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 (https://clb.org.hk/) 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.