First Published at openDemocracy on April 8, 2015. Also available here.
Prominent human rights activist Pu Zhiqiang has languished in pre-trial detention since his arrest last May – in the lead-up to the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre – on charges for several crimes including “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”. His case remains at a crossroads today. Any day now prosecutors should decide whether to indict and begin his trial or hand the case again back to the police for further investigation – meaning more time to conjure up criminal intent. It is unfortunately highly unlikely that he will be released.
Pu Zhiqiang is another high-profile prisoner of conscience suffering under a severe crackdown on civil society under President Xi Jinping since 2013. But is this vocabulary of a crackdown, with its connotations of sudden escalation, constructive?
Throughout 2013 to 2014, I remember many grassroots activists around China relating to me their perceptions that the ferocity of government repression should be understood as steadily increasing pressure, not as a swift crackdown. It is severe and inexcusable, without question, but in this sense it is more similar to the ‘frog in boiling water’ folk tale than the sudden purges of past dictatorships.
For domestic rights defenders, the challenge has therefore become matching their resistance efforts to this sort of slow-onset repression. Rather than pursuing tactics of sudden unrest and demanding high-profile victories, more can arguably be achieved – especially within a high-capacity authoritarian regime such as China – through strategic actions, producing limited but sustained improvements.
The importance of such realizations is universal. Activists and movements that demand sudden systemic change can become upset when they fail in their mission, causing participation to dissipate or making participation in successive waves harder to secure. They may refuse to abandon or adapt their tactics accordingly, such as refusing to evacuate a public occupation until all their demands are met. The world witnessed the gruesome consequences of this logic in Beijing in the early hours of 4 June, 1989.
Observers and analysts began to issue similarly cautious remarks regarding Occupy Central and the Umbrella Revolution in late 2014. Victoria Hui, speaking with the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, for example, outlined the need for tactical evolution in the form of methods of dispersion, which might garner less publicity but ultimately have more impact. Focusing on more systematic, grassroots, or small-scale change can ultimately be more productive for civil resistance and rights campaigns.
Broad resistance is harder to repress
Mark Lichbach came up with the five percent rule, that no regime can withstand the collective force of five percent of its population mobilized against it. Research by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan actually puts that number even lower, showing that the sustained active participation of 3.5 percent of a population is sufficient for a successful campaign.
While 3.5 percent is a lot larger than it sounds (nearly 45 million people in China), it is not an impossible number. As Chenoweth and Stephan have shown, it’s been done before. But it does require diverse tactics that can appeal to broad sections of society, and the ability to outmanoeuvre repression and think in terms of grand strategy over immediate rewards.
The Chinese government is likely aware of the possible threat posed by sustained collective action achieved through small-scale victories for activists. This, in part, explains the sophisticated attempts to circumscribe collective action and to respond with draconian measures against even minor civil dissent. Indeed, the government is notorious for issuing harsh sentences for moderate voices and activists.
The year 2014 was marked by a procession of reprisals against all manifestations of nonviolent civil resistance and domestic rights defenders, from Xu Zhiyong’s four year prison sentence and Liu Ping’s six and a half year sentence to Ilham Tohti’s life sentence. Figures released by the US-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders indicate nearly 1000 cases of detention and torture of Chinese rights defenders in 2014, with more than 100 detentions drawn from seven provinces and three municipalities as simple reprisals against those who supported the Hong Kong demonstrations.
Much of this repression has come through the manipulation of Chinese law. In this sense it is persecution through prosecution, or what is called legalist repression. The vaguely worded crimes of “Picking Quarrels and Provoking Trouble” or “Disturbing Public Order,” outlined in Chapter VI, Section I of the Criminal Law, articles 290 to 293, have become a canvas applied to virtually anything the state finds discomforting. However, far more serious crimes have also been conjured to silence rights defenders, such as the appalling life sentence for Ilham Tohti on absurd charges of separatism.
There are several lessons in this for domestic actors and those who would support them – particularly the importance of steady, strategic development and a focus on details. This requires recognizing the dynamic between rights abuse and repression on the one hand, and the interconnectivity of resistance tactics on the other. Put another way, because repression is most often the context for a series of rights abuses, resistance that is too narrow is also more susceptible to persecution. The Chinese rights defence community has begun to recognize this.
For example, what begins as a land rights violation or forced eviction can escalate into a situation of arbitrary detention or disappearance of villagers who intervene between developers, hired thugs, police and local officials. Village petitioners might blockade township government offices or issue open letters. Some have resorted to mass public suicide. They also travel from the village or township to cities seeking government redress, file open information requests to expose the corrupt development negotiations, or organize small campaigns against corruption. By doing so, they may find themselves detained in black jails and abused by thugs or charged with illegal assembly.
Some turn to citizen lawyers or licensed lawyers for support at different stages. More tech-savvy petitioners and rights defenders post evidence of land theft and abuses to Weibo and other social media, or communicate with domestic or international media and organizations, at which point some might be arrested on charges of sharing state secrets. Sometimes the victim, jaded by an endless petitioning cycle, sees independent candidacy in local elections as a means of holding officials accountable.
