuckerberg appeared to be making nice with China’s censorship regulator Lu Wei (pronounce Lou Way), meeting him in Facebook’s California office and informing Lu that he has been reading the collection of Xi’s speeches (including conveniently leaving a copy on his desk). But could Zuckerberg’s feelings for Xi be mutual? In his New Year speech, Xi used the internet slang “dian zan” (点赞) (pronounce dee-ann zan) to give the Chinese people “thumbs up.” But dian zan – literally meaning to “click praise” – is specific to the social networking age and came into being to refer to the “Like” button in facebook. While a dian zan – like – button is also used by China’s Weibo users, could Xi’s reference be a signal that he will be opening a Facebook account in 2015?
Watch Xi’s New Year 2015 Address With English Subtitles:
In Part 1 of this interview series with Prof. Eva Pils, an associate professor of law at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and research fellow at NYU’s U.S.-Asia Law Institute, Prof. Pils described the “weiquan” (rights defense) movement in China. Here in Part 2, Prof. Pils continues by discussing the emergence of one of the most significant and organized aspects of the weiquan movement, the New Citizen Movement. What is it these New Citizens want and what is it that causes the government to violently suppress some of the Movement’s leaders? Prof. Pils answered these questions and more when China Law & Policy sat down with her last month.
Read the transcript below of Part 2 of this three-part interview or click on the media player to listen:
Length: 13:38 minutes
To read or listen to Part 1 of this three-part interview series with Prof. Pils, click here.
EL: So just to get a little bit more specific, I want to turn now to focus on Xu Zhiyong who just received in January four years in
Emblem of the New Citizens Movement – calligraphy of Sun Yatsen
prison. He is a part of this “New Citizen Movement.” Can you describe what that movement is a little bit? Where did it emerge from and what its platform is?
EP: So the New Citizen Movement, it emerged in 2012, around May 2012. I think that it can be seen as in some ways a response to the problems that we have just been discussing, the [social] grievances, and also the problem of repression of civil society. In some ways it is also due to changes that have come about because of new communication technologies – the social media – that have enabled a new form of activism to emerge not only in China but also in other parts of the world. Think of the various Occupy movements and the Arab Spring.
That’s I think one the reasons why the New Citizen Movement emerged. Obviously it focuses on the idea of the citizen. When you look at what Xu Zhiyong in particular has provided as an analysis of citizenship, the concept of the citizen, you can see that it is a very strong, richly normative political conception of the citizen; a sort of 18th-century-Europe notion of the individual who has rights against the state. I think that looking at the history of the human rights movement [in China] that we just discussed, you could perhaps also say that Xu Zhiyong, having tried for ten years to introduce beneficial changes in China through case-by-case legal rights advocacy, comes to the conclusion, around 2011- 2012, that now a new method of advocacy has to be tried; that rights advocacy in a way has to move beyond working on individual cases, and become more issue-focused and more explicitly political.
Teng Biao, organizing without organizations
So how do you do that in the context of a political system that very clearly does not allow a political opposition? Like in other places in the world, the answer that seems to be emerging in China right now, as I see it, is to adopt forms of organization that are significantly different from what we’ve seen before. Teng Biao, another very important scholar and rights advocate, has used Clay Shirky’s idea of organizing without organizations to describe what is going on here. The idea is basically that you could achieve a high degree of coordination and initiate various types of actions, civil society actions, without having a visible traditional organizational structure. It’s also that in a new civil society political movement of this kind, you have to be very open. You have to be the opposite of what characterizes, for instance, the rise of the Chinese Communist Party from its sort of underground years, to this moment when it manages to control power.
