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The Southern Street Movement: China’s Lonely Warriors

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Mo Zhixu  |  China Change

This article was first published in China Change website on April 13, 2016

“When the Southern activists stood amidst heavy traffic and photographed themselves holding placards of protest, the feeling it gives is a little surreal….”

XIE WENFEI (China Change)
XIE WENFEI, shouted pro-freedom slogans in court (China Change)

On April 8, 2016, after a year and half in detention, two activists arrested in 2014 for holding banners on the streets of Guangzhou in support of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement—Wang Mo and Xie Wenfei ,real name Xie Fengxia —were sentenced to four and a half years imprisonment by the Guangzhou Intermediate People’s Court. In addition, they will be deprived of political rights for three years. On the same day Zhang Shengyu (real name Zhang Rongping), who held a placard in support of the Hong Kong students, was sentenced to four years.

That all three were convicted of “inciting subversion of state power” is no surprise. During the trial last November, Wang Mo and Xie Wenfei not only shouted pro-freedom slogans in court, but their defense statements were upfront, and were disseminated widely online. About them was none of the oft-seen attempts to depoliticize their stance, or hide their positions; instead, each man voiced their ideals openly and directly. In doing that, they represented the ethos of today’s new wave of activists.

Xie Wenfei, Wang Mo, and Zhang Shengyu all recognize themselves, and are recognized by others, as members of the “Southern Street Movement”. This “movement” sprung up in the last few years, and has a distinct character: It contains a thoroughgoing opposition to the political system, promulgating slogans like “abandon one-party dictatorship” and “establish a democratic China.” Further, the Southern Street Movement doesn’t focus on interacting with the regime as a path to change, but instead directly appeals to the people. The movement treats itself as a match, attempting to set ablaze a conflagration of mass protests across the country and thus activating a comprehensive transformation. For all these reasons, the movement is often seen as a radical form of political opposition.

Political opposition movements have always been around in mainland China, despite the ever-present threat of harsh crackdowns by the dictatorship. After 1989, there was the Liberal Democratic Party  in 1992, the secret campaign to organize the Social Democracy Party, the campaign to openly form the China Democratic Party  in 1998, the joint signature campaign around Charter 08 in 2008, and so on. All of these movements are deeply tied to the 1989 student movement, and carried on the basic demands of the 1989 student movement: among the chief demands has always been to call for a full re-evaluation of the historical incidents in China—referring to previous political campaigns like the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and the massacre of students—and to make known the truth of history. The key representatives in this movement had often participated in the student movement and other democratically-inclined protests. Because of all this, these post-89 groups are seen as opposition movements led by elites who rebelled  against the system from which they had come.

Though the Southern activists like to see themselves as a match that lights a fire, the unfortunate fact of the matter is that, in the face of a neo-totalitarian system that is strengthening its power by the day, this agenda is too simplistic. The regime has ample resources and means of identifying and weeding out activists. On the eve of the recent court judgement, for instance, due to suspicions that there would be protests on the day, Guangzhou police mounted a sudden raid on over a dozen activists while they while were eating dinner together. They were all given a criminal summons and several of them were forcibly escorted back to the place of their household registration.

Just as the New Citizens Movement went quiet after being hit with an intense and rapid succession of crushing blows in 2013, the Southern movement will likely also be forced to give in as the Party’s continuous siege drags on. Nevertheless, the conflicts and antagonisms between the marketized neo-totalitarian system and the people are only escalating, and one match could very well spark a blaze. The sacrifices of the Southern activists may come to nil, but they can’t be said to be mistaken.

When the Southern activists stood amidst heavy traffic and photographed themselves holding placards of protest, the feeling it gives is a little surreal: one struggles to understand how those strolling past maintain their indifference, or how the action fails to gain more support and attention online. It invites curiosity, and makes one wonder how grassroots activists like Xie Wenfei, Wang Mo, and Zhang Shengyu, maintain such firm conviction, such extraordinary courage, to not only resist blows from the dictatorship, but also withstand glaring indifference.

Perhaps this is inseparable from their own experiences: their deep recognition that their opposition to the unfairness of the system is right and correct, and that the goals they pursue are legitimate and indisputable. All this is what sustains them and allows these lonely warriors to light up our age.

 Mo Zhixu, pen name of Zhao Hui, is a Beijing-based Chinese dissident intellectual and a frequent contributor of Chinese-language publications known for his incisive views of Chinese politics and opposition. He is the co-author of “China at the Tipping Point? Authoritarianism and Contestation” in the January, 2013, issue of Journal of Democracy.

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