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There were several major national movements against Soviet-style Communist Party rule in Eastern Europe. The death of Stalin in March 1953 precipitated an unarmed uprising in the GDR led by the trade unions, whilst the growing resistance to Stalinism in both Poland and Hungary was given new impetus by Khrushchev’s February 1956 ‘Secret Speech’ to the 20th CPSU Congress denouncing Stalin’s crimes. In Poland a groundswell of opposition among workers and intellectuals meshed with significant unrest at higher levels of the Communist Party to achieve a peaceful transfer of power in October to Gomulka (a former leader who had been a victim of Stalinist repression) and to avert the threatened Soviet military action. This movement included some riots and the burning down of Communist Party headquarters in Poznan in June 1956, but was essentially a significant example of civil resistance. In Hungary there was a student-led uprising in October 1956, and the promotion of another anti-Stalinist Communist leader, Imre Nagy. But the movement began to resurrect previous political parties and demand withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact. When Soviet tanks (briefly withdrawn) rolled back into Budapest, the Hungarians took up arms. Imre Nagy was executed in 1958 – his reburial in 1989 attracted a mass demonstration.

The next significant national movement for major political reforms – ‘socialism with a human face’ – developed in 1967 and 1968 in Czechoslovakia. The Prague Spring was formally inaugurated by the new Communist Party leader Aleksander Dubcek, but was propelled from below by students, intellectuals and journalists – workers joined in rather belatedly. The Soviet Union under Brezhnev feared the movement was out of control, and the Warsaw Pact invaded in August 1968, when the Czechs and Slovaks improvised impressive unarmed resistance that lasted for months (see A.4.b.)

Here we list four recent titles, that give weight to the movements from below, and were able to draw on archives opened after 1989:

The German Democratic Republic was the first European Communist state to respond to the death of Stalin. A general strike, called in June 1953, was crushed by tanks. The intellectuals remained silent in June 1953, but during 1956 some responded to the ferment of ideas and activities in Poland and Hungary, though this ‘revisionism’ was subsequently crushed.

Brant, Stefan, The East German Rising, 17th June 1953, London, Thames and Hudson, 1955, pp. 202

Hildebrandt, Rainer, The Explosion: The Uprising Behind the Iron Curtain, Boston, Little Brown, 1955, pp. 198

Ostermann, Christian F., Uprising in East Germany 1953: The Cold War, the German Question and the First Major Upheaval Behind the Iron Curtain, Budapest, Central European University Press, 2003, pp. 492

A documentary history in sections, including: i. origins of crisis April 1952-mid-June 1953; ii. the uprising; with introductions to each section and general well referenced introduction.

Hungary suffered under the brutal Stalinist regime of Rakosi until 1953, and after the death of Stalin sections of the Party leadership (with support from Moscow) moved towards reform. The central figure in this change of policy was Imre Nagy, who became Prime Minister in 1953 and allowed political debate to re-emerge. However, the hardliners made a comeback in 1955 and ousted Nagy, leading to a bitter struggle in 1956 between different factions of the Party. Following Khrushchev’s February 1956 attack on Stalin’s crimes, many Communists demanded the rehabilitation of Laszlo Rajk, executed in a Stalinist show trial as a ‘Titoist’ in 1949. Writers and students engaged in campaigns for change, culminating in mass demonstrations demanding greater democracy, a new government under Nagy and withdrawal of Soviet troops. Protests erupted into fighting outside the radio building after security policy fired on the crowd, and crowds also attacked the secret police stations.  

The government declared martial law and called in Soviet troops (October 23-24), triggering armed defiance by many Hungarians. After heavy fighting, Soviet troops withdrew from Budapest on October 29, but after Nagy declared Hungary’s withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact new troops moved into Hungary and attacked Budapest; bitter fighting continued from November 4-11 and Nagy and colleagues were arrested by Soviet troops when leaving the Yugoslav embassy on November 22 (contrary to explicit promises), and later executed. But during the period November 12 – December 13 the industrial workers, who had been at the forefront of the fighting, began to organize independent workers’ councils and to call brief general strikes. (Hannah Arendt has celebrated this expression of popular nonviolent resistance and participatory democracy in the Epilogue to the second edition of her Origins of Totalitarianism, London, Allen and Unwin, 1958, pp. 492-502.)  

Azcel, Tamas ; Meray, Tibor, The Revolt of the Mind: A Case History of Intellectual Resistance behind the Iron Curtain, New York, Praeger, 1959, pp. 449

Focuses on the Hungarian Writers’ Union from 1953-59.

Harman, Chris, Bureaucracy and Revolution in Eastern Europe, London, Pluto Press, 1974, pp. 296

Examines the 1956 Revolution primarily from standpoint of role of the workers, with emphasis on the workers’ councils, pp. 124-87.

Kecskemeti, Paul, The Unexpected Revolution: Social Forces in the Hungarian Uprising, Stanford CA, Stanford University Press, 1961, pp. 178

Kopacsi, Sandor, In the Name of the Working Class, London, Fontana/Collins, 1989, pp. 348

Eyewitness account by the police chief of Budapest in 1956, who refused to obey Soviet orders to quell the uprising and was later sentenced to life imprisonment, but released in 1963 in an amnesty granted by Khrushchev.

Lomax, Bill, The Workers’ Councils of Greater Budapest, In Ralph Miliband and John Saville (eds.), Socialist Register 1976, London, Merlin Press, pp. 89-110

Excerpt from his book Hungary 1956, London, Alison and Busby, 1976, pp. 222, which provides a chronology, background to the 1956 uprising and an account of the events of October/November.  

Meray, Tibor, Thirteen Days that Shook the Kremlin: Imre Nagy and the Hungarian Revolution, London, Thames and Hudson, 1959, pp. 290

Sebestyen, Victor, Twelve Days: The Story of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, New York, Pantheon Books, 2006, pp. 340

Vali, Ferenc, Rift and Revolt in Hungary, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1961, pp. 590

Detailed scholarly study of Hungary from the Communist takeover to 1956, and with a final section on the period of 1957-61 when the Kadar regime established control.

Zinner, Paul E., Revolution in Hungary, New York, Columbia University Press, 1962, pp. 380

Poland had suffered severely in the Stalinist period 1948-53. After 1953 there were moves within the Party for change, but Party reformers did not link up with developing pressure from below until 1956; after the June rebellion in Poznan, students, intellectuals, workers and devout Catholics joined in the ferment. Gomulka (who became Party Secretary in early October 1956) managed to negotiate with Khrushchev to prevent Soviet troops suppressing the popular movement.

Fejto, Francois, A History of the People’s Democracies, [1969], 2nd edn, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1974, pp. 565

Examines destalinization in Poland and why the Polish 1956 uprising avoided bloodshed, making comparisons with Hungary and its 1956 Revolution, see pp. 79-80 and 87-123. These events are set in the wider context of Soviet and bloc politics.

Hiscocks, Richard, Poland: Bridge for the Abyss?, London, Oxford University Press, 1963, pp. 359

Karol, K. S., Visa for Poland, London, MacGibbon and Kee, 1959, pp. 259

Account by a Polish journalist (who left in 1949) of the evolution of destalinization from above and demands for democratization from below in 1955-56, and the October 1956 revolution. Karol explains the background context of Poland’s wartime experiences and the Communist seizure of power and in Part Two assesses Poland a year after October 1956.

Lewis, Flora, A Case History of Hope: The Story of Poland’s Peaceful Revolutions, G Garden City NY, Doubleday, 1958, pp. 281

Covers developments in 1956, especially the June and October public protests.

Machcewicz, Pawel ; Latynski, Maya, Rebellious Satellite: Poland 1956, Washington DC, Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2009, pp. 280

Syrop, Konrad, Spring in October: The Story of the Polish Revolution 1956, London, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1957, pp. 219

Studies of the Czechoslovak reform movement and resistance to Soviet occupation tend to focus on intellectuals and students. Workers only got involved late in the Prague Spring (partly because they had reason to worry about the impact of economic reforms). But the workers’ council movement, which developed from December 1968 to June 1969, was a significant assertion of autonomous worker power. There was also cooperation between workers and students, for example in a strike in November 1968 against the removal of Josef Smrkovsky as President of the National Assembly.

Fisera, Vladimir, Workers’Councils in Czechslovakia: Documents and Essays 1968-69, London, Alison and Busby, 1978, pp. 200

Golan, Galia, The Czechoslovak Reform Movement, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1971, pp. 349

Starts with brief summary of period 1956-1962 and then analyses in detail developments both within the Party and in other social spheres up to 1968, including the role of dissent and public protest.  

Mlynář, Zdeněk, Night Frost in Prague: The End of Humane Socialism, London, Hurst, 1980, pp. 300

Account by Communist Party leader close to Dubcek of internal Party politics leading up to the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, personal account of the Kremlin ‘negotiations’ after the abduction of top leaders, and his resignation from the Party.

Skilling, Gordon, Czechoslovakia’s Interrupted Revolution, Princeton NJ, Princeton University Press, 1976, pp. 924

Especially chapters 21-22 (pp. 659-758). Charts the background to and evolution of the Prague Spring, international reactions to it and mounting Soviet and Warsaw Pact pressure, before outlining the August 1968 invasion and popular and official unarmed resistance to it. Skilling also discusses reasons for the gradual end to resistance and acceptance of the replacement of Dubcek by Husak.

Williams, Kieran, The Prague Spring and its Aftermath: Czechoslovak Politics 1968-1970, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1997, pp. 286

Windsor, Philip ; Roberts, Adam, Czechoslovakia 1968: Reform, Repression and Resistance, London, Chatto and Windus (for the Institute of Strategic Studies), 1969, pp. 200

The first half by Windsor explores the broad context and reasons for the Soviet invasion; Roberts (pp. 97-143) assesses the resistance drawing on the BBC monitoring service reports and interviews. Key documents relating to the invasion are included in appendices.

This section focuses primarily on the nationwide civil resistance movements in Eastern Europe, the Baltic States and the Soviet Union’s subordinate ally, Mongolia, in the period 1989-1991. These ‘velvet revolutions’ led to the demise of Soviet-style Communism and of the military, political and economic bloc dominated by the USSR, and to the disintegration of the USSR itself.

The process was initiated by the 1980-81 Solidarity Movement in Poland, one of the most significant of recent movements of civil resistance. Under threat of Soviet military action, in December 1981 General Jaruzelski declared martial law. Solidarity weathered a period of severe repression, and in 1988 entered ‘round table’ negotiations with Jaruzelski, who offered to hold ‘semi-free’ elections in June 1989. Solidarity won all 35% of the seats it was allowed to contest, and – while Jaruzelski remained president – a non-Communist became Prime Minister.

In Hungary the (relatively reformist) Communist regime had allowed a degree of pluralism and dissent, including the formation of opposition parties in 1988. The mass nonviolent movements in the German Democratic Republic (GDR-East Germany) and Czechoslovakia toppled their hard line regimes, and there were less dramatic reverberations in Bulgaria. An uprising in Romania began with nonviolent protests in Timisoara in December 1989, but soon spread to Bucharest, where armed clashes broke out, the head of state, Nikolai Ceausescu, and his hated wife were shot, and the secret police played a sinister role in overthrowing the regime.

The 1989 revolutions were greatly assisted by Mikhail Gorbachev becoming General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in 1985 and launching a process of ‘glasnost’ (openness) and ‘perestroika’ (transformation) culminating in 1989 elections to the Soviet that offered an unprecedented opportunity for autonomous participation and choice of candidates. Alongside his internal reform programme, Gorbachev initiated a major change in relations with the West, encouraging detente and arms control. As a result the threat of Soviet military intervention – which had ended the 1956 Hungarian Uprising and (eventually) the 1968 Prague Spring – was no longer a factor in 1989. On the contrary, Moscow helped to restrain the GDR politburo from using armed force to stem the growing resistance.

The easing of controls from above in the USSR encouraged growing protests from below relating to a range of issues including human rights, the environment, opposition to nuclear power (after the Chernobyl reactor explosion) and peace. In many non-Russian republics, such as Armenia, Georgia and the Ukraine, nationalist demands (expressed earlier in forms of dissent that was often suppressed) were strongly re-asserted For an analysis focusing on the growing pressure from below see:

The growing momentum of movements for independence in the three Baltic republics posed a particular challenge to Gorbachev, uncertain how far to use force to prevent secession. The likelihood of nationalist secessions was one factor in the abortive coup attempt in August 1991 by hard line party officials and figures in the military and security services. The defeat of the coup, which included popular resistance (see references under A.4a), and the role of the Russian republic under the leadership of Boris Yeltsin, precipitated the dissolution of the USSR.

In addition to the major uprisings in Eastern Europe, there was widespread unobtrusive, indirect, symbolic and in some periods open dissent and protest in both the USSR itself and Eastern Europe. Indeed opposition within the bloc provides a very wide range of tactics, for a variety of causes, used by very different types of people: disaffected youth, students, dissident intellectuals, artists and scientists, workers, farmers, oppressed nationalities, religious believers, reformist Communists, prisoners and families of the unjustly persecuted. The rigorous censorship of news and communications sparked extensive use of samizdat (underground news sheets, essays and artistic works, often typed and re-typed when passed around). Reformers in the 1950s and 1960s often worked from within officially-sanctioned writers’ unions, scientific bodies, student unions and worker unions and churches, but from the 1970s there was also a proliferation of autonomous organizations from below – such as the ‘Flying University’ in Poland. This development was celebrated by East European intellectuals as the creation of a ‘parallel polis’ or the evolution of vibrant civil society.

Our earlier bibliography – People Power and Protest since 1945 – provided detailed references for each country. Here we have restricted references to a revised list of comparative studies.

