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Subverting Mao: The Roots of Minjian Activism in China

By Perry LinkSeptember 18, 2020

Subverting Mao: The Roots of Minjian Activism in China
WHEN CITIZENS OF HONG KONG demonstrated last summer to protest the encroachment of Beijing’s rule in their city, they used some distinctive tactics. Although as many as two million people were in the streets at one point and protest activity lasted for many months, the participants did not claim an organization and their leaders kept low profiles. Outbreaks of protest appeared “like water” — first here, then there, all under a slogan of “occupy, disrupt, disperse, repeat.” It was as if protesters were saying to authorities in Beijing that “we are anywhere, which means everywhere, and you can’t stop us by crushing an organization.”

These tactics might seem like the distant offspring of Mao Zedong’s guerilla-war maneuvers against the Japanese and the Chinese Nationalists in the 1940s. Mao said, “When the enemy advances, we retreat; when the enemy retreats, we pursue.” But the methods of today’s Hong Kong protesters have more proximate origins. In the last two decades, the regime that Mao himself founded has led its adversaries to reinvent Mao’s very own tactics.

It has been a constant principle of Chinese Communist rule from Mao Zedong through Xi Jinping to identify and neutralize the leaders of any rival organization, no matter how small, before they can get anywhere. But in recent times, protesters have developed counter-measures. In 2009, people in Panyu, a town outside Guangzhou, were protesting the construction of a huge garbage incinerator in their neighborhood. They held up signs that read: “We have discipline, but no organization” and “No one represents us.”

The approach, which has been used in a number of places, can be seen as a long-term consequence of the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. The pro-democracy tides in the 1980s before the massacre assumed that the way to bring change to China was to engage with the top. In 1978, when Wei Jingsheng issued his call for democracy, he called it a “fifth modernization,” thereby acknowledging, and implicitly accepting, the Four Modernizations (of agriculture, industry, defense, and technology) that top leader Deng Xiaoping had set forth. From 1981 until 1989, Deng’s highest-ranking deputies in the central government were Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, both of whom were known for their willingness, at least sometimes, to listen to suggestions from below.

People below did indeed have suggestions — usually aimed at expanding the scope of control over their own lives, not about upsetting the communist system, which they knew would be futile. Writers, for example, had long wanted to elect their own leaders in the Chinese Writers Association, and in 1985 Hu Yaobang allowed them to do so for the first (and as it turned out, only) time. Ba Jin, who had openly called for a museum to remember the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, and Liu Binyan, the nation’s leading muckraker of corruption in the Communist Party, were elected as the Association’s president and vice president respectively. The next year they were replaced and the practice of Party appointment resumed. This happened not because Hu Yaobang changed his mind but because Deng Xiaoping, still the superior authority, came down on the other side. Push-and-pull between “reformists” and “conservatives” in the government lasted throughout the 1980s, and democracy advocates in society spent considerable time following the events and rooting for the reformists. When students in the Tiananmen protests of 1989 called for “dialogue” with the top leaders, their demand was a long shot, to be sure, but no one found the idea outlandish. Appeal to high officials seemed normal and reasonable.

After the massacre, all of that changed. Dialogue with the murderous regime now seemed absurd. Tiananmen Square could have been cleared with tear gas, water hoses, or batons — as happened on April 5, 1976, when the regime closed down another huge anti-authoritarian protest. Why were tanks and machine guns the methods of choice in 1989? Deng Xiaoping was widely rumored to have said that 200 deaths would be acceptable if they bought 20 years of stability. Whether he actually said this is in dispute, but the logic of what his regime did conforms to it. The massacre in Beijing delivered a shock to every corner of China, and the intimidation effects have lasted to the present today. There have been many protests in China since 1989, but they have been more subdued than they would have been had there been no massacre. Are we to imagine that this effect was unintended?

