The Nanfang Street Movement, Heirs To Tiananmen

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 police
Guangzhou police
Brice Pedroletti

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."

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.

Prison time

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."

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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