An example of that [openness] would be, for instance, these so-called gongmin jucan [公民聚餐], the citizen meals that were organized by the New Citizen Movement. The idea was really that you would somehow get people to distribute information about venue and time and so on online. At some of the gongmin jucan, the new citizens meals that I have observed, it really was possible for people who simply had come across this information online to come along and join the meal. It was entirely open towards anyone who wanted to show up. That’s remarkable in the context of a system that, as you just said a while ago, scrutinizes everybody so much and has so much surveillance. But the idea really was that this sort of openness represented a new form of political power that could be used to initiate some sort of change. Along with that of course goes the idea that the activism of the New Citizen Movement must be non-violent.
EL: Just in terms of numbers, what are we looking at in terms…how big would you estimate the movement is if you can even do that? If you can, if you can.
EP: On the numbers, I have to say I don’t know. Of course we have asked those various questions. There is no very clear answer.
A New Citizen Dinner – From left to right: Guo Feixiong, Yang Zili, Xiao Guozhen, and Xu Zhiyong in a dinner gathering in Beijing. Photo Courtesy of Chinachange.org
Perhaps one could say that in 2013 we had in a number of say in around 30 or so different Chinese cities you had a total of a couple hundred people who were essentially initiating and organizing these meals. And by the way the idea was basically that you had a meal being held at the same time in different locations all over China potentially. So you had a couple hundred people. Perhaps that means a few thousand people who would be willing to show up for one or two or more of those who would be in some way supporting the New Citizens Movement. Perhaps it would be good if we had access to (I have not) the list of people signing the so-called gongmin chengnuo [公民承诺] – the citizens pledge – that was issued in 2010 and was kind of an appeal to citizens from all walks of life to essentially pledge to be a good citizen using this political idea that Xu Zhiyong stands for and others stand for.
Something else that perhaps you could consider would be the level of support that Gongmeng [Open Constitution Initiative], the organization co-founded by Xu Zhiyong, got for its activism for educational rights for migrant worker children. As I recall, at the time it was said that in Beijing they would be able to essentially reach tens of thousands of migrant worker parents. So, certainly they were thinking big. They were thinking that they could reach out to potentially everyone. And if you look at the composition of the citizen meals, it wasn’t just lawyers; it was not just scholars, lawyers, people with legal education or that sort of background. It was also people who were petitioners or people who just took an interest in what was going on there.
Education of migrant children – major political issue in China
EL: You raised the issue of education for migrant children as one of the issues, which would require a change to the hukou system. And some of the other things of the New Citizen Movement advocates like more transparency of Chinese officials and their assets. These are in fact the reforms that in the past year the Chinese government has stated that they are looking to examine or to adopt. So it is seems like the Chinese government is sort of listening to the New Citizen Movement or at least their complaints. But then, how do you mesh that with the fact that they’re arresting the advocates of that movement for disrupting public order. What gives here?
EP: I’m not so sure about that analysis. I think that when you look at what the New Citizen Movement has advocated, yes of course you have some similarities to these reform policies announced by the Chinese government. But, I don’t think that is by itself evidence that the government is following suggestions from the New Citizen Movement. For one thing, these reform ideas were around long before the New Citizen Movement even emerged.
But perhaps more important is that you could also see this the other way around, and this is how it was analyzed by people involved in the various movements that you currently have in China. People were saying that in some ways the New Citizen Movement had chosen to talk about causes that the government had already said it had adopted. That might be a way of coming across as a little bit less provocative than if you do what very clearly and visibly was done in the south of China [in the context of] various movements around Guo Feixiong, another very important right advocate who is based in Guangzhou. What you had there was really the use of much more aspiring and much more abstract political slogans: constitutional government, democracy, human rights — in those words.
So you have this very interesting discussion within these smaller sub-movements if you like, these groups within the human rights movement. Some people were critical of the New Citizen Movement, saying that essentially it was not a good strategy to choose government slogans. I remember one person saying basically that you shouldn’t think that the government is that stupid – those are his words – that ‘[you shouldn’t think that] just because you shout the government slogans they won’t come after you’ — they are not going to let you off just because you shout the identical slogans.
President Xi Jinping of China – listening to the New Citizens?