In the 1990s, even if one had wanted to appeal to the top, the people upon whom one might pin hopes were no longer there. Zhao Ziyang was under house arrest; Hu Yaobang had died; other “reformist” officials were either tightly monitored or in exile. Explicit dissidents — Wei Jingsheng, Su Xiaokang, Fang Lizhi, and others — were in either prison or exile. Who, now, would dare to stand up and criticize the regime — or to form even the appearance of an organization that might challenge it? The Chinese idiom that “the bird that sticks its neck out gets its head blown off” had new relevance. The regime’s lists of most wanted criminals in the 1989 events were nothing but lists of people whom authorities took to have been leaders of one or another protesting group or constituency. In a larger sense, the decision to end the nationwide protests by committing a massacre in Beijing, but not slaughtering citizens at the demonstrations in any of the other three dozen major cities, can also be seen as blowing the head off of the boldest bird.

Not only were power rivalries between reformist and conservative officials no longer apparent in the 1990s; such conflicts seemed irrelevant as officials at all levels turned to pre-occupation with self-enrichment. Beginning in the mid-1980s, officials with access to political power began to reap unearned profits by channeling state-owned resources into their private companies — risk free. Called guandao, “official inversion,” this form of corruption was high on the list of complaints of the 1989 protesters. In the 1990s, the guandao practice ballooned dramatically and reached the highest levels of government. Li Xiaolin, daughter of Li Peng (Premier of the PRC, 1988–1998), became known as “the power queen” for her controlling position in China’s electricity supply, and Jiang Mianheng, son of Jiang Zemin (General Secretary of the CCP, 1989–2002), became known as the go-to person if you needed anything done in the IT world. In 2012, huge fortunes of the families of Wen Jiabao (Premier, 2003–2013) and Xi Jinping (General Secretary, 2012–present) were exposed in the Western press, and by 2018 the net worth of members of China’s National People’s Congress came to rival the annual output of Switzerland. To protesters and critics watching this feeding frenzy, the top leaders seemed a cabal focused on plunder — not people with whom one might enter a dialogue about how things ought to be.

By the early 2000s, proponents of democracy had concluded that the best hope for improving China was not to look upward toward the rulers but downward toward society. The activists were mostly intellectuals — journalists, lawyers, bloggers, historians, filmmakers — but the causes they rallied behind were mostly those of farmers, factory workers, miners, and other non-intellectuals. The notion of “rights,” barely discussed in China just two decades earlier, had spread widely and was sparking protests. In the 1990s, the government’s Ministry of Public Security began publishing statistics on “masses incidents” — a grab-bag category that included sit-ins, strikes, petitions, rallies, demonstrations, marches, traffic-blocking, building seizures, and other “disturbances.” In 1993, the number of masses incidents was reported to be about 8,700. In 2002, it was 50,000 — or an average of about 135 per day.

Activists began using the term minjian, literally “among the people,” to characterize the restless society. Minjian is not easy to translate to English; “popular” comes close. To the regime, it means “people outside the governing system.” Minjian activists would add “independent” as a clause. In any case, Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize laureate who died in custody in 2017, where he had been sent for his thought crimes, uses the word minjian 1,054 times in his book The Free China of the Future Lies in Minjian, which was his last before authorities sent him to prison. Sebastian Veg, a French professor of Chinese history, has published Minjian: The Rise of China’s Grassroots Intellectuals. The book has strong chapters on how historians, journalists, bloggers, filmmakers, petitioners, and lawyers have been minjian activists.

In the early 2000s, minjian activists began emphasizing weiquan, meaning “support of rights.” In 2003, the idea of weiquan had spread widely enough that the regime retaliated with weiwen “support of stability.” Broadly conceived, weiwen meant repression — everything from policing to phone-tapping, internet censorship, undercover monitoring, the mild intimidation known as “inviting people to tea,” and much more. Minjian activists are fond of pointing out that the government’s expenditure on weiwen has for many years exceeded its military budget for national defense.

Back in the 1980s, when democracy advocates were looking to the top to push reform, abstract concepts like constitutional government, human rights, and rule of law were at the front of their minds. A decade later, as they peered into society, the same ideas remained in their minds, but their tactics had become very different. Now they sought to engage people by focusing on concrete cases and working from the bottom up. Democracy was a secondary ambition.

