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Let us Speak


You could not help but notice it. A huge red banner – always popular in Beijing – strung high over the entrance of Renmin University, welcoming NGOs to a meeting about the environment. Inside more than 200 people from 150 organizations from all over China (with a sprinkling of international representatives) talk for two days about strategies to raise public awareness of environmental issues and lobby government officials.

Within minutes of arriving, a group of activists are telling me about the Nujiang river: ‘As big, as amazing as the Yangtze and the Mekong, but little known outside China.’ And – at the time we are speaking – soon to be dammed. Wen Bo (who was the first Greenpeace worker in China and now represents Pacific Environment) suggests I write an article about it. ‘The Government takes its international image very seriously,’ he calls over his shoulder as he runs to answer his mobile phone. ‘We need international coverage to bring pressure to bear.’

And so it happened. After that conversation in November last year, the NI was one of a number of international outlets that publicized the proposal to dam this recently listed World Heritage Site. By April this year, Premier Wen Jiabao had called a halt to the project for further assessment.

Here was a side of China not reported in the Western press. A forum that nurtures civil society and welcomes debate. A government sensitive enough to critics to reverse a major plan.

As the country hurtles towards a capitalist economy, the ability of the Chinese people to debate social and economic issues is beginning to blossom. Many will tell you that in the 55-year rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) they have never felt so free to exchange views amongst themselves.

Name: People’s Republic of China. Government: One-party totalitarian government run by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Party head and President, Hu Jintao (the fourth paramount leader of the country, following Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin). Premier (head of government – the country’s 10th) Wen Jiabao. Geography: Capital – Beijing. Size – 9,596,960 sq km. China’s territorial claim encompasses 23 provinces (including the disputed territory of Taiwan); 5 autonomous regions (including the disputed territories of Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia); 4 municipal regions; and 2 special administrative zones (Hong Kong and Macao). Population: The most populous country with 1.296 billion people on its mainland, which is more than one-fifth of the world’s people. China’s rural population account for 70% of the total.

Go directly to jail!

But this new-found freedom to speak is fragile. China is, after all, still a one-party dictatorship. Any activists worth their salt can explain the clearly defined no-go zones. Challenging the supremacy of the CCP (the Chinese Communist Party) is off-limits. So are statements that undermine the unity of the Republic. Those who step outside these boundaries can expect a reaction that’s swift and brutal. The CCP has maintained stable government since 1949 by wiping out perceived opponents before their views gain any support amongst the people. Those who propose another Party or suggest alternatives to the authority of the CCP are destined for jail.

Since 1998, there have been at least 71 people detained for their use of the internet. Almost all have been found guilty of subversion and sentenced to between 2 and 12 years jail. Most of them can be linked to one of three categories: banned groups like the China Democracy Party (whose members are amongst those receiving the harshest sentences); criticism of a high-ranking Party official; or the 4 June 1989 Tian’anmen Square protest (when the State stepped in to shut down democracy demonstrators and in the process killed and injured hundreds).1 Indeed, just the act of demonstrating in the Square now is enough to get you arrested.

Also heading for prison are those who speak about territorial independence from China in Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia. Government reactions range from high-powered international diplomacy to direct internal repression. The blood that has flowed from the Tibetan independence movement is known worldwide (see page 19). The lesser-known struggle by the Uighur in the northwestern province of Xinjiang – just above Tibet on the map – has also left many dead. Of those Uighur whose fates are known (and many are not) 134 have been charged with separatist-related activities over the past five years. Twenty-nine received the death penalty while the rest are serving sentences from one year to life.2

In deciding what other groups constitute a threat, more unlikely contenders can be caught in the net. Falun Dafa (also known as Falun Gong) is a practice of purification through exercise and meditation. As a movement, it is about individual spirituality and health as opposed to social reform. Up until 25 April 1999 – when more than 10,000 practitioners held a peaceful gathering in Beijing outside the Chinese leadership compound – Falun Gong was freely practised. Within two months of the gathering, the practice was declared illegal. The ability of the movement to mobilize such large numbers of people – rather than the beliefs of its members – is thought to be what the CCP has found so threatening.3 The movement is now brutally suppressed (See (http://www.newint.org/issue371/facts.htm)[article]).

