A Clear Line for Civic Participation in China? 在中国公民参与有清晰边界吗? by Wenjuan Zhang

CORN May 2015 Edition.

Comparing The “Feminist Five” & Qu Bo Cases

Image from BBC

Environmental Protest in China : Image from BBC

Two hot cases of civic participation in China have sparked widespread discussion: one is the arrest of five women for planning a national campaign against sexual harassment on public transportation (the “Feminist Five Case”); the other is Uncle Qu’s Administrative Detention for “Trapped Prostitution” (Qu Bo Case). Both raise serious questions about the extent of civic participation in China.

The Feminist Five Case and Qu Bo Case

Five women planned to distribute slogans and stickers on International Women’s Day to advocate against sexual harassment on public transportation. Five of them were subsequently detained on criminal charges of “Picking Provocation and Creating A Disturbance” (寻衅滋事罪). The five women had been advocating for gender equality using unconventional means for some time, including wearing bride dresses dosed in blood to advocate against domestic violence.

Soon after their detention, several high-profile international media outlets, such as The New York Times and The Guardian reported the case. Well-respected China law professor Jerome Cohen has written op-ed on the case. Hilary Clinton also wrote on twitter, “The detention of women’s activists in #China must end. This is inexcusable.” The spokeswoman of Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affaires fired back at Hilary’s tweet and reminded foreign public figures of “respecting China’s judicial sovereignty and independence.” That response only helped draw more international attention to the case. Finally on April 13th, the detained five women were set on bail.

Raising Awareness on Domestic Violence : Image from feministing.com

Raising Awareness on Domestic Violence : Image from feministing.com

At roughly the same time, Qu Bo, an activist famous for his dogged criticism of officials using public cars for private purposes and who has about 180,000 followers on Chinese social media outlet weibo, was on a trip to the interior province of Hunan on March 26th. The inviters were several of his weibo followers. In the Hunanese city of Changsha, Qu Bo and his friends were treated to dinner by a man named Manager Chen Jialuo (陈佳罗). After the dinner, Chen booked rooms in a hotel for Qu Bo and his friends. Chen also allegedly paid women to provide sexual service to Qu Bo and his friends. Several minutes after the paid women went into Qu’s hotel room, police broke in. Qu Bo was taken away for investigation, detained for five days and then was released. The Changsha police promptly posted on weibo about Qu’s detention for prostitution, and even tried many times to arrange media outlets to interview Qu Bo about the prostitution scandal. Qu Bo claimed that he was set up and that the whole process was a trap, and instead called for the police to investigate “Manager Chen”. But the police refused to do so.

Netizens then started their own online investigation of “Manager” Chen Jialuo and found he was very similar in appearance to a police official named Chen Jianluo (陈检罗). From then began a broad discussion about this case in traditional Chinese media outlets and social media. On May 4th 2015, Qu Bo went to Changsha to sue the police official Chen Jianluo for all the rights violations.[1]

Similarities and Differences of the Two Cases

Qu Bo

Qu Bo

The two cases have a lot in common. First, the “Feminist Five” and Qu Bo are civic participants prominent in Chinese civil society. While the “Feminist Five” focus on gender equality and advocate for social change through diversified campaigns and street movement, Qu Bo uses social media to expose officials’ private use of public cars.

Second, generally speaking, neither target of their activism is controversial. Anti-corruption is a serious theme for Chairman Xi Jinping’s current administration. Qu Bo’s civic efforts fit this main theme. Advocating against sexual harassment is also not a controversial topic in China. Litigations on similar topics have been tried before without causing political trouble or controversy.[2]

Finally, both of these cases have sparked a civic participation crisis in March 2015. Persistent reports of private use of public cars have definitely annoyed—if not directly threatened—a fair share of officials, which makes Qu Bo’s detention and public humiliation, apparently for exposing officials’ abuse of privileges all the more interesting. Likewise, the “Feminist Five” were arrested on criminal charges of Picking Provocation and Creating a Disturbance.

Despite the many similarities in their cases, there are also obvious differences in their stories’ development trajectories and the impact on creating public debate. First, the Feminist Five case instantly became international news after the women were detained, starting with reporting from The New York Times. Other international media outlets then followed suit. There were also comments and criticisms from high-profile international scholars and politicians as above mentioned. But it is hard to see Chinese media coverage of the case, and rare even to see comments on social media. By contrast, the Qu Bo case has mainly stayed in the domestic arena of discussion, with only sporadic international attention given to it.[3] However, there was widespread discussion of the case in Chinese social media and traditional media outlets.

