Navigating China's Social History of Critics Under State Control

Navigating China's Social History of Critics Under State Control
Graphic: The Vietnamese Magazine.

As teased in last month’s article, we are embarking on a series examining the heart of China's socio-political landscape and the evolution of dissent since the 1980s. Today, we will look at the panorama of diverse avenues through which public discourse has unfolded in the last 40 years. By delving into the myriad ways criticism evolved in China amidst an intricate web of authority, we aim to shed light on the nuanced dynamics of the emergence of a space for critique in China.

The Hopes and Challenges of Civil Society in China

Since the opening up and reform period in the early 1980s, there has been a persistent hope for the emergence of a public space and civil society in China. These expectations, stemming from a belief that economic liberalization naturally leads to democratization, have been repeatedly challenged by the government's firm grip on public liberties such as freedom of speech.

Despite various movements and initiatives—student protests, socially engaged art, religious gatherings, and online activism—what observers have often perceived as nascent civil society has been swiftly controlled.

While the civic space for citizen initiatives does exist in China, it is confined within constantly shifting parameters due to the relentless repression, censorship, and controls exerted by the state. Attempts to expand independent public spaces have been checked by the authoritarian regime's suppression of all and any organized dissent, which has rendered the Western notion of an institutionalized public space irrelevant in today’s China.

Authoritarian contexts such as China and Vietnam are eager to repress any initiatives that could emerge without the endorsement and control of the Communist Party. As a result, the well-established boundaries between public and private, which we may find in democratic contexts regarding private and public, become blurred when transposed in these two countries.

Any element that questions the party's legitimacy will not be allowed to pass through the censorship filters. Thus, anything the party identifies as contributing to the emergence of a free and independent civil society is monitored and controlled. Many observers use the concept of public space to talk about Chinese society without reflecting on the epistemological limits of this undertaking. If we want to talk about public space in an authoritarian context, we have to respect its plasticity, its temporary and fragmented aspect.  

Nevertheless, China long had spaces for discussion and expression of grievances and criticism. Long ago in the past, we might think of the teahouses in the city of Chengdu or the shadow provided by banyan trees in Guangzhou, where neighborhood public meetings were held to discuss the city's problems. With the advent of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the social fabric and public discussions were forced to evolve within a totalitarian, socialist-inspired organization that framed the possibilities of public expression.

The petition office system (信访 (xìnfǎng) established in 1951 became one of the only channels left open for the expression of criticism and the reporting of injustice. While this channel remains open (often as a sham, as petitioners are often punished) to this day, the opening up of China at the end of the 1970s reconfigured the space for criticism once again. 

Attempts to create such spaces appeared several times in different forms, only to disappear again when its subversive potential was deemed dangerous by the CCP. We can return to some emblematic moments that marked periods when the space for public expression formed temporarily. Many of these moments have seen young people play a central role in protest movements. Still, they also illustrate how the authorities have repressed, controlled, or censored these initiatives.

Over the last 40 years, some spaces for the expression of criticism have emerged multiple times in China before flopping again. Here begins our chronicle of a cat-and-mouse game between civil society and the state.

Historical Spaces of Expression and Modern Constraints

Let’s start in 1989 when students gathered in Tiananmen Square in Beijing and demanded a democratic “fourth modernization.” This event was the precursor to many other attempts to form public arenas. The bloody massacre of this movement led the next generation to find other ways to express their views and aspirations.

From this moment onward, initiatives to create a space for expression in China are constrained to being fragmented and volatile. This means that the civic aspirations of some Chinese people have to navigate between constantly changing political and economic environments.

After the Tiananmen Movement, the space for criticism took shape in smaller cracks that emerged as China's political, economic, and social reconfigurations unfolded over the following three decades. Within this environment, injustices, aspirations, and public problems have been expressed, shared, and sometimes publicized by journalists, online, and within intellectual circles and artist circles.

