When I last visited China in 2004, I did what a visiting overseas Chinese typically does: spending time with family and friends, sightseeing, and enjoying the food. In Beijing I felt like a time traveler arriving at a future time from a quiet, immobile past. I hardly recognized the city at all. When my brother drove me from Beijing to Shanxi on sparkling highways that stretched down the endless great middle plain and then through the mountains of Taihang (太行山), tunnel after tunnel, I had to remind myself that these were the same mountains I used to gaze at from the train and observe a rock or a hut basking in the lazy afternoon light. In my hometown, I had become a complete stranger too, and had to ask directions to find my high school.
The excitement about the 2008 Olympics was already in the air. A college friend in Beijing showed me the site of the future Olympic Forest Park, an expansive dirt surface out below her apartment windows. “Are you coming back for it?” She asked me. “Beijing will be so much prettier because of it.”
The 2008 Olympics was a grand showcase of China, and for the rest of the world that had had thus far not much of an idea of what China was like, the event set the tone.
Even though I had been on and off writing about China in the form of short stories, travelogues and memoirs, I sort of wrote off current China as something I don’t know and can’t write about, and limited my subject to the time I lived there.
Last fall though, soon after I started contributing to this blog, I opened a Weibo account to try to update myself (China’s Twitter-like social media while Twitter is blocked by the Great Fire Wall of China). I was dumbfounded to see one avatar after another with Chen Guangcheng’s picture. Up to that point, I had only a vague idea who Chen Guangcheng was, what had happened to him, and my most vivid impression was a photo from the New York Times of a man, against the backdrop of the countryside and a blue sky, brandishing a broom at, presumably, journalists trying to visit Chen.
On Weibo, Netizens were making rendezvous to visit Chen—not expecting to really see him but to campaign for his freedom. Those who came back recounted how they were beaten, robbed and thrown out. Well-known intellectuals, artists and journalists were on video condemning the persecution of Chen and demanding his immediate release from brutal house arrest. Chen Guangcheng-related posts covered my screen, page after page after page.
For me, this was something ten times more exciting than the opening ceremony of the Olympics. While I was nauseated by the grand, all-too-familiar sameness of the latter in the end, the online rally in support of Chen Guangcheng straightened me up with a complete otherness, something completely new!
Since then, I have learned more about this other China, and I am still learning something new every day.
Let me set my frame, say, on 2004, the year I last visited. When I was frowning at the blackened shirt at the end of the day in Beijing, wondering on my way to Shanxi what it was like behind the poplar trees lining the highways, and later recording my uneasy, 10,000-yuan banquet with a millionaire in a piece of writing entitled Hometown, I had no idea that……
In the same year, rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng (高智晟) represented plaintiffs in four cases: The first one had to do with forced demolition, and he lost. With the second one, also a forced demolition case, he didn’t even succeed in filing it. The third one involved the state forcefully appropriating private oil rigs in Shaanxi province using police and armed police. It ended with the lead lawyer of the legal team (not Gao) being arrested for “disrupting social order” and clients suffering crippling debt from lost property.
Later that year, he would represent a Falun Gong practitioner against forced labor. No court would take the case, and he was told “the court belongs to the Communist Party, the laws are made by the Party. No Falun Gong cases shall be filed, because the Party says so.” Helpless, he wrote to the Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress appealing for judiciary independence and the rule of law.
He went on writing more letters and staging more protests. He would be kidnapped, disappeared, tortured in the most unimaginable manners and imprisoned. He is currently serving time in the remote Shaya (沙雅) prison in Xinjiang (新疆).
In 2004, Chen Guangcheng, a blind man from a village in Shandong, filed a lawsuit against the Beijing subway authority for violating regulations that allow disabled individuals free transportation. He won the case, and was cheered on by the media. He was among the first people in China who made the cross from defending consumer rights (e.g. from fake products) to defending basic human rights.
Like Gao Zhisheng, he insisted on the law being respected and observed.
But his victorious rights defending career took a turn for worse when he started helping defend villagers against brutal abortion and sterilization in the following year. He would be kidnapped, tortured, imprisoned, illegally detained in his own home until his recent, improbable escape. He has been denigrated as a “pawn for anti-China forces overseas.”
Between then and now, there have been the cases of Deng Yujiao (邓玉娇), Yang Jia (杨佳), who both killed gov’t officials; on the internet, Chinese citizens voiced their support vigorously for those who “committed crimes” to defend their dignity. There was the Wenchuan (汶川) earthquake, Tan Zuoren (谭作人) and Ai Weiwei. There was 08 Charter, and there was Shouwang (守望) Church. Last year Wukan (乌坎) captured the attention of the world.
There have been campaigns to end hukou apartheid and campaigns for safe food and campaigns for a cleaner environment. Independent candidates tried to compete to become people’s representatives despite intimidation and enormous odds. There have been more and more protests each year, tens of thousands of them, against land grabs, unfair working conditions, corruption, and all sorts of other social ills.
I was asked the other day whether there is a “movement” in China. I took the question to someone who I believe can answer better, but writing for a “foreign blog” can be a risk for this writer as it can lead to fresh accusations by the security police. Poorly equipped to answer such a question, I don’t think there is an organized movement due to severe suppression, but it seems to me and to many observers that things are moving (I have contacted an outspoken dissident, who is now working on a more detailed post on the subject). Voices from the educated class are urging for transitioning to a democratic, constitutional China; while people from the bottom of the society are increasingly demanding for “an explanation” of the injustice inflicted on them. Together they are the other China, a China that insists on fairness, reason and justice.
On May 29, Dr. Xu Zhiyong (许志永), founder of Open Constitution Initiative in Beijing that has been repeatedly shut down, posted a blog post titled China’s New Civil Movement. “China needs a new civil movement,” he begins. “…The aims of the new civic movement are a free China with democracy and the rule of law, a civil society of justice and happiness, and a new national spirit of freedom, fairness and love.”
Meanwhile, as June 4th (anniversary of Tian’anmen Square) approaches, the authorities are once again taking “sensitive people” out of Beijing and setting up police posts to watch more. On Twitter, over the last few days, reports of being summoned by police for “tea” keep rolling in.