The different trajectories of media and public attention can be explained by different government reactions, which thus created—or eliminated—public participation space. The immediate international attention given to the Feminist Five case made it a very serious and politically sensitive topic for the central government. As would be expected then, this meant that Chinese traditional media outlets would have little or no space for coverage. This case in particular was also marginalized on Chinese social media.

Protestors hold banner 'If you love her, do not let her wait in line' : Image from The Guardian

Protestors hold banner ‘If you love her, do not let her wait in line’ : Image from The Guardian

But for Qu Bo’s case, the lack of international attention helped give time and space for public debate and participation in the case—all beneath the cautious monitoring by the government. Lawyers were able to use social media to provide updates on the case. Guided by lawyers and public figures, the public was even informed on sophisticated discovery processes. Many questions arose: Who is this “Manager” Chen? Why did he pay sexual services for Qu Bo? Why did police come in shortly after the woman came into Qu Bo’s room? Why didn’t the police put “Manager” Chen under investigation? Why did Qu Bo’s detention news so quickly go on social media? And what about the netizens’ apparent discovery that “Manager” Chen is actually a member of the Changsha police department, thereby potentially uncovering the plot against Qu?

A Clearer Line for Civic Participation in China?

When I arrived in New York at the end of March 2015, the first topic that came to me was about the Feminist Five Case. There, the community of scholars focusing on China law showed deep concern about its negative implications for civic participation in China, anticipating a clearer and tougher line for civic participation in China now since the topic touched on by Feminist Five is not controversial or politically sensitive. The New York Times even clearly concluded that “the security forces under Xi Jinping, China’s president and head of the Communist Party, have again tightened the vise around civic discourse and action, even over issues that do not overtly threaten the party.”

There is no clear answer as to whether the current civic participation space is in fact shrinking. But based on my nine years of experience working with a domestic non-governmental organization (NGO) in China, there might never be a clear line for civic participation in China. Here are my three main reasons.

First, except for very controversial issues, for a wide broad range of issues, like gender equality, child trafficking, criminal justice, migrant workers’ rights, farmers’ rights and anti-corruption, there still exists space for civic participation. Second, people generally suppose that the civic participation space is unilaterally decided by government. But based on my experience and observation, it is instead heavily influenced by the dynamic interaction between government and civil society. Third, it is not reliable to interpret civic participation space by just focusing on the initial reaction of local government or even central government agencies to certain events.

Recommending an Integrated Interpretation about Civic Participation Space in China

I recommend civic participation space be interpreted from an integrated perspective. For the convenience of explaining my points further, I would divide it into three stages of space:

  • Space free from initial government intervention
  • Space for responding to a civic participation crisis
  • Space for post-crisis participation

First, don’t be discouraged by the initial intervention by government because it might be very local and even personally motivated. Usually, the international community and some domestic civic participants are easily discouraged by the government’s initial intervention in some civic events. However, based on my nine years of frontline experience, I don’t believe this interpretation to be very reliable. It is true that there are some reference factors for local government to evaluate their interventions, such as the degree of controversy of the topics, involvement of foreign funding, involvement of international support, engagement in a form which might create concerns for social disability. Even if some factors exist, the chance of triggering government intervention[4] could be different depending on how complex the factors are to be dealt with. What results then is unpredictable application in practice.[5]

Generally speaking, there are no explicit criteria or standardized processes for local officials to evaluate interventions. In addition, there is no accountability for intervention decision-making for local officials. There is widespread belief among local officials that interventions are a politically safe instrument for them to exert their power regardless of the grounds for doing so. No wonder that many initial interventions are very local and even personal in nature, which makes it hard to interpret the intervention as part of explicit policy from either local or central government. Even if the initial reaction on the surface appears to be one made by a national agency, it might be too early to interpret it as well-established national policy. In addition, the impulse to interpret local reaction as driving national policy may have the consequence of unintentionally pushing it into a national policy.

Second, it is worthy of more attention to the communication strategy at the intervention response stage because the strategic communication might help reduce the negative effect from the initial government intervention and even help maintain civic participation space for future. The international community and many Chinese civic participants have focused too much on the initial government intervention and easily ignore the communication strategy to alleviate or reverse the situation through the response stage. Based on my observation and experience, the delicacy of communication skills might have a big impact on the further civic participation space. I believe that right-based organizations and rights-defending lawyers should have had some kind of experience with government intervention.

