Mo Zhixu (莫之许) is a leading dissident intellectual based in Beijing. The original is published in a recent issue of iSunAffair Weekly as The Death and Life of China’s Dissent and Opposition Movements and in his blog. We recently translated his Perspective on Southern Weekend Incident: Root, Failure and Future.
The tragic events of 1989 have not only brought an end to officially guided political reform, but also caused dissent and opposition among the people to sink to an unprecedented low: if the lively activism of the 1980s hasn’t been forced into exile abroad, then it has been imprisoned or scattered star-like to the four corners of the country; in the years following the atrocity, activists have lacked access to a platform for expression and a space for activity. It would seem that dissent and opposition have already been entirely eradicated from the visible, public sphere.
However, the 1989 democratic movement was the most robust and largest-scale example of a widespread popular movement to have occurred since the Chinese Communist Party established its government. Cruel repression has not been able to catch all activists in a single net; like vestiges of a coal seam fire still burning underground, the high pressure situation and lack of resources have caused activists increasingly to choose covert forms of action, and to attempt to use the formation of associations to gather what strength barely remains.
Such attempts have quickly attracted severe crackdowns, with the CCP arresting dozens of people one after the other from the Liberal Democratic Party and Social Democratic Party under Hu Shigen and Liu Wensheng in 1992 and sentencing them to as much as 20 years in prison. During the years following these events, Wei Jingsheng, Wang Dan, Li Hai, Chen Xi and others have all been sent to prison and otherwise similarly persistently set upon. The presence of dissent and opposition barely remained in mainland China after June 4th, 1989, as their strength sunk further and further into difficult circumstances.
After all was said and done at the CCP’s 15th Party Congress in 1998, in order to apply for admission to the WTO and encourage China’s further economic development, the CCP took a series of stances: Wei Jingsheng and Wang Dan were to be exiled; China was to sign the “United Nations Human Rights Convention,” and laws regarding anti-revolutionary crime were to be repealed… In the spirit of the so-called “Indian Summer” political climate, dissidents from every part of the country began attempting to prepare for the establishing of a Chinese Democratic Party. On June 25th, 1998, with Zhejiang as their starting point, petitions were delivered to a great number of local Civil Affairs Bureaus. The CCP watched and waited for a short time before launching a campaign of severe repression, sentencing dozens of people at the level of Xu Wenli (徐文立), Qin Yongmin (秦永敏), and Wang Youcai (王有才) to as much as 14 years in prison.
For all of the 1990s, the high-pressure policies of repression inherited from 1989 were continued, an attitude of zero-tolerance towards any and all organized opposition was adopted, and the social resources for dissenters that had accumulated during the 1980s were practically obliterated, signifying that the CCP would not abide a genuine political challenge for a very long time. Beyond this, the long-term economic growth that began in 1992 would, to a certain extent, also play a part in postponing the renewed emergence of political opposition.
Space for Opposition under the New Totalitarian System
China’s dissent and opposition movements have most certainly sunk into a long-term ebb. However, the strength of these movements have never been fully quieted. Coincident with the high-pressure politics of the 1990s was the CCP’s pushing forward strategies of both marketization and globalization–the implementation of which was not actually as so many people had hoped that type of transformation toward East Asian authoritarianism, and power still stubbornly clung to complete economic, cultural, social and political control. This new totalitarianism or post-totalitarianism successfully realized its goals of maintaining order, but on the other hand the real-world implementation of marketization and globalization also provided China’s dissident and opposition movements with a certain space to survive.
First, marketization and globalization weakened the CCP’s centralized control of resources, and its monopoly on social power. In 1992, after Deng Xiaoping’s Souther Tour, on the one hand, the CCP still maintained unification of the governing bloc, continued to retain control of crucial resources, actively worked to co-opt social elites, strove to control society, and displayed a toughness appropriate to the new situation. On the other hand, more and more people began to break away from their commitments to danwei and communes to become more mobile as greater mastery of economic resources began to coalesce in private hands, following a rise in the complexity of the economy and the emergence of tens of thousands of technological specialists and freelancers. With the passage of time, the four aspects of the CCP’s social control–the unity of the governing bloc, the proportion of economic and social resources over which it held power, and its ability to co-opt social elites–all appeared to be weakening. This change has crippled the efficacy of its system of direct control, and made maintaining authoritarian social control increasingly challenging.