The reason for that [according to my interlocutor was that] as long as you make political demands of any kind they [the Chinese government] will assume that you want a share of the political power and that’s what the government won’t accept. From that perspective, we were seeing an attempt to be a little bit less provocative by using campaign causes that were similar to the government, but that strategy essentially is not really working. And I think that there is a whole lot more to say about the differences between what the New Citizen Movement, what other movements were calling for, and what the government has so far delivered. For instance, when it comes to anti-corruption and so on.
EL: So you wouldn’t say the government is co-opting the movement?
Bob Dylan performed in concert in Beijing on April 6 and Shanghai on April 8
Maureen Dowd’s op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times – Blowin’ in the Idiot Wind – lambasts singer-songwriter/protest-singer/civil-rights-activist/voice-of-a-generation/whatever-he-is-to-you Bob Dylan for his recent concert in Beijing, China. For Dowd, Dylan’s acceptance of the Chinese government’s approval of his set list is anathema to everything he represents. Dropping his famous protest songs of “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A’Changin’” from the set list during China’s most severe crackdown on its own citizens since 1989 and ignoring the recent detention of Chinese rights activists shows, for Dowd, that Dylan is nothing more than a sellout, willing to auction his morals to the highest bidder.
But Dowd’s virulent critique of Dylan makes one wonder, where has she been in all of this? Dowd is an obvious Dylan fan, likely even a disciple, with her skilled use of Dylan quotes and understanding of the man’s extremely tangled and uncomfortable history with fame. But China’s “harshest crackdown on artists, lawyers, writers and dissidents in a decade” and its “dispatching the secret police to arrest willy-nilly, including Ai Weiwei” as Dowd notes, didn’t just start this weekend and didn’t just start with the detention of Ai Weiwei.
Since the middle of February, the Chinese government has been illegally abducting Chinese rights activists, preventing them from contacting their family let alone a lawyer, and subjecting them to torture and abuse. This siege on rights activists in China is done as a pre-emptive strike on the nascent civil society that has been developing and is an attempt for the Chinese Communist Party to avoid the fate of Mubarak and Ben Ali and maintain its one-party authoritarian rule, especially as a change of leadership comes in 2012.
Tang Jitian was abducted from his home on February 16, 2011, starting what has proved to be a wide-cast net of illegal abductions and abuse (abuse of both China’s own laws and the individuals that remain in custody). Since then, Dowd has written 13 columns, not a single one dealing with the issue of the Chinese government’s harsh and violent crackdown on its citizens. Today’s column barely touches upon the issue and instead focuses on Dylan’s “selling out.”
Let’s face it, Dylan is unable to sell out because he never bought in in the first place. Dylan never fully engaged the civil rights movement. While his songs did become a motivating force for many of the great civil rights activists and moments in U.S. history, by 1965, he was done with folk and had plugged in. And since the 1980s, Dylan has been on a non-stop tour, selling the rights of his iconic protest songs to commercial entities (the rights to Times They Are A Changin’ was first sold to accounting firm Coopers & Lybrand and in 1996 to the Bank of Montreal), appearing in a Victoria’s Secret ad, producing an abysmally bad Christmas album, and almost never including Blowin’ in the Wind and the Times They Are A’Changin’ in any set list anywhere in the world (review his set lists here: http://www.bobdylan.com/tour/calendar/2010).
Dylan’s lack of mentioning China’s recent crackdown on dissent isn’t shocking. In fact, the old guy likely knows nothing of what is happening in China – why should we rely on him to be our voice and do all the work? This isn’t his issue; in fact, the man likely has no issues other than himself.
Which brings us back to Maureen Dowd. Unlike most of the people concerned about human rights abuses in China, Dowd has a powerful platform for her voice – her twice-a-week column in the N.Y. Times. With a large and influential readership that likely reaches the halls of the White House and Congress, discussion of China’s recent abuse of its own citizens and its subversion of a rule of law in her column could influence important policy makers as well as the world-at-large.
