Chinese dissidents “strolling” toward democracy, online and off

Student protester arrested at a "strolling" action in Shanghai.

Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. built movements strong enough to confront hostile, often violent governments. While the world reveres their contributions to peace and justice, however, those working for democracy and human rights in China are envious. Both leaders, compared to their counterparts in China today, had far more political space to gather, strategize, and communicate with the masses. But even under their own difficult circumstances, Chinese activists have devised novel civil-resistance campaigns, both in cyberspace and in the streets, fomenting what has come to be called the “Jasmine Revolution.”

One of the leading figures in this struggle is 28-year-old Gaius Gracchus (as he is known online). After being imprisoned in China for speaking out and seeking asylum in the United States, Gaius studied classics at Columbia University. He’s now president of the Chinese Youth Foundation (CYF), whose members are located both in China and internationally—in Paris, Seoul, Hong Kong, Australia, and the United States. At his apartment in New York, Gaius and I talked about what he’s doing to stay one step ahead of a government determined to stop him.

“I want to promote social justice and community cohesion, and prepare the next generation of intellectuals who can champion human rights in China,” he explains.

The social conditions in China are rapidly deteriorating. “People in my generation cannot find jobs, mortgages, or housing,” says Gaius. “Inflation is very high. Prosecuted people appeal in vain. Very few have access to good quality education and healthcare, and the state security apparatus is violently repressive. A culture of ‘you get it if you can pay for it’ is dominant in China.” People across the country yearn for change and are constantly venting their anger. Gaius has learned that, in 2010 alone, there were over 320,000 incidents of civil unrest across the country. Security forces often subdue such unrest violently.

In the city of Guangzhou this past May, for instance, after three people were killed by local police, three days of mass protest ended when the army killed over 100. Around the same time, in the Inner Mongolia, peaceful protests against the exploitation of natural resources were also brutally suppressed by the army.

Gaius has no confidence that scattered protests like these can deliver real change. “The random incidents exhibit no holistic strategies in tackling with the Chinese government, only a concern for personal and communal welfare,” he believes. “It highlights the fragmented nature of Chinese society across cultural, regional, and class lines, which is a major challenge to any strategic disobedience initiative.”

The CYF aims to bridge these divides by branding such mass incidents with the symbolic identity of the Jasmine Revolution, using articles and imagery on a variety of websites. They’re deliberately borrowing the language of “Jasmine Revolution” from the successful uprising earlier this year in Tunisia. The effort has met with some success. When a recent strike by truck drivers in Shanghai was tagged online in this way, the government gave into the demands of the drivers within three days, reducing working hours and increasing wages.

Another novel tactic the CYF employs are the weekly online “strolling” actions, announced on its blog at molihuaxingdong.blogspot.com. “The strolling announcements consist of a round-up and analysis of the latest protest incidents in the country, supplemented by pictures and videos, along with the designation of a ‘strolling’ site,” Gaius says. When a strolling announcement is branded as part of the Jasmine Revolution, the government sends police units to the designated location to suppress it. What they find is a crowd of people wandering around a marketplace or a square, minding their own business. Government resources are wasted through such deployments, Gaius believes, making the regime look foolish. Afterward, news of the incident circulates on the web and becomes part of daily conversation in China.

Journalism itself has become one of his tactics. “My colleagues and I use our connections with local authorities, journalists, and activists to create reports on the practices of government officials and institutions for anonymous online publication,” Gaius explains. A report by his group exposed the involvement of authorities in Sichuan province in an embezzlement scam, where money was being siphoned from a redevelopment fund established after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. (Ai Weiwei, the artist recently released from custody, also helped publicize these findings.) A few days after the release of the report, an investigation was initiated by the Chinese Central Committee on Discipline and Investigation that found three mayors in the province guilty of corruption.

Even as the Great Firewall of China prevents most internet users inside the country from seeing anti-government websites, the bureaucracy behind it is unable to keep up with young tech-savvy activists like Gaius. For example, Gaius and his colleagues use a Google application which constantly generates a unique code that allows them to securely access and manage their emails and websites. But the government is also constantly revising its countermeasures.

“After the Shanghai protest, truck drivers in the cities of Ningbo and Suzhou went on strike hoping for similar results,” he says, “Even after they were tagged online, the government accepted some demands but then dispatched the police to infiltrate the protest groups and arrest the organisers.” The regime also uses alienation tactics against individual protesters, denying them job opportunities and social services, and arresting them with accusations of being foreign agents.

The Chinese Youth Foundation’s campaign is balanced on a knife’s edge. While on the one hand its efforts have been unable to initiate a widespread and self-sustaining national movement, on the other, the Chinese government is stepping up its efforts to bridge the political and technical gap. Gaius believes that support from international governments and educational institutions will be vital to their success. “Proper training in protest strategies for core activists and encouragement from Western leaders,” he says, “can together help drive Chinese citizens to shed their fear and collectively become agents of change.”

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