Emerging from the clandestine atmosphere of the 1990s, where dissent found some shelter in the underground music and art scenes, the 2000s brought new hope and tools for a more open discourse. The integration of China into the WTO in 2001 heralded a liberal momentum during which new opportunities and spaces for liberties emerged. This came with the expansion of internet access, the diversification of the media, and the flourishing of intellectual circles. 

With the rise of the internet, China briefly experienced a period of digital freedom, with access to Google, Facebook, and Wikipedia. This coincided with China's economic surge, fueled by aspirations of global dominance and resurgent nationalism. The 2008 Beijing Olympics crystallized this new mindset and marked a pivotal moment in China’s opening.

As international attention intensified over issues such as human rights and the situations in Tibet and Xinjiang in recent years, the Chinese government has tightened its control over the flow of information and dissent. Once vibrant hubs for public and critical voices, NGOs fell under state scrutiny, stifling possibilities for political engagement. The crackdown on internet freedom and the co-optation of civil society pushed critical voices to find other strategies.

The Digital Era and Rising Nationalism

The establishment of the digital control apparatus within China today, which originated during this period, was characterized by the tightening of internet censorship and the transformation of NGOs into state-approved entities.

Today, accessing uncensored information necessitates circumventing state-imposed barriers through VPNs, while the shrinking space for dissent underscores the challenges facing China's aspiring young intellectuals.

Despite these obstacles, some critical individuals still find ways to express themselves and share concerns about public issues. This reflects the resilience of a generation that expects nothing from the state regarding freedom of expression and public liberties.

This shift following the 2008 Olympic Games was a milestone marking a new era of liberalism in China. The same year, Liu Xiaobo released Charter 08, calling for more political rights and freedom. [1] This was also the year of the first significant expression in an online public arena on the Weibo platform following the Sichuan earthquake.

The year 2008 saw the hegemony of the Communist Party shaken by external and internal pressures, which pushed China in a new direction regarding public freedoms and liberties.

The transition from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping solidified this trend. After a preliminary period in which Xi focused on weakening his rivals and consolidating his power in the party, Xi gradually ramped up the dynamics of restricting public freedoms and spaces for criticism.

After the 2014 events that revealed the potential of grassroots movements in Hong Kong and Taiwan, such as the Umbrella and Sunflower movements, 2016 saw the emergence of a set of repressive laws that confirmed China's authoritarian turn in recent years.

Since 2016, the context of our society has begun to change rapidly, following the changes which began in 2008 and the Olympic Games. From that moment on, nationalism came to permeate the whole social environment. In the media as in society, all kinds of public discussion disappeared. Even if the government didn’t say this was a war, the way society was controlled resembled war management. With such a desire to control society, the price was the disappearance of places for public discussion. The problems of our daily lives can no longer be expressed as they used to be, and the ability of individuals to talk about public issues and problems was weakened. The future can no longer be imagined together in this configuration, and everyone's imagination can no longer be shared, limiting the scope for action. It's in this context that we try to maintain and create connections between individuals who refuse this. - Art Curator from Guangzhou, 2021

The period from 2016 until now has placed Chinese critical minds on a slippery slope. The Covid pandemic accelerated this process. As a result, the atomized critical individuals who held some hope for a space for the development of dissent or who appealed to raise their voices have been even more silenced.

Some people are still searching for places to gather with like-minded critical minds within independent spaces or online. Still, a majority of this population is feeling powerless. On the Chinese internet, a new concept has been gaining momentum since 2021: lying flat. [2] This state of mind mirrors the lack of possibilities for the Chinese people: a willingness to act troubled by a feeling of powerlessness and a silenced appeal to speak out. 

This leads us to how spaces for public discussions were maintained in late 2010 and our next article on place-making for young critical minds in Xi Jinping’s China. 


[1] Liu Xiaobo was arrested two days before the official publication of Charter 08 and sentenced to 11 years in prison. He was released 8 and a half years later on medical parole after he was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer.

[2] Lying flat has been a viral trend on the Chinese Internet since 2021. This trend is part of the internet youth culture that claims a refusal to overwork by withdrawing from competition mechanisms. Instead of running tirelessly to get socio-professional recognition that never comes, young urban people prefer to lie flat.

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