Bugajski, Janusz ; Pollack, Maxine, East European Fault Lines: Dissent, Opposition and Social Activism, Boulder CO, Westview Press, 1989, pp. 333

Curry, Jane Leftwich, Dissent in Eastern Europe, New York, Praeger, 1983, pp. 277

Flam, Helena, Mosaic of Fear: Poland and East Germany before 1989, New York and Boulder CO, Columbia University Press and East European Monographs, 1998, pp. 283

Flam draws on newly available archives and over 100 interviews with Communist officials, dissidents and ‘bystanders’. (See also Flam, Anger in Repressive Regimes: A Footnote to Domination and the Arts of Resistance by James Scott (A. 1.c. Small Scale, Hidden, Indirect and 'Everyday' Resistance) ).

Johnston, Hank ; Mueller, Carol, Unobtrusive Practices of Contention in Leninist Regimes, Sociological Perspectives, Vol. 44, issue 3 (Fall), 2002, pp. 351-375

Examines three different forms of resistance: oblique spoken criticism; using officially approved organisations to promote muted collective opposition; and more open ‘dissidence’ – petitions, open letters, samizdat and contacting foreign press. (See also Johnston, States & Social Movements (A. 6. Nonviolent Action and Social Movements) , ch. 4.)

Lewis, Paul G., Democracy and Civil Society in Eastern Europe, Basingstoke and New York, Macmillan and St. Martin's Press, 1992, pp. 179

Mostly about prospects for civil society in post-communist context, but drawing on theory and practice of 1980s. Includes a chapter on the movement in Slovenia that led to it breaking away from Yugoslavia.

Ramet, Sabrina Petra, Social Currents in Eastern Europe: the sources and consequences of the great transformation, 2nd edn, Durham, Duke University Press, 1995, pp. 616

Prolific author on history and culture of East and Central Europe, whose other titles Rocking the State: rock music and politics in Eastern Europe and Russia, Westview Press, 1994, and Nihil Obstat: Religion, Politics and Social Change in East-Central Europe and Russia, Duke University Press, 1998, as well as various books on Yugoslavia and its successors.

Tickle, Andrew ; Welsh, Ian, Environment and Society in Eastern Europe, London, Longman, 1998, pp. 192

Examines contribution of environmental activism to ‘an immanent civil society’. Chapters on Hungary, Poland, Romania and Russia.

Tokes, Rudolf L., Opposition in Eastern Europe, London, Macmillan, 1979, pp. 306

Includes surveys of human rights and political change, worker resistance and potential for peasant opposition, and essays on Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Poland and Hungary from 1968-1978.

Watch, Helsinki, From Below: Independent Peace and Environment Movements in Eastern Europe and the USSR, New York, Helsinki Watch Report, 1987

The sit-in strike at the Gdansk shipyard in August 1980 launched Solidarity: as a mass movement and alternative trade union, which soon had branches in almost all sectors of society. As a predominantly worker movement, demonstration of nonviolent power, and a challenge to the Soviet bloc, Solidarity stimulated a large literature from different ideological perspectives at the time and has been the focus of subsequent scholarship. The movement was the culmination of rising dissent among students and intellectuals, major worker strikes in 1970 and 1976, and the creation of KOR (the Workers Defence Committee) which bridged the gap between workers and intellectuals. A few titles covering earlier dissent as well accounts and assessments of Solidarity are listed below.

Ascherson, Neal, The Polish August: The Self-Limiting Revolution, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1981, pp. 320

Account up to mid-1981 by British journalist familiar with Eastern Europe, with text of Gdansk and Szeczecin Agreements between strikers and government and postscript on December 1981.

Barker, Colin, Festival of the Oppressed: Solidarity, Reform, and Revolution in Poland, 1980-81, London, Bookmarks, 1986, pp. 192

and also his essay ‘Fear, Laughter, and Collective Power: The Making of Solidarity at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, Poland, August 1980’, pp. 175-194, Goodwin; Jasper; Polletta, Passionate Politics: Emotions and Social Movements (A. 6. Nonviolent Action and Social Movements) .

Bernhard, Michael H., The Origins of Democratization in Poland: Workers, Intellectuals and Opposition Politics, 1976-1980, New York, Columbia University Press, 1994, pp. 298

Brumberg, Abraham, Poland, Genesis of a Revolution, New York, Vintage Books, 1983, pp. 336

Garton Ash, Timothy, The Polish Revolution: Solidarity 1980-82, London, Jonathan Cape, 1983, pp. 386

Highly regarded first hand analysis by scholar of Central Europe and commentator on other civil resistance struggles.

Laba, Roman, The Roots of Solidarity: A Political Sociology of Poland’s Working Class Democratization, Princeton NJ, Princeton University Press, 1992, pp. 264

Between arriving in Poland in 1980 and being expelled in 1982, the author engaged in firsthand research and gathered relevant documents to question the emphasis on the role of intellectuals, and develop his thesis on the central role of working class activism and their talent for democratic organization.

Long, Kristi S., We All Fought for Freedom: Women in Poland’s Solidarity Movement, Boulder CO, Westview Press, 1996, pp. 208

Explores women’s consciousness of the period through interviews, many with local Gdansk activists, notes women’s marginalisation in union structures and discusses implications for post-Communist period.

Osa, Maryjane, Solidarity and Contention: Networks of Polish Opposition, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2003, pp. 296

Places participation in Solidarity in context of engagement in previous Polish ‘protest cycles’.

Penn, Shana, Solidarity’s Secret: The Women Who Defeated Communism In Poland, Ann Arbor MI, University of Michigan Press, 2005, pp. 372

Piotrowski, Grzegorz, Grassroots Groups and Civil Society Actors in Pro-democratic Transitions in Poland, Florence, European University Institute, 2012, pp. 34

Potel, Jean-Yves, The Summer Before the Frost: Solidarity in Poland, London, Pluto Press, 1982, pp. 229

Eye-witness account of early stages, combined with broader analysis. Includes notes on key individuals and organizations and a chronology.

Touraine, Alain ; Dubet, François ; Wieviorka, Michel ; Strzelecki, Jan, Solidarity: The Analysis of a Social Movement; Poland 1980-1981, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1983, pp. 203

Leading theorist of social movements explores research into opinions of ordinary members of Solidarity, and examines strategic decisions.

Walesa, Lech, A Way of Hope, New York and London, Henry Holt and Pan Books, 0, pp. 325

Memoir by central (but increasingly controversial) figure in Solidarity.

Zielonka, Jan, Strengths and weaknesses of nonviolent action: The Polish case, Orbis, Vol. 30, issue Spring, 1986, pp. 91-110

Includes interesting material on Solidarity’s underground period after December 1981.

The events of 1989 in East Europe encouraged participants, journalists and academic experts to produce many immediate accounts, and are the subject of continuing research.

Garton Ash, Timothy, We the People: The Revolution of 89 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin and Prague, London, Granta Books in association con Penguin, 1990, pp. 156

(Published in New York by Random House as The Magic Lantern).

Kenney, Padraic, A Carnival of Revolution: Central Europe 1989, 352, Princeton NJ, Princetown University Press, 2003

Youthful personal impressions combined with later historical research on Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Slovenia. Especially strong on the playful resistance of groups such as the Orange Alternative in Wroclaw.

Meyer, Michael, The Year That Changed the World: The Untold Story Behind the Fall of the Berlin Wall, New York, Scribner, 2009, pp. 255

Former Newsweek bureau chief in East Europe combines personal recollections with an analysis contesting the view that the US government made a significant contribution to the collapse of the regimes – except indirectly through cooperating with Gorbachev’s detente agenda.

Oberschall, Anthony, Opportunities and framing in the Eastern European revolts of 1989, In McAdam, Doug ; McCarthy, John D.; Zald, Mayer N., Comparative Perspectives on Social Movements: Political Opportunities, Mobilizing Structures, and Cultural Framings Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, , 1996, pp. 93-121

Emphasises the importance of the nonviolent moral force versus a force that had the means of control and repression but lacked moral authority.

Prins, Gwyn, Spring in Winter: The 1989 Revolutions, (Preface by Vaclav Havel), Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1990, pp. 251

Includes reflections by leading participants in revolutions from Hungary, Poland, East Germany and Czechoslovakia, a journalist’s view of ‘Why Romania could not avoid bloodshed’, and an essay by J.K. Galbraith on dangers of the triumph of a simplistic economic ideology, and a comparative chronology of 1988-1990.

Randle, Michael, People Power: The Building of a New European Home, Stroud, Hawthorne Press, 1991, pp. 224

Chapter 1 discusses the context of the revolutions, ch. 2 the build up of protest (including in Bulgaria) and the role of international pressures. Part II comprises interviews with key participants in 1989, both about the revolutions and future possibilities. Includes interviews on Romania and Slovenia.

Roberts, Adam, Civil Resistance in the East European and Soviet Revolutions, Cambridge MA, Albert Einstein Institution, 1991, pp. 43

Sarotte, Mary Elise, 1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe, Princeton NJ, Princeton University Press, 2009, pp. 344

Highly-praised analysis challenging the inevitability of German reunification and the spread of NATO. Discusses role of political leaders and dissidents in 1989, drawing on documents and interviews, and assesses the views from various world capitals.

Saxonberg, Steven, The Fall: A Comparative Study of the End of Communism in Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary and Poland, London, Routledge, 2004, pp. 434

Chapter 10 ‘Nonviolent Revolutions’ compares Czechoslovakia and East Germany.

Simpson, John, Dispatches from the Barricades: An Eye-Witness Account of the Revolution that Shook the World, London, Hutchinson, 1990, pp. 320

By BBC reporter; includes a chapter on Romania.

Stokes, Gale, The Walls Came Tumbling Down: The Collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, New York, Oxford University Press, 1993, pp. 319

An analytical account sketching in the historical background and tracing the growing opposition during the 1980s.

Excludes Poland (see above) and East Germany (see below).

Rady, Martyn, Romania in Turmoil: A Contemporary History, London, I.B. Taurus, 1992, pp. 216

Analyses Ceausescu’s regime and outlines emerging resistance and mass worker demonstrations in Brasov November 1987, the Timisoara and Bucharest uprisings and subsequent confused politics and violence. Includes a survey of sources.

Tokes, Laszlo, With God for the People, as told to David Porter, London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1990, pp. 226

Account by Reformed Church minister who resisted oppression of the Hungarian minority, and whose defiance sparked the December 1989 nonviolent protests in Timisoara.

Tokes, Rudolf L., Hungary’s Negotiated Revolution: Economic Reform, Social Change and Political Succession, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 554

Chapter 4, pp. 167-209, covers opposition and dissent from 1962 into the 1980s.

Ward, Philip, Bulgarian Voices: Letting the People Speak, Cambridge, Oleander Press, 1992, pp. 330

Wheaton, Bernard ; Kavan, Zdeněk, The Velvet Revolution: Czechoslovakia 1989-1991, Boulder CO, Westview Press, 1992, pp. 255

The dramatic fall of the Berlin Wall symbolised the end to the division not only of Germany, but of Europe, into opposed ideological, political, economic and military blocs, and has prompted a large literature. The titles below give weight to the role of civil resistance.

Bleiker, Roland, Nonviolent Struggle and the Revolution in East Germany, Cambridge MA, Albert Einstein Institution, 1993, pp. 53

Dale, Gareth, The East German Revolution of 1989, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2007, pp. 252

Eye-witness stresses the role of civic groups and the increasing radicalisation of workers and technicians, and engages critically with other interpretations of the revolution. See also his earlier book, Dale, Gareth , Popular Protest in East Germany 1945-1989 London, Frank Cass, , 2004, pp. 256 .

Hirschmann, Albert O., Exit, voice and the fate of the German Democratic Republic, World Politics, Vol. 45, issue Jan., 1993, pp. 172-202

Much cited conceptual analysis contrasting the movement of emigration through Hungary to the West and the internal resistance.

Joppke, Christian, East German Dissidents and the Revolution of 1989: Social Movements in a Leninist Regime, New York, New York University Press, 1995, pp. 277

Maier, Charles S., Dissolution: The Crisis of Communism and the End of East Germany, Princeton NJ, Princeton University Press, 1997, pp. 464

Drawing on newly released Party and Stasi archives, Maier analyses the 40 years of East German history, and charts both the growth of dissent (for example the autonomous peace campaigns and youth culture) in the 1980s, and the systemic decline of the regime due to economic crisis and corruption at the top. See also: Maier, ‘Civil Resistance and Civil Society: Lessons from the Collapse of the German Democratic Republic in 1989’, in Roberts; Garton Ash, Civil Resistance and Power Politics: The Experience of Non-violent Action from Gandhi to the Present (A. 1.b. Strategic Theory, Dynamics, Methods and Movements) , pp. 260-76.

Mueller, Carol, Claim “Radicalization?” The 1989 Protest Cycle in the GDR, Social Problems, Vol. 46, issue 4 (November), 1999, pp. 528-547

Opp, Karl-Dieter ; Voss, Peter, Origins of a Spontaneous Revolution: East Germany 1989, Ann Arbor MI, University of Michigan Press, 1995, pp. 280

Study based on fieldwork interviewing various actors.

Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, despite distinct languages and cultural and religious differences, are closely linked not only by geography, but by common interests and historical experience. All three were incorporated into the Tsarist Empire, all three enjoyed a period of independence after the First World War, and all three were annexed by the Soviet Union under the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact, then occupied by the Germans and returned again to Stalinist domination from 1944. Russian immigration and policies of Russification began after 1945, and substantial Russian minorities complicated later moves towards national autonomy. There was a degree of continuing resistance to Moscow rule after 1945, at first primarily through guerrilla warfare, and from the 1960s taking the form of nonviolent dissent. When Gorbachev’s reforms opened the way to mobilization and electoral choice, all three countries moved towards greater national autonomy and then independence from 1987-1991.

Clemens Jr., Walter Jr. C., Baltic Independence and Russian Empire, New York, St. Martins Press, 1991, pp. 346

Covers the period from 1945, including detailed discussion of 1988-90 moves towards independence (chapters 8-12) giving weight to role of nonviolent resistance.