To their credit, some of the world’s major newspapers have been reporting on China’s recent crackdown, but these articles have been cursory at best and do not fully explain why China’s recent assault goes above and beyond what traditionally occurs in an authoritarian regime. But most individuals knowledgeable on the issue have had extreme difficulty in getting their voice out in the mainstream press (kudos though to The International Herald Tribune and the N.Y. Times for publishing opinion pieces in its print editions and kudos to The Guardian and the Wall Street Journal for having opinion pieces on the issue in their online papers).
Dowd has the opportunity to expose what is happening in China and call for the freeing of, or at the very least the end of the abuse of, not just Ai Weiwei, but also rights-defending lawyers Tang Jitian, Jiang Tianyong, Teng Biao, Liu Shihui, Tang Jingling, Li Tiantian, and Gao Zhisheng. The whereabouts of these lawyers, unlawfully abducted by Chinese authorities (even under Chinese law), remain unknown. Their only offense: asking the Chinese government to uphold its promise of a rule of law and using the legal system to protect society’s most vulnerable.
Dowd’s disappointment in Dylan’s snub of China’s crackdown on dissent leads me to believe that this is an issue Dowd is concerned about. But instead of asking Dylan to be the spokesperson for the issue, Dowd should practice what she herself appears to preach. My challenge to Dowd is to use her sharp-witted pen and find a way to raise the plights of China’s rights-defenders in the American consciousness instead of relegating it to two sentences in a column that is otherwise a critique of Dylan. If Dowd doesn’t, then I am left to think “you could have done better but I don’t mind, you just kinda wasted my precious time….”
Gao Zhisheng is perhaps the most well-known of China’s rights-defending lawyers. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Gao began successfully representing victims of medical malpractice and farmers denied just compensation for their land. In fact, in 2001, Gao was named by China’s Ministry of Justice as one of China’s most influential lawyers. Spurred by his success and what appeared to be a Chinese government welcoming a stronger public interest law bar, Gao expanded his work to included practitioners of Falun Gong, a religious organization which the Chinese government has long feared as a threat to its one-party rule and has declared a cult. Gao’s representation of Falun Gong practitioners did not just highlight the baseless accusations of “using superstitious sects [cults] to undermine the implementation of the law” (China’s Criminal Law, art. 300), but also the torture of Falun Gong practitioners while in police custody (for a seminal article on Gao’s work, see Eva Pils, Asking the Tiger for His Skin: Rights Activism in China, Fordham International Law Journal 2007. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1563706).
Gao’s zealous advocacy of Falun Gong practitioners did not go unnoticed by the Chinese government, and his status as a lawyer to be celebrated for representing society’s most vulnerable, quickly changed. Gao was now viewed as a piranha of the state. In December 2006, Gao was convicted of subversion and was given five years probation to be served from his home. However, in February 2009, Gao was abducted from his home by the police. For over fourteen months, he was not heard from and no one knew where he was. In April 2010, Gao emerged from seclusion only to be abducted again only two weeks later. During the time he was free, he was able to report to the Associated Press the torture he underwent while in police custody.
Gao’s whereabouts, like recently abducted rights defending lawyers Tang Jitian, Teng Biao, and Jiang Tianyong, remain unknown. In a plea for the world to pay attention to these random and lawless detentions, Gao’s wife, Geng He, who was able to flee to the United States with their two children in January 2009, published an op-ed in today’s New York Times. Below is an excerpt with a link to the full article. Geng begs that if her husband has been killed, that the Chinese government have the dignity to return his body so that his family can lay him to rest.
The Dissident’s Wife
By Geng He
Gao Zhisheng with his wife, Geng He, and their two children
San Francisco – WITH the world’s attention on the uprisings in the Middle East, repressive regimes elsewhere are taking the opportunity to tighten their grip on power. In China, human rights activists have been disappearing since a call went out last month for a Tunisian-style “Jasmine Revolution.” I know what their families are going through. Almost a year ago, the Chinese government seized my husband and since then, we have had no news of him. I don’t know where he is, or even if he is alive.
