An underground challenge to China's status quo
As Obama plans his visit to China in November, he should pay attention to the Tuidang movement. It shows that the Chinese people understand human rights and civil liberties.
The lead image on the Sept. 27 edition of the Jinzhou evening newspaper was hardly unusual. In anticipation of the 60th anniversary of Communist Party rule in China, it featured a street lined with enormous red flags beating in the wind.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
It would have been nearly indistinguishable from any other Chinese state-run newspaper that day but for one important detail. In the bottom left corner of the photo, scrawled on a bike rack, were eight tiny but clearly visible characters: "Heaven condemns the Communist Party; denounce it and be blessed."
Similar writings that dare to challenge the divine mandate of China's rulers appear regularly across China, hanging as banners in city parks, posted on Internet forums, or handwritten on paper bank notes. It is all evidence of a movement that has silently swept the nation. Called Tuidang, which translates simply as "withdraw from the party," the movement encourages people to publicly renounce their membership in Communist organizations. The implications are manifold. This is the first time since the 1980s that China has seen such a large, organized dissident movement – if an underground one.
The day after the image ran, the Jinzhou newspaper came under investigation by the government. Its website was shut down, and the paper taken out of circulation.
The incident represents a fitting analogy for the state of the Communist Party today. Beneath the pomp and power lie resentment, discontent, and questions. In 60 years of Communist rule, China has endured political and social upheaval that have left deep psychic wounds.
But in the country's totalitarian climate, the people have few avenues to openly discuss their country's history or to make peace with their own role in it. Since China has not had its opportunity for truth and reconciliation, its citizens are finding their own ways to do this.
Perhaps that explains the extraordinary appeal of the Tuidang movement, which organizers say has more than 60 million participants. It began in late 2004, when New York-based Chinese dissident newspaper
DaJiYuan (Epoch Times, affiliated with the spiritual movement Falun Gong) ran a series of polemic editorials detailing the history of the Communist Party in China.They also proclaimed that the country would not truly be free or prosperous until it was rid of the party, which, it argued was at odds with China's cultural and spiritual values.
Millions of copies of the articles found their way into mainland China through e-mails, faxes, and underground printing houses. Some Chinese readers say the articles finally confirmed what they suspected all along – about the Great Leap Forward, the Tiananmen massacre, the Cultural Revolution. This offered recognition that their memories were real and their suffering was shared.
But despite appearances, this is not a political movement in the conventional sense. Unlike the student movement of 1989 or the more recent Charter 2008 manifesto – both of which embraced the language of Western democracy – the Tuidang movement employs distinctly Chinese language and meaning. More Confucian than humanist, it often makes its points by drawing on Buddhist and Daoist spirituality.
Denouncing the party is thus not simply political activism, but takes on spiritual meaning as a process of cleansing the conscience and reconnecting to traditional ethics and values.
In December 2004, one month after the articles were published by the dissident newspaper, its editors starting receiving statements from readers declaring their wish to disavow membership in the Communist Party, the Communist Youth League, or the Young Pioneers, sometimes after their memberships had technically expired. Today, statements representing some 60 million people have been sent to the newspaper, which posts them to an online database.