Corruption has been among the grievances that have inspired civil resistance and toppled empires, even in some of the most authoritarian regimes. In China, from indignation over the corrupt Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) that helped mobilize the 1911 Xinhai Revolution, ending the nation’s more than 2,000 years of imperial rule, to anger toward Chiang Kai-Shek’s increasingly venal Guomingdang (Chinese Nationalist Party) that contributed to its overthrow and exile to Taiwan in 1949, corruption has been focal to domestic instability.
More recently, the 1989 student protests that culminated in the Tiananmen Square massacre, which marks its 25th anniversary this June 4, began with posters demanding an end to official nepotism and corruption. Responding to this history of overthrow and unrest, influenced by resentment toward perceptions of corruption, heeding George Santayana’s often quoted warning that those who fail to remember history are doomed to repeat it, the fight against corruption has become a hallmark of Xi Jinping’s administration, at least rhetorically.
When Xi Jinping assumed power as China’s new president, 14 March 2013, he announced a general crackdown on corruption, to considerable applause, at first even from among China’s activist community who had so hoped for a liberal reformer. Xi Jinping’s call for government transparency and an investigation into official corruption encouraged veteran rights defenders to take to the streets in support.
But those who have engaged under the banner of a New Citizens Movement — a designation the government has strategically avoided using even in its patently targeted crackdown on its members — have been rounded up and prosecuted on spurious charges.
Admittedly, the New Citizens Movement is more a loose network of like-minded activists and human-rights defenders than a nationwide social movement. It is both a self-imposed mantle and an implicit charge of dissent from above applied to individuals engaged in myriad actions directed at multiple issues from demanding greater government transparency to championing the rights of migrant workers’ children.
But perhaps because of the common thread that has earned the movement its anti-corruption spirit, at times directly quoting Xi Jinping, authorities have implied the crackdown is targeting not the message but the methods of the movement.
The first years under Xi Jinping have heralded an innovation in regime repression, the manipulation of criminal law to persecute activists and rights defenders, the worst in years. Despite increasing repression of civil society, activists and rights defenders have continued their charge.
Meet China’s New Citizens
Shortly after Xi Jinping declared war on corruption, on 31 March 2013 several Beijing activists unfurled banners and made anti-corruption speeches in the crowded Xidan shopping area. Among them were Ding Jiaxi, a veteran democracy activist and human rights lawyer. He was detained on 17 April and formally arrested for disturbing public order on 24 May 2013. His trial began in late January 2014. As was the case for several other trials linked to the New Citizens Movement, Ding Jiaxi’s proceedings were postponed after he tactically dismissed his lawyer, earning extra time to draw more public attention to his case.
Ding Jiaxi’s retrial began on 8 April 2014. Fellow human rights lawyer Wang Quanping, after driving the nearly 1,400 miles from his hometown in South China to the Beijing Courthouse where Ding Jiaxi and several others were standing retrial, was blocked from the trial and taken away by unidentified men.
He remained incommunicado for two days until the police notified his wife that he had been criminally detained for ‘causing a disturbance.’ For his crime, Wang had pasted decals on his car to read, “The people are welcome to disclose their assets; public servants are exempted.” Ten days later, Ding Jiaxi was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for the charge of disturbing public order. On the same day, fellow activist, Li Wei was sentenced to two years on the same charge.
Outlined in Chapter VI Section I of China’s Criminal Law, the crime of disturbing public order has become a blanket charge applied to civil society activists.
A year ago, following the April 2013 detention of activists involved in the Xidan demonstration, others cautioned that repression would engender further civil resistance and on 21 April 2013 Liu Ping, Wei Zhongping, and Li Sihua, along with nine others protested in Southern Jiangxi Province.
They uploaded photos online of themselves holding posters in solidarity with the recently detained Beijing activists, among them Ding Jiaxi. They also denounced government corruption. The organizers — who would come to be known as the Jiangxi Three — were arrested on charges of disturbing public order. While they were the first to be tried in relation to the New Citizens Movement (on 3 December 2013, although they have still not been sentenced), they are far from new to civil resistance.
Still, like other activists around the country, they were emboldened by the idea of the New Citizens Movement –and eventually persecuted for finding this inspiration in an essay authored by veteran rights defender Xu Zhiyong.
The radicalism of Xu Zhiyong
Xu Zhiyong was detained on 16 July 2013, formally arrested a little more than a month later, and tried on 22 January 2014. He was found guilty of “gathering a crowd to disturb public order” and sentenced to four years in prison.
No stranger to rights defense and civil action, after graduating with a Ph.D. in law from Beijing University, Xu Zhiyong quickly made a name for himself. In 2003, along with his classmate Teng Biao, the two waged a comprehensive campaign against arbitrary detention, launching legal appeals, organizing direct action, engaging with domestic media, publishing open letters, and encouraging international advocacy. That same year the two founded Gongmeng (Open Constitution Initiative), a nonprofit focused on rule of law reform and legal aid.
In 2009, he appeared on the cover of Chinese Esquire. China Dream was the issue’s theme. His dream for China was a country that could be free, where no citizen needed to go against her own conscience. But even as he was being profiled on the cover, he was under detention on charges of tax evasion for his nonprofit Gongmeng, which came suspiciously soon after the organization sponsored research on the deadly March 2008 Lhasa riots. Gongmeng was shuttered but his resolve was not diminished.
One of his clients remembers, “My impression of Mr Xu is that he is a moderate and prudent man.” Xu Zhiyong is often depicted as the equanimous proponent of moderate reform. However, Eva Pils, law professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and Joshua Rosenzweig, a human rights researcher, argue that the China envisioned by Xu Zhiyong is in fact a very radical vision in the one-party state.