An early and well-known example of the new tactics was the case of Sun Zhigang. Sun was a 27-year-old college graduate from near Wuhan in central China who arrived in the southern city of Guangzhou in March 2003 to take a job in fabric design. Before he had time to register with Guangzhou Public Security, police stopped him on the street and asked for identification. Unable to produce a local ID, he was brought to a detention center for vagrants and illegal migrants. We don’t know what altercation might have ensued there, but three days later Sun was dead. A police report registered the cause of death as illness, but a local journalist discovered that the real cause was assault. The forensic evidence was unambiguous. The story of Sun spread nationwide on the internet and elicited a storm of indignation. In May of that year, three young legal scholars wrote a startling open letter to the central government about the case, and within days, five prestigious law professors supported them, arguing that “custody and repatriation” laws of the kind that had netted Sun Zhigang are a violation of the personal freedom of citizens guaranteed in China’s constitution and should be either amended or eliminated. In June, the national government indeed changed the laws.

Many kinds of activists contributed to minjian activity, but the three occupations of lawyer, journalist, and internet activist deserve special note because of the novelty, in China’s history, of their roles.

In the second half of the 20th century, lawyers were scarce and largely useless in China. In 1949, the communists inherited the courtrooms and offices that the Nationalist government had left behind and, for a legal system, borrowed a model from the Soviet Union. Judges were Party appointees who lacked legal training, and they did as the Party directed. In practice, many civil disputes and even criminal matters were not put through the window-dressing of the court system but handled within the urban “work units” (factories, schools, government offices, etc.), rural “agricultural cooperatives,” and “People’s Communes,” where a Communist Party committee, headed by a “Party secretary,” were mediators and de facto judges. In the late 1960s, during the red-hot years of Mao’s “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,” Party secretaries themselves came under attack by Mao-inspired “rebels” and were replaced (if at all) by hastily assembled “revolutionary committees.” Courts were not even window-dressing.

As the Cultural Revolution cooled, and especially after Mao died in 1976, the system of dispute-resolution reverted to the pattern of the years between 1949 and 1966. Changes were on the way, however, as Deng Xiaoping’s “reform and opening” policies took effect. The powers of Party secretaries in urban work units and rural communes declined. But conflicts in society — divorces, burglaries, and swindles — did not decline, and this gave rise to a new need for courts and lawyers. Party control of the courts remained unchanged. “Law” meant control from above, not rights from below, and judges were still political appointees untrained in law. In 1998, He Weifang, one of China’s leading scholars of law, published a satirical essay called “Old Soldiers Go to Court” in which he asks why, if we can appoint retired military officers to be courtroom judges, we don’t also appoint them to be surgeons in hospitals.

Yet a sharp upswing in the Chinese economy in the 1990s brought two major changes to the administration of law. First, bribery of judges became commonplace and a standard means of controlling legal outcomes. The two methods were seldom in conflict, because citizens with money and those with political clout were generally the same. The second major influence on the law came from overseas. As foreign trade and investment grew, international corporations asked that contracts be written to their accustomed standards. Law firms popped up to respond and gradually began to handle domestic commercial law as well.

Democracy advocates saw an opportunity in the growing prominence of law. The regime, in order to seem respectable both at home and overseas, felt obliged to write down rules that presented itself as non-arbitrary and to honor a constitution that guaranteed things like freedom of speech and assembly. These on-paper protestations created obvious gaps between theory and practice, and rights lawyers learned to exploit them. They were not so naïve as to suppose that an appeal to the law could change the regime’s behavior, but that was not their point; the point was to highlight hypocrisy before the eyes of a public that, thanks to the rising internet, was beginning to follow civil rights cases.

Moreover, by its very nature, the role of lawyer was a challenge to the Maoist culture that the regime had inherited. In Mao’s day, there were “friends” and “enemies” in every political battle, but no third category. So when rights lawyers came along and said, “I am not a Falun Gong believer but am here to defend the rights of Falun Gong,” their mere presence was a rock in the machine. The challenge was almost epistemological. In Mao-thought, every statement is binary — either “correct” or “incorrect.” Investigation might be necessary to determine which is the case, but in the end, there are only two possibilities. So how was the regime to view a lawyer’s assertion of an enemy’s rights? Correct? Impossible. Incorrect? But the lawyer is quoting the law! It was a galling dilemma. 

