The Rise of a Civil Rights Movement in Contemporary China

作者:Li Fan 发表时间:2011-8-26 14:49:03

book summaryThe Rise of a Civil Rights Movement in Contemporary China published by Taiwan Juliu Publishing House, July 2011.

Chapter 1. Exploration of Chinese Liberal Civil Rights Movement

After over 30 years of reform, an enormous transformation of Chinese society is emerging on the horizon. However, it is still unclear among scholars how China will transform itself. In our view, China’s transformation will be different from those of other countries such as South Korea, Taiwan, etc. China may in fact have to go through two transformations. The first one will be from totalitarianism to authoritarianism and the second one will be from authoritarianism to a democracy.

Current developments in China show that it is likely that two transformations may be present at the same time, or a dual transformation, rather than a single one. The first stage of transformation is currently underway. Some parts of the transformation have proceeded smoothly, and have basically made the transition complete. Other parts have not gone as well, and are far from completion. Generally speaking, China has not yet started the transformation from an authoritarian system (soft authoritarianism) to a liberal democratic system.

A Comparison of China’s Transformation at Different Stages

First transition

(from totalitarianism to authoritarianism)

The second transition (authoritarianism to liberal democracy)


Civic organizations

Present, but under control

A smaller number

Category control and Limited types

Strict political registration system

No relevant assembly law

A large number

All types

Procedural registration

Relaxed laws

Social movements

Scattered, spontaneous

Organized, large scale social movements



Political elections do not exist

Citizens have no right to elect government officials

There exist only local-level elections but no general elections

Election is open to the entire societyincluding officials, delegates

Nation-wide general elections and election for national leaders

Election legal system

Doesn’t exist basicallyrestrictive

Resolution to election disputes

Political opposition

Opposition appears (dissidents)

Opposition parties exist


Space is limited

Free expression under most occasions

No press laws

Press laws

May allow dissenting views but criminal punishment exists for slander and subversion

Freely express one’s view

No independent press, open news reporting but strictly controlled

Press is open to the entire society with limited control

Strict control on internet

Some control


Partial market economy

Economic freedom

Legal system

Laws exist but no independent judiciary

Relatively independent judiciary

Limited political rights and civil rights

More civil rights

In the process of Chinese societal transition, different interest strata and social groups are formed such as peasants, peasant migrant workers or new urban workers, intellectuals, middle class, executives and bureaucrats. A pattern of social interests has therefore appeared. Some social groups demand certain interests while others defend certain interests.

The characteristics of China’s transformation shows that more changes may take place in the first stage, which, in other words, means to change from totalitarianism to authoritarianism. However, there are no signs of a transformation from authoritarianism to democracy. If we consider elections, China’s current status is far from a typical authoritarian state. If we look at the political party system, there is still a one-party dictatorship, no opposition parties exist, unlike the one-party dominance in many other authoritarian states where some opposition parties are allowed to exist alongside the ruling party. On the surface, it seems better and more efficient to use repressive means to eliminate social dissatisfaction and maintain social stability, but this type of mentality easily leads the state back to a totalitarian system. This is the exact phenomena of today’s China and the main cause for the rise of the civil rights movement.

When examining the level of China’s democratization from the perspectives of elections, government accountability, rule of law and civil rights, the conclusion can be drawn as the figure shown below:

China’s liberal civil rights movement can be defined as follows: 1. As a social movement it is moving towards the development of social liberty and defense of basic rights, and it has clear goals: either advocacy for greater freedom for intellectuals or the demand for more rights for disadvantaged minority groups; 2. China moves intermittently in this direction and toward these goals, and the process may be stopped or suppressed at some point, but it may be picked up at other points around the same issue, which could be slightly different due to time and geographic locations, but it maintains its consistency, thus forming a continual venation of development: 3. In some instances, the social events that lead social movements may have a small number of participants while in other instances they may have a large number of participants, but overall, there are a significant number of people involved, even for the same demands which are repeated in the same location or different locations, thus forming China’s social movement. 4. Generally speaking, participants with the same demands may be from different social strata, such as peasants, intellectuals, urban residents, social activists, etc. They may have no direct connections between them. A demand from one social stratum or locale may not resonate with people from other places, and some people may even take an indifferent attitude, but the interaction helps to form China’s liberal civil rights movements with different demands; 5. The level of social organization in China is not high but intents and activities of demanding it are higher and higher indeed; The second structure of society has sprouted from grassroots organizations and social leaders are also emerging; 6. The symbols and activities used to attract public attention to the formation of social movements may be different, and in the case of China, they are present in the form of strikes, blocking traffic, picketing a government building, petitioning, street movements, internet protests, public criticism, lawsuits and other ways of taking a stand. Different methods of protest and the symbols of the movements are still developing and being created. These represent the basic definition and characteristic of China’s liberal civil rights movement.

