Damir Sagolj / Reuters

The End of Activism in China?

How Organizing Evolves Under Increased Repression

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

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