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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 get their power through elections involving the entire community of citizens and say goodbye forever to the barbaric logic … [that, as Mao said,] “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”
Although Xu doesn’t mention it, this idea of citizenship has a distinguished lineage in China. In the late Qing period, a prominent reformer named Liang Qichao had promoted the idea of active citizenship as an alternative to dynastic rule in a journal called The New Citizen, published from 1902 to 1907. But he eventually decided the Chinese people were too disorganized and uneducated to perform as citizens until after a period of benevolent dictatorship. Sun Yat-sen—the nationalist leader and father of the 1911 Xinhai Revolution that overthrew the Qing—promoted the phrase “All under Heaven belongs to the citizenry” (tianxia weigong). But Sun, too, believed that the Chinese people would have to undergo a period of tutelage before they would be ready for citizenship.
Xu would later use Sun’s calligraphic rendition of the word “citizen” (gongmin) as a logo for his New Citizen Movement. But Xu, in contrast to his predecessors, put full faith in the ability of his fellow Chinese to make the constitution real by living it. As he says in his memoir, To Build a Free China, “The New Citizens’ Movement advocates a citizenship that begins with the individual and the personal, through small acts making concrete changes to public policy and the encompassing system.”
Xu came to the idea of citizenship in the course of his struggles for justice as a law student in the 1990s and later as a teacher of law at Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications. He first emerged into the public eye in 2003 with his effort to get the government to abolish the system of “custody and repatriation.” This was a network of abusive labor camps where local police locked up those without the proper papers under China’s household registration system, which regulates where Chinese citizens can live. A college graduate named Sun Zhigang had been beaten to death in one of these camps in Guangzhou. Along with two friends, Yu Jiang and Teng Biao, Xu used the public outrage generated by this incident to pressure the government to abolish the camps. To their surprise, the effort succeeded, albeit incompletely. Xu would later push ahead with other high-profile cases, including that of Sun Dawu, an entrepreneur unfairly charged with business malpractices, and that of the Southern Metropolis Daily, a boundary-pushing newspaper that offended the provincial Communist Party secretary and saw its top officials charged with economic crimes.
Xu describes himself as an idealist. When asked by a Communist Party secretary what he was trying to get out of helping four innocent young men who had been wrongly sentenced to death, Xu wrote that “the only selfish motivation I could think of was that I did these things for my own well-being and happiness…. Helping others allows me to have a sense of well-being.” But Xu was also highly practical, developing the nearest thing China has seen to a strategy of U.S.-style impact litigation by selecting cases of egregious injustice that had broader policy implications. In the Sun Zhigang case, for example, he not only sought posthumous justice for the victim but also tried to breathe life into the National People’s Congress Standing Committee’s dormant function of constitutional review by asking it to abolish the custody and repatriation system.
Xu’s strategy involved using social media to draw attention to the problem, attracting print media coverage, generating petitions, convening academic conferences on the underlying issues, and then proposing a resolution too moderate for the authorities to refuse.
Xu’s strategy involved using social media to draw attention to the problem, attracting print media coverage, generating petitions, convening academic conferences on the underlying issues, and then proposing a resolution too moderate for the authorities to refuse. It was a combination of legal argument and public relations. Xu has defended this strategy, calling it an attempt to interfere not with the judicial process but “with those forces outside the law that themselves interfere with the judicial process.” Yet the “forces outside the law” that Xu refers to—local cadres with economic interests in the status quo, security officials trying to keep the lid on any challenge, no matter how justified, and more powerful dark forces that Xu chose not to specify—naturally pushed back, both politely and, at times, through physical confrontation.
Xu’s idea of changing China by practicing citizenship took shape around the time he ran for a seat in a district-level People’s Congress in Beijing in 2003. Xu decided to take the election process seriously, looking past the reality that the elections are pervasively manipulated by the Communist Party and that local delegates have no power. “What’s most important is to take part,” he told his supporters. “I hope that my participation will tell everyone: Believe in our laws, believe in the progress of this era. Please believe that we have a genuine right to vote.” Surprisingly, he did win a seat, with the broad support of faculty and students at his university.
Also in 2003, Xu formed the Citizens’ Alliance, also known as Gongmeng, or the Open Constitutional Initiative (OCI), the organization that would eventually morph into the New Citizens’ Movement. The members of the OCI—more a group of activists than a proper organization—sought to change China through gradual, legal mechanisms such as running for office, writing policy letters to the National People’s Congress, seeking to rescue victims from black jails, agitating for regulatory changes, and pushing for equal access to education. Xu explained the thinking behind this strategy in the preface to his memoir, writing that “the most ideal reform model for China is to develop constructive political opposition groups outside the existing political system that can negotiate with progressive forces within the system to enact a new constitution and, together, complete a transition to constitutional democracy.”
It is always hard to assess the causal effects of human rights work in China because of the black-box nature of Chinese governance, and this is true of Xu’s work as well. But by all appearances his work was influential at first. It helped that the early- and mid-2000s were a relatively open time. Xu recalls that “more than 100 media outlets throughout the country launched or expanded their opinion pages” in 2003, and the SARS outbreak in Beijing “led to cracks in decades of habitual information control.”
Even so, OCI confronted constant harassment in the form of deregistration, tax investigations, and mysterious shutdowns of its website. These began to escalate in 2012 when OCI transitioned to the New Citizens’ Movement at the same time that a more repressive leader, Xi Jinping, took over leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. On July 16, 2013, Xu was arrested, charged with “gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place.” Six months later he was sentenced to four years in prison, a sentence he is still serving today.
The Chinese government could not abide a citizen. Throughout his memoir and essays, Xu expresses his patriotism, his respect for the authorities, and his belief in gradualism. “Deep down, I was a nationalist myself,” he writes. “Deep in my heart, I had a strong China fixation. I longed for our country to be fair and just and for our people to be free and happy.” If a person this loyal and moderate cannot perform his role as a citizen, who can? As Xu warned the court that sentenced him, “By trying to suppress the New Citizens’ Movement, you are obstructing China on its path to becoming a constitutional democracy through peaceful change.”