The first decade of the twenty-first century has witnessed social movements and citizen action ranging from overthrowing authoritarian governments as seen in Arab Spring to challenging the principles of established governments in the Occupy Movements. There have been attempts at questioning the established order and creating a space for contestation and negotiation by these citizens. In some cases the “protestors” have met with success and in othercases there have been severe clampdowns and backlashes to these citizen led movements. Time Magazine in 2011named “The Protester” as their coveted Person of the Year, receiving both heavy criticism and support for their choice. Two interesting observations can be made with regards to these global events - the emergence of new media driven activism and the rise of citizens as a loose grouping coalescing into a large canvas calling for action against the state and seeking accountability from state.


Social Unrest in China


Turning our attention to China, we see a different situation emerging in form of “mass incidents” (a term used by the Chinese State to define civil unrest). These mass incidents have been steadily rising. A 2001 report produced by the Department of Organisation of the Central Committee of Communist Party of China (CCP) has identified a spreading pattern of protests and group incidents arising from economic, environmental, ethnic and religious conflicts in China. The Annual Report on China’s Rule of Law No.12 conducted in 2014based on 871 mass incidents involving more than 2.2million people between 1 January 2000 and 30 September2013 identified the years 2010, 2011 and 2012 as the leading years for mass incidents. During these years the number of incidents involving more than 100 people (mass incidents are defined involving more than 100 protestors) increased from 163 to 172 and 209 respectively.


The dominant understanding of protests in the literature attribute it to the reform era and market reforms that followed thereof. Although the reforms have ensured a high domestic growth and has put China on the world map, it has also led to “economic insecurity, rising prices, and growing socioeconomic disparities.”Guoguang&Lansdowne(2009) point to a “new kind of authoritarianism”which incorporates not only the market mechanism but some neoliberal practices seeming to adopt international norms and standards to support its legitimacy and communist ideology.It does this while leaving out the benefits of socialism–healthcare and education, being slowly eroded by the new capitalist system which does not serve the cause of all.


From Weiquan to a New Citizens’ Movement: Contextualising the Movement


Within these new types of contentions that are emerging in Chinawhich are challenging the official discourse of the one-party system, the New Citizens’ Movement(NCM) presents a unique challenge to the State. Locating itself in the new historical conditions, a new liberal order and technological advancement, the NCM is a new age movement which started in 2012. It is an informal association of lawyers, activists and businessmen seeking to bring about a change in China through the active involvement of the citizens.


The New Citizens’ Movement is a social, political and cultural movement towards sustained political change and a movement towards constitutional governance in China. Itsmain motto is to construct a new order of fairness and justice, showing a path for reform in China with the citizen at its focus. According to the NCM, today’s China needs a new movement with the citizen at the center, and not just as a subject but as an independent and free entity. It calls for every citizen to act and behave as a citizen and uphold the duties and responsibilities, taking citizenship seriously. It is based on removal of privilege and corruption, believing instead in democratic rule of law, in the pursuit of freedom and fairness, civil movements and a constitutional China.


This movement, although a recent phenomenon, is located in the weiquanor rights-defending movement that began in the 1990s, when one could use law to defend rights and rights defense was actually an officially propagated term. It was also the time when “rule by law” (yifazhiguo) was an idea the authorities were making use of to claim political legitimacy. Around the 2000s, lawyers and activists started to get involved in the issues of citizens’ rights and rights protection. It was also the time when online independent media and communication helped play an important role in the political discourse within the Chinese society. Many Chinese intellectuals used the internet to discuss and debate issues of political and societal importance. Xu Zhiyong, the founder of the NCM, has been involved in the rights-defending movement since then. Xu Zhiyong, Teng Biao and Yu Jing formed in 2003 the Sunshine Constitutionalism (Gongmeng) movement which worked towards protection of citizen’s rights and constitutional issues in China.


Since then, these rights activists have been using the law as a tool to test the boundaries of state action on ensuring citizen’s rights. From 2005-08, they were involved in legal assistance and petitioning cases, the milk scandal involving use of melamine in milk, petitioning for compensation for children affected and involved in reports and recommendations for improving human rights conditions. This was also the time when Human Rights lawyers were named Asia Weekly’s “People of the Year” in 2005. During their years of rights protection, they started encountering repression from the state (under the premise of stability preservation or weiwen) which began to feel that theweiquan presented a political challenge and had to be controlled, lest it challenges the Party’s political existence.


Despite clampdown and repeated target of activists and their organisations, these rights lawyers continued to push for legal rights of citizens and kept pushing the boundaries of state tolerance towards a growing civil society. After the 2008 Tibetan unrest, these rights activists produced a report looking into the causes for the unrest and breakout of protest in Tibet. The reportcriticised the Chinese government’s policies on Tibet and identified marginalisation of Tibetans, Han migration, and “over-propagandising of violence” as causes of unrest. It led to the closure of Gong Meng and arrest of Xu Zhiyong for “tax evasion”.


