A visit in southern China to a movement afoot to openly challenge the regime. It remains, 25 years after the Tiananmen Square protest was crushed, a risky affair.
GUANGZHOU — 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."
It took place in Dongguan, near Guangzhou, just a little more than a year ago. When the picture that immortalized the operation went online, the police showed up at Jia Pin's place. In China, opposing the regime is a true act of courage. The young man spent 20 days in prison, was fired by his employer, and then was sent back to Henan, the province where he was born.
But he returned to Guangzhou immediately to take up again with his comrades in arms in China's Nanfang Jietou Yundong ("Southern Street Movement"), also called the Nanfang Street Movement. Today, the former laborer considers himself a "professional street fighter."
Created in 2011, the Nanfang Street Movement is a real manifestation of democratic rumblings on Chinese social networks, which for a long time were powerless to transform virtual anger into ground action.
"Our approach is to make the switch from Internet to the real world," explains Wang Aizhong, one of the movement's founders. "We want to ward off the fear of taking to the streets. We show people what we do so they'll tell themselves that it's possible."
It is happening in Guangzhou. Behind its outward image of a thriving commercial city, this megalopolis of 11 million inhabitants — which has long benefited from its geographical, cultural and linguistic proximity to Hong Kong — was the cradle of economic reforms in the 1980s. The Guangzhouese, who have always lived in a sort of sieve between the West and Communist China in what is now the country's third-largest city, offer a particularly active platform for rebels.
Say it out loud
And the "agitators" of the Nanfang Street Movement embody a new kind of militancy in China: Not only are they urging people to take to the streets, but they openly criticize the Communist Party of China (CPC) — a taboo.
"What is striking about this group is that it ignores the tacit limits recognized by all the other activists," says political scientist Chloé Froissart of the Hong-Kong based French Centre for Research on Contemporary China. "It refuses to play by the rules of the game, which are to try to advance the cause from inside the system, on the pretext that that hasn't led anywhere. By wanting to live with a different political and liberal definition of what it means to be a citizen, they are in some ways similar to the movements in former Eastern Europe. But there are limits. What will it lead? Isn't it suicidal?"
Wang Aizhong compares the situation in China with the Arab Spring and the more recent events on Taksim Square in Turkey. "Since Tiananmen in 1989, the Chinese have been traumatized and no longer dare demonstrate," Wang says. "But when you look at history, you see that political changes — if they don't come about as a result of armed combat — go through the public arena."
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A protester in front of a banner that reads "Democracy, Liberty, Human Rights, Constitutional Government" — Photo: The Southern Street Movement
This thirty-something hardly strikes a counter-culture pose, sporting a crew cut and driving a BMW. He is an executive at a biotechnology company located in the new business zone of Tianhe, in Guangzhou, and is part of an emerging urban elite that is frustrated at being unable to make its voice heard in political decision-making.
In August 2011, at their first public demonstration, members of the Nanfang Street Movement celebrated the fall of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddhafi in front of a giant commercial mall in Tianhe. A few months later, they mobilized in support of blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng, who was under house arrest with his family in his home village of Dongshigu, in eastern China, for having denounced the forced abortions carried out as part of the country's one-child policy.
A cup of tea
A number of Guangzhou militants made the trip to the village. In his glasses with gold frames and a yellow and gray windbreaker, Yu Gang, a 45-year-old executive from Shenzhen, tells his story: After having worked in various fields, he sold his apartment in 2007 to travel across China promoting the idea of democracy. He's convinced that a street movement can "accelerate things. You can’t just write articles and ask the government to change," he says.
There’s no need to take measures to avoid being tailed or to exchange coded messages to meet Nanfang Street Movement activists because they extol transparency. The more they're talked about, they say, the more protected they are. Which doesn't mean they aren't watched and regularly "invited for a cup of tea" by agents of the Chinese security agency. The expression, infamous in China, denotes a "polite" conversation with the police during the course of which they use veiled terms to warn you about the lines that can't be crossed.
Ye Du, the movement's intellectual, was called in for formal interrogation in late December after having published an article online about the role of social networks. "They don't like it when intellectuals cooperate with militants. It scares them," the forty-something former university professor explains. He was fired for having published critical material in the foreign media. "They told me to hold back — in other words, not to take part in street demonstrations."
Wearing the little round glasses favored by intellectuals, Ye says he's taken part in most of the civic movements launched since 2003. Because his name is in police files, he has been closely watched for many years. State security agents force him to stay home on "sensitive dates" such as the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, during national parliament sessions, the Qingming festival (a day when the Chinese remember the dead), the annual dip the Mayor of Guangzhou takes in the Zhujiang River, etc. All told, it added up to about two months in 2013.
The cost and unwieldiness of this type of surveillance ends up wearing the police down. And the militants don't hesitate to exploit that lethargy. Public blitz operations nevertheless continue to be fraught with risk. In March 2012, six activists exhibited signs in a street in northern Guangzhou bearing messages inviting then President Hu Jintao to "reveal his wealth." After several days in detention, the police let the demonstrators go — except for one, Yang Chong, who was sentenced to a year in prison.
But that's not enough to discourage members of the Nanfang Street Movement. Their boldness is down to a dynamic of solidarity and mutual assistance, which extends much farther than any one local movement. Across China, militants form a loose but resilient constellation in the face of a regime that is authoritarian, certainly, but trapped by its promises of modernization and openness.
The emergence of movements is a challenge for the regime with its concerns for legitimacy: In Beijing, the New Citizens Movement, driven by jurists, has used particularly incisive civic and legal action, but after a demonstration its principle members were given prison sentences in 2014 for disturbing public order.
Undeterred, the "southerners" remain hard at it, although "there are only about 10 activists willing to demonstrate publicaly," 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. "But I do note that the authorities are less and less inclined to arrest people on the grounds of crime against the security of the state. In recent cases, they've opted for disturbing the public order or go after alleged ‘economic crimes.’"
The change in the state's response is attributed to the very factor that could make the current street movements more potent than their predecessors: the Internet. "Thanks to the web, information makes the rounds," says Wu. "The government fears negative Chinese public opinion, much more than it cares about negative criticism from non-Chinese."