A China of Citizens

Xu Zhiyong's Quest for a Free China

A Chinese flag waves in front of Shanghai's Pudong financial district, December 2015. Aly Song / Reuters

China’s first petition for democratic change after the death of Mao Zedong came in the Democracy Wall movement of 1978–1979. Responding to Deng Xiaoping’s call for four modernizations, a dissident named Wei Jingsheng used his eloquent writing brush to produce a wall poster demanding a fifth modernization—democracy. He was sent to prison and later into exile in the United States. The demand for democracy was raised again in 1989 by students in Tiananmen Square. When the leader of the Communist Party at the time, Zhao Ziyang, advocated for dialogue with the students, he was purged and placed under house arrest for the rest of his life. Again, in 2008, the writer Liu Xiaobo led hundreds of intellectuals in calling for the Chinese regime to obey the letter of its own constitution by allowing the people to exercise political freedoms. For leading this movement, Charter 08, Liu was sentenced to 11 years in prison, which he continues to serve despite having received a Nobel Peace Prize.

The most creative approach to dissent, however, was perhaps that of a young lawyer, Xu Zhiyong, who in 2013 was arrested and later sentenced to four years in prison for his role in leading the New Citizens’ Movement. This movement was based on his bold idea to take seriously the rights and duties of citizenship enshrined in Chapter II of China’s constitution, entitled “The Fundamental Rights and Duties of Citizens,” which lays out extensive rights—to vote, to speak, to criticize the government, to enjoy dignity of the person—and duties for all who hold Chinese nationality. As Xu elaborated in the manifesto he wrote for the group in 2012, 

At the core of the New Citizen Movement is the idea of “citizenship.”… Citizens are not subjects; they are independent and free individuals who comply with a legal order that is mutually agreed-upon and are not required to kneel in submission to anyone. Citizens are not “commoners”; they are the owners of the state and those who govern must

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