There are currently five aspects to China’s liberal civil rights movement: social movement of intellectuals, peasants’ protests, rights-defense for disadvantaged minority groups, movement of middle class and religious freedom movement of house churches. The emergence of social movements indicates that the development of civil society in China has entered a new stage.

Chapter 2-8. A Brief Description

It can be observed through the development process of China’s liberal civil rights movement that the intellectuals are in the forefront of the movement demanding more freedom and democracy. Next, it is the religious freedom movement promoted by house churches. From the experience of house church development, the main purpose of the religious movement centers around the struggle for freedom of faith and freedom in proselytizing. This activity is also an example of a mass cultural movement because it involves a large number of participants across society. It also includes rights defense activities, but by and large, the house churches’ social-religious movement focuses on religion freedom only.

The social movement marked by rights defense and rights promotion belongs to the disadvantaged groups which includes factory workers, peasants and veterans. In the early stage of development of China’s liberal civil movement, these groups had no interest in a social liberal movement. When intellectuals fought for more freedom of expression, assembly and press during the 1980s, the workers and peasants failed to respond; they only cared about economic issues. When the intellectuals’ liberal movement reached its peak in 1989, with the exception of a small minority of workers and urban residents that attempted to help, a majority of them did not take action, but just looked on from the sidelines. This is because the reform didn’t go deep enough and hadn’t touched the interests of workers and peasants. In fact, peasants were the beneficiary of the early stages of China’s reform and opening-up, becoming the legendary “ten thousand yuan household,” and they had no desire to turn to the path of social movement.

However, as the reform and opening-up went deeper, the life of workers, peasants and veterans became harder. As the reform of state-own-enterprises moved forward, a large number of these enterprises closed up or went bankrupt. Compensation to workers was very limited or non-existent. The government’s way of dealing with the problem was to throw them out into streets, but there was no social security system. Workers were abruptly laid off, turning from the “master” of the socialist country to the unemployed, with no social welfare system to fall back on. This forced these former “elite of society”, now the bottom rung of society, to take a stand to defend their rights. Problems continued to mount: their houses were facing forcibly demolished, they had no health care, their pension was gone, and many other problems appeared. They began to petition to the higher authorities, to strike and to protest. Veterans had a similar situation as that of workers. Their benefits were insufficient or were not distributed at all.

The situation for peasants became worse as well. The 1993 tax system reform set local governments in direct opposition to the peasants. Officials began to demand more money, more crops, penalty payments and they even demanded the peasants’ land. If they couldn’t get what they wanted, the local governments used force to unscrupulously rob the peasants. The tension between peasants and government officials increased dramatically. In the late 1990s, peasants began to take action to defend their rights. Typically, the peasants would petition to higher authorities, start lawsuits and even conduct more radical activities such as picketing government headquarters, burning police vehicles, beating up government officials and setting government office buildings on fire. In this way the peasants sought to defend their basic right to life and their other rights as well.

As for the middle class, or the lower middle class, their motivation for getting involved in China’s liberal civil rights movement is somewhere between that of intellectuals and workers/peasants/veterans, and includes their struggle for liberty and social justice as well as for their rights and interests. However, they also advocate on behalf of some fashionable goals and activities that fit in with the middle class lifestyle, such as environmental protection, community participation, poverty alleviation and others, identical to the goals for more liberty and social space.

Generally speaking, the development process of China’s current liberal civil rights movement is a continual one. When the intellectuals’ call for more freedom was suppressed in the 1990s, the movement suffered a major setback. However, the trend toward reforms since 1978 has not stopped and social space was not compressed to what it was under the totalitarian system.

Beginning in the 1990s, prompted by economic and social development, the social liberal civil rights movement has been demanding more individual rights and has begun to defend the rights of citizens lost during the period of high economic growth. The principal participants of the social movement have changed from intellectuals and government officials within the system to ordinary citizens, with the driving force being citizens at the bottom of society. In China, demanding more civil rights means defending basic human rights and the interests of the masses at the bottom of society, and enlarging their space. This civil rights movement has in fact gone deeper than the movement of intellectuals in the previous stage. The goal of this civil rights movement is essentially against the dictatorship and for social freedom. People at the bottom of society, and in the medium/lower strata of the middle class are all involved in this civil rights movement. The house churches’ religious freedom movement, which developed quietly before, is also included in this process. Unlike other social movements, the religious freedom movement existence was not well-known. So, although the social movements were initiated by dispersed groups from different social strata and by groups with different freedom and civil rights demands in mind, they have started to converge into a single movement. This represents a significant trend in the development of China’s current liberal civil rights movement.