In exposing how official behavior diverged from the law, the public on the rapidly expanding internet became the jury. In 2000, only two percent of the Chinese populace was online. But by 2010, this number was 35 percent. In the pre-internet era, from the 1940s through the 1990s, the Communist Party had fairly easily controlled the content of any medium it encountered: workplace blackboards, newspapers, magazines, books, radio, film, and later television. But the internet was different and a major headache. The earlier media had been controlled at the source: the Party decided content and messages were unidirectional — outward and downward. On the internet, though, ordinary people could also be message sources. People talked to one another without going through Party hoops. As they formed communities, they discovered that they shared views that, in their formerly atomized state, they had not realized were in common.

In cities, townships, and even villages, public opinion could embarrass abusive power-holders into changing their ways. This happened not because local power-holders cared about the people below. Normally — both then and now — local officials care only about their bureaucratic superiors, whose disapproval can hurt their careers. Superiors never want to hear about trouble with “the masses.” They want to hear only reports of stability and harmony, because that is what they need, for their own good, to relay to their superiors. China’s slowness to report the coronavirus to the world is rooted partly in this pattern.

People-to-people news on the internet naturally had higher credibility than state-sponsored news, and this fact obliged editors in the state media to report more realistically, lest no one read them at all. If farmers blocked a road to protest higher taxes, an editor couldn’t ignore it, as in pre-internet days, because word was already out. The job now was to mention the incident, but to spin it in a pro-government direction. Editors at newspapers, radio and television stations, and internet websites began to receive daily bulletins from propaganda offices on whether and how to mention problematic stories: Mention — but not on the front page and only in font size X and under headline type Y… or Quote the New China News Agency verbatim and nothing more… or (for websites) Give the story but provide comment boxes. Sometimes: Do not mention under any circumstances. Xiao Qiang, in the School of Information at UC Berkeley, has collected a large inventory of such instructions under the heading “Directives of the Ministry of Truth.” 

The regime uses software filters to locate “sensitive” words on the internet and erases comments or closes down whole websites depending on what it finds. The practice has led to endless cat-and-mouse games with minjian activists. The two words “June Fourth” are sensitive because of the government’s massacre of pro-democracy supporters on that date in 1989. But after internet filters flagged “June Fourth,” people began to refer to “May 35th” instead. After the dodge was discovered and the government also banned “May 35th,” other circumlocutions appeared. A more effective government tool has been to hire people to post pro-government online comments. This began as freelance work, but now there are whole companies that are full-time commenters (the work has become a staple of employment in prisons).

The rise of the internet had a parallel in the emergence of a new, semi-official and politically liberal kind of newspaper. The seeds of this new journalism were economic. After the 1989 debacle, the prestige of the Communist Party had sunk so low that Party newspapers did not sell well. But in the new day of “support yourself financially” in the 1990s, publications had to balance their own books, and there were primarily two ways to do so: sell copies or sell advertisements. Either way, content had to be attractive to readers. This led many newspapers to come out with subsidiary editions — “evening papers,” “weekend papers,” or “city papers” — that carried stories about movie stars, crime, police, sports, travel, and the like. A catchphrase was born: “Big newspapers hatch little ones, and the little ones pay for the big ones.”

In time, though, it became clear that readers of the subsidiary newspapers were interested not only in entertainment, but in serious coverage about economic inequality and political corruption, especially when the stories exposed problems of unemployment, pollution, health care, schooling, or other topics that hit home to them. This desire opened an opportunity for liberal-minded editors, and before long the little newspapers were playing the classic roles of the press: monitoring political behavior and giving voice to public opinion. The more successful of these smaller papers, like Southern Weekend in Guangzhou, eventually grew. By 1998, Southern Weekend was being printed in 19 cities and had a circulation of 1.3 million readers. But Southern Weekend and the other auxiliary papers were never fully free. They were always registered in the state system through their parent newspapers and could be closed down if officials were displeased. Southern Weekend arrived at certain understandings with officials in Guangdong, one of which was that they would do most of their muckraking in other provinces.

Largely as a result of the rise of the internet and the semi-independent press, minjian activism achieved its best advances from 2000 until late 2008, when a harsh crackdown on “Charter 08,” a broad-based manifesto calling for constitutionalism and democracy, brought it to a screeching halt. The Sun Zhigang case is a good example of minjian’s heyday years, but it is worth considering a few more.