Eglitis, Olgerts, Nonviolent Action in the Liberation of Latvia, Cambridge MA, Albert Einstein Institution, 1993, pp. 72

Miniotaite, Grazina, Nonviolent Resistance in Lithuania, Cambridge MA, Albert Einstein Institution, 2002, pp. 98

Mongolia, a client state of the Soviet Union until 1990, is not well documented in the west. But a significant movement, sparked initially by young intellectuals demonstrating for perestroika on Human Rights Day in December 1989, by January 1990 drew much larger crowds and other sectors of the population, and developed into successful demands for regime change. The Communist Party did, however, win the first multi-party election.

Becker, Jasper, The Lost Country: Mongolia Revealed, London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1992, pp. 325

Journalist usually based in China gives his perspective on the movement and the broader context.

Rossabi, Morris, Modern Mongolia: From Khan to Communism to Capitalism, Edinburgh, University of Edinburgh Press, 2005, pp. 418

Includes assessment of the post-Communist economy: the end of state assistance and role of international finance agencies, leading to growing inequalities.

Although the Communists came to power in 1949 after decades of guerrilla warfare in rural areas, there is also a significant tradition of nonviolent resistance in China. Merchants shutting down their businesses as a political protest dates back at least to the 18th century (see Sharp, The Politics of Nonviolent Action (A. 1.b. Strategic Theory, Dynamics, Methods and Movements) , vol. 2, p. 236), and national consumer boycotts against Japanese oppression took place in 1908, 1915 and 1919. Students and workers demonstrated and went on strike to demand national independence from foreign colonial intervention in 1919 (during the May the Fourth Movement) and again in 1925 – see:

The period of Civil War from 1945-1949 also saw protests by intellectuals, students and workers against the increasingly corrupt regime of Chiang Kai-shek.

Since the Communist takeover of 1949 there have been three periods of significant dissent and protest followed by a Party crackdown on all opposition: 1956-57; 1976-79; and May-June 1989. A fourth period began in the 1990s, when the increasing emphasis on the market combined with cautious steps towards political liberalization have allowed wider dissent, which is still continuing.

During 1956, when mass unrest swept through parts of Eastern Europe, there were some reverberations in China, such as strikes and withdrawals from agricultural cooperatives. Perhaps to defuse unrest, or to engage intellectuals in the next stages of socialist development, the Party leadership, in particular Mao, encouraged intellectuals to speak out in this period, and many cautiously began to do so. This apparent sanctioning of dissent encouraged students also to protest and many workers to start asserting their demands through petitions, marches, hunger strikes, sit-ins and strikes. Mao and the Party responded in mid-1957 by suppressing all dissent and hundreds of thousands of intellectuals were blacklisted, students expelled, and many sentenced to manual labour or exile.

Doolin, Dennis, Communist China: The Politics of Student Opposition, Stanford CA, Hoover Institute, Stanford University, 1964, pp. 70

This is Doolin’s translation of a Beijing Student Union pamphlet, together with his own introduction.

MacFarquahar, Roderick, Contradictions Among the People 1956-1957, Vol. vol. 1 of The Origins of the Cultural Revolution, New York, Columbia University Press, 1974, pp. 438

Highly respected scholarly analysis.

Perry, Elizabeth J., Shanghai’s strike wave of 1957, China Quarterly, issue 157 (March), 1994, pp. 1-27

Looks at little known worker unrest accompanying intellectual dissent.

Wu, Ningkun, A Single Tear, London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1993, pp. 367

Wu, a university teacher of English educated in the US, returned to China in 1951. This is a personal account of his experiences. The Hundred Flowers campaign is covered pp. 47-72.

After Mao died in September 1976 there was a struggle at the top of the Party between ardent Maoists who had instigated the Cultural Revolution and officials anxious to promote stability. The emerging new leader Deng Xiaoping also sponsored economic (market) reforms. In this context there was a groundswell of political activity from below, first manifested in April 1976 in a popular ceremony of traditional mass mourning in Tiananmen Square for Prime Minister Zhou Enlai (viewed as a moderate), which was seen as a pro-Deng demonstration. This was the first expression of the Democracy Movement that blossomed in late 1978. Although students and intellectuals were predominant there were also peasant protests. The authorities started to arrest individual dissidents early in 1979 and closed down the Democracy Wall in December that year, but underground publishing continued.

Goodman, David S.G., Beijing Street Voices: The Poetry and Politics of China’s Democracy Movement, London and Boston, Marion Boyars, 1981, pp. 208

Index on Censorship, Index on Censorship, Vol. 9, No 1, Feburary, London, Index on Censorship, 1980

This issue is largely dedicated to dissent in China.

Schell, Orville, Discos and Democracy: China in the Throes of Reform, New York, Pantheon Books, 1988, pp. 384

Includes material on 1976-79 and 1986-87.

Seymour, James D., The Fifth Modernization: China’s Human Rights Movement, 1978-1979, Stanfordville NY, Human Rights Publishing Group, 1980, pp. 381

Wei, Jingsheng, The Courage to Stand Alone: Letters from Prison and Other Writings, New York and London, Penguin, 1998, pp. 283

Wei, a prominent advocate of ‘the fifth modernization’ – democracy, was arrested and jailed in 1979.

There were signs of unrest before 1989: students in Heifei demonstrated in December 1986 against the Party’s role in elections to the Peoples Congress, and student protests spread to Shanghai and other cities. Simmering unrest continued, encouraged by conflict at the top of the Party between hardliners and those more sympathetic to intellectuals. But the spark for the mass protests of April to June 1989 was the death of the former General Secretary Hu Yaobang, forced out of office by hardliners for alleged responsibility for the protests of December 1986. Students massed in Tiananmen Square in April to lay wreaths to Hu, and the protest rapidly developed through marches, occupation of the Square, boycott of classes and formation of autonomous student unions. The demonstrations won support from workers and other Beijing residents and spread to other parts of the country. Some Party leaders tried to conciliate the students, but in May the rise of a more radical student leadership and the launching of a hunger strike, coinciding with the visit of President Gorbachev, led most of the Politburo to endorse the imposition of martial law. This met widespread popular resistance. Numerous collections of documents and accounts of both protest and repression were compiled at the time. The sources selected here seek to give an overall perspective on events.

Asia Monitor Resource Center, A Moment of Truth: Workers Participation in China’s 1989 Democracy Movement and the Emergence of Independent Unions, Hong Kong, Asia Monitor Resource Center, 1991, pp. 254

Cherrington, Ruth, China’s Students: The Struggles for Democracy, London, Routledge, 1991, pp. 239

Duke, Michael S., The Iron House: A Memoir of the Chinese Democracy Movement and the Tiananmen Massacre, Layton, Utah, Gibbs Smith, 1990, pp. 180

Eyewitness account from May 19 by Chinese-speaking American professor.

Han, Minzhu, Cries for Democracy: Writings and Speeches from the 1989 Chinese Democracy Movement, Princeton NJ, Princeton University Press, 1990, pp. 401

Collection of materials from the protest movement.

Lee, Terence, Military Cohesion and Regime Maintenance : Explaining the Role of the Military in 1989 China and 1998 Indonesia, Armed Forces & Society, Vol. 32, issue 1, 2005, pp. 80-104

Liang, Zhang ; Nathan, Andrew J. ; Link, Perry, The Tiananmen Papers, compiled by Zhang Liang and edited by Andrew J. Nathan and Perry Link, London, Little Brown and Abacus, 2001, pp. 679

Secret Party papers leaked to the west provide details of the meetings, negotiations and communications between the top leaders about how to deal with the protests, and the triumph of the hardliners over Zhao Ziyang, General Secretary of the Party, who wished to be conciliatory. Western scholars generally accepted the papers as authentic.

Lizhi, Fang, Bringing Down the Great Wall: Writings on Science, Culture and Democracy, translated and edited J.H. Williams, New York, Alfred Knopf, 1990, pp. 336

Fang Lizhi, a prominent astrophysicist, became an increasingly vocal critic of the regime in the 1980s and was linked to the 1986 student protests.

Mok, Chiu Yu ; Harrison, Frank, Voices from Tiananmen Square: Beijing Spring and the Democracy Movement, Montreal, Black Rose Books, 1990, pp. 203

Collection of documents from participants in demonstrations.

Oksenberg, Michael ; Sullivan, Lawrence R. ; Lamberts, Marc, Beijing Spring 1989: Confrontation and Conflict, The Basic Documents, Armonk NY, M.E. Sharpe, 1990, pp. 403

Collection of documents from official perspective.

Saich, Tony, The Chinese People’s Movement: Perspectives on Spring 1989, Armonk NY, M.E. Sharpe, 1991, pp. 207

Includes both an account of the protests and the authorities’ response, and scholarly essays interpreting the context. Extensive bibliography.

Thompson, Mark R., To Shoot or Not to Shoot: Posttotalitarianism in China and Eastern Europe, Comparative Politics, Vol. 34, issue 1, 2001, pp. 63-83

Seeks to explain why in 1989 there was a massacre in Beijing but not in Berlin or Prague. Similar discussion in Thompson, Democratic Revolutions: Asia and Eastern Europe (A. 1.b. Strategic Theory, Dynamics, Methods and Movements) .

True, Michael, The 1989 democratic uprising in China from a nonviolent perspective, In Kumar, Mahendra ; Low, Peter , Legacy and Future of Nonviolence New Delhi, Gandhi Peace Foundation, , 1996, pp. 141-157

Unger, Jonathan, The Pro-Democracy Protests in China: Reports from the Provinces, Armonk NY, M.E. Sharpe, 1991, pp. 239

Zhao, Dingxin, The Power of Tiananmen: State-Society Relations and the 1989 Beijing Student Movement, [2001], Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2004, pp. 456

There has been a gradual but unpredictable relaxation of controls over freedom of speech and publication and some evidence of a developing civil society. The abandonment of former socialist policies has increased the wealth of some but encouraged corruption, and left many workers, peasants and those dependent on state benefits economically insecure. As a result there has been a dramatic increase in worker unrest, public protests by pensioners, and some criticism of economic globalization. In particular, the displacement and environmental problems caused by China’s massive hydropower programme, beginning with the Three Gorges Dam, has met with opposition. There is in addition evidence of rising rural unrest over sale of land to developers, local corruption and destruction of the environment. Campaigners are both putting up candidates in local elections and demonstrating. The government admitted that there had been 74,000 ‘mass incidents’ in 2004.

The incorporation of Hong Kong into China in 1995 created a zone with a special status and a lively democracy movement that had sprung up in the period leading to Britain’s transfer of control to Beijing. Nationalist dissent has not prompted the kind of problems experienced in the USSR because, in the China created in 1949, over 90 per cent of the population were ethnic Chinese. But reports have emerged of significant dissent among the Muslim population of Xinjiang. (Tibet is here treated as a separate country.)

Chase, Michael S. ; Mulvenon, James C., You’ve Got Dissent! Chinese Dissident Use of the Internet and Beijing’s Counter-Strategies, Santa Monica CA, RAND, 2002, pp. 132

Dongfang, Han, Chinese labour struggles, New Left Review, issue 34 (July/August), 2005, pp. 65-85

Interview with a former railway worker involved in trade union activity at time of Tiananmen, who now directs the China Labour Bulletin and broadcasts from Hong Kong to promote independent union activity in China.

Fayong, Shi ; Cai, Yongshun, Disaggregating the State: Networks and Collective Resistance in Shanghai, The China Quarterly, Vol. 186, 2006, pp. 314-332

Study of Shanghai home owners’ resistance that suggests that fragmentation of state power at local level provides opportunities for resistance, and that its success may be helped by social networks between participants in collective action and officials or media workers.
 See also Fayong, Shi , Social Capital and Collective Resistance in Urban China Neighborhoods: a comunity movement in Shanghai Singapore, Dept of Sociology, National University of Singapore, , 2004, pp. 43 , online.

Friedman, Edward ; Pichowicz, Paul G. ; Selden, Mark, Revolution, Resistance and Reform in Village China, New Haven CT, Yale University Press, 2005, pp. 368

Jianrong, Yu, Social Conflict in Rural China, China Security, Vol. 3, issue 2 (spring), 2007, pp. 2-17

O'Brien, Kevin J., Popular Protest in China, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 2008, pp. 278

O'Brien, Kevin J. ; Li, Lianjiang, Rightful Resistance in Rural China, Cambridge and New York, Cambridge University Press, 2006, pp. 201

Based on fieldwork since 1994 on local instances of rights-based opposition. Chapter 4, ‘Tactical Escalation’, pp. 67-94, is especially rich in examples

Perry, Elizabeth J. ; Selden, Mark, Chinese Society: Change, Conflict and Resistance, [2000], 2nd edition, London, Routledge, 2003, pp. 296

Analyses reactions to government reforms, including both covert and open resistance. Distinguishes between intellectual dissidents and popular rebellion. See especially ‘Rights and resistance: The changing context of the dissident movement’ (pp. 20-38); ‘Pathways of labour insurgency’ (pp. 41-61); and ‘Environmental protest in rural China’ (pp. 143-59) which includes reference to direct action against a factory polluting water. Second edition has added chapters on Falun Gong, Christianity and land struggles.

Qinglian, He, China’s listing social structure, New York Review of Books, issue 5 (September/October), 2000, pp. 69-100

A critical assessment of Chinese society by a Chinese social scientist, widely discussed within China, indicating the context for unrest. Inset is an article describing a pensioner campaign led by a former Party official (pp. 82-83).

Stalley, Phillip ; Yang, Dongning, An Emerging Environmental Movement in China?, The China Quarterly, Vol. 186, 2006, pp. 333-356

Tai, Zixue, The Internet in China: Cyberspace and Civil Society, London, Routledge, 2006, pp. 365

Wasserstrom, Jeffrey N., Student protests in fin-de-siecle China, New Left Review, issue 237 (September/October), 1999, pp. 52-76

Discusses 1999 student demonstrations against the NATO bombing of Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, comparing them with earlier 1919 and June 1989 protests. Argues that, despite official support and encouragement, the 1999 protests did reflect significant degree of student autonomy and included allusion to 1989.