As described above, these social strata, communities and groups that participate in the liberal civil rights movement are fighting for their rights and for freedom and they have developed into social movements one after the other, thus creating a situation in which they can support each other and act in concert with each other. Today, their social movement continues to grow and is supported by two factors: the internet and rights defense lawyers. The scale of the movement is also growing, and as the movements converge, there is emerging a second structure.

In summary, the peasants’ movements are getting larger and more radical. Disadvantaged groups such as peasant workers in the cities and veterans have an increased conscience of their rights and have begun more activities such as organizing unions, strikes, protests and demonstrations, etc. The middle class is demanding to form more NGOs, and is focusing particularly on demand for more environmental protections. Activity among intellectuals is revitalized and the number of public intellectuals is increasing. We can see clearly that rights- defense groups in every area are coordinating and organizing. The internet is playing a critical role in this. It has become fashionable for urban residents to use the internet to express their views, and to establish social connections and organize social movements. Rights-defense lawyers have become emboldened as well. China’s social movements are developing vigorously.

Chapter 8. The Causes, Characteristics and Results of the Liberal Civil Movement

The causes for China’s liberal civil movement include: the government’s development model, the emergence of a triangular power relationship, unchecked government power, and the lack of basic civil rights.

The main characteristics of the movement are as follows: first, it is a spontaneous social movement. Second, it is imitated by masses at the bottom of the Chinese society and members of the lower-middle class whose main demands are to protect their interests as well as gain larger social space and a degree of freedom. It is both political and non-political. However, the political elements are very obvious, which is to advocate for political reform. Third, it has managed to stay a non-violent movement. However, because of the power imbalance between the people and the government, the people are unlikely to succeed against the government, so the movement has taken a more radical track. Fourth, the form of organization of the movement is loose, based on traditional social organizations set up by members of local society. However, to meet the needs of social movements, the attempt to establish second organizational structure has been made nation-wide. In this process, leaders are merging in different areas and locations. All these will lead to the continual and deeper development of China’s social movement. Fifth, it has a powerful driving force to defend basic rights and citizens’ interests. This is an irresistible force which keeps the social movement continuously and vigorously moving forward. In reality, it has lost all the battles it fought, but defeats make it want to fight more, and it gets increasingly bolder.

One of the important results of China’s liberal civil movement is the intensified conflicts between the public and the government. Because that the government constantly encroaches on citizens’ interests for their own benefit, the public’s distrust of the government has increased significantly and has created a serious legitimacy crisis.

Because of the distrust towards the local governments, there is no environment for dialogue between society and the government. In the past few years, academia has reached a consensus about China’s local democracy. Specifically, they must intensify government reform and promote reform on rule of law, in particular, as well as advance election reform. However, the government neither wants to hear nor to implement these reforms for fear of losing its power.

In fact, the cause of the distrust of the government is that the central government has clearly realized the tension between local governments and the common people, and has initiated reforms to reduce the burden on peasants, improve their life and establish social insurance. Peasants welcome the reforms and believe that the central government cares about them. An odd relationship thus is formed between the government and the common people: the people support and approve the central government; but they do not approve of or trust the local government. The local governments have gained great economic, political and legal power after the last 30 years of reforms. The local government can run amuck because no law can bind them, the citizens have no check on their power, and there is no central power to supervise them. The local governments have no way to gain common people’s trust. As the government officials are out of control, common people’s trust is dropping to its lowest point and the crisis of legitimacy is intensifying. At the same time, the people’s social movement is growing and gaining increasing support.

Chapter 10. A New Stage of China’s Civil Society Development

Since the reform and opening-up in the late 1970s, it is inevitable that more freedom would result after liberating a society from the control of the totalitarian state. However the state does not easily give up its control over society. A fundamental principal for state control is restrictions on social organizations. The state hopes to establish a society that is closely attached to it, not an independent society. Therefore the only social organizations that are allowed are those that work in collaboration with government or are closely associated with the government, not truly independent organizations outside of state control.

As of 2008, there were 620,000 social organizations officially recognized and allowed to register by the Chinese government, among which, a majority of them are associations and trade unions such as the Women’s Association and the Workers’ Union, both sponsored by the government. In addition, there are some service-type organizations dedicated to poverty elevation, environmental protection, etc. There are also agricultural associations formed by peasants such as breeding and marketing associations, as well as some hobby associations. In these types of organizations the interests of the association and the state are compatible. They are in fact an extension of the state, leaving no open space for society.

