After leaving a downtown park in southern China where they held banners protesting nuclear tests by China-ally North Korea, Wang Aizhong says he and about a dozen others were tailed to a restaurant by Guangzhou police.
As food began to arrive, the cops stormed their private room and ordered the diners to squat. Wang, 37, says he slammed his hands on the table and shouted: “Why?”
The next thing he remembers is four officers dragging him outside by his arms and legs and beating him. Wang spent that February night being interrogated and the next five in a foul-smelling cell alongside strangers detained for petty crimes.
Wang, a company manager who drives a BMW sport-utility vehicle and owns two homes, is an unlikely street protester. He’s ridden China’s economic boom that lifted hundreds of millions from poverty and created a middle class. Yet he says he’s prepared to risk his comfortable life to speak out.
While street protesters are a tiny minority in the country of 1.3 billion people, they get wider support on the Internet from those with whom their message strikes a chord. For President Xi Jinping, public dissent may undermine the party’s authority, especially at a time when economic growth is slowing.
“I used to consider making it my life goal to become filthy rich,” Wang says. “I believe my life will be more meaningful if I spend it fighting a totalitarian power.”
Wang took to the streets after his blog kept getting deleted from the Internet, joining an ad-hoc alliance of demonstrators who call themselves the Southern Street Movement. The dozen or so loosely allied protesters is taking causes that draw attention on the Internet -- such as demanding democracy and free speech -- to public spaces, something that can be deemed illegal under Communist Party rule. Doing so, they argue, is a more effective way to bring about change.
Party leaders have focused on boosting growth while revising some unpopular policies. At a policy-setting meeting in Beijing in November, they pledged to abolish labor camps, loosen the one-child policy, and give farmers more control over their land. However, they also unveiled an Internet crackdown and the creation of a new security body to combat domestic threats.
“There are goodies to placate the population, but at the same time there’s no mistaking the leadership still wants to control,” said Dali Yang, professor of political science at the University of Chicago who studies Chinese politics.
The government is showing its “iron fist,” as Yang calls it, as a growing number of citizens speak out against injustice and corruption.
Local skirmishes over land seizures, environmental damages or labor disputes account for most of the tens of thousands mass protests every year. But some people, like Wang, have gone a step further, demanding broader political rights in an effort to enjoy freedom and justice that people in some other countries do. Without that, they say, their wealth is meaningless or unsafe.
The Internet has given people a forum to speak out, even if they wouldn’t feel comfortable taking to the street. Thousands made donations to aid the families of political prisoners through a website called the Meat Shop. The store was shuttered in October, after about seven months, according to administrators. Other people go online to express solidarity with high-profile dissidents such as artist Ai Weiwei.
Social media has made dissent more mainstream and pursuing citizen’s rights is now seen as acceptable among many Chinese, says Zhang Xuezhong, a scholar and lawyer. He was fired this month from East China University of Political Science and Law after he represented public protesters from another ad-hoc alliance, the New Citizens’ Movement.
“They don’t live in a vacuum,” Zhang says of the 28,000 supporters who sent Ai money to help him pay a tax fine that they said was politically motivated. “They’re the tip of an iceberg. Hundreds of millions live in the same environment.”
China’s top leaders clearly see that. In his first public address as the Communist Party’s secretary in November 2012, Xi Jinping said one of the most pressing problems for the party is that it’s “divorced from the people.” Later, in a campaign urging party cadres to change their work styles, cutting out extravagant spending and unnecessary bureaucracy, Xi said in June that the party will live or die depending where people’s hearts are.
Dissent grew especially quickly on Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like social network with 60 million daily users. Some microbloggers using the service have been arrested after a September rule made spreading false rumors online a criminal offense punishable by jail.