Second, in view of these situation described above, the CCP has built its regime on a system of direct control, commonly referred to as the weiwen, or “stability maintenance,” system. However, under new societal conditions, the weiwen system has limitations of its own. Prior to political reforms, support for this system of complete societal control was an absolute, authoritarian monopoly over all resources. Following changes to the four aspects of control described above, the ruling party had no choice but to make adjustments from complete control over society towards the exercise of more selective and direct control over a few individuals and groups believed to pose potential dangers to social stability. It was for this purpose that the “weiwen system” was established, with the goal of “nipping all instability in the bud.” At its launch, the work of the weiwen system included repression and control of dissident elements by offices concerned with domestic security, blocking petitioners at all levels of government, and layer upon layer of other stability-maintenance responsibilities.
After 1989, this type of strong-arm preventative measure served as the main method of social control and was implemented very successfully. However, there existed obvious and inherent limitations. As time passed, the people’s previously intense political dread began to abate, the number of those willing to resist began to rise, and strong-arm preventative measures were no longer so easily wielded. There also existed internal contradictions between these types of forcible control and the legal institutions put in place as part of an authoritarian system. These contradictions not only considerably reduced the legitimacy of such preventative measures, but also improved the image of the resistance in the public eye, benefiting protesters by winning them societal sympathy. As protest groups expanded, even punitive measures did not necessarily have their anticipated impact. Beyond that, networks of mutual interpersonal support also reduced the perception of potential risk on the part of participants in the resistance, who not only had hope of receiving help and assistance from this interpersonal network, but also of receiving a kind of prestige–even a kind of political capital that could be accumulated–by being suppressed. This only further encouraged greater numbers of people to participate in risk taking. Less than two years after the “relay hunger strike for human rights” of early 2006 was put down, the vastly more famous Charter 08 movement appeared, and even after the severe punishment suffered by Liu Xiaobo, China’s popular resistance showed not the slightest sign of a loss of momentum. This continued momentum showed that the methods of social control known as “rigid weiwen”–with force as their support and prevention as their strategy–were displaying a trend of declining efficacy, despite the considerable length of time since the events of 1989 wherein they have been used to significant result. This in turn reflects the limitations behind authoritarian toughness.
Finally, the practical operation of marketization and globalization provided China’s dissident opposition with new resources, platforms and technology that made the emergence of organized resistance possible.
1. Marketized Media and Public Opinion on The Web: One of the primary areas of authoritarian social control is the inhibition of expression of opinion; regulations are established through managed, state-sponsored media, and the appearance of unofficial media is strictly prohibited. However, government-run media, spurred on by economic interests, set up “marketized media” with the goal of satisfying the masses’ demands for information. Many of the personnel involved in this “marketized media” were not strongly affiliated with the government’s system. They often possessed certain professional ideals, and were willing to proactively propagate and advocate for new values and beliefs. Because of this, even while it was subordinate to official media groups, “marketized media” still provided a relatively permissive platform for the free expression of ideas that differed from official mainstream ideology, causing the authorities to gradually lose control over expression of opinion.
By the end of the 1990s, public opinion had begun to make its appearance on the web, and thanks to a lag in official supervision it began to flourish within a short period of time; through the aggregation of BBS forums, blogs, microblogs, and many other platforms, public opinion on the web had already achieved a position of superiority over official and even marketized media, and within online opinion the expression of pro-liberalistic ideas was relatively dominant.
2. Legal Institutions and the Defense of Rights: As the original system of direct control became less and less applicable, Chinese authorities had no choice but begin using legal institutions an important means of social governance, and at the end of the 1990s formally announced the goal of “rule of law” as an important supplement to their authoritarian system.
These legal institutions which would serve as means of governance were particularly like a double edged sword, and provided the people certain protections. When the masses are deprived of their interests and of unconstrained expression, they gradually begin to take advantage of all the methods that current legal institutions can provide them in order to carry out “lawful resistance” beyond the use of traditional petitioning methods. The brand new term “weiquan”–the defense of rights–was created to describe this process.
