What is the “New Citizens’ Movement”?

(Photo credit: Shi Zhao )

On January 26th, 2014, citizen activist and lawyer Xu Zhiyong was sentenced to four years in prison by a Beijing court.  His trial and the arrests of other members of The New Citizens' Movement (NCM) are the largest clampdown on a civilian organization since the start of Xi Jinping's Presidency.   China Focus explores the origins of this group, its leader, and the actions the Chinese government has taken to wipe it out.

In addition to being a professor of Chinese law, Xu Zhiyong is the New Citizens' Movement's founder and most prominent spokesman.  Even before he joined the NCM, he advocated for the rights of marginalized members of Chinese society.  In 2003, he founded the Open Constitution Institute, which advocated for equal education for children of migrant workers, sought to close black jails , and represented parents of children poisoned by melamine in the 2008 Chinese milk scandal.  In 2009, Xu's institute produced an account of the 2008 Tibetan protests that differed from the official version.  Consequently, Chinese authorities detained Xu for a month and closed the Open Constitution Institute for alleged tax evasion.  In May 2012, Xu Zhiyong founded the New Citizens' Movement.

According to Xu, the New Citizens' Movement has three objectives.  First, its members seek to reduce corruption among China's leaders.  To do so, they have advocated that China's leaders make all details of their assets public.  Second, they have called for an end to discriminatory education policies.  In large Chinese cities, the children of migrant workers do not receive hukou, or legal residence, and are thus not allowed to attend the same high schools as children from native Beijing residents.  Third, the NCM has called for students to be allowed to sit in for university entrance exams where they reside.  Currently, many children of migrant workers are forced to travel outside of their city of residence to take university entrance examinations.

In March 2012, Xu estimated that the movement had 5,000 supporters across China.  Nine months later, the movement submitted a petition with 7,000 signatures that urged members of China's National People's Congress to disclose their assets.  In March of 2013, NCM activists gathered in Beijing's Xidan Culture Square and called upon China's leaders to make their financial assets public.

Subsequently, the New Citizens' Movement has suffered a harsh crackdown from Chinese authorities. A few weeks after the March protests, the police arrested Xu Zhiyong and four participants in the protests “ You Xin, Yuan Dong, Zhang Baocheng, and Ma Xinli.  All have been charged with gathering crowds in a public place to disturb order,  a charge that carries a maximum sentence of five years.

In addition to arresting its leaders, the Chinese government has unleashed a propaganda and censorship campaign to shape public discussion of Xu Zhiyong and the New Citizens' Movement.  A directive from China’s central authorities leaked to the China Digital Times requires that only authoritative sources  would be allowed to cover the Xu Zhiyong case.  Furthermore, the authorities required that websites delete all Chinese and foreign articles and comments in support of Xu.

Ironically, the arrest of members of the New Citizens' Movement may be having the opposite of its intended effect.  Google Trends indicates that the movement's Chinese name (新公民运动) is spiking in popularity.  Additionally, there has been a dramatic upsurge in the number of Chinese-language Google users searching for information about Xu Zhiyong.  By singling out Xu and his movement, Chinese authorities may have accidentally done Xu's cause a favor.

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Patrick Chester

graduated from the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies in 2014 with an MA in International Politics and a regional focus on China. During the years 2009 and 2010, he studied Chinese at Beijing Foreign Studies University in Beijing, China. During his term as a staff writer on China Focus, Patrick wrote on numerous topics relating to China including Chinese economic policy and conflict in the South China Sea. He also took active roles in the student groups China Focus and China Language Film Society. He intends to pursue a PhD in Political Science and continue to research China's political development.

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