China’s New Rebels

By The Editors

Updated, June 3, 6:15 p.m. | John Kamm, of The Dui Hua Foundation, and Kerry Brown, of Chatham House, offer their views on how the Chinese government’s response to dissent has changed in the past two decades.

In the spring of 1989, thousands of students from China’s elite universities occupied Tiananmen Square in Beijing for weeks to protest government corruption and demand democracy. More than a million people took to the streets. Then on June 4, as the world watched, Army troops and tanks rolled into the square, firing on the crowd and killing hundreds.


In the 20 years since, China has become more open economically and the rise of the Internet has allowed ordinary citizens to connect to the rest of the world. Yet censorship and the lack of democratic freedoms remain unchanged, and students seem disinclined to take their grievances to the streets.

We asked several dissidents — some in China and some in exile — as well as scholars of Chinese politics what forms of dissent are alive in China now? How has the government adapted its response to the people’s demands?

The Roar of Dissent Online

Xiao Qiang is the founder and editor-in-chief of China Digital Times. He is director of the China Internet Project and an adjunct professor at the Graduate School of Journalism, University of California, Berkeley.

(Photo: Toshio Sakai/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images) Students gathered around a replica of New York’s Statue of Liberty, called the Goddess of Democracy, at Tiananmen Square, May 1989.

Today, reports abound of young Chinese saying they don’t know or don’t care about events in 1989. Yet all one has to do is go online to the vast number of Chinese forums and blogs to know that the spirit of Tiananmen is still alive.

With 300 million people — mostly young, urban and well-educated — online in the country, the Internet has provided Chinese citizens with an unprecedented capacity to express themselves, expose corrupt local officials and call for social justice, despite heavy government censorship.

From efforts to uncover child slave labor to protests that halted the construction of a dangerous chemical plant, netizens are demanding accountability, transparency, and political reform from their government.

Recently, artist and blogger Ai Weiwei drew international attention to the issue of bad school construction and the children killed in those schools during the Sichuan earthquake by his efforts to collect their names. He has received an outpouring of support from the online public, which is calling for systematic changes, including an end to official corruption and cover-ups.

Such “public events” are increasing day by day, and reflect a rising rights consciousness among the Chinese. In 1989, the voices of those gathered on Tiananmen Square were heard on TV screens by millions around the world. Today, millions of voices express themselves on the Internet, carrying on the demand for democratic reforms that the Tiananmen protesters called for.

What Being a Dissident Means

Woeser is a Tibetan dissident, writer and poet. She blogs at Invisible Tibet. This essay was translated by The Times from the Chinese.

China is not as open politically today as in 1989. The atmosphere in the 1980s felt freer — it was suffused with an enthusiasm for culture and ideas, with people craving and absorbing new thoughts. Although China has made enormous economic strides since then, it still insists on an authoritarian political system. This doesn’t mean that there are no avenues for an exchange of views.

To be a dissident is to express oneself publicly and engage actively in a civic discourse. For me, I blog, write books and reach out to the Western media. I began blogging in 2005. My blog has been hacked and shut down by the Chinese. Now I’m on my fifth blog. Of course, the Internet is also a double-edged sword; the dictatorship can use it to serve its purposes, sometimes as tool to hunt down dissidents.

I am a Tibetan, and my voice belongs to Tibet. Almost all of the official Chinese narratives implicitly or explicitly advance the control of my people and my land. When I see my people silenced, wrongfully arrested or persecuted, I turn to the Web to speak out for those who are voiceless. In changing China, the Internet is also changing Tibet and its connection to the world.

The Literary Legacy, Post 1989

Bei Ling, a poet and essayist, is the founder and editor of Tendency, an exile literary journal. Tendency published the “Exile Series,” including six books by Vaclav Havel in Chinese translation. He is also the founder of the Independent Chinese PEN Center.

The 1989 student movement in Beijing was the most utopian and peaceful protest in history. Twenty years later, China has become a “capitalist” society, with private capitalists and the authoritarian government, which crushed the movement, dependent on each other.

