New Citizens’ Part 2: The Activists’ Gambit

Last week, CF examined the history and events of the crackdown on the New Citizens’ Movement and its leader, Xu Zhiyong.  This week we analyze the strategic interplay between the Chinese Communist Party and Xu that have generated these events.

The Activist's Move

In his role as an activist, Xu Zhiyong faces a collective action problem.  Basically, while many people would benefit from increased political freedom in China, they can only realize this benefit if a critical mass of people works together to demand political reform.  A further challenge is that reformers in China have frequently suffered detainment and punishment at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).  As a result, few people are willing to take the risk of joining a reform movement early in the game.  Additionally, reformers have difficulties communicating and coordinating with one another and with sympathetic members of the public.  In such an environment, leadership is unclear and drawing attention to oneself is risky.

Hong Kong citizens are seen protesting for Xu’s release on Jan 27, 2014 (Photo credit: VOA)

So, how has Xu tried to solve these problems?  First, he took the initiative by organizing the New Citizens' Movement  (NCM) with policy reform objectives.  In December 2012, the NCM organized a petition with 7,000 signatures demanding that members of the Chinese Central Committee “ the institution that selects China's top leadership “ make the details of their families’ wealth public.  In March 2013, several activists made similar demands in Beijing's Xidan Culture Square.  These actions served to show others that they were not alone in their desires for reform.  It also increased the visibility of both the organization and its objectives.

The CCP's Response

To stay in power, China's leaders have engaged in censorship and detainment of individuals seeking to promote collective action.  To them, large scale collective action represents a threat to their authority and potentially to their system of government.  The New Citizens' Movement is a direct realization of that threat: it demands increased transparency and political accountability through protests and petitions.  At the same time, cracking down on this group means highlighting a key criticism made by the NCM: that China's leaders have selectively ignored China's guarantees to freedom of speech and assembly.

This has created a dilemma for China's leaders: do they ignore clear examples of collective action that are demanding political reforms, or do they make arrests that highlight the organization’s key point and give Xu the publicity he desires?   Apparently, the CCP decided that making an example of Xu to deter future activists was worth giving him a platform for his views.  After the March protests, Xu Zhiyong was quickly arrested and put on trial.

The Gambit

For Xu, the trial represented a final opportunity to point out the legal contradictions raised by his detainment and to attract supporters for his cause of political reform.  In Xu's closing statement, he stated the objectives of the NCM and elucidated the contradictions epitomized by his trial:


In 2009, the Open Constitution Initiative was investigated by the Police (Photo credit: zuola )

When we go online to collect signatures and distribute promotional materials, or unfurl banners on the street, all to call on officials to publicly declare their assets, we are at the same time exercising our civic rights to free speech provided for in the Constitution ¦ Under true democracy and rule of law, the constitution stipulates and actualizes sacred civil rights, including the right to vote, freedom of speech and freedom of belief. The promise of people's power should not be a lie. 

While Xu was sentenced to four years in prison, the CCP's trial gave him the platform he desired.  A sacrificial piece in his own game, he gave up his freedom to inspire his countrymen to collectively fight for theirs.

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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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