In September 2003, a young man in Anhui Province (who has chosen not to reveal his name) passed the provincial civil-service exams but was rejected for employment because he carried the hepatitis B virus. Rejection for this reason was normal at the time, even though more than 100,000,000 people in China carried the virus asymptomatically. In the new era of “support rights,” the young man decided to resist. A famous law professor at Sichuan University helped him bring a suit for “discrimination against hepatitis B carriers.” As in the Sun Zhigang case, a surge of popular indignation rose on the internet. The young man won his case in 2004, and in January 2005, the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Human Resources in the central government issued policies cancelling their restrictions on asymptomatic carriers of hepatitis B.

A year earlier, in Yan’an — the revered pre-revolutionary communist base in Shaanxi Province — townspeople reported that two newlyweds, aged 25 and 23, were watching a pornographic videotape at home. This broke no law, but the mood of a recent “strike hard” campaign against wayward behavior was still strong enough to bring a troupe of police one night to the couple’s door to conduct a search. The husband made the mistake of physically resisting and was brought to the local police station, fined, and detained for 15 days. A reporter named Jiang Xue at China Business News, a “little paper” based in the provincial capital of Xi’an, discovered and published the story, which quickly drew public interest. Despite threats against him, Xue doggedly followed up for six months, adding details to the story as it continued to spread in newspapers and on the internet. The public was resoundingly on the side of the couple — the police had no business intervening in such a matter. More significantly, for “support rights” activists, the salacious story led many millions of people to begin contemplating a question that had never before occurred to them: where do the rights of the state end and my rights as a person begin? In the end, the couple was paid 29,137 yuan in reparations, and Jiang Xue was awarded the Southern Weekend prize for “outstanding performance of media in the public service.” Even Central Chinese Television concurred. It gave Jiang its “Chinese journalism star of the year” award.

Not all cases had such happy endings. In Hunan Province, a primary school music teacher named Huang Jing died in a date rape. Police put the cause of death as “heart failure,” but activists at a website called Citizens’ Rights Web uncovered the truth and published it. Central authorities in Beijing ordered the website to close. Unable to press a criminal case, Huang Jing’s family brought a civil case against the perpetrator. Three years later, after a tortuous journey through courts at several levels, the final ruling was that no crime had occurred and that the man and the woman each bore 50 percent of the responsibility for the death. Liu Xiaobo, who followed the case closely throughout, and who supported Citizens’ Rights Web in its fight to stay open, was irate. Still, he wrote that what Huang Jing’s family and the website managers had done was right. They achieved no change in law but did raise the issue to the public conscience. Their “minjian practice” had been correct at every step.

What did Liu mean by “minjian practice”? He addresses this question in several essays in The Free China of the Future Lies in Minjian. He sees the lessons of minjian activism as precious fruits grown from the onerous experience inside China. He also acknowledges an intellectual debt to Václav Havel and Adam Michnik, two Eastern European thinkers with experience in exactly what China needs: ways to pursue progress toward democracy even while accepting the brute fact of a communist political system that stands in the way. Havel and Michnik knew that it made little sense to confront such systems directly; it was much better to look for starting points in the crevices of society, away from the centers of power, in the personal dignity of individuals and in the associations of like-minded people.

Havel advised his fellow citizens to “live in truth” in daily life, where there was space “to approach life differently.” Civility in those areas could undermine the power of the controlling state and gradually hollow it out — and the hollowing eventually would make systemic change more feasible. Liu was heartened to learn that in Czechoslovakia, it was something as simple as the assertion of a rock ’n’ roll group’s right to sing that eventually catalyzed regime collapse. Similarly, Michnik urged Poles to jettison the rhetoric of the state and speak in daily-life language; to seek rights, not power; and to recognize that any person, in any location, could begin such work.

Liu Xiaobo’s prescription for success in minjian activism might be summarized in a number of steps. The first is to look for actual people with actual problems. To start here means at least a person is doing some good, or at least trying to do so. One can reason about citizenship in the abstract, but in the end, there is no such thing as an abstract human being. Next, a case can be publicized — provided, of course, that the people involved are willing. Publicity was much easier after the internet came to China, and it brings many advantages to victims. The internet ensures that popular opinion will on average be overwhelmingly on the side of victims. The emergence of public sympathy can then help to put pressure on local officials to stop their abuse and to make concessions to victims. Liu has many essays showing how this has worked. When credible reports of abuse appear online, they have the unintended effect of helping to improve the state media.