With the government’s continued suppression of dissent, the soil of idealistic opposition has grown less fertile. During the past two decades, the pro-democracy movement among the Chinese in exile has also been weakened by a tendency toward in-fighting. Yet some embers from the June 4th movement still burn.

(Photo: Will Burgess/Reuters) Liu Xiaobo, a prominent pro-democracy activist.

In the past five years, a group of conscience-driven lawyers in China has emerged, working to protect the civil rights of the dissidents and the lower classes. The most prominent among them is Gao Zhisheng, who has been sentenced and tortured and is still in jail as of today because of his defense for the Falun Gong believers.

In December, 2008, more than 300 Chinese intellectuals, human rights lawyers and dissidents petitioned the government for democratization. This petition, called Charter 08, was modeled after the Czech Charter 77 led by Vaclav Havel. Most of the Charter 08 signers were participants in the 1989 movement, including Liu Xiaobo, who has been detained again. Unfortunately, there has been no prominent spokesman for the petitioners to carry on a dialogue with the government, so Charter 08 hasn’t achieved the force of Charter 77.

(Credit: European Pressphoto Agency) The Chinese edition of Zhao Ziyang’s memoir, “Prisoner of the State,” in a book shop in Hong Kong, May 2009.

Outside of China, in Hong Kong and Taiwan, there has been a rise of exile culture and literature, much of it created by the intellectuals and writers who fled after June 4. This year alone, 15 books on the June 4th theme have been published in Hong Kong (where there are more press freedoms than in China), including “Prisoner of the State: A Secret Memoir by Zhao Ziyang” and “June 4th Diary” by Feng Congde, a former 1989 student leader.

Perhaps a hundred years from now, as historians restore the truth of what happened on June 4, 1989, the exile literature will prove to be an important part of the historical record and as well as a central legacy of that rare movement.

Fragmented Society, Fragmented Opposition

Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom is a professor of history at UC Irvine, a co-founder of “The China Beat” blog, and editor of the Journal of Asian Studies. His book, “China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know,” will be published early next year.

China has a rich tradition of dissent. Over the course of centuries, aggrieved villagers and urbanites employed an array of tactics, ranging from tax riots to peaceful petition drives. This varied repertoire continually evolved; whenever new grievances arose or novel technologies of communication became available, innovations were made and familiar forms updated.

In 2009, there is no unifying thread connecting the grievances of different social and economic groups.

For instance, during the May 4th Movement of 1919, students stepped into a traditional role of scholars speaking out against inept, immoral ministers and cited historical precedents stretching back as far as the Song Dynasty. But they circulated their manifestos via a very new medium: the telegraph. Similarly, the students of 1989 called their struggle a “New May 4th Movement,” but they used new tactics like group hunger strikes that put their young bodies on the line to show that they were more selflessly committed to the nation than the old men running the country.

What sets the current era of dissent apart from 1919 and 1989 isn’t that there are fewer discontented people now (protests still take place continually). What distinguishes 2009 is the lack of a unifying thread connecting the actions of different disgruntled groups.

People don’t feel — as in 1919, when united by anger at government failures to oppose foreign bullying, and in 1989, when united by anger that only those with official connections were benefiting from reforms — that they’re all in the same boat. Sets of protesters from particular locales or belonging to particular classes don’t automatically feel kinship with one another; their grievances often differ. Censorship and crackdowns, as well as an economic boom producing diverse kinds of winners, losers and groups in-between, keep the landscape of dissent fragmented.

Ordinary Voices, Speaking Out

Persian Xiaozhao is a writer and blogger who lives in Shanghai. She is a signer of Charter 08. This article was translated by The Times from the Chinese.

Dissidents in China now come from all walks of life and professions — from well-known activists to a great number of ordinary citizens. This is quite different from 20 years ago, when the June 4th movement was essentially a movement of the elites. At the time, most of society did not possess a strong awareness about democracy.

Dissent has broadened well beyond the intelligentsia, because the Internet allows ordinary citizens a means of expression.

