Wednesday 18 June 2014

What remains of China's dissident movement?

This article about the "Nanfang Street Movement", a translated version of an article that originally appeared in Le Monde about a pro-democracy organisation operating in southern China, is worth a reading if only to sample the quixotic, fringe nature of modern-day opposition to the authoritarian Chinese government within mainland China. Indeed, the dissidents quoted in the article sound so idealistic and earnest for a post-Tiananmen, post-Charter 08 China as to be a little hard to credit, which is a pity because what they are saying is exactly the kind of thing that needs to be said in modern-day China, the kind of voice missing at events like today's London love-in :
It was raining the day three militants, accompanied by a fourth there to photograph the scene, unfurled a banner reading, "A party is not the same as a country. The Chinese Communist Party doesn't represent the people." In the center of the photo from that day, 23-year-old Jia Pin is holding up another message that reads, "Democracy, Liberty, Human Rights, Constitutional Government." At his side a follower carries an even more incendiary one that says, "Unelected parties are outlaws."
At least in my experience, these are not unrepresentative of the (unspoken except in safe circumstances) sentiments of a good portion of the Chinese people regarding their government, though it should also be said that a good portion also buys either largely or wholly into the government's message of their rule being solely benevolent. The poignant thing here is just how small the so-called "Nanfang Street Movement" actually is:
"there are only about 10 activists willing to demonstrate publicly," says Wu Kuiming, a lawyer in Guangzhou who defends members of the Nanfang Street Movement when they are arrested. "Quite a few people support the group, but very few are prepared to risk being arrested during a demonstration," says Wu.
The contrast with 25 years ago, when hundreds of thousands of people marched throughout China demanding reform, to today's dissidents, who would struggle to assemble enough people in one place to form a football team, couldn't be more striking.

It is hard not have a feeling of dread when reading this article, knowing that many of the people described in this article will eventually end up either in jail, in exile, or harassed to the point of quitting, because this is what has happened to every other attempt to organise dissident movements in China since 1989. For anyone who has been watching Chinese affairs for more than a few years, there is something nostalgic in reading dissidents putting their faith in the power of the internet, and in government promises of modernisation and reform - since this was exactly how dissidents like Liu Di spoke ten years ago.

Does this then necessarily mean that groups like the "Nanfang Street Movement" are doomed to the same over-all failure that has encompassed organisations like Charter 08? Perhaps not, though nothing short of an economic slow-down that no-one wants to see (but which may be programmed in to China's current development model) could conceivably create the opening for reform that they are looking for.


justrecently said...

I wrote a post about similar issues, about a year ago. I think it's often lost on the global public that parallel or default structures for the case of a "communist" implosion do exist.

It's not lost on the CCP itself - that's why they keep trying to muzzle dissidents even abroad.

These default structures can't replace a government, let alone a political system. But they may be prepared to provide input from the sidelines.

If that can lead to something better than the Yeltsin government in Russia (which was quite disastrous), is hard to tell.

But as "stable" as the CCP may look today - the real tests are yet to come.

Gilman Grundy said...

Yes, I was speaking to some people here in Wroclaw about Orange Alternative - the Wroclaw-based pro-democracy "happening" movement - and the topic of China came up. The consensus was that something like Orange Alternative couldn't happen in China because "they have everything they need".

I disagreed with this. China certainly doesn't suffer from the shortages of, for example, toilet paper, that the People's Republic of Poland suffered from, but the political system in place in the PRC is no less absurd. People highlight this absurdity on the internet, but the internet by its very nature is a place where the impact is lessened and can be managed.

A Yeltsin in China? Yeltsin of course came from within the CPSU, and operated in a fashion little different to that of modern-day Putin. His rise was as much a symptom of a lack of alternatives enforced by state repression in Russia pre-1991 (and, to an extent, post-1991). Putin and Medvedev, as much as they try to distance themselves from Yeltsin, were hand-picked by Yeltsin and have continued in large part his policies. The difference is that they have benefited from the recovery of the Russian economy post-shock-therapy.

justrecently said...

From quite a distance - I've never been to Russia - my impression is that the Yeltsin years were an enrichment event for the tycoons, with a weakening state. Putin managed to stabilize the Russian Federation, but achieved next to nothing in modernizing Russia. It's still "Burkina Faso with nukes", as a former German chancellor liked to say about the USSR.

What are Yeltsin's achievements, in your view? What did his shock therapy look like, and how did it benefit Russia?