Xueqin, Jiang, Fighting to organize, Far Eastern Economic Review, 06/09/2001, pp. 72-75

Gives examples of strikes and sit-ins and role of unofficial trade unions.

Yan, Huang ; Qeiqing, Guo, The Transnational Network and Labor Rights in China, China Rights Forum, issue 3, 2006, pp. 57-62

See also:

Journal of Democracy, China since Tiananmen, Journal of Democracy, 2009, contains a section on ‘China since Tiananmen’, covering different sources of opposition – labour, rural, human rights activism, and online activism, pp. 5-40
New Internationalist, Mao or never. China's people speak, New Internationalist, 2004, pp. 9-28. On pp. 16-17, Yu Jianrong charts the growth of direct action among farmers resisting heavy taxes, protesting against irregularities in village elections or challenging corruption among local cadres

The rise to supreme power of Xi Jinping, who became General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 2012 and combined his party role with becoming state President in 2013, has marked a new phase in Chinese politics. Xi has consolidated his control over the party through an anti-corruption drive against many prominent as well as lower level officials, and also initiated greater suppression of political and social dissent. He has also encouraged a mood of popular nationalistic pride at the same time as projecting China's growing global economic power (for example through the 'Belt and Road' trade and infrastructure policy) and pursuing a more politically and militarily assertive foreign policy. The Chinese government has now adopted an even more repressive policy in Tibet, launched an unprecedented crackdown in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, and stepped up pressure on Hong Kong and Taiwan to accept greater control from Beijing. Xi's dominance within the Party was demonstrated at the 2017 Party Congress, when he notably failed to indicate any possible successor, and the Congress voted to incorporate Xi Jinping’s thought into its Constitution. Xi also annulled the two-term limit on holding the state presidency. Commentators have suggested that Xi's ambition is to emulate the ascendancy of Chairman Mao.

Since ruthlessly repressing the Tienanmen Square movement in 1989, the Chinese authorities have generally tried to suppress potentially threatening political and intellectual dissent. They have, however, tended to be rather more tolerant towards (often localized) protests on specific socio-economic grievances, as well as the quite widespread industrial unrest. Despite the repressive approach since 2012 towards independent social organizations (especially those suspected of foreign links), and towards the publicizing of protests, and despite more rigorous surveillance and control over the internet, socio-economic and worker dissent has been widespread. The official media do not usually cover industrial action or other protests, such as resistance by farmers to local officials seizing their land. But popular unrest has been recorded by researchers both inside and outside China. For example, Lu Yayu and his partner catalogued on his Blog spot over 70,000 protests from 2013 to June 2016, when he was arrested and then sentenced to four years in prison. Foreign researchers have not found evidence of greater fear about taking to the streets over specific grievances. Indeed, some protests have had a national focus, for example demonstrations in Beijing by parents about the death of the only child allowed to them under the 'one child' population policy, or by ex-servicemen calling for higher benefits. Protests are also coordinating online. For instance, over 800 chat groups and 10,000 people were mobilized to oppose a waste incinerator in a city in Guandong province. Officially Chinese citizens are allowed to submit petitions to the authorities complaining about injustices, but in practice complainants may be arrested by police or assaulted by security guards.

Resistance by Workers

Worker agitation has certainly not subsided. The regime seemed to have decided to try to suppress industrial protests, when several prominent labour activists, including Zeng Feijang, Zhu Xiaomei and He Xiaobo, were arrested in December 2015 and charged with disturbing social order and embezzlement. But although strikers may be met by threats of fines or imprisonment, and strike pickets may be broken up by the police (as happened at a Guangzhou steel plant in March 2016), the state has also responded by trying to improve workers' conditions, or by encouraging courts, when there is litigation, to find in the workers' favour. Workers were, however, hit by the slowing down of China's economy in 2019.

The incidence of strikes is monitored most closely by the Hong Kong based China Labour Bulletin (which publishes a strike map), and it recorded over 2,700 strikes in 2015 (more than double the number in 2014). It logged 1,386 strikes in 2019, but  many of these on a smaller scale than they had been in 2014. The Bulletin estimates, however, that it only has information about approximately one tenth of the total number of worker protests.  Factory workers in Shenzhen tried to set up an independent trade union in 2018, and gained active support from university students. But most worker demonstrations have highlighted issues such as wage arrears, failure of employers to contribute to pensions, or pay cuts and redundancies. There have also been protests about the often unsafe work conditions - China Labour Bulletin in March 2020 compared maps of 519 strikes in the previous six months and 272 recorded work accidents in the same period.  The Bulletin also discerned by 2019 a decline in factory-based protest, but an increase in agitation in the expanding service and retail sector. It also confirmed a trend for labour protests to take place in the private sector rather than in state-owned enterprises, but noted this might be due to stricter controls in the latter, making it harder to organize workers. High tech workers were laid off in large numbers in 2019 (as many tech start-ups collapsed and even major companies shed staff) and were angry about the way they were made redundant. A former employee of Huawei, Li Honguan, who asked for severance pay and a bonus, was detained for eight months, apparently at the company's request.

Women's Rights, LGBT Rights and Social Activism

Although in theory the Communist revolution in China liberated women in the spheres of education, work, politics and society, and did mark a significant break with the extreme inequality embedded in earlier Chinese tradition (symbolized by the binding of women's feet), in practice women still suffer various forms of discrimination. The economic reforms promoted since the 1980s, which have radically changed society and increased general prosperity, have had a mixed impact on women. Many women have migrated from rural areas to take up new jobs, and have therefore been partly freed from traditional expectations and family pressures and gained some financial independence – becoming less likely to accept arranged marriages for example. But many have had low paid and unregulated work in the domestic sector or become office cleaners. Others got jobs in factories. Women migrants have often therefore become vulnerable to exploitation in their workplace. The official Party line also promotes stereotyped views of women. So the impact of the economic reforms on most women has been mixed. Indeed, the post-1980s transformation of society has encouraged an emerging feminism, which has since 2017 also been inspired by the international impact of the #MeToo movement. MeToo in China began as a university-based protest in January 2018, when students publicly alleged sexual misconduct by professors, but has gradually spread via the Internet to other parts of Chinese society.

Despite censorship, the Internet plays a central role in promoting and linking dissent, and also connects feminists in China with the active Chinese diaspora in other parts of the world. On International Women's Day, for instance, feminists joining in one of the marches outside China can broadcast videos to be watched inside the country. Active feminists risk being arrested and having their websites deleted. ‘Feminist Voices’, an advocacy group, had to close down in 2018. But many women, who do not necessarily identify as feminists, have also complained online about the treatment of women, and have responded to how the Covid-19 crisis dramatized some of the problems. Discriminatory treatment of women health workers (having their heads shaved, although men did not, and receiving lower grade safety equipment) was one example. The danger of increased domestic violence during the compulsory lockdown was another issue.

There is a growing literature on feminism in China, for example Leta Hong Fincher, Betraying Big Brother (2018). (For details of Hong Fincher's publications, and other references on feminism in China and recent activism see: Volume Two, F.5 New Global Feminist Wave. 2017, Introductory General References; and also F.5.b. Opposing Rape, Violence and Sexual Harassment and MeToo.)

Traditional Chinese society was less homophobic than many other cultures, but under the Communist regime homosexuality was effectively banned (gay men could be prosecuted under 'hooliganism' laws) until 1997, and classified as a mental illness until 2001. Amnesty International's Annual Report for 2019 noted continuing discrimination against LGBTIQ people, despite China's official engagement in UN processes to promote their rights. Social awareness inside China, especially among the young, of LGBTIQ movements, lifestyles and rights in other parts of the world has increased. But the Party is generally hostile to any independent LGBTIQ attempts to organize, mobilize or protest, has in recent years monitored them more closely, and in 2017 tried to limit further any publicizing of LGBTIQ lifestyles. A dating app has, however, reportedly been tolerated, and the Economist (25 January 2020) recorded a lesbian wedding with 100 guests in Kunming city, although same sex marriage is not recognized in law, and therefore adoption would be illegal and any children would have an uncertain status. However, opinion polls in recent years, and citizen proposals to the National People's Congress on family law reform in 2019, suggest some public support for same sex marriage.

Disagreements within the Party, and the willingness of LGBTIQ people to protest, were highlighted in April 2018, when the social media platform Weibo (a Chinese version of Twitter) announced a ban on LGBTIQ content, along with pornography and violence. This move did not, however, find the expected favour with the authorities; indeed, it was opposed by the Party Youth League and the official Party newspaper the People's Daily criticized it. Moreover, it was met by vigorous protests from the LGBT community online, and resistance included activists (wearing appropriate tee shirts) asking strangers on the streets to hug them and videoing the results. Weibo rapidly reversed its policy.

Intellectual Dissent, Citizen Journalists and Defiance on the Internet

The hardening of the Party line on intellectual dissent was signalled by a directive in early 2013 which called for suppression of seven 'mistaken ways of thinking'. Sanctions against those who continued to discuss forbidden topics, such as judicial independence or multi-party democracy, also escalated: from deleting Internet posts, or closing down accounts, to prison sentences. Some Chinese academics responded by going abroad; others had to leave their university positions. Law Professor Xu Zhangran escaped prison after publicly criticizing Xi's decision to end the limit on holding the state presidency, but lost his job in 2018.  He has remained defiant, and published an essay online in early February 2020 highly critical of the authorities' handling of the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak. The regime is also nervous about students reading subversive ideas. Although Beijing still hails Marx as an inspiration, the Party has threatened to close down Marxist societies that actually read the original texts. Indeed, some students embracing Marxist philosophy have shown active interest in workers' rights. During 2019 the government issued new rules for patriotic education, which extended to ordering both primary and secondary schools to remove 'improper books', and led to a county library reportedly burning books.    

Since the press and official media are tightly controlled, dissenters and  'citizen journalists' resort to the Internet. Some of them operate from the safety of living outside China: for example Toronto-based Wen Zhao provides critical assessment of current affairs in a Mandarin language vlog he updates every few days. He is widely followed by Chinese outside China, but believes he has an audience inside China among those technically able to circumnavigate official censorship. Other citizen journalists operate from inside the country. Amnesty International documented in 2019 the detention of editors of a website on labour rights in Guangzhou, and the sentencing of Huang Qi to 12 years in prison for 'leaking state secrets' because of his role in a website covering protests in the country.              

The outbreak of the coronavirus in Wuhan in December 2019 prompted quite widespread criticism of the authorities, especially over eight doctors censored by the local authorities for 'spreading rumours' of a new virus, before it was officially recognized. The fact that one of the eight, the ophthalmologist Li Wenliang, then died of the virus on 6 February 2020, strengthened public disquiet. The doctors were not alone in being officially reprimanded. The Chinese Human Rights Defenders documented over 250 cases of citizens being punished in January for 'spreading rumours'. A researcher and students in the Nanjing University School of Journalism and Communications issued a critical analysis of the initial official response. A group of academics also sent an open letter addressed to the government, demanding an apology to Dr Li and urging that free speech (guaranteed formally under the state constitution) should be respected. 

Communicating and organizing via the Internet is central to most dissent, but apart from active intervention by the authorities to counter subversive material, it is also an arena in which many Chinese citizens engage. Some act as allies of the Party, censoring 'undesirable' political, terrorist-inspired or pornographic materials. The Communist Youth League began recruiting university students to act as censors in 2015. 

Dissidents, Human Rights Defenders and Independent Lawyers

After the crushing of the Tiananmen Square and related national protests in 1989 many prominent activists fled abroad. Those who remained in China and defied the regime in subsequent years have often faced imprisonment, more unofficial forms of detention and isolation for months at a time, or regular harassment by the authorities. This policy has driven some prominent dissidents to leave the country, notably the political artist Ai Weiwei, who was charged with subversion in 2011, and after serving four years under house arrest, left for Germany. But activists still defy the authorities from within. The best known outside China was Liu Xiaobo (a Nobel Peace Prize winner), who had played a key role in Tiananmen Square and continued to resist the regime. He joined with other intellectuals in 2008 to draw up Charter 08 manifesto, demanding multi-party democracy, an act that led to an 11-year prison sentence in 2009. He died in custody of liver cancer in 2017. Another example is the rock singer Li Zhi, who was due to start a concert tour in February 2019, who suddenly disappeared; his tour was cancelled and his social media accounts removed. Li is known for his songs about social issues and has raised the dangerous topic of the Tiananmen 1989 protests. He was one of 13 people - including artists creating a National Conscience Exhibition, and also human rights defenders - reportedly detained months in advance of the 30th anniversary of the crushing of Tiananmen. Less drastic action was taken by the regime before the two-week session of the National People's Congress in March 2019, which led to increased security and the temporary rounding-up and removal from the capital of prominent dissidents. These included the artist Hua Yong and environmental activist Hu Jia, who noted that this was an annual occurrence for him.

Amnesty International reported in 2019 that an advocate for civil and political rights, Chen Jianfang, had been arrested in June for 'inciting subversion of state power'. The same charge was used against Liu Feiyue, who founded the website 'Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch', and after detention in 2016 had been sentenced to five years imprisonment, and also against two NGO workers opposing discrimination, who had been detained since July 2019. The human rights lawyer Yu Wensheng from Beijing was arrested in February 2019, also for inciting subversion, because he circulated an open letter, which called for changes to the Chinese Constitution.  Amnesty also noted the disappearance in August 2017 of the human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who had produced a memoir on his earlier experience of being 'disappeared' and tortured, and had not been heard of by the end of 2019.