This subjectivity and uncertainty means there are no guarantees. While you may think that you’re on the acceptable side of the public debate line, the Government may not end up agreeing with you. A ‘freedom’ like this – allowing views to be expressed that can be arbitrarily and instantaneously removed later – is no freedom at all. How could anyone argue otherwise?

Then I meet ‘Dan’.

Mao Zedong, February 1957

Redefining democracy

Dan says it’s not as black and white as I paint it. He challenges me to step outside my usual frameworks to assess the rights that the Chinese can and do enjoy. Dan’s an information technology executive who got a Masters degree in the US in the 1960s and later returned to work in China. He’s not a Party man himself. But he puts a view that he says is controversial to Westerners like me; a view I hear time and time again. He says that – in judging whether the people have a voice in how they are governed – there is a form of democracy in China. No, it is not a representative democracy with directly elected politicians gathering in a Parliament or Congress. Nationally, he points out how difficult that would be. In a population of 1.3 billion, if you had, say, 1,000 elected representatives, each would need to represent the views of 1.3 million people. ‘But amongst ourselves we do debate our views freely. We can have an impact at a local level and on government officials. We can be heard.’ He then relates his recent meeting with CCP officials in which there was a healthy difference of opinion about policy issues, argued without adherence to a Party line.

Other NGOs in Beijing also report how the bureaucracy and Party welcome a debate about issues and new ideas. And, as a window to Party policy, China Daily – the country’s officially sanctioned English language newspaper – presently promotes discussion over a range (albeit limited) of social issues. Nowhere is this more prevalent than with the environment. For it is here that the Government needs all the help it can get. Of the world’s 20 most polluted cities, 16 are in China. Western analysts now estimate that 300,000 people will die prematurely here from air pollution and that more than 20 million people will have to leave their homes because of lack of access to water or degraded land over the next 15 to 20 years.

‘In fact, one of the nice things about having a one-party system is that you always have a range of different views in government so that you always have someone who is sympathetic to your views,’ Greenpeace campaigner Sze Pang Cheung says. Sze thinks that political lobbying in China is easier than in the US where politicians have an eye on donations rather than issues. ‘A lot of officials here are prepared to take our views very seriously. They give you an opportunity to be heard.’

In addition to Greenpeace, international NGOs like WWF, Oxfam, ActionAid and Médecins Sans Frontières now openly work in China as a civil society starts to grow.

Civil society emerges

Indigenous NGOs have mushroomed: between 1965 and 1996 national social associations grew from 100 to 1,800 while local groups ballooned from 6,000 to 200,000. The attraction of these organizations to the CCP is more about their potential to offer resources that can absorb the burden of a downsized government than it is about a desire to promote community participation or listen to the people. Since the 1989 protests in Tian’anmen Square, clamps on advocacy are tight. Organizations must register. To do this, they must have a sponsor: a government body or an organization authorized by government to oversee its day-to-day activities. The search for a sponsoring agency – called ‘finding a mother-in-law’ – is difficult, particularly for organizations that want a national profile and therefore must find a national sponsor. And even if a sponsoring organization can be found, security is tenuous: sponsors are authorized to unilaterally terminate the relationship if the sponsored group acts or speaks out of line.

For the CCP, it is a system that encourages social assistance to individuals while keeping down groups with ‘undesirable’ messages. The regulations can react to prevailing conditions. After a tightening of the system in 1998, by 2000 the number of social organizations plummeted to just under 137,000.4

Despite these constraints, the mere process of running such a huge number of civil society groups is starting to train people about a range of issues – the rights of women, people with disabilities, rural workers, the unemployed and children. Such skills and knowledge will increase the likelihood of their becoming effective advocates when the time is ripe.

Mao Zedong, 1949

The communications revolution Transnationals like to brag that China’s integration into the global economy will help propel the Government to observe human rights. The argument is that free markets and free speech are travelling companions: if one develops, the other will naturally follow. This position has many flaws (see (http://www.newint.org/issue371/tide.htm)[article]). Nevertheless, there are a number of indirect consequences flowing from the opening-up of China’s markets that should push China closer to a free speech climate. First, the diaspora. According to official figures, more than 20 million Chinese went overseas last year. This record number included students, tourists, businesspeople and tens of thousands of workers. They are building highways and bridges in the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Yemen, drilling for oil in Sudan and Venezuela, mining ore in Peru and Australia and picking fruit in England and Israel.5 Those that return will have a different view of the world and changed expectations.