With President Hu Jintao set to make an official State visit to the U.S. next month, expect an increase in op-eds concerning violations of human rights in China and the demand that President Obama raise human rights issues with President Hu. These op-eds usually name particular human rights activists, those who have been at it the longest and whose regular imprisonment and abuse make the international news. Teng Biao is one such human rights lawyer who receives international attention whenever the Chinese police take him into custody, which, unfortunately, is a fairly regular occurrence.
In a recent essay translated in the Wall Street Journal, Prof. Teng recounts the wrongful detention and police brutality he suffered on December 23, 2010, when attempting to visit a colleague’s mother. But what makes Prof. Teng’s essay particularly poignant is that he admits that because of his special status as an internationally-known human rights lawyer, the beatings he suffers at the hands of the police are much less severe than someone with less international name recognition.
The op-eds that will inevitably appear prior to President Hu’s visit to the U.S. should not just call for the freedom of a single human rights activist; rather it is important that these op-eds also look at the systemic problems with the culture of lawlessness that permeates the Chinese police and the lack of a rule of law. Prof. Teng portrays a police force drunk on its own power and willing to cast aside the law to do as it pleases, including abusing its citizens.
‘A Hole to Bury You’ A first-hand account of how China’s police treats the citizens it’s supposed to serve and protect.
Human Rights lawyer, Teng Biao
By Teng Biao*
Beijing – On Dec. 23, the United Nations International Convention for the Protection of All Persons From Forced Disappearance came into force. China has declined to accede to this convention. My experience that same day is just one of many examples of how the authorities continue to falsely imprison Chinese citizens.
That evening, I was in the Xizhimen area of Beijing chatting with my colleagues Piao Xiang, Xu Zhiyong and Zhang Yongpan. Ms. Piao had been disappeared after she and I went to Dandong on Oct. 7 to argue the court case of Leng Guoquan, a man framed by the police for drug trafficking; she had only been released on Dec. 20. Her abductors had been officers from the state security squad of the Public Security Bureau. I asked her to narrate the entire process of her disappearance in detail.
Later, I suggested to Mr. Zhang, “Let’s go and see Fan Yafeng’s mom.” The day before, we had contacted fellow human rights lawyer Fan Yafeng and found out that he was under strict house arrest. But he had said that his mother was going to be alone at home in the evening and so I thought we should go see her.
Because I used to go there frequently I remembered clearly where she lived. As Mr. Zhang and I entered the block of flats and started walking up the staircase, I had a feeling that someone was following us. Observing that we went to the third floor, a young security guard asked us whom we were visiting. We said, “We’re seeing a friend.” Immediately, he called out for someone else to come up.
We knocked on the door and were greeted by Mr. Fan’s mother. But as we entered the flat, the security guard came with us, and a person in plainclothes stormed in just behind him. The man in plainclothes demanded to check our IDs in a very coarse manner. I asked him in a loud voice, “What sort of people are you? How can you enter a private residence without permission?”
The plainclothes man said, “I am a police officer. We want to check your ID cards.” “You’re a police officer? I want to see your police ID.” “If I am telling you I’m a police officer, then that’s what I am. What are you doing here?” “Is that your business? How can you prove you’re a police officer if you don’t show your police ID card?”
*Prof. Teng Biao is a lecturer of law at the Law School of the China University of Political Science and Law (CUPL), one of China’s most prestigious law school. After working with human rights lawyer Xu Zhiyong to successfully abolish the Custody and Repatriation system, Teng and Xu opened the public interest law firm, Open Constitution Initiative, which was shut down in summer 2009. Teng has been repeatedly warned by administrators at CUPL that if he continues with his rights defense work, he could lose his job and even his personal freedom.