Control of Religion and Cultural Destruction and Repression in Xinjiang

China is officially atheist, but also claims to respect religious freedom. But in practice the CCP has always been hostile to religious beliefs and autonomous religious communities, and inclined to suppress adherents of Christianity, Taoism, Buddhism and Islam. Under Xi this policy has become harsher, with destruction of churches, temples, religious statues and mosques. Religious leaders who are not authorised by the party are liable to imprisonment for subversion.  Since Xi came to power there have been several crackdowns on Christians, apart from those belonging to the 'Three-Self Patriotic' churches, which have priests approved by the CCP and follow the party line.  Despite pressure to join these churches, among the estimated million Christians the numbers supporting unofficial Christian congregations has increased. 

The party launched an 'anti-church' campaign in 2015,which included removing crosses from hundreds of church buildings. Another major crackdown in 2018, after passage of legislation for stricter surveillance of churches and harsher penalties for recalcitrance, included raids on church services and bible classes. For example, the Guardian reported that the Guangzhou Bible Reformed Church was shut down for the second time in three months in November 2018. Widely reported was the detention of Pastor Wang Yi of the evangelical Early Rain Covenant Church and about 100 members of his congregation, some of them held under house arrest. Wang, who was an outspoken critic of CCP control over churches, was sentenced to nine years in jail in December 2019. The party also seized the opportunity of the lockdown during the coronavirus crisis early in 2020 to destroy crosses; and videos were shared of the destruction of Xiangbaishu Church in Yixing city in Jiangsu province. Churches were, however, generally allowed to communicate online, although the Christian Post reported that state-supported religious bodies in Shandong Province advocated an end to online preaching.

The challenge of religion becomes much more threatening, however, when it is linked to distinct cultures and ethnic groups, and may encourage desire for political autonomy or independence. The CCP has therefore waged a sustained campaign to control and neutralise Tibetan Buddhism and dismiss   memories of the past under the Dalai Lama, and promoted a large influx of people from other areas of China into Tibet as part of economic development.  (See C.II.2 for more detail) The greatest potential threat to China’s political stability, and now the region where the party is imposing an unprecedented system of repression, is Xinjiang. This is home to Turkic speaking Uighurs. Kazakhs, and other ethnic minorities, most of them Muslims. Han Chinese, who constitute over 90 percent of China's total population, form a minority of about 10 million in Xinjiang. They are mostly clustered in nine cities, and control economic institutions, the media, hospitals, the police, and of course the government. They live apart from the rest of the population in a system of effective apartheid. Xinjiang is an important region for the Chinese government also because it is central to the 'Belt and Road' policy of linking China to the wider world through trade and ambitious infrastructure projects. Xinjiang produces much of China's gas and oil supplies, and is also a transit zone for imported fuel from Russia and Central Asia.

The Muslim peoples of Xinjiang have long been perceived as a potential threat to China's stability and episodes of violent protest were periodically reported. Serious violence occurred in city of Urumqi in the far west of Xinjiang in July 2009, when Uighur riots (sparked by the killing of two Uighurs in another part of China) led to hundreds of deaths, many of Han Chinese. During 2014 several organized attacks occurred, including a knife attack at a railway station killing at least 30 people in March and the bombing of a market in May. Coordinated assaults in August, primarily on police stations and government offices, caused (according to the official press) about 100 deaths. The regime claims there have been numerous other terrorist incidents.

Xi's government has responded to the threat of 'terrorism' and ethnic/religious unrest with a new policy launched in 2016 under a new CCP regional boss. This policy includes a systematic destruction of hundreds or even thousands of mosques as well as symbols of Uighur cultural heritage, such as significant tombs and shrines, and enforcing alterations in religious ritual. The new policy also entails creating a 'gulag' of prison camps for about one million Uighurs. This draconian system of forcible 're-education' occurs in what the regime styles 'vocational training centres'. This mass imprisonment is supplemented by a system of Orwellian technological surveillance and control in the whole region, especially the cities, for example compulsorily compiling biometric data such as fingerprints, blood type and DNA on identity cards. Lists of those to be detained are generated by the 'Integrated Joint Operations Platform', which combines information gained through CCTV, smart phones, financial and family planning records and other sources. ('Inside  Xinjiang: Apartheid with Chinese characteristics', Economist, 2 June, 2018). Although the Han Chinese also come under general surveillance, they apparently accept it as providing them with security.

Detailed knowledge of the Uighur gulag is due to the leak of over 400 pages of secret CCP documents dating from 2017, the China Cables, published in 14 countries on 25 November 2019. These highly sensitive documents were released through the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) after collaboration between 17 international media outlets, including the BBC (Panorama Programme on BBC TV One), NBC News, Associated Press, the Guardian, El Pais, and the Irish Times. (The New York Times broke ranks to reveal details a week earlier.) The Chinese Embassy in London denounced the cables as 'fake news'. But Amnesty International noted that the cables matched accounts by former detainees and overseas relatives of some sent to the camps. This leak included details of the CCP's wider policy of rounding up or deporting all Uighurs in China with dual nationality, interrogating Uighurs inside Xinjiang about relatives abroad, and official attempts (sometimes via relatives) to persuade Uighurs abroad to return to China, where they might be arrested.

The systematic suppression of the Uighurs was more widely publicized during 2020. One reason was that US President Donald Trump announced in June sanctions against Chinese officials known to be linked to oppressive policies, and banned goods made with forced Uighur labour, as part of his wider confrontation with China. In July a group of Uighur exiles called on the International Criminal Court to investigate Xi Jinping and other senior officials for genocide and crimes against humanity. More information on the extent of the suppression also emerged in the western press, for example that the Uighur birth rate was being systematically reduced through a range of measures, including in some cases sterilization. Official Chinese statistics showed that in two prefectures the Uighur birth rate fell by 60 per cent from 2015-18. There is also evidence that hundreds of thousands of Uighur children have been orphaned because their parents are detained in camps, and have been sent to schools where they are forbidden to speak the Uighur language. Chinese government policy also aims to replace use of the Uighur language in all schools with Mandarin. This campaign is part of a wider Beijing strategy of limiting use of minority languages in schools throughout China. Implementation of this policy sparked protests in Inner Mongolia, where at the beginning of the school year in early September 2020 parents kept their children at home.


Some of the sources available on the Chinese government's policy towards all forms of nonconformity, dissent and open protest - such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reports, and key newspapers - have been cited in this introductory summary. Specific social groups and protests, and the relevant Chinese government policies, are also covered by specialized campaigning organizations and research/news outlets. For example, the China Labour Bulletin in Hong Kong ( is widely recognized as a key source on worker unrest. A wide range of feminist groups and journals periodically focus on women's position in China and feminist protest; and Pink News covers LGBT issues. Numerous Church journals report on suppression of Christians, and higher education sources, such as University World News, cover academic dissent.

A selection of relevant books and journal articles (and a few broadcasting and newspaper sources, especially on Xinjiang and the China Cables) are listed below.

Liu Xiaobo: China’s Most Prominent Dissident Dies, BBC News, 13/07/2017,

Reports on death in custody of the Nobel Peace Prize winner, who was prominent in the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstration and continued to defy the regime. He was serving an 11-year sentence for his role in promoting Charter 08 in 2008, calling for multi-party democracy. The report elaborates on his life and the responses to his death.

AP, China forcing birth control on Uighurs to suppress population, Al Jazeera, 20/06/2020,

Highlights Chinese authorities’ forced sterilisations practices of Uighurs women in an apparent campaign to curb the growth of ethnic minority populations in the western Xinjiang region.

See also: AFP, ‘China sterilising ethnic minority women in Xinjiang, report says’, The Guardian, 29 June 2020.

See also: ‘China forcing birth control on Uighurs to suppress population, report says, BBC, 29 June 2020.

Bengsten, Peter, China's Forced Labor Problem, The Diplomat, 21/03/2018,

The author notes that forced labour is a sensitive and rarely publicized topic, although it has existed in China for decades, for example in construction work.  It sometimes surfaces, as in the 2007 scandal about children, the elderly and adults with disabilities who were kidnapped in Zhanxi province, often with the collusion of local authorities, and forced to work in brick kilns.  Later similar stories in other provinces came to light.  The article also covers other forms of exploitation, such as students forced to work cheaply as interns in order to graduate - a practice that received global attention in 2012 in relation to electronic supply chains.  The author notes the role of local NGOs and sometimes the local media in exposing abuses.  

See also: Bengsten, Peter, 'Hidden in Plain Sight: Forced Labour Constructing  China', openDemocracy, (16 Feb, 2018),

Bin, Sun, Outcomes of Chinese Rural Protest: Analysis of the Wukan Protest, Asian Survey, Vol. 59, issue 3, 2019, pp. 429-450

The article provides a detailed analysis of the immediate and longer term results of a protest over loss of village land in Wukan, Guangdon, to reveal government responses designed to pacify protesters, and the impact on individuals, the local protest group and broader society. The aim is to shed light on the widespread phenomenon of protests over land.

Elfstrom, Manfred, Two Steps Forward, One Step Back: Chinese State Reactions to Labour Unrest, China Quarterly, Vol. 240, 2019, pp. 855-879

Elfstrom analyzes data from 2003-2012 on strikes and other worker protests, and concludes that the state has responded both with greater repression (illustrated by higher spending on the People's Armed Police) and greater responsiveness (illustrated by pro-worker or split decisions in mediation, arbitration and court judgements).  The article concludes by analyzing the implications of changes in policy since the accession of  Xi Jinping.

See also: Elfstrom, Manfred, 'A Tale of Two Deltas: Labour Politics in Jiangsu and Guangdong', British Journal of Industrial Relations, vol.57 no.2 (2019), pp.247-74. DOI:

Fong, Mei, One Child, One Child: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment, London, Oneworld Publications, 2016, pp. 272 pb

In this book the journalist Mei Fong explains the context of the one child policy introduced in 1978 to control China’s growing population,and enforced through sterilization, abortion and fines.   The policy was modified in January 2016, when couples were allowed to have two children.

See also: Fong, Mei, ‘Sterilization, abortion, fines: How China brutally enforced its 1-child policy’, New York Post, 3 January 2016.

Fu, Diana, Disguised Collective Action in China, Comparative Political Studies, Vol. 50, issue 4, 2016, pp. 499-527

The author, drawing on fieldwork in unofficial labour organizations, examines how, rather than stage risky collective protests, these groups quite often assist individuals to demand their rights by appealing to officials. She concludes that 'disguised collective action' can secure concessions for participants and enable activists to find 'a middle ground between challenging authorities and organizational survival'.

Gaetano, Arianne, Out to Work: Migration, Gender and the Changing Lives of Rural Women in Contemporary China, Honolulu, Hawaii, University of Hawaii Press, 2015, pp. 232

The author’s research spans the period 1998 -2012 to chart the impact of the economic reforms on rural women drawn into urban areas, often employed in domestic service or in hotels and office cleaning. She notes how this migration of cheap and flexible labour from the countryside has underpinned high levels of urban consumption, and both helped to empower the women migrants and to perpetuate gendered forms of difference and inequality.

See also: Chang, Leslie T., Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China, New York, Penguin Random House, 2009, pp. 448 (pb).

Chang, who was a journalist for the Wall Street Journal inside China, revealed the lives of migrant women working on assembly lines in an industrial city, primarily by focusing on the experiences of two young women for three years.  Her book which won awards in the USA, threw light on a previously unknown area, and illustrated the very mixed impact of the economic reforms and migration from the countryside on women’s opportunities.

Graham-Harrison, Emma ; Garside, Juliette, The China Cables, Guardian Weekly, 29/11/2019,

Articles based on a major leak of Chinese Communist Party documents from 2017 revealing the all-embracing surveillance system in the Xinjiang region and the mass incarceration of the Uighurs.  Publication in November 2019 was part of an internationally coordinated release of the leaked papers through the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).

See also: and, which also reveals how  Australian citizens from Muslim minorities in Xinjiang were targeted for surveillance by the Chinese authorities as part of a policy involving  deportation or detention of foreign passport holders.

See also: Kuo, Lily, 'How Beijing is Quietly Razing the Mosques of Xinjiang', Guardian Weekly, 17 May, 2019, pp.26-27.

Reports on a Guardian and Bellingcat investigation that discovered the systematic destruction of mosques and shrines since 2016.

Shun-hing, Chan, Changing Church-State Relations in Contemporary China: The case of Wenzhou Diocese, International Sociology, Vol. 31, issue 4, 2016, pp. 489-507

The article focuses on the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Chinese state since 1980 through the prism of 'institutional theory', and charts developments in Wenzhou. It identifies four phases in state policy: religious restoration, tighter control, 'management' of religion, and limiting religious influence. The Church has responded in the past by 'accommodation, negotiation, confrontation and resistance', but in recent years tended towards greater resistance.

Wright, Teresa, Labour Protest in China's Private Sector: Responses to Chinese Communism with Capitalist Characteristics, Economy and Society, Vol. 47, issue 3, 2018, pp. 382-402

Wright, Teresa, Popular Protest in China, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2018, pp. 256

Wright's survey of protest covers the whole of the post-Mao period, examining the range of different types of protest by farmers, workers and urban homeowners, as well as environmentalists, dissidents, and ethnic minorities. She notes that popular protest has often achieved some positive response, though protesters also often suffer. The book includes consideration of Xi Jinping's more repressive policy and suggests this could lead to much greater tensions that might threaten regime stability.  Wright also covers protest in Hong Kong in the rather different political context there.

See also:

Wright, Teresa, (ed.) (2019), Handbook of Protest and Resistance in China, Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishers, pp. 480.

Survey of various forms of protest in China since 1989 by a range of social groups (for example urban, rural, workers, religious minorities and ethnic minorities), with 29 chapters by experts in the field. The book begins with two overviews of the prospects for regime survival, and the whole gamut of social unrest. It includes sections on environmental protest, information and communication technologies, and also on Hong Kong. 