Second, as China embraces capitalism, an important reason for the people to accept a curtailment of freedom to speak is disappearing.

A postgraduate student at the Peking University who talked frankly and openly to me about a range of issues, nevertheless felt uncomfortable discussing human rights in public. She described it as the dominance of ‘the Big I over the Little I’. She believed that the Government is justified in setting aside individual rights if it means that the collective good is promoted.

This feeling, still prominent, is nevertheless in retreat. As the market economy pushes the gap between rich and poor further and further apart, the belief that the CCP continues to champion the collective good is diminishing. Workers are no longer able to rely on an ‘iron rice bowl’. Previously expected employment rights to job security, healthcare, housing, pay and pensions are receding as the number of people employed by state-owned enterprises falls. Rising in its stead is a new industrial workforce that gets rock-bottom pay, sweatshop conditions, and little (if any) education or pension rights (see (http://www.newint.org/issue371/broom.htm)[article]).

The Little I battles the Big I

The health system is already based on user fees. Recent research says that, as a consequence, as much as 30 per cent of poverty in China is directly attributable to medical bills.6 And as the State provides less and less for the collective good, the justifications for sacrificing individual rights are also retreating. As a result, public resistance is becoming more visible. Nicola Bullard (see (http://www.newint.org/issue371/big-tree.htm)[article]) points out that: ‘In 2001 the Chinese Ministry of Social Security reported an average of 80 “daily incidents” but by December 2002 this had swelled to 700 per day.’ And, over time, it looks likely there will be less community tolerance for harsh action being directed at those who publicly criticize the authority of the CCP. This will leave the CCP in a much more difficult climate in which to silence its critics.

The exponential growth in the market for Chinese people to communicate with each other must also help free up expression. Officially, the mainland has more than 300 million mobile phone subscribers. They sent a staggering 10 billion SMS (text) messages during this year’s seven-day Spring festival, which is 7.7 messages for every one of China’s citizens.7

It is a communications revolution that even the Chinese authorities will not be able to contain, giving new potential to individuals who are not yet organized into a group with common goals. He Xiaopei, a lesbian organizer in Beijing since 1994, describes the mobile phone as offering an immediately accessible, but largely invisible, way for tongzhi (homosexuals) to obtain information and support in a previously hostile environment. Volunteers who provided counselling and advice for a mobile hotline were confronted by personal problems that they hadn’t expected, which provoked group discussions over a range of issues. Out of this: ‘We have moved from being alone to helping others, from struggling for survival to seeking liberation, from rescuing ourselves to liberating others.’8

For women’s groups, labour and human rights activists; for those who wish to start building a democracy with Chinese characteristics in all areas where debate is not yet welcomed, the potential is enormous.

Then there is the power of the words themselves. Not just the words being heard through mobile phones. Also those in teahouses and kitchens, factories and bedrooms, spoken by farmers and workers. The thoughts previously hidden that are now being spoken. Having taken form, these words are slowly seeping out from the private into the public domain. A growing bulk of articulated opposition pressing against the boundaries that the State has erected.

Poetic justice waiting to be done.

  1. Bobson Wong, ‘The Tug-of-war for Control of China’s Internet’ in China Rights Forum, No 1, 2004
  2. The full list can be read in ‘In Custody: Recent Arrests In Xinjiang’ in China Rights Forum, No 1, 2004
  3. Hu Ping ‘The Falungong Phenomenon’, China Rights Forum, No 4, 2003
  4. J Howell,‘Women’s Organizations and Civil Society in China’ in International Feminist Journal of Politics, 5:2, July 2003; S Liang ‘Walking the tightrope: civil society organizations in China’ in China Rights Forum, No 3, 2003
  5. South China Post, 24 June 2004
  6. N Young, ‘The physician will not heal himself’, China Development Brief, July 2003
  7. South China Post, 23 June 2004; China Daily, 28 January 2004 and 5 February 2004
  8. He Xiaopei, ‘Chinese Queer Women Organizing in the 1990s’ in Chinese Women Organizing: cadres, feminists, muslims, queers, Berg, Oxford, 2001.

New Internationalist issue 371 magazine cover This article is from the September 2004 issue of New Internationalist.
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