Today, dissent has broadened well beyond the intelligentsia, largely because the Internet allows ordinary citizens a means of expression. However, many dissidents are monitored all the time, and subject to government spying and restrictions. Some are put in jails or labor camps, others are physically intimidated.

But with so many people expressing opinions everywhere, the authorities have trouble controlling all of them. The actual number of those who are severely punished by the government is not large, and most dissidents can live a normal life.

The only area that the government controls tightly is politics. But with the Internet, information flows fast and people know they aren’t alone in their fight. Recently, I helped collect signatures to support Deng Yujiao, a woman who stabbed a government official to protect herself from sexual assault. Even some timid netizens put their names down, and I was glad that they did. Though there’s little risk to signing their names, there’s still some risk. Taking even one step makes the next step easier. When people become used to expressing their political views in the open, there’s no turning back.

Anti-Government Protests Every Day

Yang Jianli participated in the protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989. He was held as a political prisoner in China for several years. He now resides in the U.S. and is the president of Initiatives for China.

The Chinese government uses extensive measures to eradicate any collective memory of the Tiananmen Square movement. Information about the Tiananmen crackdown cannot be found in textbooks or on the Internet within China. This is just one aspect of the effort by the Chinese government to control what people think. It is estimated that the Communist Party employs over 30,000 “cyber cops” to censor Internet traffic.

(Credit: Agence France-Presse — Getty Images) Students from Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics clashed with police in May, 2009.

The size of this effort indicates the fear that grips the Chinese leadership. It belies any assertion that the Chinese people no longer care about political freedoms. If that were the case, why would the government invest so much to control speech and assembly? Not surprisingly, the majority of Chinese citizens censor themselves, not because of apathy, but out of fear.

Despite such intimidation, many credible sources estimate about 100,000 anti-government protests occur annually in China. In spite of systematic repression, the struggle of the Tibetans, Christians, and Uyghurs, and other ethnic and religious groups continue. Charter 08, signed by 303 prominent Chinese citizens, proposed 19 specific recommendations for restoring the rule of law in China. It has now garnered more than 10,000 signatures with real names and e-mail addresses.

If there is any apathy regarding the struggle for freedom in China, it lies not with the people who are denied their freedoms, but with leaders of the international community who should raise their voices against the Chinese government.

Lawsuits as Criticism

Donald Clarke, a professor at George Washington University Law School, specializes in modern Chinese law. He writes the Chinese Law Prof Blog.

Thirty years ago, China’s court system — apart from criminal proceedings — was nearly invisible. Now there are more and more reports of Chinese citizens and companies suing each other and the government itself. In interesting ways, the courts, though not necessarily becoming vehicles for dissent, are playing a role in politically challenging cases.

(Photo: Ariana Lindquist for The New York Times) A collapsed classroom in Xinjian Primary School in Dujiangyan, Sichuan Province, May 2008.

In some cases, people with no history of political activism are suing to hold the government and other actors accountable for their actions. The parents of children killed by school collapses in last year’s Sichuan earthquake (with their lawyers) have sued, though they have been blocked and harassed as they sought remedies in court against those responsible for shoddy construction.

What the Sichuan parents and others like them — for example, the parents of children poisoned in the melamine-tainted milk scandal — mostly want is an accounting and compensation. They are not out to challenge or change the political system. But there are other plaintiffs who have broader goals.

For example, the economist Hu Xingdou recently brought a lawsuit against his Web site’s host for briefly closing his site on account of “illegal content.” His purpose was not to win (amazingly, he did), but to force the censorship system out into the open. In another case, the activist Qiu Jiandong sued the telephone company for the equivalent of about 18 cents in excessive long-distance charges.

For these plaintiffs, making a point and getting publicity is the goal; while Chinese media may not be allowed to report a lone protestor in a park, the system does allow them (usually) to report on actual court cases. Even when plaintiffs don’t find the courts hospitable or don’t even expect to win, litigation is nevertheless slowly becoming one element of a broader citizen activism.

