Relatives of those detained in what is known as the "709" crackdown protest in front of the Supreme People's Procuratorate in Beijing, China, July 7, 2017.
Damir Sagolj / Reuters

Over the past two years, Chinese President Xi Jinping has severely curbed grassroots activism. Viewing civil society as a conduit through which dangerous Western ideas flow into China, his administration has routinely rounded up those whom it considers boundary pushers, detaining a number of human rights lawyers starting in July 2015, arresting several labor activists a few months later, and placing new restrictions on foreign NGOs operating in China.

The latest reminder of the crackdown came on July 13, when Nobel Peace Laureate Liu Xiaobo died from liver cancer after having served most of his 11-year prison sentence for writing the pro-democracy treatise Charter 08. In his last days, Liu’s sunken face seemed to signal a stark reality—that state repression had worn out even the staunchest of activists. And his death has left the world with the lingering question: Has the era of activism in China come to an end?

Although repression has mounted, grassroots activism has not disappeared. Instead, it has taken more creative forms. As the Chinese proverb goes, “Top-down policy generates bottom-up counter-tactics.” Just as the Chinese government is adept at policy innovation, so too are Chinese activists, who are increasingly entrepreneurial when it comes to dissent.   

Unlike liberal democracies, where NGOs can mobilize people to take to the streets, China forbids public protests. As a result, Chinese activists have learned to mobilize without the masses. They lower their political risk by disguising their organizing behind the façade of individual or small-scale protests. Although the Chinese government has tolerated and even encouraged some spontaneous local protests, it does not allow NGOs to coordinate demonstrations. After all, protests without the backbone of civil society are less threatening.

One form of mobilizing, without having to take to the streets en masse, is through flash demonstrations. These are individual or small group protests that typically last no more than half an hour—long enough for activists to capture arresting photos of the demonstration, which then circulate on social media, but short enough to avoid undue attention from the authorities.  

In 2010, I witnessed a group of workers in Guangzhou carrying out a flash demonstration in front of the district courthouse. They were protesting the local manufacturer association’s illegal practice of blacklisting “trouble-making” employees—usually those who encouraged others to fight for their labor rights. Blacklisted workers ended up having a difficult time finding new jobs in the district. The group of workers thus filed a lawsuit against the association.

After their hearing in court, the workers put on sanitary masks to disguise their faces and took out cardboard placards, each bearing one Chinese character that when strung together read “Immoral boss beats migrant worker. Workers against blacklisting.” Unknown to the security guards, a fellow worker activist from an affiliated labor NGO was filming the whole thing across the street. The workers stood there holding their placards for less than five minutes before hopping on a bus and repeating the process in front of the manufacturer association’s building. 

Although they appeared to be self-motivated, their flash protest was coordinated by illegal labor organizations that are forced to operate under the radar because China permits only one official state-run labor union to represent workers. At the time, their activism was overshadowed in the media by reports of large-scale strikes and worker suicides that took place in the factories that made iPhones. Although comparatively small in scale, the flash demonstrations by workers nevertheless represented a more innovative form of street activism that worked without generating crowds.

Flash demonstrations have continued under Xi. The most recent one involves an anti–sexual harassment campaign launched by a Chinese feminist Zhang Leilei, a 24-year-old with spunky pink hair. She photographed herself carrying a poster, in several of Guangzhou’s public spaces, that featured a cartoon cat with an outstretched paw saying “No!” to a harasser’s hand. She also mobilized one hundred other women across 26 Chinese cities to do the same via Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

A casual observer unfamiliar with Zhang might have interpreted her campaign as merely an individualistic moment of self-expression. But Zhang is a part of a broader network of feminists who not only helped launch her campaign but also helped spread it, such as printing T-shirts bearing anti-sexual harassment slogans. Their actions may be having an impact on public policy. In mid-July, Guangzhou and Shenzhen became China’s first cities to experiment with women-only subway cars in an attempt to combat the rampant problem of sexual harassment on public transit. Although a direct cause and effect cannot be confirmed, Zhang’s type of activism nevertheless demonstrates that people do not have to take to the streets en masse in order to voice their grievances.

