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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.

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The authenticity of the declarations is impossible to independently verify. Most people sign them using aliases to protect their safety, and there are no provisions to prevent fraudulent postings.

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But the numbers are really not the point. For those who do send in their statements disavowing the party, the postings offer a rare platform to vent frustrations, discuss ideas, share stories of suffering, or find forgiveness.

Many relay tales of personal victimization under the Communist Party. Take, for instance, Ding Weikun, a 74-year-old veteran party member from rural Zhejiang Province. In 2003, his town's government colluded with private developers to seize the land of local farmers. The farmers protested, Mr. Ding wrote, and armed thugs were brought in to suppress them. "I witnessed the killing and injuring of dozens of villagers, on the spot," he noted. The old man tried to pursue justice by appealing to the local government, but he was arrested and sentenced to prison by the very party that he had served for 40 years.

While some write of their personal suffering, others speak of their crimes. For them, withdrawing from the party is about seeking absolution.

"I have always thought that I was a good man, but looking back I realize that I had gradually lost myself," wrote Xiao Shanbo, a former party member from China's northeastern Liaoning Province. "My mind and heart slowly became corrupted. I declare invalid all the words and deeds I have done in the past. These were decisions that I made out of ignorance due to the lies and propaganda of the [Communist Party]."

Mr. Xiao never specifies his crimes, but closes his posting with a plea for forgiveness: "God, please give me this chance! I have gone through much arduous soul-searching, and I intend to change my ways and make up for what I have done."

The Communist Party has reacted to the phenomenon with predictable disdain. Terms related to the movement are among the most vigorously censored on the Chinese Internet, and at least 71 people have been imprisoned for possessing movement literature or propagating its spread. That means that, if found, the activist who vandalized the bike rack in Jinzhou city will be in serious trouble.

The party may have good reason to be anxious. For decades, its power has relied on an ability to censor information, control public memory, and suppress dissenting views. The statements of participants offer a rare glimpse and great insight into the sources of discontent in China.

The Tuidang movement also shows the manner in which Chinese people understand human rights, civil liberties, and democracy, and how they might reconcile these ideas with a more traditional Confucian worldview. It could perhaps even serve as a precursor for another democracy movement.

But one way or another, the movement certainly challenges the popular view that most Chinese people are satisfied with the status quo. As President Obama prepares for his November visit, it is reason to consider engaging more with the Chinese people, and not only with their government.

Today, as more and more Chinese citizens are remembering their past, they may well change China's future, too.

Caylan Ford is a master's degree candidate in international affairs at The George Washington University, where she studies Chinese politics and international security. She is currently writing a thesis on organized dissent in China. She is also a volunteer analyst at the Falun Dafa Information Center and was a staff writer for Epoch Times until 2007.

[Editor's note: The original version did not give the English name of the referenced newspaper or the affiliation. Additional information about the author has also been added.]