Independent Spaces: The Last Bastion of Criticism in China

Independent Spaces: The Last Bastion of Criticism in China
Graphic: The Vietnamese Magazine.

After the first two articles of this series on the different channels for the expression of criticisms in China, we now glimpse the evolution of the public civic space in China.

Today, we delve into one of the latest formats that allow sensitive issues to be discussed in China: independent spaces. As a preliminary consideration, it is important to be precise in pointing out that our aim is not to write about meeting points for open dissent facing state power.

These spaces are designed as platforms to settle possibilities for discussion, expression, and sharing of thoughts and opinions. 

Since the Tiananmen crackdown, politically sensitive discussions have been held behind closed doors, whether at home, work, or university dorms. However, when it comes to public spheres offering unknown people the possibility to meet, the independent spaces are one of the last remaining channels where people can have a format for public discussions.

Micro-Scale Initiatives Across Various Fields

This format can pop up on a micro-scale from different societal, economic, and cultural fields, from artistic to academic spheres, from grassroots commitment to socially engaged activities.

Sometimes, these spheres can be organized as platforms with a steady format to conduct all these activities where politics is invited through the back door.  After five years of extensive research on this topic, I would like to dive into what these kinds of spaces are.

Despite economic pressure and a fast-paced lifestyle, some urban people still struggle to find their place in a control and surveillance society. This immense challenge drives them to participate in social activities, which allow people to engage in discussions and learn from each other.

Sometimes, individuals running a shop can convert it temporarily for other activities, such as fostering discussions and encounters. However, finding an independent place for people to have their own space is an even more complicated process in China.

As we mentioned in previous commentaries, it is almost impossible for such small groups to register as NGOs or CSOs in China, which leads them to search for a format that doesn’t look suspicious.

That’s why some people are taking on a legal existence, such as art galleries, hostels, bars, or bookshops. This official presentation is usually a showcase, so the purpose of these spaces is not to expose the founders.

“This is a strategy adopted by many Chinese cultural professionals who are interested in engaging with environmental issues, new ways of thinking and living, and other civic affairs through non-profit organizations outside of the existing state institutions but who could not get their organizations legally registered as NGOs. This regulatory constraint on grassroots civic organizations speaks to the continuous government discouragement of Chinese citizens’ desire for civic participation, and simultaneously presents an absurdity with its underlying message that an organization is by default problematic if it does not pursue making profit as its goal.”

Wang Meiqin, Socially Engaged Art in China, 2019 (P93-94)

Choosing an officially profit-oriented format is thus a way to stay under the surveillance radar and guarantee sustainable activity. Nevertheless, the actors participating in place-making and community building crystallize around this space, choosing specific patterns for their so-called lucrative activities.

Disguising Public Spaces Initiatives as Normal Activities

A space in Beijing designed as a co-living space appeals to the participants. One will likely get involved in intellectual stimulation in this setting.

One space in Shanghai was set up to obtain art foundation and museum grants, while a last investigated space in Guangzhou was organized as a collective store rental.

Once again, the official status of these spaces was made to look like a space for normal activities to keep its actual function as a public space hidden. 

Funding is a major part of building independence for all of these spaces. Most of the time, the collectives running these platforms try to find the perfect balance in finances. However, the resilience of these platforms often depends on whether symbolic and economic allies participate in these independent space fundings.

Here, we can refer to the case of the aforementioned space in Guangzhou, where the art foundation of a major private modern art museum contributes to the rent payment.

Like-minded people working in private socio-economic circles can become precious allies in maintaining the existence of small initiatives offering this framework for public discussion in China.

These surprising alliances sometimes even force the young space managers to deal almost directly with the local branch of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This was the case with the collective running the co-living space in Beijing, which was awarded “Social Innovation of the Year” by a magazine close to the local branch of the CCP.

As we can see, depending on different urban morphologies and shifting contexts (economic, political, or cultural powers), the collectives running their own spaces must navigate a complex environment.

Blurring Borders Between Public and Private Spaces

Place-making has to be composed according to urban ecologies. Strategies and negotiations are elaborated on considering political power, economic players, and relations with the neighborhood.

This illustrates how collectives from different cities insert themselves within different evolving environments. Beijing, the center of political power in China, has produced an environment with tight surveillance that constrains independent platforms and forces them to go underground or disguise their activities.

In other cities, such as Shanghai and Guangzhou, the sociopolitical and economic environment is less intense, which allows critically minded people to adopt different strategies to develop their own space. 

They adapt their behavior daily to mitigate the threat of political repression and the possible shutdown of the spaces. When the political climate gets tense, for example, during the Hong Kong protests 2019, people can choose to close the spaces temporarily or restrain access to only known people and make them invisible.

Being adaptable is one of the special characteristics of such spaces seeking to navigate the contemporary repressive system in China. As we wrote in the last article, borders between public and private spaces are blurred due to this authoritarian context.

When public spaces are privatized due to CCP surveillance and controls, these privately-owned spaces can provide some public-oriented space for discussions. However, these entities must retain the capacity to adjust according to the different contexts and degrees of repression.

“You must be shapeless, formless, like water.

When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup.

You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle.

You put it into a teapot, it becomes the teapot.

Now water can flow, or it can crash.

Be water, my friend.”

Bruce Lee

This quote of Bruce Lee is now part of a globally shared internet culture. When this research was being conducted, this statement was mobilized by the pro-democratic movement in Hong Kong and by young actors to describe the format of the independent platform they were running. Their common point is that being strategic in facing oppressive power is essential.

"Shapeless, Formless, Like Water": A Principle of Adaptation

During interviews, actors from our investigated independent spaces claimed that they followed this principle of being “shapeless, formless, like water.”

With very little room to express their demands for a more open and fairer environment, collective organizations try to turn the spaces they form into shapeless and evolutive environments to escape the surveillance of their activities and being shut down.

In Guangzhou, some LGBTQI+ activists found themselves monitored during the organization of a talk on sexual minority issues and chose to cancel it. This repressive climate reminds the people running these spaces always to remember that communication about events or activities has to be tuned according to sensitivities and the current political climate.

They desire to make themselves and their spaces invisible. Turning these spaces into “simple stores” in appearance enables these independent spaces to exist and perpetuate themselves. Another major concern for the collectives running them is to create communities and networks that can survive in every situation when spaces are shut down.

When an artistic place in Shanghai had to close due to the holding of a talk about displaced migrant workers, a new one arose a few months later.

When communities survive a space closure in this way, the act of being water becomes a slogan converted into a doctrine. When collectives and communities are established, when networks of like-minded people exist, their spirits and aspirations have turned to being water - the power to reproduce everywhere.

This leads us to the last article of this series, in which we will talk about the resources of these spaces and their connections with foreign allies to produce transnational and critical networks in East Asia.

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