Twenty Year after Tiananmen, What's Left of Democracy?

Twenty years after the events which swept away the hope for democratization, or even for genuine political reform in China, what is left of the democratic ideals in that country? Cliquer ici pour la version française.

We should start by noting that a good number of China-watchers believe that multi-party democracy, with its free and impartial elections, is far from being a central concern of most Chinese citizens or of the Chinese intellectual elite. And the notion that an organized political opposition might arise is simply unrealistic. Indeed, ever since the brutal response by the Communist Party to the four principle student demands (1. better conditions for intellectuals and students, including more money for education; 2. the end of corruption of Party cadres; 3. political reform leading to greater democracy; 4. respect for individual freedoms, such as the freedom of association, of speech and of the press), any attempt at political or civil organization outside the strict Party framework has been nipped in the bud.

Nonetheless, democratic values have been reincarnated in a new form, and in a movement which seems less threatening to Chinese authorities than did the student demostrations : the movement for civil rights (weiquan yundong). The incident which gave the movement its genuine beginning was probably the case of Sun Zhigang, an engineer beaten to death by local authorities in Guangzhou in 2003 because they believed he was an illegal migrant worker. As the news of his death spread in the media and on the internet, people reacted with anger and three lawyers sent a petition to the authorities. These reactions, in bringing strong pressure to bear on the government, succeeded in the abolition of the brutal system of confinement and repatriation of migrant workers without permits.

Over time, the movement for civil rights has slowly taken form, and those participating in it, including « barefoot lawyers » and other defenders of the rights of the most vulnerable, have decided on a strategy based on never openly questioning the monopoly on political power enjoyed by the Communist Party. Those who labor for civil rights thus strive to clothe their message in official garb by using Party discourse and the laws adopted by the Party. In 2003, Premier Wen Jiabao, faced with increasingly frequent social distubances throughout China and determined to maintain social stability and the legitimacy of his government, pledged to “govern the country through the rule of law” (yifa zhiguo). The participants in the civil rights movement have taken him at his word and call on authorities to employ and respect existing laws as well as the fundamental rights of people who have suffered specific abuses.

Who calls on these barefoot lawyers? Laid-off former state employees who find themselves in difficulty. People who have been displaced by state construction projects. Migrant workers who have been mistreated or have gone unpaid. Workers who are victimes of accidents at work. People who have been mistreated by the authorities or who have been victims of official corruption. People suffering from the deterioration of their local environment. All of these people share the fact that their rights have been violated, rights which nonetheless appear in the legal documents of the People’s Republic, even if not honored. Often, their only recourse is to call on the defenders of civil rights who will begin legal proceedings—a trial, a petition, a group cause.

These lawyers, who are extremely sensitive to the limits—often vague—of official tolerance of their activities, are careful to not be associated with any non-orthodox political message. Despite such caution, several have been imprisoned in shameful conditions (notably Gao Zhisheng, Chen Guangcheng and Teng Biao). Nonetheless, the existence of these defenders of the rights of the weak illustrates that despite many difficulties, the democratic ideals defended by the students, workers, and white-collar workers in Tiananmen Square and in many Chinese cities in 1989 have survived, if in a new form.

Ariane Pelé, in Montréal

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