New Internationalist

Let a hundred flowers bloom

Issue 371

Brave voices that are bringing change.

Creator of the right environment As the founder of China’s first environmental NGO – Friends of Nature (FON) – Liang Congjie’s work has opened up a political space for activists to campaign in without ending up in jail. FON has concentrated on raising environmental awareness through media and education campaigns in a very public way. But rather than mobilizing its members to confront the Government (which historically has made the authorities hostile), its emphasis has been on helping the Government to enforce environmental protection. Its most significant victory – involving the Tibetan antelope, whose silky shahtoosh hair is used in the world’s most expensive scarves – took place in 1999. After two anti-poaching squad members were killed, Liang’s campaigning resulted in the largest police action in the history of the People’s Republic in which over 500 Tibetan antelope skins were confiscated and poaching operations curtailed. Liang has also orchestrated national campaigns to halt logging in the rainforests of southwestern Yunnan (the unique habitat of the endangered snub-nosed monkey) in addition to exposing illegal logging in other parts of the country.

From its first meeting of 60 people in 1994, the organization now has 700 donor members and 2,000 affiliated students.1

Ricky Wong
Liang Congjie Ricky Wong

Democracy protestors vote with their feet For the past two years on 1 July, 1 in every 14 of Hong Kong’s seven million people has demonstrated for democracy and freedom of expression. 1 July is the anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It is also the anniversary of the hand-over of Hong Kong to China seven years ago when – under the promise of ‘one country, two systems’ – Hong Kong anticipated a degree of government autonomy that Beijing is failing to deliver. When new security laws were proposed that could potentially squash dissent, 500,000 gathered peacefully last year to show their opposition.

This year crowds protested because they won’t be able to choose their next leader (presently handpicked by a committee loyal to Beijing). After the April announcement, they also won’t be able to vote for the full contingent of their legislative members until after 2008. Following last year’s startling turnout, a more modest response was expected – ‘perhaps 300,000’ said one of the organizers. In China, the few media outlets that reported the event estimated a crowd of around 100,000. The international press told a different story – 530,000 people participating in the procession, braving the hottest temperatures this year.

Running with the risk By openly acknowledging China’s HIV/AIDS epidemic at a time when the Chinese authorities would not do so, Dr Wan Yanhai has not only played a crucial role in battling AIDS but has laid out a possible template of how activists working in sensitive areas can take on the Government and win. Dr Wan’s advocacy started through the organization he founded – the Aizhi Action Project. Established in 1994 to provide outreach programmes for high-risk groups, by 1998 the organization was taking on letter campaigns, press conferences and photo exhibitions to lobby for a more humane response to people with HIV/AIDS. Through its website, it helped to publicize how Government lethargy and corruption in the central province of Henan resulted in the use of contaminated blood and equipment on rural people, infecting thousands. By June 2002, a UN report that used data collected by Dr Wan and his associates condemned China’s weak response to the HIV/AIDS crisis and predicted that there would be 10 million infected by 2010 unless the Government took effective action. Four days after the report was published, the Government ordered that the Aizhi Action Project be shut down. On 24 August 2002, Dr Wan disappeared in Beijing. The international community swiftly accused Chinese security forces of detaining him and urged his release: a release that took place within a month. Since then, Aizhi has reopened as an officially recognized organization called Beijing Aizhixing. In addition, the Government has announced free HIV tests, needle-exchange programmes, condom promotions, and subsidized treatment for the poor.2

Wan Yanhai

Hidden talent in the toilet After being tortured and sentenced to Reform Through Labour (RTL), Yan Zhengxue expressed his rage in the only way he knew how – through his art. Deputy of a local People’s Congress in the eastern province of Zhejiang, Zhengxue was arrested on trumped-up charges after leading opposition to the Government’s dismantling of the Yuan Ming Yuan Artists Colony. The guards in the Beijing Xianghe RTL camp gave him ink and paper. But instead of producing traditional ink paintings with tranquil images of blossoms and trees, Zhengxue’s images, bordered in black, were of tears, blood and oppressed souls. When a camp guard would enter, he would screw up the painting he was working on and explain that it was useless and then painstakingly smooth the paper once the guard had left. After completing a painting, Zhengxue would wrap each in plastic, and whenever he was sent outside of the prison to work, he would conceal the painting in his clothing, then hide it in a toilet. In this way, he created and saved 100 works (like the one on the left) during his three-year detention. He later smuggled 50 of these to the US and exhibited them in New York.3

Lights shine on Tian’anmen Square Following economic reform and more political openness during the 1980s, demonstrations of workers and students demanding a move to greater democracy appeared in many cities in the spring of 1989. Most were dispelled without incident, except in Tian’anmen Square in Beijing, which in 1989 held perhaps a million protesters at the height of its demonstrations. After negotiations failed to reach a compromise, tanks rolled into the Square on 4 June. Hundreds of civilians lost their lives in the streets nearby. Tens of thousands were arrested across the country in the aftermath. Amnesty International has records of more than 50 people who are still imprisoned for their part in the protests: an amount that it believes is a fraction of the true figure. Then there are the unmarked graves…

Fifteen years later, people are still being arrested and imprisoned for their links with the 1989 protests. Dr Jiang Yanyong – who exposed the Government’s cover-up of last year’s SARS epidemic – was detained in June this year after publicly calling for a re-examination of the events surrounding the massacre. HIV and environmental activist, Hu Jia, was briefly detained in April after appealing for justice. And three women, Ding Zilin, Zhang Xianling and Huang Jinping, were detained for several days in March in an apparent attempt to stop them commemorating the 15th anniversary. Zilin and Xianling lost their sons at Tian’anmen Square; Jinping her husband. All are now members of the Tian’anmen Mothers, a group of victims’ relatives who campaign for accountability and justice over the crackdown in June 1989. None themselves dissident at the time their loved ones lost their lives, they have helped hundreds whose daughter, son or spouse failed to return from the Square. They search through graves and prisons to find the living and dead. And, dangerous as this is, they continue publicly t0 hold the Government to account.4

  1. A Friend of Nature’ in Beijing Review, Vol 46 No 52, 25 December 2003; US Embassy, Beijing, Chinese Environmentalist Liang Congjie on NGO life, February 2000
  2. Physicians for Human Rights letter to China’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Tang Jiaxuan Buzhang on behalf of Dr Wan Yanhai, 17 September 2002; J Gittings, ‘China stops AIDS hero speaking out in the US’ in The Guardian, 31 May 2001; A Chen, ‘The Limits of Official Tolerance: The Case of Aizhixing’ in China Rights Forum, No 3, 2003; ‘China frees the founder of an AIDS information website’ in Reporters Without Borders website: http://www.rsf.org, 20 September 2002
  3. Wang Ai, ‘Art from the latrines of the great northern wilderness’ in China Rights Forum, No 4, 2003
  4. Amnesty International Press Release dated 3 June 2004; Human Rights Watch, ‘China: Release Whistleblowing Doctor’, in Human Rights News, 10 June 2004; Human Rights in China special edition on Tian’anmen Square in China Rights Forum, No 2, 2004

This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7

Comments on Let a hundred flowers bloom

Leave your comment