Because weiquan groups involved massive numbers of people, disorderly hierarchies, and a broad range of concerns, not only did they expedite the birth of a class lawyers who specialized in taking on weiquan cases, they also impelled a considerable number of people to go from being advocates for their own interests to become professional civil rights activists. Beyond this, the weiquan movement drew in intellectuals, social activists from NGOs, media personalities and more, forming a number of growing and maturing weiquan microcosms. In this loose and scattered system of microcosms, everyone possessed a high degree of understanding of their shared values. Groups typically communicated and mobilized by word of mouth or through the internet, and possessed within them highly energetic and charismatic social elites. As a result, these groups developed a certain capacity for organization and mobilization. In recent years, the gradually increasing ability of weiquan microcosms to mobilize and organize has been made obvious, as in the case of the spectacle caused by Peking University professor Sun Dongdong’s inappropriate expression of opinion, or the court scandal in Fujian Province’s “Three Netizens” case.
3. Political Dissent: Even under ruthless political control, political dissidents still exist, and as a result of the incidents of 1989, a new group of dissidents was born. The rise of the web allowed the common people to awaken from ignorance and become either dissidents or sympathizers. Dissident groups had very well defined political demands, and even if they have not become well defined organizations, they will still carry out frequent communications, actively participate in all sorts of public affairs and weiquan activities, make clear their attitudes on any number of issues by publishing open letters, call for reform to the political system, and start movements like Charter 08. Members of the Charter 08 group, even though their numbers were few, possessed resolute willpower; they were society’s elites, and from their midst they produced a number of inspiring leaders of morality, righteousness, and justice. This group received more and more attention and support from abroad, a fact exemplified by Liu Xiaobo and Hu Jia consistently being nominated as candidates for the Nobel Peace Prize. Liu Xiaobo received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, attracting a high degree of attention for Chinese dissident intellectuals, internationally.
Networks of Resistance Surface
Even under the strict control of the authorities, open resistance activities still exist in scattered locations. But, through the internet and in-person interactions, all sorts of powerful resources for resistance can be connected with each other and carry out collective resistance activities in specific but archetypal incidents. We may assume that there already exists a network of resistance with clear-cut political demands, that within this network resistance is no longer the issue of some single individual or small groups, and that these individuals or groups will gain the support of other resources in the network.
At the moment, two methods by which disparate resistance members are connected and mobilized can be examined: mobilization through the internet and mobilization through human networks. An important method of authoritarian societal control is to isolate and separate potentially dangerous elements to prevent their association, but the emergence of the internet has been effective in breaking down this type of barrier. The web has already become the most timely platform for the distribution of information, the most penetrating and boldest platform for the expression of opinions, and the most influential platform for mobilizing the people. The weiquan masses, political dissidents, and all sorts of social activists quickly discovered the convenience of this tool. Beginning in 2000, online screen names with undercurrents of political dissent began to appear, and by the end of 2008 had reached a new high. For those participating in the three lively platforms described above, Charter 08 brought together and gave cohesive form to the text of these screen names, and was immediately answered by thousands of people.
At the same time, in BBS forums and IM software focused on issues of contemporary politics, there was ample exchange, mutual recognition, and–when the time was right–getting offline to carry out all sorts of face to face gatherings with explicit political overtones, including organizing dinners, hosting forums, giving speeches, and any number of “spectacular” activities.
The second channel by which the people of China’s resistance march towards unity is via human networks. Through the associations of daily life and ample online interaction, as well as participation in specific weiquan incidents, members of the resistance began to come to know each other, and as greater and greater numbers of people joined up, the carrying out unified action through word of mouth mobilization was made possible.
Through every single weiquan event, each and every single networked microcosm gradually established ties to become a mutually accommodating and interlinked human network, having relatively clear political viewpoints and a common identity that included the Charter 08 within itself. All signs indicate that a network of social resistance is surfacing, and that it has already begun issue a challenge to the authoritarian system.