Yao, Li, A Zero-Sum Game? Repression and Protest in China, Government and Opposition, Vol. 54, issue 2, 2019, pp. 309-335

The author draws on a data set of 1,418 protests in China to argue that the  state does allow a limited space for protest and that most protesters operate within these limits.  Therefore 'contention' in China is a non-zero sum game, as opposed to the extremes of revolt and repression often studied in the past.

Yuhua, Wang, Coercive Capacity and the Durability of the Chinese Communist State, Communist and Post-Communist Studies, Vol. 47, issue 1, 2014, pp. 13-25

The author examines why the Chinese Communist regime has been able to retain control despite the period of rapid economic change and growth that have often elsewhere promoted strong pressure for democratization. The article suggests that one major reason is that the CCP 'has successfully strengthened the state's ’coercive capacity', in particular increased funding for the police. This article primarily covers the period before Xi decided to increase repression, but illuminates the context for his policy. 

Tibet has a long history as an effectively independent Buddhist state, but was claimed as part of China by the Chinese Communists, who occupied Tibet in 1950. Under the 1951 Agreement, signed by the Dalai Lama, the Chinese promised to respect the role of Buddhism and the authority of the Dalai Lama. Since then Chinese policy has reflected its internal politics. For example during the Cultural Revolution monasteries were destroyed and practice of Buddhism forbidden, but under Deng Xiaoping limited religious toleration returned. In general, however, China has sought to modernize Tibet, promoted Chinese immigration and suppressed dissent.

Since fleeing to India in 1959, the Dalai Lama has been the key figure in exile and engaged in negotiations with the Chinese government. The Dalai Lama himself is strongly committed to nonviolence, but some of the exile organizations advocate violent revolt. Resistance inside Tibet has at times been violent, as in the 1959 uprising, but has also included nonviolent protests by monks and nuns.

Barnett, Robert ; Akiner, Shirin, Resistance and Reform in Tibet, Bloomington IN, Indiana University Press, 1994, pp. 314

Barnett also contributes an essay to Lehman, Steve ; Barnett, Robert ; Coles, Robert , The Tibetans: A Struggle to Survive New York, Powerhouse Cultural Entertainment Books, , 2004, pp. 125 , a primarily photographic record.

Donnet, Pierre-Antoine, Tibet: Survival in Question, Delhi and London, Oxford University Press and Zed Books, 1994, pp. 267

Examines Tibet from 1950 to early 1990s, including the 1959 uprising, the role of the Dalai Lama and protests in the 1980s (see chapter 4, ‘The revival of nationalism’, pp. 93-107).

Grunfeld, Tom, The Making of Modern Tibet, Revised edition, Armonk NY, M.E. Sharpe, 1996, pp. 352

Discusses the role of the Tibetan diaspora, and intrigues by the Indian government, the Chiang Kai-shek government of Taiwan and the CIA, as well as internal developments from the 1950s to 1995.

Kelly, Petra K. ; Bastian, Gert ; Aillo, Pat, The Anguish of Tibet, Berkeley CA, Parallax Press, 1991, pp. 382

Selection of documents and personal accounts, including eyewitness reports on demonstrations in Lhasa in 1988 and 1989.

Lama, Dalai, My Land and My People, London, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1962, pp. 253

Autobiography of his earlier years.

Lama, Dalai, Freedom in Exile: The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama, London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1990, pp. 308

Schwartz, Ronald D., Circle of Protest: Political Ritual in the Tibetan Uprising, London, Hurst, 1994, pp. 263

Shakiya, Tsering, The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern Tibet since 1947, London, Pimlico, 1999, pp. 574

Account by authoritative Tibetan historian of Tibet under Chinese Communist rule and changing Chinese policies, and the role of the Dalai Lama. See too Shakiya, Tsering , Trouble in Tibet New Left Review, 2008, pp. 5-26 , for discussion of widespread unrest that erupted in March 2008 after initial protests in monasteries were suppressed.

Smith Jr., Warren Jr. W., Tibetan Nation: A History of Tibetan Nationalism and Sino-Tibetan Relations, Boulder CO, Westview Press, 1996, pp. 732

The Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1950 and subsequent changing Chinese policies and Tibetan responses are covered chapters in 9-15. Various protests in 1980s are noted in chapter 15.

See also:

Senthil Ram, The Tibetian Nonviolent Resistance: Empowerment in an Extraordinary SituationIn Ney, Chris , Nonviolence and Social Empowerment London, War Resisters' International, , 2005

Hong Kong's Political Status: British Rule 1842-1997

Hong Kong island became a British Crown Colony in 1842 under one of the 'unequal treaties' that a weak Chinese government was forced to make with foreign powers in the 19th century. Kowloon (on the nearby mainland of China) also became British under another 'unequal treaty' in 1860, and the 'new territories' around Kowloon were acquired by Britain in June 1898, on a hundred year lease from the Chinese government. Hong Kong remained under British military and political control until June 1997, headed by a British Governor General, and until the early 1980s the Executive Council and Legislative Council were appointed by the governor and composed mostly of British expatriates. Colonial rule and lack of any institutional political democracy did not, however, mean an absence of popular activism. During the 1960s widespread economic discontent over low wages led to frequent worker protests, and in 1967 major riots, which the authorities attributed to adherents of Mao's Cultural Revolution, broke out.

After the Chinese Communists came to power in1949, one of their aims was to recover the 'lost territories' - including Hong Kong and Taiwan. However, during the turbulent years under Chairman Mao there were more pressing international crises with the USA and later the USSR to confront, and a focus on rapid economic and social change within China, including 'The Great Leap Forward' and later the Cultural Revolution It would also have been unthinkable for the British government to negotiate transferring the growing population of Hong Kong (from 2.2 million in 1950 to nearly 5.1 million in 1980 and 7.3 million in 1997), swelled by many refugees from the Communist mainland, to a Maoist regime. Moreover, Hong Kong was by the 1970s a flourishing financial and business sector and increasingly a hub of global capitalism. But after Mao's death in 1979, and the policy shift at the top of the Communist Party after 1980 towards a more pragmatic focus on economic growth and modernization, including market reforms and encouragement of external investment in Special Economic Zones, a possible compromise solution to a future for Hong Kong within China looked possible. Moreover, in practice Hong Kong depended on imported food and raw materials from China, and also exported a large quantity of goods to China; and it facilitated much of the investment in the Special Economic Zones. So it was then in Chinese interests to maintain Hong Kong's economic and formal administrative independence.

Deng Xiaoping, the main architect of China's economic reforms and a revised interpretation of party ideology to accommodate them, also developed a theory to accommodate the incorporation of lost territories such as Hong Kong and Taiwan into China. His June 1984 thesis of 'one country, two systems', allowed in principle for considerable political and economic autonomy in territories which rejoined China. He also promised this arrangement would last for 50 years. When Britain reached agreement with China in September 1984 to honour the expiry of their lease on the 'new territories' in June 1997 (which they realistically interpreted to include Hong Kong and Kowloon), a framework was available. British administration would end and the Chinese army would enter Hong Kong, but to defend it against external attack, not, Deng promised, to play an internal role. The Chinese government also undertook to respect freedom of speech and publication in Hong Kong; and the commitment that the status of Hong Kong would remain unchanged for 50 years was reiterated in the Agreement.

After the 1984 Agreement indirect elections were held in Hong Kong in 1985 to the Legislative Council. When the last British Governor General, Chris Patten, was appointed in 1992, he responded to calls from the democracy movement, which had been growing since the mid-1980s, for direct elections to the Legislative Council. This demand was supported by a majority of the population in surveys. Patten did not, however, achieve all the changes he wanted. There was considerable reluctance among Hong Kong 's business and administrative elites, who feared radical social change, to grant elections by universal suffrage. Patten did secure the election of half the Legislative Council in territorial constituencies - a move strongly opposed by the Chinese government and criticised by some in Hong Kong and Britain.

The people of Hong Kong, and especially those with a strong commitment to promoting political freedoms and democratic self-government, who had followed sympathetically the 1989 Tiananmen student and worker movement in China, clearly had grounds for doubt about a future under effective Chinese control. It was obvious Beijing would monitor developments in Hong Kong and apply pressure to those administering it. By 1988 a number of organizations committed to promoting democracy had been formed, and in the aftermath of Tiananmen there were moves to unite to form a political party - though there were some subsequent splits. The United Democrats of Hong Kong, set up in April 1990 with a broadly liberal programme but also stressing social welfare, drew on support from lawyers, teachers and lecturers, individual union activists and the churches, and was headed by the barrister Martin Lee. It contested local elections in 1991 and then aligned with another group 'Meeting Point' to win 12 out of the 18 directly elected seats on the Legislative Council. The United Democrats merged with Meeting Point in 1994 to create the Democratic Party.

The Struggle for Democracy: 1997-2014

Since 1997 the Chinese government has generally continued to resist allowing elections based solely on universal suffrage. In 2004 Beijing ruled that its approval would be required for any change in electoral law, which evoked a protest demonstration of about 200,000 in July that year (on the anniversary of the handover). The Democratic Party and allied pro-democracy groups continued to contest elections, winning for example 19 out of the 30 directly elected geographical seats in the 2008 Legislative Council elections, but only four from the 30 'functional' constituencies representing business, professional and special interest groups. The head of government, a post which Beijing has been anxious to control, was selected after 1997 by a special electoral committee including legislators.

Beijing also pressed for more restrictive legislation to curb political opposition and the Hong Kong executive proposed an anti-subversion law in September 2002. This was challenged by a 500,000 strong march in July 2003 (the day after a visit by the Chinese Premier) and two Hong Kong government members also resigned in protest. The bill was shelved, and the Secretary of Security resigned.

Popular activism continued to be the part of the Hong Kong political scene. For example tens of thousands took part in a vigil on the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre of protesters in June 2009. There were also some signs of Beijing making concessions to Hong Kong's democrats. The Chinese government promised in December 2007 that there would be direct elections for Hong Kong's chief executive in 2017 and for the Legislative Council in 2020. The government of Hong Kong also proposed political reforms in December 2009, including an increase in the size of the Legislative Council - although democratic critics argued more reform was needed - and the Hong Kong Democratic Party held talks with a Beijing official in 2010 for the first time since 1997.

The outlook for Hong Kong retaining any real autonomy has, however, worsened since the new Secretary General of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping, came to power in 2012 and soon demonstrated his commitment to promote his personal dominance, removing many prominent officials in China on corruption charges, tightening party discipline and cracking down on dissent . A Beijing White Paper on the future of Hong Kong issued on 19 June 2014 seemed to indicate that Hong Kong's political rights could be removed whenever the Chinese government decided to do so.

The initiative to uphold Hong Kong's right to democracy was at first seized by the protest group 'Occupy Central with Love and Peace', launched in September 2013 by Professor of Law, Benny Tai Yiu-ting, Professor of Sociology, Chan Kin-man, and the Rev Chu Yiu-ming a Baptist minister, in order to campaign nonviolently for free direct elections for the head of government in Hong Kong. Their first move was to organize an unofficial referendum on 30 June 2014 in which 90 per cent out of nearly 800,000 people voted for a public say in choice of candidates for future elections for the head of government. The group's name reflected the commitment of its leaders to a Gandhian conception of civil disobedience: its manifesto envisaged stages of dialogue, deliberation and citizen authorization leading to civil disobedience. (It also reflected the fact that a small Hong Kong Occupy Central group had been formed in 2011 as part of the world wide protests against the global corporate elite, and set up a camp in the plaza in front of HSBC headquarters for almost a year until finally evicted in September 2012.) The plan for civil disobedience, suggested by Law professor Benny Tai, was to occupy the financial district to demand democratic rights on 1 October 2014, the National Day holiday.

The Umbrella Movement: September-December 2014

Beijing further provoked supporters of democracy when on 31 August 2014 it offered direct elections for the head of government in 2017, but only if (through a complex nominating process) the Chinese government effectively vetted the candidates. Protesters demanding free elections declared an 'era of civil disobedience'. The 79 days of defiant demonstrations, known as the 'Umbrella Movement' or 'Occupy Central', were launched by a week-long student boycott of classes on 22 September 2014. A group of around 150 then occupied a courtyard within the central government buildings, holding umbrellas to deflect pepper spray used by the police, and the 2013 group Occupy Central decided to join in. Demonstrators then took over the street opposite, and police use of tear gas against them prompted thousands more people to participate.

mentsetting up of tent villages in three areas, turned the protests into a mass movement. The protesters were mostly university and high school students, and the highly organized arrangements for maintaining the occupation included setting up a ‘homework zone’. The occupation also stimulated lively discussion groups and lectures, as well as an outpouring of artistic expression through music, dance, painting and sculpture. The protesters formulated their key demands: the resignation of the existing Chief Executive; a new process for nominating candidates for that post; and genuine universal suffrage. However, moves for negotiation between the students and the Hong Kong authorities broke down.

After 18 November, when students tried to occupy the Legislative Council, clearance of occupied areas by the police began. An attempt by demonstrators to surround government headquarters on 30 November was repelled by police, and despite last ditch resistance by a core of activists, police dismantled tents and barricades in the main protest site on 11 December. The movement is estimated to have involved 20 per cent of those living in Hong Kong and was the most major manifestation of popular resistance in its history. It was also impressive for its sense of solidarity, generally peaceful character and internal democratic ethos.

The Official Reaction to the Umbrella Movement

The authorities were slow to move against leading figures in the Umbrella Movement, but three prominent young activists, Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow were tried and found guilty in July 2016 of breaking into a government building and inciting others to do likewise. They were involved in a series of further court cases, and after they were jailed for six to eight months on 17 August 2017 thousands marched in protest, some wearing prison uniforms. But they were eventually acquitted by the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal in February 2018. However in November 2018 the authorities prosecuted the three well known and much older campaigners who had formed 'Occupy Central with Love and Peace', which had merged with the students spearheading the Umbrella Movement. Two student activists and four leading politicians (including Legislative Council member Tanya Chan) were also tried with them on the charge of inciting and conspiring to commit public nuisance. The charges carried a jail sentence of up to seven years. The nine defendants, who were accompanied to court by supporters shouting slogans such as 'Peaceful resistance', and 'I want real universal suffrage', pleaded ‘not guilty’. But 59 year old sociology professor, Chan Kin-man had the previous week given a farewell lecture at the Chinese University of Hong Kong to announce his early retirement. The district court convicted all nine defendants of public nuisance crimes on 9 April 2019. The three founder members of Occupy Central were subsequently sentenced to 16 months in prison (suspended for the 75-year-old Baptist Minister). Other defendants were sentenced to 8 months and in one case community service. The sentencing of Tanya Chan was deferred because she was undergoing an operation for a brain tumour.