A Multitude of Grievances

Jerome A. Cohen is co-director of N.Y.U. Law School’s U.S.-Asia Law Institute and adjunct Senior Fellow for Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The sense of injustice is spreading in China, although the short-term visitor sees little evidence amid a prosperous-looking society. The country’s stunning economic development has spawned a multitude of grievances. Protean corruption, massive pollution, abusive police, an ever widening gap between rich and poor, and a broad range of local inequities have fueled rising tensions. Yet institutional outlets for ventilating and processing these tensions are dangerously inadequate.

Victims of pollution, AIDS discrimination or other injustices are often denied relief by judges buffeted by bribery and cronyism.

Petitioners who seek to take local complaints to provincial or central agencies are regularly, informally detained in “black jails;” the persistent are locked up for longer periods in mental hospitals or prosecuted. Attempts to invoke the media or Internet are only occasionally and temporarily successful.

The legal system often rejects many kinds of “sensitive,” especially group, cases. Parents of victims of the Sichuan earthquake and tainted milk consumers have been thwarted by the courts. Victims of pollution, AIDS discrimination or unfair deprivation of property rights are often denied relief by judges buffeted by political influence, local protectionism, bribery and cronyism.

Often, the small number of public interest lawyers who try to offer legal assistance to controversial plaintiffs or criminal defendants confront formidable obstacles and are subjected to harassment, disbarment, prosecution and prison. A legal system that seems to promise of justice — but fails to carry out that hope — doesn’t offer stability. Instead, it may foment precisely the kind of “mass incidents” that the country’s leaders fear most.

Open Debate, Without Questioning Authority

John Kamm is founder and chairman of The Dui Hua Foundation, a nonprofit organization that campaigns for improving human rights in China.

The Chinese government is dealing with levels of dissent not seen since 1989. Last year, there were an estimated 100,000 “mass incidents” (unauthorized gatherings to protest local grievances), and a doubling of the number of people arrested for endangering state security, compared with 2007.

By the time the police shut down the online campaign for Charter 08, thousands had signed the petition. Thus far, only Liu Xiaobo has been placed under residential surveillance, though many others have received lesser punishments like expulsion from academic positions. Compared with past government responses, this counts as restraint.

Today, China handles protests with somewhat more leniency.

The Chinese government’s approach to dissent boils down to this: As long as you don’t question the unchallenged rule of the Communist Party, a wide range of topics can be debated openly. Thus there have been lively debates on capital punishment (the number of executions has dropped sharply over the last two years) and pardons for long-serving prisoners.

We sometimes forget that the protests that rocked China 20 years ago were not confined to Beijing, with thousands arrested all over the country. Today, the Chinese government handles protests with somewhat more leniency. There are, however, about 30 people still serving sentences for counterrevolutionary crimes and arson committed in the spring of 1989. They should be released.

Borrowed Time

Kerry Brown is a Senior Fellow for the Asia Programme at Chatham House in London. His book, “Friends and Enemies, The Past, Present and Future of the Communist Party,” will be published in July.

Has China has moved forward in 20 years? The answer is a qualified yes. The Communist Party, while still very much in power, is much more circumspect about what it can do. In a fundamental sense, it has been living on borrowed time since that evening on June 4, 1989.

The government’s problem with dealing openly with the Tiananmen movement even so many years later shows its unease with its history.

In the 1990s and 2000s, the government has delivered economic reform, and, in many ways, succeeded spectacularly. This transformation has lifted millions out of poverty, and created a new Chinese middle class. There have been some legal and institutional reforms, too. There is a vibrant non-government sector especially on environmental issues; the courts have changed (even at times, disrupting politics); and there’s a chaotic media world, with one of the world’s most lively blogging scenes.

But the government’s problem with dealing openly with the Tiananmen movement even so many years later shows its unease with its history and its fears. Only the most tentative political reforms have been attempted since 1989. The party has never willingly ceded either to the market or to democratic reform. It will do so under duress, guided by pragmatic calculations about preserving its power. But perhaps sooner than we expect, that will happen. And the party’s long decline from power will then be seen not to have started in the 2000s, but in that moment of June, when elders of the Communist Party turned their weapons on their people.

(Photo: Ruth Fremson/The New York Times) A guard on night watch at Tiananmen Square