We believe that a correct estimate of Chinese NGOs should be about 7 to 8 million. About 1 million are house churches. There are about 1 million traditional organizations in the rural areas such as credit associations, pilgrim associations, and other faith-based associations and clan-related association. By including all new-type organizations, such as poverty-alleviation associations, cultural associations, hobby associations, and one third of 600,000 villager committees that can be self-governed, new-type rural organizations can at least reach 1 million, which puts the total number to 2 million associations in the rural area. There are also about 1 million different types of organizations formed among the 80 million population of petitioners that have accumulated over the years.

In the urban areas there are over 1 million organizations established, but not registered with the government, such as hobby associations, cultural associations and sports associations. In addition, there are owner’s committees, and many other social organizations that do not register with the governmental civil affairs agencies, such as rights-defense organizations, poverty-alleviation associations, environmental protection associations, research groups, hobby associations, faith-based organizations, sports-related organizations, clansmen associations of peasant workers, and student organizations on university campuses. The number of these organizations should exceed 1 million. Therefore, social organizations in the cities should be over 2 million. Internet websites, discussion groups, QQ groups, forums, clansmen association, microblog groups, Twitter groups and other virtual organizations will significantly exceed 1 million. All together the number of social organizations(NGO) numbers about 7 million. However, this number, perhaps lower than the actual number, covers 200 to 300 million people. Not every social organization is active. Some organizations are set up for specific purposes. After they are done, the organizations are disbanded. An overwhelming majority of the organizations are not included in the Civil Affairs Ministry’s statistics of 620,000 NGOs. Among all social organizations, about 3 to 4 million have social movement elements. According to this survey, China’s civil society is not as obedient and collaborative with the government as described by some scholars, but rather, a social structure with some significant free space.

To summarize the current situation, we may generally claim that civil society has already grown stronger and more competent. It can organize large and small social movements to express dissatisfaction against the government, which means that it can say no to the state. At the same time, it is almost impossible for the state to suppress society and prevent it from its activities. This indicates that China’s civil society has developed into a new stage, in which the citizens can efficiently self-organize to protest against the government or launch campaigns against it to show their dissatisfaction, or criticize the government, expose the government’s wrong doings, and oversee the government. We would not have seen this type of activity a decade ago. The key is that civil society is strong enough to say no to the state, and it can organize itself efficiently. However, it is not as mature as it should be. The hallmark of this stage is that there are continual social movements led by civil society, evolving from a movement pushed by a single social group to an integrated social movement that involves almost all social strata and groups.

The characteristics of China’s civil society at this stage include: (1) organizational capacity has improved significantly but still is insufficient; a social structure in various social levels and their leaders has emerged; “free assembly” has in fact been realized; a stronger civil society has emerged, a “public domain” has also emerged in which the state is not able to intervene; (2) people can organize some immature, but effective, protests to achieve certain social goals; isolated forces and spontaneous social movements have begun to explore the possibility of joining forces. (3) People not only can hold different views than that of the government, they can also organize some protests against it. Society has begun to say “no” to the government, and criticizing the government has become a common event. The public morality and “public rationale” set up by society can place a partial check on some government actions. (4) The cooperation model of society and the state has gradually given way to a conflict model. The characteristics of polarization in the development of a civil society in European states have appeared in China. (5) More and more people are involved in social movements and society’s push for government reforms is being constantly asserted. We are nearing a critical point in the development of China’s civil society.

Although social forces have advanced dramatically, they are not strong enough yet to push the state to begin real reforms. China’s social organizations are not strong enough to force the state to start political reforms. From the state perspective, it has powerful financial resources that have benefited from economic development, which enables it to maintain and strengthen the already powerful state to suppress the dissatisfaction of the society; in the area of ideology, the impact of the financial crisis in the western countries has reduced the pressure of demands for China’s political reform; all these allow the state to keep enough power to control society, and restrain society, rather than meeting society’s demands, and to do everything possible to protect the interests of the privileged groups within the state.

After the reform and opening-up in 1978, the state and society reached a consensus on reform. That’s why a free-market economy appeared, accompanied by social and political reforms. On June 4th of 1989, the consensus was broken and the government lost the will to carry out any political reform. Moreover, the result of the free market economic reform in the 1990s was the creation of a privileged group that was above the normal people. They controlled the state and greatly benefited from the “market-economic reform”. But social tensions have intensified. This privileged group has no desire to promote reform. Only when continued dissatisfactions and revolts assert more pressure, the state may allow some concessions to society. But as for itself, the state has no desire to carry out any substantial reform. Under this relationship between the state and society, it is society, not the state, that pushes the country forward. The emergence of such a situation that society drives the state move forward means that further progress of the state depends on a strong civil society in China’s future development. China’s next-step reform, in particular political reform, can only occur when society and reformers in government join hands.