A minjian activist takes note of how different cases reveal shared principles. Liu Xiaobo offers a powerful example in a 2008 essay: the body of a 15-year-old girl, Li Shufen, is found in a river in Weng’an County, Guizhou. The police declare a suicide, but the truth spreads on the internet: two young men, sons of local officials, committed rape and murder. Within days, a huge crowd, reliably estimated at 30,000, besieges government office buildings, burns a few of them down, and overturns and torches a dozen or so police cars. Liu Xiaobo asks: why was the reaction that large? The crime was heinous and the reflexive sympathy predictable; but why would so many people, some coming from miles away, risk their own safety to protest the case of someone they had no connection with? They did this, he reasons, because they saw in this case the same kind of outrageous behavior they had encountered themselves. So there was empathy, yes, but also vicarious expression of their own grievances. The regime is well aware of this possibility. One of the statistics police are asked to collect at demonstrations in China is an estimate of how many participants are ones “whose direct interests have not been harmed.” The number in the Li Shufen case was high.

Having identified common principles, the next step for the activist is to advocate rule changes. A law allowing arbitrary detention of migrant workers must be changed; job denial of hepatitis B carriers should be illegal. In one essay, Liu Xiaobo considers six disparate cases in small towns in China, each of which shows how local people come to oppose “imprisonment for words.” It is basically the same idea as “freedom of speech” in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but the townspeople in China don’t need theory from outside. All they need are their garden-variety values plus a bit of help from the local internet to reach conclusions and demand new standards. Yet Liu stresses that it is extremely important to be gradual and nonviolent. A tentative step forward can stake out a gain; it can be slowly consolidated; then one can look for an opportunity for another advance. If the regime attacks, it is best not to confront; just step back, wait for the attack to end, and then move to re-occupy the lost ground. To answer the regime’s attack with your own attack is counterproductive; you will lose, and moreover, your tentative edifice of progress will collapse. In the long run, your slow-but-steady approach will win, because those garden-variety values in the populace are on your side, not the regime’s.

When three editors at the Southern Weekend were fired in 2001, 38 of the paper’s staff protested — but each did so separately. In a leaderless tide, they wrote 38 individual letters. The letters all used the tactic of quoting from classical Chinese texts: In facing difficulties, don’t just hide (The Book of Rites, ca. 200 BCE); Better to speak and live than to be silent and die (Fan Zhongyan, CE 989–1052); and others. The common tactic made it clear that the protesters were coordinated. But there was no leader, no one to punish, no structure to crush. Sebastian Veg writes that minjian activity is “a deeper long-term challenge to elite authority than is currently apparent.” The pattern of continuing protests in Hong Kong, despite the recent harsh crackdown there, supports Veg’s conjecture.


Perry Link has a BA in philosophy, MA in East Asian Studies, and PhD in Chinese history from Harvard University and has taught Chinese language and literature at Princeton University (1973–’77 and 1989­–2008) and UCLA (1977–1988). His recent books are The Uses of Literature: Life in the Socialist Chinese Literary System; Two Kinds of Truth: Stories and Reportage from China; and Chinese Primer, an elementary Chinese textbook.


Featured image: "Protest in Hong Kong against the arrest of Liu Xiaobo" by Pedesbiz is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0. Image has been cropped.

Banner image: "22ndanniversaryJune4thHKprotest pic5" by Melanie Ko is licensed under CC BY 2.0. Image has been cropped.

LARB Contributor

Perry Link has a BA in philosophy, MA in East Asian Studies, and PhD in Chinese history from Harvard University and has taught Chinese language and literature at Princeton University (1973–’77 and 1989­–2008) and UCLA (1977–1988). He has published in the fields of modern Chinese language, literature, popular culture, intellectual history, art, and politics. His current research is on rhythm, metaphor, and politics in contemporary Chinese language. His recent books are The Uses of Literature: Life in the Socialist Chinese Literary System; Two Kinds of Truth: Stories and Reportage from China; and Chinese Primer, an elementary Chinese textbook.


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