The Third Plenum, a gathering of Chinese Communist Party leaders to set economic policy, ended this month with a raft of economic and social reforms that were praised by Western observers: giving the market a greater hand in setting prices, relaxing the one-child policy, strengthening land rights and shoring up the social safety net.
But as far as I’m concerned, the party’s itinerary and timeline for so-called reform are no cause for optimism, because China’s leaders did very little to bolster rule of law and the rights of ordinary citizens. To the contrary, the economic reforms may serve as a convenient distraction from the appalling crackdown on three advocates of civil rights — the legal reformers Xu Zhiyong and Guo Feixiong and the entrepreneur Wang Gongquan, all participants in the New Citizens’ Movement, a campaign for civil and human rights — who have been detained since the summer.
Criminal investigations against them are proceeding, and all three men are likely to receive heavy sentences.
Mr. Xu, whose activism helped bring an end to the abusive and arbitrary detentions of urban migrants without residency permits in 2003, and Mr. Guo, who helped villagers in Guangdong Province organize a recall election against a corrupt village chief in 2005, helped initiate this movement. Mr. Wang, who made a fortune in real estate and technology, gave financial support to Mr. Xu. The arrests of the three men, an obvious attempt to decapitate the movement, was preceded by the arrest of more than 20 rank-and-file members.
Unlike the usual silence greeting the arrest of dissidents, this crackdown has caused many prominent establishment figures to step forward in protest, and even the risk-averse state media have followed the story closely. The government’s ruthlessness sent a signal that the authorities will not tolerate public pressure or any form of opposition — even as moderate and law-abiding as that of the New Citizens’ Movement.
The movement does not aspire to political power and does not advocate hostile confrontation. It holds that reform is a multifaceted and gradual process that involves the transformation of society, the development of autonomous nongovernmental organizations, and the protection of basic human and civil rights.
The movement’s efforts began in 2010 with the signing of a citizens’ pledge of collective action. It successfully petitioned educational authorities to allow the children of rural migrants to take the national college entrance exam for university seats. Last year, the group campaigned for disclosure of government officials’ assets, and promoted dinner gatherings across a dozen cities to discuss civic affairs. Earlier this year, the movement collected signatures for an appeal to the National People’s Congress to ratify international human rights conventions.
The New Citizens’ Movement operates entirely within the bounds of China’s Constitution and laws, and the mainstream of society. The movement has no interest in seizing, much less overthrowing, the government, but rather in creating an environment in which power is constrained through constitutional government and civil society.
This middle road seeks to transcend the traditional alternatives of passive reform and tumultuous revolution, and to forgo petty antagonistic politics for a broad-minded politics that addresses the concerns of ordinary citizens. It draws on gradualist theories of political change, like Karl Popper’s concept of “piecemeal social engineering” and John Dewey’s model of democratic experimentation, rather than grand utopian project of overnight solutions.
Its goal is a society in which citizens can associate on the basis of their views, not their class position or their place in the political system. The Internet, and especially microblogging platforms, have raised the consciousness of millions of Chinese who, having met their material needs, are looking for the opportunity to shape their country’s future. Many of the participants in this “intermediate society” are professionals who spurn the ideological trappings of class struggle; they want change, but in an orderly and civilized way, from the ground up. Mr. Wang has described this movement as “constructive opposition.”
Yet this reasoned, moderate movement has drawn intolerance and hostility from Beijing. As the Third Plenum shows, the government only wants change on its own timetable, and in accordance with its needs. Ordinary citizens are sidelined. China’s leaders have declared that “special interests” are the greatest obstacle to reform, but an even greater problem is the party elite’s lust to maintain its power, and its terror of a public that wants to help determine its future.
The price of this resistance is steep. Mr. Wang recently celebrated his 52nd birthday behind bars. When Mr. Xu was arrested, more than four months ago, his wife was pregnant, and he will almost certainly not be able to see the birth of his child. Mr. Guo has been detained for the fourth time, and his wife and children have taken refuge in the United States. Even so, these activists remain unbowed; for all their moderation, they do not lack courage or tenaciousness, and no amount of brutality will make them give up their pursuit of a civilized society as both an end and a means.
Can the Chinese government afford complacency in the face of their quiet activism? How can the so-called reforms succeed if the government continues to defy the Chinese people’s growing demands for dignity and justice?
Xiao Shu, the pen name of Chen Min, is a former columnist for the Chinese newspaper Southern Weekly and the Chinese magazine Yanhuang Chunqiu, and a visiting scholar at National Chengchi University in Taiwan. This essay was translated by Stacy Mosher from the Chinese.