Dissent and Opposition Movements and China’s Future
Can the surfacing of a network of resistance become an organized opposition movement and, through the persistent application of pressure, effect a democratic transformation? Does the prospect of a Taiwan-style democratic transformation have any hope of taking shape on the mainland? From the analysis above, we should say that it’s not impossible, though the prerequisite for this is that the regime have a basic legal bottom line for the exercise of social control, and at least the most basic tolerance for dissent and opposition.
This, however, couldn’t be farther from the truth. Since 1989, the regime has been implementing systems of direct social control and suppressing the springing up of opposition groups, and up to now they have been successful. In the face of a surfacing network of social resistance, the post-totalitarian system has adopted a partitioned approach to weiwen as its response. Their intention, after the targeted suppression of the “jasmine revolution” activity in early 2011, was especially clear: restrict each and every activist to a partitioned zone, controlling them and effectively limiting their association and alliance with other activists, thereby efficiently constraining unified action and reducing the network of social resistance’s challenge to the post-totalitarian weiwen system.
Under these circumstances, popular resistance networks continue to develop under pressure, only slowing their momentum temporarily. Unite. Suppress. Unite again. Suppress again. This spiraling course of events has been subjected to powerful attack, but given the current state of affairs, the possibility of the people perseveringly developing, adopting, organizing and mobilizing their popular resistance networks is unlikely. The partitioned weiwen system has already reduced the people’s hopes for a long-awaited gradual expansion via organized resistance, a gradual implementation and realization of basic rights, and a relatively smooth transition to almost nothing.
Under the partitioned weiwen system, no matter how optimistic one is regarding the development of these popular resistance networks, long-term authoritarian suppression will cause the scale of and societal support for such networks to dwindle, and unexpected crises brought about by the operations of China’s economy and its peoples’ psychology may occur. Before the widespread adoption and organization of popular resistance networks or large-scale organized resistance can be realized, it seems that incidents of chaotic group violence inspired by random events are very likely, and perhaps to be expected.
The incidents in Lhasa, Urumqi, Weng’an, Shishou, Longnan and other large-scale group incidents show that mass gatherings, no matter whether they be peaceful mobilizations or have violent tendencies, can all escalate within a very short time, and as soon as there are omens of economic or social crises, then mass incidents 10 or more times their size are all possibilities, and as soon as this sort of mass incident moves towards disorder and violence, the authorities will have no choice but to suppress the incident by use of force.
Forcible suppression of such events may have two types of effect domestically and abroad. The world outside may choose to impose sanctions as a result of the severity of the suppression, which may further exacerbate the risk of economic crisis. Domestically, the use of force will also strengthen the position of hardline factions within the regime, which would entail the further suppression of popular resistance networks. China would enter into a state of political rigidity and economic stagnation similar to that which followed the Tian’An Men incident of 1989, though the difference between now and 1989 would be that, no matter how it is suppressed, social forces have already attained a certain autonomy with which to face political rigidity and economic stagnation. When an organized resistance is suppressed, this autonomy may be replaced by scattered and violent urban guerilla warfare and periodic eruptions of small-scale rioting. In this way, China will in this way enter an era of long and tumultuous period of unrest, characterized by the ebb and flow of repressive authority and sporadic rebellion.
There also exists what might reluctantly be called an optimistic possibility. Namely, that the chaotic and violent assault on the system described above may bring about an instance of large-scale, organized resistance with clearly defined political demands; that the inner workings of the authoritarian system will be unavoidably weakened by intergenerational changing of the guard and by the division of authority inherent in the pursuit of collective leadership. Add on the accumulation of power at the local level brought on by years of financial federalism, the threat of future random violence, and having to face a large-scale, organized resistance, and the authoritarian system will find it very difficult to unify its collective will, and so will dissolve.
In this type of situation, one should not rule out the possibility of an instance of large-scale organized resistance impelling the authoritarian government to relinquish its absolute control and allow greater freedom and reform. Should such a time come, long standing dissent and opposition movements will provide truly indispensable moral resources and organizational foundations for the transition to democracy.
(The main content of this text is from the treatise completed by the author and Dr. Su Zhenhua in August of 2010, “Atrophied Authoritarian Systems and Organized Resistance.” The author’s analysis of the partitioned weiwen system and its consequences in the final section was completed independently, after being considerably revised from its original version.)