Let a Hundred Volunteers Bloom
In the last decade, the ground has shifted, and more people in China sense that they can influence the government. It is no longer necessarily dangerous to complain about the party at the dinner table. Some modest legal reforms have in theory granted people greater access to information. Despite the so-called Great Firewall, which the government created to censor the Internet, there are now more than 500 million Web users in China. This power was demonstrated by the online circulation of Charter ’08, a pro-democracy manifesto issued 20 years after the 1989 crackdown that garnered over 10,000 signatures in a matter of weeks and led to Liu Xiaobo’s 11-year prison sentence on charges of “incitement to subvert state power.” Because Beijing can no longer wholly control information or monitor all exchanges, people can learn about and discuss issues that in the past would have been unknowable.
This newfound empowerment occasionally allows members of the public to mobilize against corruption and other official misconduct, often with an unprecedented degree of anonymity. Equipped with a better sense of what Chinese law allows and what rights people are ostensibly guaranteed, more people in China are inclined to demand that the government and officials actually live by those rules. The effect is that people can now challenge the government directly in the hope of making change -- and sometimes they win. In 2011, for example, residents of the city of Dalian protested about the potential environmental hazards of a proposed chemical plant, prompting local authorities to halt its construction.
As “Never Sorry” shows, activist Chinese lawyers present the government with a particular challenge: they accept the legal system as it is and attempt to make it function as it should. The most courageous of these weiquan, or “rights defense” lawyers and legal activists, have litigated court cases against the government’s use of violence and coercion in the implementation of family planning policies, defended Chinese Christians or members of Falun Gong against charges of subversion, and offered legal counsel to Tibetans who participated in anti-Beijing protests. It’s no accident that as the Chinese government sought to stamp out any semblance of Arab Spring–like protests in the first half of 2011, members of this tiny community suffered the same fate as Ai Weiwei: a number of them were “disappeared” by the domestic security apparatus, held incommunicado for weeks, and often tortured in custody.
Just as many Chinese have become more willing and able to speak out against the government, the government has given people much to complain about. Growing inequality, pervasive corruption, and endless political scandals have undermined the party’s legitimacy. In September 2012, the nationalist Global Times reported that China’s Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality, had reached 0.438 percent, and described it as “a dangerous level of wealth inequality.” That the legal system remains predominantly an instrument of state power rather than a means of resolving grievances only fuels more calls for greater access to justice and accountability, particularly as citizens learn more about legal systems in other countries.
Chinese government statistics themselves suggest that popular unrest is on the rise: in 2010, the government reported roughly 180,000 “mass incidents” (illegal protests), more than four times the number a decade ago. Increasingly, activists have focused their efforts on changing national policies. After Tang Hui, a Hunan woman, was sentenced to 18 months of re-education through labor for demanding a more thorough investigation of her young daughter’s rape, more than 500,000 sympathetic comments were posted on Weibo, China’s most popular Web site. This initial outcry inspired online petitions calling on the National People’s Congress to reform or abolish its re-education practices, and in August, ten prominent Chinese lawyers wrote to the Ministries of Justice and Public Security, cautioning of the dangers of failing to do so. A similar incident took place in June 2012, when a photograph of a mother lying alongside her forcibly aborted fetus spread was posted on the Web. Public outrage grew so loud and spread so quickly that the Shaanxi Provincial Population and Family Planning Commission pledged to investigate the incident, and Internet users called for the one-child policy to be abolished.