To think of him as a moderate does a great disservice to Xu Zhiyong and the “force of popular resistance he and others have successfully coordinated.” The only thing moderate about Xu Zhiyong, they write, “is his unwavering advocacy of nonviolence.” It is this unwavering commitment to strategic nonviolence that encapsulates the New Citizens Movement.
What is the New Citizens Movement?
On 29 May 2012, Xu Zhiyong published an essay beginning as follows:
China needs a new citizens’ movement. This movement is a political movement in which this ancient nation bids utter farewell to authoritarianism and completes the civilized transformation to constitutional governance; it is a social movement to completely destroy the privileges of corruption, the abuse of power, the gap between rich and poor, and to construct a new order of fairness and justice; it is a cultural movement to bid farewell to the culture of autocrats and subjects and instead create a new nationalist spirit; it is the peaceful progressive movement to herald humanity’s process of civilizing.
The New Citizens Movement is “the lawful defense of citizens’ rights, citizens’ nonviolent non-cooperation, and peaceful democracy, all under a new system of ideas and discourse,” a discourse that does not ‘overthrow’ but ‘establish.’
In his closing statement at his trial, which he was only allowed to read for 10 minutes before being cut off by the judge, Xu Zhiyong reiterated:
What the New Citizens Movement advocates is for each and every Chinese national to act and behave as a citizen, to accept our roles as citizens and masters of our country—and not to act as feudal subjects, remain complacent, accept mob rule or a position as an underclass. To take seriously the rights which come with citizenship, those written into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and China’s Constitution: to treat these sacred rights—to vote, to freedom of speech and religion—as more than an everlasting IOU.
In his 2012 essay he outlined the tactics to be employed to bring about this goal:
Repost messages, file lawsuits, photograph everyday injustices, wear t-shirts with slogans, witness everyday events [specifically referring to the phenomenon of standing in a circle around someone causing a scene to witness it], participate or openly refuse to participate in elections, transcribe [things that you see happen], hold gatherings or marches or demonstrations, do performance art, and use other methods in order to jointly promote citizens’ rights movements and citizens’ non-cooperation campaigns—such as assets reporting, openness of information, opposition to corruption, opposition to housing registration stratification, freedom of beliefs, freedom of speech, and the right of election. Practice the New Citizen Spirit in action. Citizens’ power grows in the citizens’ movement.
It is for advocating such methods — for seizing the reins of Xi Jinping’s own claims against corruption, and mobilizing accordingly — that Xu Zhiyong was found guilty. He was turned into a criminal, states Chinese writer Yaxue Cao, “not under the Chinese law but by the Chinese Communist Party that fears and crushes any sign of social organizing for change.”
Anti-corruption: the ‘Master Frame’
This position on “social organizing for change” indicates a perceived threat to the Party posed by popular mobilization. Indeed, it was an acknowledgement of public opinion, measured against managing the needs of the Party that resulted in Xi Jinping’s announced crackdown on corruption, which became central to the vocabulary of both official and civil society frameworks.
Recognizing corruption as a long-time and exigent problem, as a significant source of civil unrest and inefficiencies between the central and local governments, Xi Jinping no doubt responded to the perception of threat posed by a failure to acknowledge the issue. Coincidentally, the anti-corruption drive also became a convenient way to legitimize a power struggle between rival factions within the CCP, such as the much-broadcast trial of former Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai and the mounting investigation against former security Tsar Zhou Yongkang. Growing perceptions of regime vulnerability to popular unrest and attempts to both respond to and control public opinion mark a regime arguably aware of its vulnerabilities and desperate to maintain its grasp on power.
How does this inform an understanding of the New Citizens Movement? The late social scientist Charles Tilly speaks in terms of ‘political opportunity structures’. He points to, among others, the availability of influential supporters within the regime and the extent to which the regime constrains or facilitates popular claim-making. Evolving from here, sociologist Doug McAdam speaks of ‘cultural opportunity structures’, most relevant of which are the dramatization of a system’s illegitimacy or vulnerability and the availability of a ‘master frame.’
When we combine these elements, we see that Chinese civil society initially perceived Xi Jinping as an influential ally in supporting concerns over official malfeasance. Belief in his resolve to stamp out corruption emboldened collective claim-making by activists who probably expected facilitation in their support of official policy.
At the same time, in making corruption a hallmark of his administration, Xi Jinping’s rhetoric not only echoed existing civil society grievances over corruption but also dramatized perceptions of Party illegitimacy by appearing to yield to public opinion. Finally, despite a diversity of pressing grievances, anti-corruption became a convincing ‘master frame.’ While Xu Zhiyong’s essay spoke of diverse grievances and active citizenship, the above opportunity structure analysis, especially the anti-corruption ‘master frame,’ provided the New Citizens Movement with the force to mobilize activists and for the government to categorically target them.
The New Citizens Movement is based on the principal of organizing without organization, a loose network for mobilizing civil resistance and rights defense in response to a history of repressing formal civil organization.
While the activities of the New Citizens Movement activists have been essentially no different from those of the past, the presence of the corruption ‘master frame’ encouraged a spirit of greater connectivity among activists and perception of threat from authorities. However, despite the discussion of a ‘New Citizens Movement’ by activists and third-party supporters, during the course of its crackdown and trials the authorities made sure never to mention it by name, out of concern for further emboldening and acknowledging a movement.
But, despite their many efforts to stave off greater mobilization inspired by the ideals of the New Citizens Movement, the Party must know that eventually the force of popular mobilization will be too great to disregard by mere omission. As Xu Zhiyong wrote in his closing statement, “The day will come when the 1.3 billion Chinese will stand up from their submissive state and grow to be proud and responsible citizens.”