Conclusion: The Prospect of China’s Liberal Civil Rights Movement

The current trend shows that Chinese society’s dissatisfaction with the state has reached an unprecedented level. Social movements are like powerful waves surging throughout the country, and the turbulence is rocking the stability of society. No solutions or paths to resolve the problems are in sight, significantly increasing the possibility for future instability. The state spares no expense to strengthen its own power and maintain social stability. Although society is still weak and dispersed, it is high-spirited. Social protests and movements advance wave upon wave, showing an attitude of “the people fear not death, why threaten them with it?” The voice for rights-defense and liberty is getting louder, and is impossible to suppress. As one social movement falls, another rises, emerging from every social domain. The harder the state suppresses social movements, the more violent it becomes. It is spreading quickly and broadly throughout the entire country as the whole society is dissatisfied with the government. However, the people only wish to put forward their demands and defend their rights, not overthrow the government and change the regime, which is quite different from the peasant uprisings and social revolutions of the past. What prospect can such a situation bring about for China’s civil rights movement and social movements? What results will it produce for China’s future development? Will China emerge as a democratic state with rule of law and prosperity or will it return to the old path of totalitarianism?

The social movement that has resulted from Chinese society’s dissatisfaction and distrust of the government may be a base for China’s reform, like in the progressive age of America. Two key factors led the United States’ move to progressivism: the existence of a powerful civil society and a democratic political system which allowed the state to absorb pressure from society and convert it into a force to drive reforms.

However, China does not currently have these conditions. First, China does not have a powerful civil society. The emergence of the social movement indicates that Chinese society is growing very fast and may produce the same pressure on the state, demanding the state meet society’s demands and absorb the pressure by carrying out a series of reforms, particularly political reforms. Second, China is not yet a democratic state and it does not have the mechanisms within the system to accept and adopt people’s views. In the face of mounting dissatisfaction, the political elite at every level in China don’t really care about reducing social pressure but rather care about suppressing society in order to gain or maintain their interests. For them, the current system is the best for their interests. They don’t want substantial reforms because they worry that any reform will result in their own losses. Therefore, their goal is not to change anything at all, or delay it as long as possible.

This type of mentality is consistent with that of other power elites in the history during the transition of dynasties. However, the common people’s dissatisfaction and opposition is growing stronger each day. The government controlled by these power elites has adopted a strategy of “confronting soldiers with generals and stemming water with sandbags”, which means to prolong solving specific problems as long as it can, or to make the minimal amount of concessions necessary without real reform. Under this policy, the main task for the government is to strengthen its state power to maintain stability, attempting to oppress the society into submission. However, the actual effect is just the opposite. The protests, revolts and dissatisfactions are increasing, not diminishing. It is therefore possible that society may choose social revolution.

In view of China’s situation, there is a possibility for it to move towards progressivism. It depends on the attitude of the Chinese social elites, in particular, political elites. During the past 30-year period of reform and opening-up, China has significant political precedents that can be used to positively push for social development and promote political reform. Examples include Hu Yaobang’s “people first” policy, Zhao Ziyang’s reform policy and Deng Xiaoping’s open-door policy. These are all great historic assets that can be utilized for future reform. However, in the past 20 years, the emergence of social movement indicates that the results of the policy are inconsistent with the original intent of the reform initiated, and that the consensus reached between the state and the society at the time is now broken. A society controlled by political elites has gradually formed during this period, creating a new economic and political structure under which the political elites have benefited great. They want to sacrifice broader societal interests for their own—therefore they have no desire for further reform.

Another key factor for China to step into a progressive age depends on the emergence of a civil society. Judging from the current conditions, civil society is not sufficiently powerful to press the state to make real concessions because only 20 percent of Chinese society is active in civil society. The pressure from this population is not big enough to make the state to carry out reform. However, there are specific instances where the state can no longer keep society down, but must make concessions. Reversing the position of the weak and strong appears to be possible; we are not far from reaching a critical point of a “strong society.” If the socially active population reached 30 percent, then this would mean that a “relatively strong civil society” or “strong civil society” would appear in China. It may take up to ten, or possibly less than ten year’s time, to reach that percentage under current social conditions. It may take 15 to 20 years from now to increase it to 40 percent. Civil society is growing rapidly with the help of the internet, and a strong society is not far away. Although we are not clear about what that critical point is, and what changes it will bring, yet from the current vitality of civil society, reaching that critical point is plausible.