Another strategy involved organizing a group of individuals to write petition letters to the government. Take, for example, freedom of information activists who have campaigned for greater government transparency for almost a decade. In 2008, China implemented the nation’s first freedom of information law, which was modeled after the U.S. Freedom of Information Act. China’s version empowered ordinary citizens to request all sorts of information, including government budgets. According to a recent study, local governments in China satisfy only 14 percent of all requests.

The government’s failure to respond to information requests birthed a unique kind of activist—the freedom of information crusader. Wu Junliang, one of China’s leading transparency advocate, organized a group of citizens in Shenzhen to ask for local government budgets. Working out of his private office, Wu financed a few transparency “volunteers” (who were actually paid staff) to request information from a wide range of ministries and government agencies.

The volunteers wrote in as individuals to hide the fact they were a part of a coordinated group. When local governments failed to respond to these letters, Wu and his team of activists contacted the media to expose the government’s unresponsiveness, which led to 114 municipal departments and agencies in Guangzhou releasing their budgets online.

Letter writing continues to serve as a form of activism under the current administration. Citizens cleverly use state-sanctioned channels for participation, such as “mayors’ mailboxes,” (which is essentially e-mail) to voice their grievances. Mayors’ mailboxes were set up in the early 2000s as part of a campaign to get local governments across China to provide online services. By 2014, 98 percent of China’s prefectural governments had such portals. They allow ordinary citizens to request information from unelected local officials across China.

It also provides an unlikely avenue for online activism. A recent study that included analyzing a nationally representative sample of letters to the mayor across China in 2013 revealed that some of these letters carry surprisingly vitriolic critiques of government corruption and malfeasance. One petitioner, for example, who was complaining of illegal land grabs, wrote sarcastically, “I want to praise you for your high efficiency. I wrote to Secretary Liu in November of 2012 that my land has been taken and my house forcefully demolished. Yet, nobody has helped me … is this how the government performers its duty, by running people around, by fighting battles only on paper?” Another letter writer from Wuhan was more blunt. He threatened to take action if he did not receive a response. “If I don’t get an answer,” he wrote, “I will contact the media and petition the provincial public security department!” Despite their scathing contents, these letters are posted on the websites of mayoral governments across China. This suggests that there are still cracks in the system that can be exploited by enterprising citizens—and that not all dissenting voices are suppressed.

Small-scale offline activism has continued as well despite the increasing level of repression. As of this July, at least 320 human rights lawyers in China have now been detained, questioned, or otherwise affected by the unprecedented roundup of lawyers that began in July 2015. And although the lawyers’ work has been largely halted their spouses have carried on. A small group of wives whose husbands are among the detained marched through the streets of Tianjin in May carrying red buckets and wearing white dresses bearing the names of their husbands in scarlet lettering. Although the women are limited in number, their defiance shows that activism cannot be eliminated altogether. These women continue to speak out even as their more visible counterparts have been silenced by the system.

Even the most stifling repression has not, thus far, been able to silence determined Chinese citizens. Rather than making a radical pro-democracy statement, as Liu Xiaobo and other signatories of Charter 08 did, civil society activists have learned to fight the bull by stinging it instead of stabbing it.

It is true that the immediate effects of seemingly individualistic forms of activism may be less noticeable. But what their behavior demonstrates is that despite the unprecedented crackdown on civil society, there will continue to be new bursts of defiance, both large and small.

As the late Chinese statesman Deng Xiaoping once said of China’s transformative period of reform, the process of change would be tedious, much like “crossing the river by groping the stones.” So too, are Chinese grassroots activists navigating their way through a post-Liu era: taking it one slippery stone at a time.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now