Since Xi Jinping became president of China, there has been a sustained crackdown on advocates of democracy and civil society. A couple hundred Chinese citizens have been arrested and tried or await trial. Lawyer and activist Xu Zhiyong, a founding leader of the New Citizens’ Movement, was arrested in July; his four-year prison sentence was upheld this month. The sentences of other New Citizens’ Movement leaders, including Ding Jiaxi, Li Wei, Zhao Changquing and Zhang Baocheng, were recently announced: Each will be imprisoned for at least two years.
Many people mistakenly think that the New Citizens’ Movement did not have a chance to do much before being wiped out. In fact, the crackdown is an attempt to stamp out a growing civil rights movement that, though challenged, has been long in the making.
In spring 2003, a young college graduate, Sun Zhigang, was taken into custody in Guangzhou for failing to produce the proper residential permit. He was violently beaten and died three days later. Sun’s death, which happened about the time Internet use was taking off, sparked a national outcry. Xu Zhiyong, Yu Jiang and I wrote an open letter to the standing committee of the National People’s Congress, requesting a constitutional review of the Custody and Repatriation system, a form of extrajudicial detention targeting migrants that was responsible for the deaths of Sun and untold others. The review never happened, but the State Council, essentially the executive branch, bowed to public outrage and abolished the barbaric, discriminatory policy.
Late that year the three of us set up a nongovernmental organization called Gongmeng, or the Citizens League (better known in English as the Open Constitution Initiative), to promote constitutionalism and the rule of law in China. Gongmeng provided legal assistance to victims of injustice and spread the idea of human rights while spearheading China’s rights movement.
That year, Xu won a local election as an independent candidate. In China almost no one takes these elections seriously because the “representatives” do not really represent the people. Gongmeng tried to change that by encouraging people to become independent candidates and helping their campaigns.
In the years that followed, our small body of rights lawyers, liberal intellectuals, journalists and citizen activists was involved in almost every major case in China. Gongmeng defended wrongfully convicted defendants in several death penalty cases as well as the entrepreneur Sun Dawu, who was tried for raising money from citizens while China’s banking system was riddled with corruption. Gongmeng organized the investigation of forced abortion in Linyi, Shandong province, and Xu was Chen Guangcheng’s lawyer in the trial that sent the blind man to jail for more than four years. Xu represented the leading human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng when Gao’s law firm was shut down. In 2008, Gongmeng was the key player in getting compensation for thousands of victims of melamine-tainted milk formula.
Gongmeng also engaged in social investigations, research and policy studies. In 2005, we wrote a report and made specific recommendations for improving human rights. After the March 14, 2008, unrest in Tibet, we produced a report analyzing the ethnic tensions and making policy suggestions.
In 2009, Chinese authorities charged Gongmeng with tax evasion and detained Xu Zhiyong. He was released within a month, thanks to overwhelming public support, but Gongmeng was fined nearly 1.5 million renminbi and shut down.
By that time, the government saw Xu and me as troublemakers, if not enemies of the state.
But we continued our work. We changed the organization’s name to Citizens. We did not want to be, nor could we be, a regular nongovernmental organization anymore. We wanted a citizens’ movement across China.
In 2010, Xu, I and a few others initiated the “Citizens’ Pledge,” calling on Chinese people to bear their civil responsibilities and to fight for their fundamental rights.
In May 2012, Xu published an essay, The New Citizens’ Movement, without fanfare. We continued to do a lot of the things that Gongmeng did, but the movement’s initial activities included an education rights campaign and street demonstrations to call for asset disclosure by officials.
The education rights campaign sought to help millions of children across China gain access to education where their parents live, work and pay taxes but don’t have a local household registration. The campaign, a struggle that lasted more than four years, eventually forced governments on every level to change discriminatory policies, but Chinese courts have since managed to find Xu “guilty” of “disrupting order” by leading this peaceful effort and for supporting street activities aimed at curbing corruption.
As part of the New Citizens’ Movement, like-minded citizens met the last Saturday of each month, in more than 30 cities, for dinner gatherings to discuss public affairs, the rule of law or other topics of interest. These were conscious democratic exercises.
Over the past decade, two competing priorities emerged in China: rights defense and stability maintenance. For the government, stability rules above all else. Yet more and more Chinese have stood up to demand their rights as human beings and as citizens. The Chinese government will continue to crack down on civil society, but no crackdown will stop the growing rights awareness of millions of Chinese and their courage and determination to fight for their freedom. “Crimes” they are convicted of in the course of their struggle will be great badges of honor to them.
In his closing statement to the court, Xu Zhiyong said: “It does not matter where you are, what jobs you have, whether you are poor or rich; let us say in our hearts, in our everyday lives, on the Internet, on every inch of Chinese land, say with conviction and pride that which already belongs to us: I am a citizen, we are citizens.”
He called out to fellow Chinese to “believe in love and the power of hope for a better future, in the desire for goodness deep inside every human soul.”
Teng Biao is a human rights lawyer and co-founder of Gongmeng.
Special to The Washington Post