High-profile bloggers have also been interrogated or detained after posting comments critical of the government. Venture capitalist Charles Xue, who wrote about politically sensitive subjects to his 12 million followers, was detained in August on charges of soliciting prostitutes. China’s state television broadcast a confession by him to the charge in September. The channel later showed Xue saying he didn’t fact check what he posted online and his interaction with followers made him feel like an emperor. No information about his case has been released since.
“Activists used to imagine that revolutionary change can be brought by drawing attention to a topic on the Internet,” says Wu Qiang, a political scientist at Tsinghua University in Beijing who studies activism. “The obstacle to that has proved to be high, so netizens are being squeezed toward more traditional ways of protesting.”
‘A Free China’
The goal of the New Citizens’ Movement is “a free China ruled by democracy and law,” prominent rights advocate Xu Zhiyong wrote in an article last year.
At least 16 activists associated with the movement have been arrested, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch. Xu was formally indicted this month on charges of disturbing the peace, according to his lawyers. Venture capitalist Wang Gongquan was formally arrested in October on charges of gathering a crowd and disturbing public order.
Three were detained in April after calling for public disclosure of officials’ assets. Their Oct. 28 trial on charges including illegal assembly in the old steel town of Xinyu, 550 kilometers (342 miles) northeast of Guangzhou, was followed closely by Chinese social media users and international media.
State media denounced the dissidents as opposition forces. Global Times, an official newspaper, wrote that Xu was among those trying to sabotage the current system of governance and threatened long-term social stability.
From his computer in Guangzhou, Wang has spoken out online for eight years. More than 18,000 people follow his Weibo. Two years ago, he says, he decided microblogging wasn’t enough to bring about change because the government can easily censor or control the Internet. That’s when he joined the Southern Street Movement.
“As we make our political demands on the streets, more people might cast aside their fears and do the same,” Wang says.
Wang says he first experienced injustice while growing up in a village in eastern China. His family was discriminated against because several of his relatives had been executed as Nationalist Party enemies after the Communists won the civil war in 1949. When Wang was bullied by another child, his father told him to accept the beating because the aggressor was the son of the village’s top official.
“My father’s generation had their spine broken,” Wang says. “I’m not giving in.”
In high school he says he had an epiphany when a teacher who had witnessed the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests told his class that television and newspapers didn’t tell the truth.
“I was shocked,” Wang said. “It blew my conventional wisdom away.”
After earning a college degree in medicine, Wang says he earned a high salary as a salesman for a state-owned pharmaceutical company before switching to run a division of a private company in Guangzhou. In 2011, he joined others who’d begun to gather regularly in Commemoration Park in 2011. The park is a memorial to revolutionaries who helped overthrow the Qing Dynasty, the last rulers in the feudal system toppled in 1911.
Wang attended several rallies in 2011, including one where participants wore T-shirts in support of blind rights activist Chen Guangcheng, who became the subject of international media coverage when he escaped from house arrest the following year, and another one to denounce autocracy. He attracted the attention of police who invited him for informal interrogations known as “tea chats,” in which they warned him they could take everything away if he didn’t desist, he said.
After his arrest in February, he filed a lawsuit against the police alleging he was unlawfully detained. At the July trial in a Guangzhou district court, Wang argued that he had acted out of patriotism.
The court dismissed his case, stating: “Illegal and extreme actions will only hurt the nation’s image and social stability, and are not really patriotic.”
Wang appealed on Oct. 28, where he was watched from the public gallery by Huang Minpeng, a farmer who says he’s also part of the Southern Street Movement. Huang, 44, took to activism after being forced off his village land to make way for development and was also arrested after the North Korea protest. He lost a similar lawsuit for what he called his unlawful detention.
“I wanted to be busted,” said Huang. “That gave me a chance to sue them. ‘‘Then there is a record and people can decide for themselves whether it’s right or wrong.’’
Standing outside the courtroom, Wang said he had no regrets about suing the police and never expected to win.
‘‘I wanted to make a statement,’’ he said. ‘‘To let the regime know they can’t arrest people as they like.’’