Beijing also made moves against freedom of publication and the press in Hong Kong which alarmed democrats. Five booksellers were abducted between October and December 2015, and then detained in China, for selling political literature critical of Chinese politics. One of them, who was released after eight months, subsequently vowed publicly to open a new bookshop in Taiwan as a 'symbol of resistance'. The other four were also apparently released. The Hong Kong authorities in October 2018 refused to renew a work visa for a foreign journalist for the Financial Times. The expulsion of a foreign journalist was seen as a dangerous precedent. Hong Kong journalists also came under increasing pressure, with a number of violent attacks on publishers and editors by opponents of the democracy movement in 2014. The main English language Hong Kong paper, The South China Morning Post, which has been criticized since 1993 for tailoring its content to please Beijing, sacked four columnists in 2014. Under new ownership since 2016 it is seen as leaning further towards Beijing. However, a free non-profit online newspaper, the Hong Kong Free Press has been founded by journalists anxious to provide an independent news source.

The 20th anniversary of Hong Kong rejoining China at the end of June 2017 was ominous for advocates of democracy. Xi Jinping himself attended the official celebrations in Hong Kong, and at the same time a Foreign Ministry spokesman in Beijing noted that the 1984 agreement between London and Beijing (guaranteeing respect for Hong Kong's autonomy for 50 years) was 'a historical document that no longed had any practical significance'.

Continuing Protest and Democratic Activism; 2015-18

Thousands marched on 1 July 2017 to mark the anniversary of the handover to Beijing under the slogan 'Twenty years of lies'. Emily Lau, the first woman elected to Hong Kong's Legislative Council and one of the first generation of democracy activists, declared she would join the protest. Supporters of democracy in Hong Kong have become aware that the British government's main concern is to benefit by ties with China's now internationally powerful economy, and that British protests about infringements of democratic rights in Hong Kong seem to have become token.

A major focus of democratic activism among the younger generation after 2014 was trying to achieve and maintain at least a third of the seats on the Legislative Council in order to retain a veto power over constitutional changes proposed by the executive. They had considerable success in September 2016, when a coalition of pro-democracy parties, including six post 2014 young radicals, won 29 seats out of the total of 70 (35 seats are based on universal suffrage in geographical constituencies), which gave them the required veto power. Among the parties contesting the election was Demosisto, created by the Umbrella Movement activists Joshua Wong and Nathan Law (put on trial in 2016). But the Hong Kong authorities took steps to force some of those elected from their seats in the Council for shouting slogans such as 'Democracy and self-determination' and 'Tyranny must die' when taking the oath of office. Demonstrating in this context was a cause for disqualification, but espousing a policy of 'self-determination' was in itself potentially a reason for being barred. A total of ten democrats were under threat of losing their seats in 2017.

Some activists in Hong Kong also began to call for 'independence' from China, a demand gaining in popularity since the Umbrella Movement. But this policy has meant automatic exclusion from political office. Six pro-independence candidates were disqualified from Legislative Council elections in 2016 (evoking protests by hundreds of supporters). The small pro-independence political party, the National Party, was banned altogether in September 2018, another sign of a Chinese government clamp down. At Hong Kong's Chinese University, students from the mainland tore down independence posters in 2017 and clashed with pro-independence students.

Another trigger for popular protest, however, was a symbol of China's dominance that affects many ordinary people: the playing of China's national anthem. Local football fans have booed to drown out the anthem, or turned their backs or shouted out 'Hong Kong is not China'. These gestures were in part a response to Beijing's pressure on Hong Kong to adopt a law banning actions which show disrespect for the anthem, and punishing them with fines or prison sentences. Students have also protested: for example, students at the Chinese University demonstrated at a graduation ceremony in November 2017 chanting against the law, and two students sat down in protest during the anthem at a graduation ceremony at Hong Kong's College of Technology in December 2017. The bill was due to come before the Legislative Council in January 2019 and democrats on the Council pledged to oppose it as an infringement of free speech.

The Umbrella ('Hong Kong Central') Movement of 2014 References

This movement, which was dramatic and colourful, with the photogenic umbrellas used to deflect pepper spray and tear gas, and protesters waving cell phones was well covered at the time by the international news media. It has since been the subject of a number of books and a wide range of academic articles, which have all been made available online. A selection is listed below.

Bland, Ben, Generation H K: Seeking Identity in China's Shadow, London, Penguin, 2017, pp. 140

(A Penguin Special and one in a series on Hong Kong)

The author charts the attitudes of the generation who grew up since 1997, arguing that they have a distinctive Hong Kong identity, detached from Britain's legacy and far from identifying with mainland China, but aware of pressure from Beijing. He follows the stories of 'activists turned politicians', 'artists resisting censorship' and. some connected with the world of high finance, making comparisons with other Asian countries he has covered as a journalist.

Bush, Richard C., Hong Kong in the Shadow of China: Living with the Leviathan, Washington, DC, Brookings Institute Press, 2016, pp. 170

The Director of the Brookings Institution's Center on East Asian Policy Studies examines the conflict between the Chinese government and the protesters over the role of popular control in Hong Kong's political system in the context of the 2014 movement. Bush stresses the popular resentment about growing economic inequality and the dominance of the business sector, discusses policies which would promote 'both economic competitiveness and good governance', and examines implications of developments in Honk Kong for the USA.

Chan, Johannes, Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement, The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 103, issue 6, 2014, pp. 571-580

This article was written before the occupation of areas of Hong Kong had been ended by the authorities, so it is an initial response to the protests. It examines the causes of the movement and speculates about its wider implications for politics in Hong Kong and relations with China.

Chan, Shun-hing, The Protestant Community and the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, Vol. 16, issue 3, 2015, pp. 380-395

Examines the surprisingly high level of participation by Protestants in the movement, despite the doubts or opposition of church leaders to the Umbrella movement. The author argues this participation can be explained by Richard Wood's theory of faith-based community organizing: using biblical stories, images and symbols to create a culture of protest.

Dapiran, Antony, City of Protest: A Recent History of Dissent in Hong Kong, London, Penguin, 2017, pp. 134

(Penguin Special)

Dapiran argues that Hong Kong has been 'a city shaped by civil disobedience', and he sets the 2014 movement in the historical context of protest since the 1960s. He also discusses the role of these popular protests in forging a distinctive Hong Kong identity, whilst indicating that the relationship between politics and cultural identity is complex.

Davis, Michael C., Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement: Beijing's Broken Promises, Journal of Democracy, Vol. 26, issue 2 (April), 2015, pp. 101-110

The article focuses on how the 'one country, two systems' model in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration was undermined by the June 2014 Chinese White Paper and the August 2014 Chinese decision on the conduct of Hong Kong elections. These have meant that the 'one country, two systems' commitment has been broken, underlining the need for more internal democracy in Hong Kong.

Hui, Victoria Tin-Bor, Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement : The Protests and Beyond, Journal of Democracy, Vol. 26, issue 2 (April), 2015, pp. 111-121

This article (following on the previous article by Davis analysing China's role in sparking the protest) focuses on the role of the Hong Kong government in opposing greater democracy and allowing excessive use of force by the police, so fuelling public anger.

Jones, Brian Christophe, Law and Politics of the Taiwan Sunflower and Hong Kong Umbrella Movements, London, Routledge, 2017, pp. 236

Comparison of the Umbrella Movement with the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan is relevant for a number of reasons. Taiwan is under pressure to move closer to China, and although it is politically more independent than Hong Kong, the Taiwanese government since 2010 has entered into a close trading relationship with China, making it economically more dependent. Moreover, many smaller Taiwanese businesses have suffered. The protests occurred between 18 March and 10 April 2014 and took the form of an occupation of the legislature, which spiraled into a mass occupation of the surrounding district. Young people, who feel distinctively Taiwanese rather than Chinese, were prominent in the occupation, but it included a wide section of the population (an estimated 500,000 taking part at one point) and many others gave food, water and money to the demonstrators. This book includes contributions from a range of distinguished scholars from Hong Kong, Taiwan and other parts of Asia who explore, in particular, issues relating to democracy, the rule of law and freedom of speech. Contributors also discuss the legal and political implications of mass occupation as a protest tactic and seek to draw lessons for the future.

Kong, Tsung-gan, Umbrella: A Political Tale from Hong Kong, Hong Kong, Pema Press, 2017, pp. 668

A detailed account of the 2014 movement, setting it in the wider context of the campaign for democracy in Hong Kong, and of Hong Kong's relations with mainland China. The author, who is a free lance journalist, explains that he began this account as a record by a participant in the protests, but that he came to see the need to counter propaganda about the movement and give a proper overall picture. The student radical leader Joshua Wong has written a Foreword.

Lee, Francis L.F., Media Mobilization and the Umbrella Movement, London, Routledge, 2016, pp. 152

This study covers both international and local media, as well as the role of conventional as well as digital media, in both publicizing and mobilizing the Hong Kong protests. It discusses, for example, the impact of TV, but also deliberate social media strategies. The editor is a Professor in the School of Journalism at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Lee, Francis L.F. ; Chan, Joseph, Media and Protest Logics in the Digital Era: The Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2018, pp. 288

Examines how digital media transformed the largely spontaneous movement into a campaign of collective action, with a central organization articulating clear policy demands as a result of a process of 'bottom up' debate and organization. The book covers the role of conventional as well as digital media, and draws on surveys of protesters, wider public opinion surveys and analysis of both conventional and social media platforms content.

See also: L.F., Francis ; Chan, Joseph , Digital Media Activities and Mode of Participation in a Protest Campaign: a Study of the Umbrella Movement Information, Communication and Society, 2016 .

Lee, Paul S.N. ; So, Clement Y.K. ; Long, Louis, Social Media and the Umbrella Movement: Insurgent Public Sphere in Formation, Chinese Journal of Communication (Routledge Journal), Vol. 8, issue 4, 2015, pp. 356-375

The authors from the Chinese University of Hong Kong interviewed a random sample of 1011 to assess the role of social media in the Umbrella Movement. They found a positive correlation between support for the movement and reliance on social media for news and that this group also distrusted the Hong Kong authorities, the police and Chinese Government.

Ng, Jason Y., Umbrellas in Bloom: Hong Kong's Occupy Movement Uncovered, Hong Kong, Blacksmith Books, 2016, pp. 392

The publishers claim it is the first detailed account in English of the movement. Ng, who is a lawyer and newspaper columnist, includes direct reporting from the protest, a timeline, a Who's Who of Hong Kong politics, maps and photographs. The book is reviewed positively by the independent Hong Kong Free Press.

Ngok, Ma ; Cheng, Edmund W., The Umbrella Movement: Civil Resistance and Contentious Space in Hong Kong, Amsterdam, Amsterdam University Press, 2019, pp. 336

The editors, two professors of government in Hong Kong, argue that although the Occupy Central movement did not achieve immediate specific results it did alter the nature of Hong Kong politics through the emergence of a new movement and repertoire of protest, and also changed Hong Kong's relations with China and its perceived identity internationally. Scholarly contributors from different disciplines assess the origins of the movement, discuss new participants and forms of protest, and the Hong Kong government's response. The book includes perspectives from China, Taiwan and Macau.

See also: Cheng, Edmund W.; Chan, Wai-Yin , Explaining Spontaneous Occupation: Antecedents, Contingencies and Spaces in the Umbrella Movement Social Movement Studies, 2017, pp. 222-239

Ortmann, Stephan, The Umbrella Movement and Hong Kong's Protracted Democratization Process, Asian Affairs, Vol. 46, issue 1, 2015, pp. 32-50

Ortmann explains the movement in the context of the slow process of institutional democratization and the dashing of early hopes. He notes the obstacles to progress through the democratic political parties created by the Hong Kong authorities. He also points to the role of the business elite, afraid that fully democratic politics would lead to radical economic and social policies, and the constraints imposed by Beijing. As a result the democracy movement has become divided, and students have come to the fore in promoting protest.

Partaken, James, Listening to students about the Umbrella Movement of Hong Kong, Educational Philosophy and Theory, Vol. 51, issue 2, 2017, pp. 212-222

This article explores how activism in the protests influenced how students saw their role and their identity. It also argues that the Umbrella Movement needs to be understood within the context of other Asian student movements from the last century (such as student activism leading to Tiananmen) as well as the recent (March 2014) Sunflower Movement in Taiwan opposing greater economic integration with China. Partaken stresses the impact of the movement on the educational world of Hong Kong and also beyond its borders.

Shen, Simon Xu-Hui ; Chan, Wai Shun Wilso, The Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong from Comparative Perspectives, London, Imperial College Press, 2019, pp. 300

The authors, from the Chinese University of Hong Kong argue that the Umbrella Movement was not unique. They aim to throw light on it through comparison with other potentially revolutionary movements, including Gandhian satyagraha, the US Civil Rights Selma campaign and Euromaidan in the Ukraine, as well as movements in Malaysia, Taiwan and earlier in Hong Kong itself. A chapter examines the Umbrella Movement through the lens of various International Relations theories and there is also a chapter on Beijing's perspective.

