Civil rights the midwife for Chinese democracy

By Wang Dan 王丹  / 

Fri, Nov 09, 2012 - Page 8

Without doubt, the most significant social development in China at the moment is the emergence of weiquan (維權) civil rights movements. There are those who see this as a positive development, a mark of the emergence of civil society in China and the result of many years of brooding dissatisfaction with the way society operates. However, there are also many people who have their reservations. The issues they choose to tackle, say their detractors, are rather peripheral, and do not target core social problems. Not only that, but they are also limited to certain cities and counties, and generally are successfully resolved by the government either throwing money at the problem or agreeing to temporary compromises. The point of the detractors is that this is not the way to instigate change through people power.

It is questionable whether this is an accurate appraisal, and anyone who has such a pessimistic view of the situation should take a close look at the latest civil rights movement: The protest against the construction of a PX (p-xylene) petrochemical plant in the Zhenhai district of Ningbo city.

As part of this movement, which successfully forced the Ningbo city government to halt construction of the PX plant, the Internet played an important role in mobilizing people and encouraging public debate on the issue. The city residents’ grievances were summarized into 10 points and posted on a Web site, increasing awareness of the issue in the area.

These 10 points included the basic demands of the protesters, such as “Halt the PX petrochemical project, and don’t allow any more petrochemical projects into [Ningbo’s] Zhenhai district” and “Do as they do in advanced Western countries, introduce garbage recycling laws and set up local garbage recycling centers in Zhenhai.” There were others too, including three that are particularly worth emphasizing. Point No. 6 called for more honesty in news coverage and not suppressing negative news; the eighth was for local electoral reform, and to allow TV debates at the grassroots level and election slogans for the candidates; finally, the 10th point said that the local government was responsible for keeping residents informed.

Clearly, these demands have gone way beyond the realms of issues concerning people’s everyday lives and have encroached upon the political realm. Neither is this an isolated case. More than a year ago in the Wukan Incident (烏坎事件), the several thousand villagers who were protesting made overtly political demands, calling for human rights guarantees and elections. The Wukan Incident ended, too, with a directly political result: a representative council formed of members elected by the villagers themselves.

These examples demonstrate that, although the majority of the demands made by the civil rights movements in China concern issues to do with the practicalities of everyday life, it is generally understood in China that every single issue is political. Therefore, when the demands have moved from issues concerning everyday life to those involving political demands, it is clear that progress is being made.

There are many examples of how democracy, civil empowerment and the emergence of civil society in various countries have started with peripheral issues, such as environmental protection, food safety and public security. The Snails Without Shells (無殼蝸牛運動) social housing movement that started in 1989 in Taiwan is a case in point. It is in these kinds of social movements that political power is crystallized over time, and this, unless it is an exception, is where the civil rights movements are headed in China.

Wang Dan is a visiting associate professor at National Tsing Hua University’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

Translated by Paul Cooper