Xu Zhiyong and the Long Road for China's Human Rights Activists

Supporters demonstrate for Xu Zhiyong's release. Photo via Wikimedia Commons, released to public domain.

Supporters demonstrate for Xu Zhiyong's release. Photo via Wikimedia Commons, released to public domain.

The well-known blogger Xu Zhiyong, a pioneer of online human rights campaigns in China, was sentenced to four years in prison by the Beijing court on January 26, the eve of the Chinese Lunar New Year.

Some activists see his case as emblematic of the fate of the citizen movement that has taken place over the past decade — a human rights advocate who once sought to work towards reform in cooperation with government leaders, he now faces years behind bars because of his efforts to bring about change.

Xu Zhiyong was prosecuted for his work as an education advocate. Ten years ago, Xu launched his first online campaign, one that sought to raise awareness about the mysterious deaths of two individuals: Huang Jing, a 21-year-old teacher who was drugged and raped in her dormitory and Sun Zhigang, a recent university graduate who was beaten to death in a Guangzhou detention center for people caught without local residential registration cards. A doctoral student in law at the time, Xu Zhiyong and his classmates Yu Jiang and Teng Biao submitted a petition to advocate for the abolition of the custody and repatriation system, under which Sun had been detained. The then-new Communist Party leadership under Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao accepted the suggestion, generating a positive interaction between civil society and the government. The moment brought significant hope for social reform.

Xu had campaigned for the rights of children living in rural areas to have equal access to education as their urban peers. In China, due to the household registration system, children who followed their parents to the cities could not enter local schools and many of them were deprived of education opportunities. The New Citizens’ Movement campaign for equal education began in 2009 with an online petition and demonstration aimed at education authorities in Beijing. The following year, authorities granted permission to Beijing schools to admit migrant students.

From this moment onward, citizens — particularly young people — began to use the Internet as a place for discussion, debate, and organizing. During the 2003 SARS outbreak, the Internet became the only channel for university students to communicate with friends and get access to information, as school campuses shut down and forced students to remain confined to their living areas. Trapped in their dormitories, frustrated students connected through the school network to discuss the cause of the spread of epidemics, which many felt was the failure of local government to alert the public to the spread of the disease and promote prevention techniques. The deaths of Huang Jing and Sun Zhigang were also the most hot topics on the university networks. As human rights lawyer Teng Biao put it, all citizens’ rights campaigns during that period made use of the Internet as a platform. Over the next five years, the online public sphere developed at a rapid clip.

Many interpreted the various citizens’ rights campaigns that began in 2003 as a breakthrough moment in which free assembly and more open speech might take hold.

When the Twitter-like platform Fanfou emerged in 2007, netizens were suddenly able to post news to the web via mobile in a matter of seconds. Protests which previously had been restricted to the local level spread quickly to national networks. The live-casting of mass incidents demonstrated the power of micro-blog.

Though new communication technologies have generated new space for social groups and online deliberation in recent years, new regulations, controls and crackdowns have quickly followed, stifling these transformative forces.

Soon after the conclusion of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, a joint signature campaign pushing for political reform based on international human rights standards known as the Charter 08 campaign began. The government responded with an attack on the digital public sphere under a pretext of “anti-vulgarity”. A large number of independent websites, blogs and social networks were either closed down or suspended soon thereafter.

Ethnic minority regions felt this increasing intolerance too. In the midst of riots in 2009, the Internet was temporary shut down — it remained shut down for nearly a year in Urumqi, the largest city in China's Uyghur region of Xinjiang. The independently-run Fanfou was shut down two days later after the riot and suspended until November 2010. During its suspension, Sina Weibo, which is controlled by the party-state, replaced Fanfou. Sina Weibo has since become the country's most influential social media platform.

Uprisings in Middle East and Northern African countries between 2010 and 2011 also hit a nerve for the Chinese government. More than a hundred activists, bloggers and netizens were arrested following online calls for China to stage its own “Jasmine Revolution”.

Still, the control of the Internet was mainly through keyword filtering and censorship, manipulation of online opinion and selective arrests. The majority of the netizens continued to use Weibo to webcast social incidents and coordinate grassroots election campaigns. Political satires and jokes were still visible and some netizens even reported corruption cases, allowing their real identities to be disclosed to the public. The real-name registration system, designed to enforce self-censorship, has now given rise to a group of influential online opinion leaders.

The current deputy director of the State Council Information Office, Ren Xianliang wrote in the CCP think tank Red Flag Journal back in April 2013 that the government should lock up some Weibo opinion leaders to prevent the manipulation of public opinion. Four months later, on August 10 of last year, representatives of Weibo opinion leaders were forced to sign a pledge on a Central Television program to uphold “seven self-censorship guidelines“. A week later, citizens saw the mass arrest of hundreds of opinion leaders and the so-called Internet Water Armies who were accused of spreading rumors and defamatory speech.

Despite the claim of victory in eradicating critical comments against the authorities and reclaiming the ideological leadership in Weibo, the battlefield has expanded to the prosecution of moderate reformists marked by the arrest of Uyghur intellectual and the founder of the website “Uyghur online”, Ilham Tohti on January 15 and the announcement of 4-year jail sentence of Xu Zhiyong on January 26. After their initial victory, the campaign has continued on behalf of students who needed to return to their hometown for university entrance examination. Xu was accused of disrupting public disorder for organizing two small petitions regarding the examination arrangement.

Since his conviction, official propaganda about Xu’s trial has flooded Sina Weibo, the Twitter-like “grassroots” public sphere of China with headlines such as: “Xu Zhiyong has wrong judgment of the world”, “Western countries’ explicit conspiracy in the support of Chinese dissidents.” Xu Zhiyong's court statement, in which he defended his actions, is nowhere to be found.

Xu Zhiyong's New Citizens’ Movement was driven by a generation of independent subjects who developed their critical thinking skills in a relatively free online public sphere. It proved that virtual networks can lead to real-life mobilization once the consensus of a particular social agenda is built. The campaign for equal education rights for rural children is just an example.

The sentence of Xu Zhiyong, a symbolic figure who represents the “new citizen” whose awareness has been cultivated through online deliberation of public affairs and live-casting of protests and citizen action, is not an individual case but a symbol of the government’s systematic denial of people's desire freedom and dignity.

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