Since 2009, these activists under the renewed banner of “Citizen” have been working for equal rights to education and a campaign to allow students to write University exams where they reside. It took two and a half years since the campaign began, when the Ministry of Education adopted a policy allowing the youth to take national entrance exams where they currently live.


As time progressed, there was also a shift from the weiquan to a renquan-lushi (human rights) approach and a movement towards defining a new citizen started taking shape. Xu Zhiyong and other rights activists wanted to try a new way of bringing in reforms since they started in 2003 and move from case-by-case legal rights advocacy to the formation of a New Citizens’ Movement in 2012, thus becoming more political and defining the citizen and their roles in the creation of a new China.


Their strategies also underwent a change; and in a restrictive political system, they sought to find alternative ways of organising and reaching out to people. While banners and new Citizen Insignias were a common feature, they also adopted citizen meals known as ‘Changing China by eating’ across China where people would gather and initiate and organise meals to discuss political and social issues that plague China today.


The New Citizens Movement contextualised their campaign for public disclosure of financial assets in light of Xi Jinping’s campaign for addressing the issue of corruption. When Xi Jinping came to power in November 2012, he addressed the Chinese and Foreign Press where he acknowledged “rampant corruption within the Party, high bureaucratism, long formalities, being divorced from people”and stressed on making efforts to solve these issues. In this regard, in the December 2012 lead up to annual meeting of National People’s Congress in March 2013, the NCM initiative gathered around 7000 signatures for an open letter proposal by the activists to Xi Jinping on this issue. During the March Annual meeting, the movement published the open letter to the President calling for 205 senior officials to publicly disclose their assets.


 They made a demand for disclosure of assets at a protest at Beijing’s Xidan Culture Square displaying banners and leaflets regarding the issue. This led to crackdown of the protest and the four activists— Ding Jiaxi, Li Wei, Zhang Baocheng and Yuan Dong were detained in 2013 and put on trial in January 2014. In April 2013, Dr. Xu was detained under house arrest and formally arrested in August 2013. On 22 January2014, he was tried in Beijing undera charge of “assembling a crowd to disrupt order in a public place”. He was convicted and sentenced to four years in prison on 26 January 2014. Although Xu Zhiyong submitted an appeal on 3 February 2013 in the Beijing Third Detention Center, the authorities have rejected his appeal. In the indictment, the authorities used publicly calling for “equal education” and “disclosure of officials’ assets” as their main justification for charging Xu Zhiyong with “gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place and using an evil cult to undermine law enforcement”.


From Stability Maintenance to Eradicationof Civil Society


The arrest and clampdown in the NCM case shows how the strategy of the governmenthas undergone a change from “stability maintenance” approach to “eradication” to deal with these civil society groups.


According to Teng Biao, the co-founder of the NCM movement:


“Before, the goal was primarily to punish those who crossed the line, and to retain the advantages of strong stability maintenance. Now, however, the goal is simultaneously to eliminate the nodes of civil mobilization, eradicate emerging civil leaders, and disperse the capacity for civil resistance.Xi flaunts his power in the “five black categories” (human rights lawyers, underground religion, dissidents, internet opinion leaders, and disadvantaged social groups)”.


The state is fearful of online protests assuming an offline nature, and is seeking time and again to enforce strict measure for controlling the internet sphere. During the trial of NCM activists, the website was closed down and words related to the trial were blocked. Media was restricted from covering the trials and it became a characteristic close door event, wherein no one was privy to the proceedings.


A New National Security Law has been passed by China’s Legislature in July 2015 which further strengthens the drive to undermine civil society critical of the state. This law gives extensive powers to the police, state security and military to take measures to protect national security while defining the scope of national security in very vague terms. It ensures that “practically any aspect of social or economic life can be regarded as a matter of national security and thus gives the institutions empowered by the law a mandate to intervene". This draft law also acts as a blueprint for the new Foreign NGO Law that has been drafted. This new Foreign NGO Law would give the police power to supervise every aspect of foreign NGOs work including registration, permitting annual inspections, freezing assets. This is indirectly going to affect funding for domestic civil society groupings .The main motivation for this type of draconian law seems to be the result of fear of rising voices against the Party and leadership and a tactic for maintaining stability of the Party.


The NCM is a unique and peaceful movement using the discourse to “establish” and not “overthrow” the system of democracy and rule of law using freedom, love and righteousness as its new national spirit. The movement is advocating that every Chinese should become an upright citizen and take their identity and rights as a citizen seriously. It also calls for citizens to be the real driving force for a new China and this type of discourse raises a threat to the Communist Party. But as Xu Zhiyong read out in his closing statement at the end of his trial on 22 January 2014, “The day will come when the 1.3 billion Chinese will stand up from their submissive state and grow to be proud and responsible citizens.”


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.