How to protect a movement from state repression
Effective rights defence campaigns and civil resistance must prepare for the protection challenges of steady state repression. For a time, certain civil society actors such as lawyers, journalists, scholars, petitioners and labour, land or LGBT rights activists were focused on narrower solutions to their own causes. The mentality is shifting, however, in favour of more coordination and horizontal networking between groups.
This is not to say that issue-specific rifts don’t still exist. I’ve been frustrated in conversations with licensed rights lawyers who claim that grassroots ‘barefoot’ lawyers aren’t worth collaborating with. Similarly, freedom of religion activists have told me that gender issues aren’t an important civil society concern or that women don’t make as good ‘barefoot’ lawyers as men. But the broader preference is a trend toward more integrated communication and exchange.
These are among the lessons I have learned from nearly five years of supporting civil society and human rights in China.
The main protection challenges stem from the government’s manipulation or outright disregard of domestic law. However, despite the more traditional inclination of civil resisters to work outside of established state institutions, couching resistance in Chinese law has a demonstrated benefit.
The police often illegally detain rights defenders and activists. In some cases merely the presence of a lawyer or ‘barefoot’ lawyer may force the police to release the arbitrarily detained individual or at least begin proper legal proceedings. While the charges may still be contrived, operating within the legal system is preferable to disappearances or prolonged detention and is also advantageous to sustained rights defence and gradual normative change. Furthermore, even a flawed trial often supports greater coordination of civil resistance or advocacy campaigns than more illegal alternatives such as disappearance or detentions without trial.
The degree of international attention and domestic pressure and the profile of the activists are important factors in the effectiveness of rights defence. The Nobel Peace Prize-winning Liu Xiaobo is unlikely to be released from prison any time soon nor will Gao Zhisheng realistically be free of revolving detention and harassment despite considerable domestic and international advocacy. These high-profile cases are important to the central government and maintaining a strong stance is related to demonstrating their supremacy. On the other hand, in 2005 Rebiya Kadeer was released from prison and permitted to leave China following international advocacy. More recently, in 2011, following sustained domestic and international efforts, journalist Qi Chonghuai was transferred out of Tengzhou prison where he was being savagely beaten under direct order of local officials.
While Beijing likely later grew to regret releasing Rebiya Kadeer, these cases demonstrate that concessions have been made but only in cases where the central government doesn’t have a direct interest in the detention. One of the most successful tactics in rights defence and civil resistance to date is recognizing and capitalizing on cases where central and local government interests do not overlap. Although no easy task, identifying targets for support within the pillars of the state can have a drastic impact.
What role can the international community play? Recognizing the differences on the ground and the specific needs of Chinese rights defenders and civil resisters is essential. This can be accomplished through greater support of civil society, especially through increasing attention to activists outside of Beijing and Shanghai, supporting less high-profile rights defenders and activists throughout the country. Pressure must also come from within Chinese society. The greater rights defence campaign successes have tended to come most from domestic organizations working from the grassroots.
This can be achieved through the creation of space. Chinese rights defenders and activists must be provided greater opportunities to simply come together and exchange ideas and skills. This can be done through more training programmes and experience sharing but also just through creative ways to gather freely. While digital networking is important for direct exchange in individual cases, the sustainability of a rights movement is built on face-to-face interaction. This increases trust and supports more intimate exchanges about grievances and tactics.
Furthermore, as activists around the world know, you don’t always need a strict schedule of events and curriculum; sometimes just facilitating gatherings of activists is the best way to support the development of rights awareness and resistance tactics. Again, the government of China is aware of such moves, which is why it responded mercilessly to the New Citizens’ Movement dinner meetings and the small apartment gathering organized by the Tiananmen Mothers in 2014 for which Pu Zhiqiang was detained.
Additionally, increasing awareness of the needs and limitations of front line rights defenders in China can be reflected in more flexible donor contributions, through international organizations or government mechanisms, to support small initiatives and start-up organizations. The Chinese government investigates and has persecuted foreign funded Chinese organizations and individuals receiving money from abroad. Leaking state secrets continues to be an opaque legal charge and method of repression, as with Gao Yu, and many activists have been detained or had funding seized for collaborating with international donors. Financial security for domestic activists is a serious challenge and should be part of the agenda of international rights defence support moving forward.
This assessment is far from comprehensive. These are some of the principal means of state repression and small tactical changes that Chinese rights defenders and activists engaged in civil resistance campaigns have begun to recognize. Focusing on more daily routines and details rather than higher profile events is an important step for the sustainability of civil resistance and rights defence in China. The utility of such principles, however, is not confined to China.
A common refrain among activists in many countries is that their struggle is unique, oppression too institutionalized, dictatorships too brutal, or causes not well supported by the international community. One can differentiate between the conditions for domestic resistance in China, Zimbabwe and Russia from the United States, Spain and Australia but civil resistance trainers are wont to repeat that conditions do not dictate outcomes.
While specific country conditions do not determine the outcomes of resistance, they do affect the availability of tactical options for a given act or campaign of resistance. And recognizing the importance of building sustainable campaigns through a series of small-scale victories, matching resistance to repression, and horizontal networking are therefore not only important guidelines for civil resistance in China. They also have universal value.