The silent protest of Chinese activists

Tiananmen Square as rendered by the Swiss/French artist Corinne Vionnet from hundreds of tourist photos.

Twenty-three years ago today, armed forces stormed Tiananmen Square in Beijing, removing the occupation of protesters demanding economic change, political reforms and freedom of the press. By the following morning, hundreds had died in the confrontation, effectively ending the last popular uprising in China.

Perhaps it should be no surprise, then, that on a day when activists around the country could join together to remember the lives of the students who died demanding justice, nothing is happening. No protest is taking place in the city where I live and the activists I work with are all somewhere else. Yet, in China, it is often the events that do not occur that are the most revealing.

When I arrived in Nanjing, a city in the southern part of China, four months ago, I wanted to understand how the events in Tiananmen Square changed protest culture here. So I began volunteering at an NGO (nongovernmental organization) that supports people seeking legal action against a local government or company over discrimination by pushing for amendments to the law.

During the first few days, I was concerned about the safety of the people I worked with, remembering the cases of exile and imprisonment I’d read about in the media. However, when I raised this question to a board member of the NGO, he just chuckled. “When I have been abroad, people always ask me this question,” he said, “but although this is one of the most radical human rights organizations in China, there is no danger in doing this work as long as you find a smart way to do it.”

For instance, according to the board member, instead of performing acts of protest or demonstrations, the awareness actions they organize are carefully designed to “look like entertainment and not political, so that it doesn’t threaten anyone.” They always bear in mind the delicate balance between informing as many people as possible and informing too many people to the point that the local government will finally decide to close their offices.

They are also cautious to never be too critical of the government’s work. Instead, they send the government “suggestion” letters offering updated research and various solutions to alleviate a problem. “Sometimes,” the board member explained, “even the government doesn’t know how to make things better, so we provide suggestions.” In these letters “it is difficult to speak the truth,” he said, but with careful drafting, they have been able to get some of their suggestions implemented.

In a later interview with the director of the NGO, he said more about the careful language they use. Even though many NGO workers and activists do see their work as part of a nonviolent philosophy, he said, “we don’t use those words in order to protect ourselves.” Using terms such as “nonviolence,” “activism” or “protest” would jeopardize their reputation within the government and the police force as an NGO that seeks “positive” change, rather than “negative” criticism, and would thus risk closure.

During the months of the Arab Spring last year, the NGO adapted its work so that the government would not get concerned that it was planning to join the movement. “The government sees NGOs as the start of the Saffron revolution,” explained the director in reference to the demonstrations that broke out in Burma in 2008, “so we just have to prove that we are not.” They also meet regularly with local policemen to keep them up to date with their latest actions and plans. “If the police know what we are doing,” he said, “they might not be angry and might not stop us.” Sometimes, though, even this strategy does not work.

The very fact that these precautions are needed does in fact indicate that there is a latent risk. However, the board member was emphatic when he explained that we cannot understand activism in China if we use the word “risk” as we would have back in 1989.

[The risk is] not completely a misconception and of course [there are] many negative things happening every day … But it’s not the whole thing. There is a very big difference between the present and the past in China, [and] there are some positive changes. For example, NGOs are more active, the Internet is more popular and Chinese people resist more. Civil society is also more active and mass media spreads the idea of human rights. The situation is not only controlled by the government but also influenced by civil society.

The director of the NGO added that he believes there are even a few politicians who support their work but “they just cannot say this in public.” It is this silent yet crucial support that has allowed them to continue with their work, even though it may limit their capacity as change agents.

On a normal Monday, I would be heading down to the offices, except that today they have been vacated. The staff has gone to another province for two weeks of training. “We relax our work during this time,” the director explained, “so that the government trusts that our work is not political.” They will remain away a few more days more, just to make sure no one thinks they have anything to say about the events that occurred in Tiananmen Square.

This reflects just how committed they are to their work. As the board member told me:

The Chinese government has very strict regulations on organization control. So if you want to set up an NGO here, you must have very suitable strategies and tactics, otherwise you can’t help people. Sometimes you do things as you want but soon your organization is closed. You have to be very tactical to obtain the results that you want.

The people who work in this NGO have accepted that if they want to achieve any concrete changes for those who suffer from discrimination and persecution, then, at times they have to silence their protest, even on this most infamous day in the history of nonviolent Chinese activism.

The real names, locations and details of this NGO are not mentioned in the article in an effort to protect the staff and their work.

This story was made possible by our members. Become one today.