Veg, Sebastian, Legalistic and Utopian, New Left Review, issue 92 (March to April), 2015

The author notes frequent comparisons between the Umbrella Movement and the Chinese student occupation of Tienanmen Square in Beijing in 1989, but argues that the Hong Kong protesters’ demands were more limited and precise and that they operated in a much more favourable political environment. Veg also comments on comparisons with Occupy Wall Street in 2011 (he points out the focus of protest was different) and the Taiwan Sunflower Movement of 2014, which he sees as a more precise comparison in terms of the context of the protests and the specific nature of their demands. He then examines the background to and evolution of the Umbrella Movement.

Veg, Sebastian, Creating a Textual Public Space: Slogans and Texts from Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement, The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 73, issue 3, 2016, pp. 673-702

This study, based on over 1000 slogans and other texts and visual material, assesses the 'community with fluid borders' created by the movement, and the different 'cultural repertoires' including traditional Chinese philosophy and pop music. The author argues that the occupation also tried to develop a form of 'discursive democracy', and was an attempt to create a new civic culture among the younger generation.

Wong, Joshua, Scholarism on the March, New Left Review, issue 92 (March to April), 2015

Interview with prominent young leader of the Umbrella Movement charting his personal (Christian) background, and his earlier activism in 2011-12 when still at school, in opposing the Hong Kong government’s proposal to introduce a compulsory course in ‘Moral and National Education’, which he and his friends saw as ideological indoctrination. Notes the impressive support (100,000 signatures to a petition in three days) which his ‘Scholarism’ group mobilized, and the move in 2012 from petitioning to a large demonstration and hunger strike by three students.

The catalyst for a new mass movement in Hong Kong was a draft Extradition Bill put before the Legislative Council in the spring of 2019. The bill was technically designed to allow extradition of Chinese criminals in Hong Kong to mainland China. But it raised fears about the future relationship with China and that the law would allow extradition for political dissent. Thousands turned out for a demonstration against the Bill outside the government headquarters on 31 March, 2019. The refusal of Carrie Lamb, the Beijing-backed Chief Executive of Hong Kong, to reconsider the Bill led to an estimated one million on a march on June 9, and two million on June 16.

The issue of extradition had become a focus for a new wave of mass resistance, in 2019-20, and ignited wider demands for genuine democratic elections in Hong Kong and some calls for independence from China. Initially huge demonstrations were impressively disciplined and nonviolent, but increasing police violence against demonstrators (including attacks on the underground on those going home after protesting) provoked acts of sabotage and violent resistance to the police by some protesters in response.

When a group of demonstrators broke into the Legislative Council, and daubed slogans over the walls, on July 1, it was seen as marking a new stage in the struggle. Another key episode occurred in November, when the police decided to end the protest occupation by students of the Hong Kong Polytechnic and threatened lethal force. The students barricaded themselves in and prepared Molotov cocktails. International pressure and internal mediation led to a compromise which allowed many students to leave and others managed to escape the police. So a tragedy was averted.

Growing tension has led to attacks on symbols of China and even attacks on Mandarin speakers. Some residents more sympathetic to Beijing have also publicly opposed the demonstrators. But opinion polls and continuing peaceful protests indicate that a large section of the population supports the goals of the protesters, even if many are unhappy about the tactics used by the young militants. A decisive test of the majority mood was provided by the elections held in late November 2019 to the 18 district councils. These are the only fully democratic elections held in Hong Kong, and almost 3 million (72% of the electorate) voted for pro-democracy candidates.

Carrie Lamb, constrained by Beijing, has made concessions too late to defuse the popular distrust and anger. She refused to withdraw the Extradition Bill until the beginning of September (although she had offered to shelve it earlier in response to mass protests, this was not seen as an adequate guarantee it would not be revived). Moreover, she still refused to hold an enquiry into police tactics. However, the threat of direct intervention by mainland Chinese troops or riot police, which many feared in November, seems to have become more remote.

Early in 2020 Hong Kong was locked down by the Covid-19 pandemic, which spread from mainland China. Political conflict surfaced again in May 2020, when a report by the official police watchdog on the handling of the 2019 protests endorsed police tactics. The police response had involved arrests of over 8,000 protesters, including pensioners over 80 and children as young as 11, and police use of violence in contexts where protesters were acting peacefully or leaving demonstrations to go home. Opposition politicians in the legislature denounced the report as a whitewash. Secondly, moves to pass a law criminalizing any form of disrespect to the Chinese national anthem - a proposal which had led to public resistance in 2017-18 - involved pro-Beijing legislators on 8 May taking control of a key committee chair. Protesting pro-democracy legislators were evicted by guards. Conflict in the legislature was followed by a weekend of public protests, broken up brutally by police, who also attacked journalists. Commentators predicted another summer of political unrest, leading up to elections to the Legislative Council in September 2020.

Beijing Seizes Direct Control through Security Law in May 2020

In late May, however, Beijing intervened to announce that it would impose  control over Hong Kong through a new national security law, which would bypass the Legislative Council and would enable Chinese security bodies to be based in the city. The law would punish 'secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces', offences which could carry a life sentence. The law was formally endorsed by the Chinese parliament just before midnight on 30 June, and set up a national security agency to 'guide' implementation of the law in Hong Kong. Beijing's move was seen around the world as a clear contravention of the 'one country two systems' principle, and as heralding a crackdown on protests and on prominent activists, who feared imminent arrest. The vague wording of the provisions of the law increased concern about its potential scope and how it might be used, and both local and foreign journalists sought urgent clarification of how their reporting would be affected.

A number of prominent activists responded by seeking asylum in London, among them Honcques Laus, who had written a book calling for Hong Kong's independence. Nathan Law, jailed earlier for his prominent role in the Umbrella Movement, decided immediately to leave the city to carry on the struggle for democracy from abroad, and the pro-democracy party Demosisto, that he, Joshua Wong and others had founded, closed down. Joshua Wong, however, stayed in Hong Kong and issued a typically defiant statement 'our fight goes on'.                                      

Popular resistance to the Chinese government moves was signalled on the anniversary of Tiananmen Square on June 4, when thousands held a candle lit vigil in Victoria Park in the centre of the city, and others demonstrated in their neighbourhoods, despite an official ban by the authorities on the annual commemoration.  There were also immediate protests in Hong Kong after the security bill was passed in Beijing, including a rally of mask wearing demonstrators. But the police arrested over 300 people for breaking the new law on 1st July, and consistently clamped down brutally on protests, so street protests generally ceased by the end of the month. Four students, who had called for independence from China, were arrested on 29 July for 'inciting secession' on social media.  By the end of July law professor Benny Tai (active in the Occupy Central movement), had been dismissed from his university post, libraries purged of books, arrest warrants issued for six activists who were outside the territory, and twelve pro-democracy legislators disqualified from standing again for the legislature. (The elections were subsequently postponed)

During August freedom of the press was undermined by the arrest of Jimmy Lai, who owned the tabloid Apple Daily which was prepared to criticize the Hong Kong government and Beijing. Many Hong Kong residents indicated their support for him by buying shares in his company. Alarm about developments in Hong Kong was indicated by an attempt by12 people (including a leading protester) trying to leave in August by boat for Taiwan.  They were intercepted and imprisoned in mainland China. The independence of the judiciary is one of the key principles that Beijing officials are challenging, through pressure for harsher penalties for protesters in the courts, and by rewriting school textbooks to omit references to 'separation of powers' between the judiciary, legislature and executive. An Australian judge on the Court of Final Appeal resigned in September over the new national security law.  But the chief justice Geoffrey Ma issued a long statement in late September defending Hong Kong's legal system.      

The Chinese government's imposition of the new national security law was immediately condemned in the US, where the House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill to impose sanctions on banks doing business with Chinese officials implementing the law. The UK government, responsible for the treaty handing back Hong Kong to China in 1997, promised to allow the 2.9 million Hong Kong citizens born before 1997, who qualify as British Nationals Overseas, and their dependents, to move to Britain. However, the offer only extended the right to stay from the existing six months to 12 months initially, and there were ambiguities about provisions for their right to work in the UK. The offer does not cover many younger people in Hong Kong. It can be seen partly as a gesture of protest against Beijing's actions, and most of those eligible were not expected to take the offer up. Hong Kong legislator Emily Lau described it as a 'lifeboat' to be used in an emergency. The Australian government also suggested it would welcome Hong Kong citizens, and Taiwan (engaged in its own struggle with Beijing) offered them sanctuary.

Beijing Consolidates Control

The Chinese government continued to develop the implications of the new Security Law in 2020-21, by deterring even symbolic forms of protest, arresting prominent activists and passing further legislation to prevent any dissent in the Hong Kong Legislative Council. There were 55 arrests in January 2021 of prominent figures in retaliation for the tactic adopted by opposition politicians and activists in the summer of 2020 of holding advance unofficial primary elections (in which over 600,000 voted) for seats in the Legislative Council. (The scheduled official election was later cancelled.)  The decision to arrest the 55 followed statements by Beijing officials that a new electoral system for the Council was needed to ensure that only Chinese patriots were elected. The subsequent court hearings prompted hundreds to demonstrate outside the court on 1 March, in a context where protest had almost ceased. Some Hong Kong residents involved in banking and business, and some originally from the mainland, may have welcomed an end to the disruptive and sometimes violent protests, and displays of hostility to Mandarin speakers, which occurred in the later part of 2019.  But the ending of most protest was due to the draconian clamp down imposed by Beijing.  

At the end of March the Chinese Parliament passed legislation requiring all candidates for election to the Hong Kong Legislative Council to be screened to ensure their 'patriotism', and reducing the numbers elected - the other members of the Council would be directly appointed under the supervision of Beijing.  Beijing also revealed in February 2021 a new education policy, designed to end an educational approach seen as promoting unrest, and replacing it with a new patriotic curriculum. The Chinese official responsible for Hong Kong also made clear that patriotism, which meant loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party, would be a requirement for top posts in the judiciary and that there would be tighter controls on broadcasting in Hong Kong.

Branigan, Tania ; Kuo, Lily, The Battle for Hong Kong, Guardian Weekly, 2020, pp. 34-41

The authors assess the prospects for the protest movement in Hong Kong since Beijing announced the new security law. They examine the 2019 movement and developments early in 2020 in the context of the recent history of Hong Kong and the failure of the Umbrella Movement.

See also: Kuo, Lily and Helen Davidson, 'From the Shadows, Beijing Asserts its Control', Guardian Weekly, 2 October, 2020, pp.24-5.

Describes how key individuals with a reputation for repression in China are directing Beijing's policy in Hong Kong and the role of the central government's liaison office.  The article also comments briefly on the virtual suppression of open protest, which has become extremely risky.

See also: Wright, George, 'Hong Kong Protest Singers Fear for their Future', BBC News, 25 August, 2020.

The report discusses the impact of the Beijing Security Law on Hong Kong's musicians.

Chan, Debby ; Pun, Ngai, Economic Power of the Politically Powerless in the 2019 Hong Kong Pro-Democracy Movement, Critical Asian Studies, Vol. 52, issue 1, 2020, pp. 33-43

The authors, from the Department of Sociology at the University of  Hong Kong, note the unprecedented 'scale, scope and time span' of these grassroots 'leaderless' protests. They also comment on the dramatic scenes of violent confrontation between police and protesters. They argue that this confrontation obscures 'an emerging economic resistance movement' trying to develop alternative political resources to redress the imbalance in power between them and the government. 

Ku, Agnes, New Forms of Youth Activism - Hong Kong's Anti-Extradition Bill Movement in the Local-National-Global nexus, Space and Polity, Vol. 24, issue 1, 2020, pp. 111-117

This article, which is part of an issue on 'Youth Politics in Urban Areas', focuses on the 2019 Anti-Extradition Bill movement to explore the role of young people in steering this movement. Ku examines how they drew on local and international resources to direct the movement, and 'the path-breaking strategies and results that have emerged'.  

Purbrick, Martin, A Report of the 2019 Hong Kong Protests, Asian Affairs, Vol. 50, issue 4, 2019, pp. 455-487

The author, a former Royal Hong Kong Police officer living in Hong Kong, provides a detailed chronological account of the protests in 2019. He examines both the protesters' tactics and the Hong Kong police strategy and tactics in dealing with the protests, as well as critically assessing the political responses by the Hong Kong government and Beijing.

Reuters, Timeline: Key Dates in Hong Kong's Anti-Government Protests, Reuters, 30/05/2020,

Covers period from February 2019, when proposals for extradition to China were made by Hong Kong's Security Bureau, to May 28 2020, when China's parliament endorsed the decision to impose national security legislation on Hong Kong.

Shek, Daniel, Protests in Hong Kong (2019-2020): a Perspective Based on Quality of Life and Well-Being, Applied Research in Quality of Life, Vol. 15, 2020, pp. 619-635

Shek examines how the Extradition Bill 'ignited' pre-existing social and political sources of conflict in Hong Kong to create a political conflagration. This was fanned by 'disinformation and misinformation, anonymity of the protesters, public support for the students, and support given by parties outside Hong Kong'. The author is critical of the extensive 'vandalism', which damaged the transport infrastructure, of assaults on opponents, and especially of the damage to the Legislative Council building on 1 July 2019.

Ting, Tin-yet, From 'Be Water' to 'Be Fire': Nascent Smart Mob and Networked Protests in Hong Kong, Social Movement Studies, Vol. 19, issue 3, 2020, pp. 362-368

Ting, from the Department of Applied Social Sciences at the Polytechnic University in Hong  Kong, focuses on the use of social media and mobile technology that allowed 'largely ad hoc and networked form s of pop-up protest', both in the protests against the Extradition Bill and against police brutality and abuse of  human rights. The article elaborates on how protest repertories and movement goals have emerged.

Wu, Jin ; Lai, Rebecca ; Yuhas, Alan, Six Months of Hong Kong Protests: How Did We Get Here?, New York Times, 18/11/2019,

Examines how nonviolent marches and rallies against the Extradition Bill developed into more militant protest and violent clashes after repressive use of police tactics, and how the protesters extended their political agenda to demand wider political reforms and police accountability.