But why could some survive and even develop but some others be shut down or silenced? One critical factor might be how they respond to intervention crisis. The crisis response strategy needs to answer several critical questions, such as whether to respond in a public way, when to respond, how to respond and through which platform to respond. The answer to these questions depends on the calculation of many factors, such as the motive of the intervention and its scale, who takes the intervention, do the civic participants have reputations as problem-solvers among public and policymakers, how experienced they are in working with media outlets on communication nuances, what kind of trust has been established between the stakeholder in crisis and government, etc. Also important are questions of how skilled these participants are in dealing with technical issues, such as framing the crisis as a political one or legal one, communicating the crisis in an emotional or neutral way, criticizing the legislative quality or the motive of the law, criticizing law enforcement or the law and policy itself, criticizing the whole government or just relevant local government or specific agency, turning to international media outlets first or as the last resort, etc.

Taking the example of turning to international media outlets, we can find a critical difference in the aforementioned “Feminist Five” and Qu Bo cases. If international media outlets take to the story and get involved, it will promptly gain central government attention. As a consequence, it will lead to very limited space for the domestic response. Once it becomes internationalized, it requires the central government to deal with in an urgent way. In the international arena, the government mindset, sensing itself under attack, thereafter goes on-the-defensive and pushes the central government to stand by the local government. If the pushing force is from the domestic realm, the central government usually relents for a while before deciding which position to take. This might help explain why discussion of the Qu Bo case remains relatively broad and government intervention relatively limited, even though his case may yet turn out to be more destructive to the government’s reputation. By contrast, the “Feminist Five” case, having gained immediate international attention, never had such an opportunity for public discussion.

Third, it should become a serious theme for civic participants to think about post-crisis participation space. Any change cannot be achieved through a one-time solo performance. In any country, changing law into reality requires changing public attitudes first. In China, civil society is still young and fledging. Patterns of interaction and trust between government and civil society have not been well-established, making it more challenging for Chinese civil society to play an effective and sustainable role in leading public demand for change. It also means that, for Chinese civic participants, courage is necessary, but wisdom is even more in demand.

It is obvious that the space at this stage is highly correlated to response strategy of the second stage and also to the participation patterns at the first stage. That requires that the civic participants in China be very smart and delicate in choosing civic participation strategies. They are expected to establish their capacity of dealing with government in a delicate way through learning from contextualized lessons, to be strategic and smart in getting meaningful public debate and participation at its crisis stage and to be able to get continuous or even expanding space for further civic participation. China needs an organic relationship between government and civil society in dealing with the unprecedented challenges the country faces today. This organic relationship cannot be achieved by single efforts from civil society alone. For the Chinese government, the urgent step is to change the officials’ flawed perception of zero accountability for arbitrary interventions in civic participation.

Wenjuan Zhang Photo
Wenjuan Zhang, Associate Professor and Assistant Dean for International Collaborations of Jindal Global Law School, Executive Director of the Center for India-China Studies, focusing on research areas of the rule of law building and role of lawyers; collaborative governance,  child law, and comparative studies of social justice and social development in India and China.




[1] Qu Bo ultimately didn’t sue the Changsha government because he lacks evidence to prove Chen’s behaviour was officially inspired. Qu’s might be a public relations strategy to continue public discussion about the case.

[2] The first case against sexual harassment was put on Trial in 2001 in Xian. See this link: http://www.china.com.cn/chinese/funv/77945.htm. In 2005, another case was also filed in Beijing; see this link: http://china.eastday.com/eastday/news/node37955/node37957/node37979/node82968/userobject1ai1392751.html. For a collection of discussions on the topic of sexual harassment in China, including cases and legislative suggestions, please see this link: http://china.eastday.com//eastday/news/xwzxzt/node5085/node70531/index.html.

[3] When I searched the case online in English there were no reports from international media outlets. The New York Times and VOA had a small piece on it in Chinese.

[4] Intervention may vary from a chat over tea with some government staff on security issues for further seeking information, behind-closed-doors warnings about planning controversial events or using international funding for politically sensitive matters, close monitoring of certain civic participants’ whereabouts, international travel restrictions, law violation investigations against organizations or certain key participants, or detention of some key participants for suspecting criminal or administrative law violations.

[5] Similar events organized by different civic participants may receive different reactions from the same local government. Similar events in different cities may get different reactions. Similar events organized by the same civic participants at different times may get different reactions from different heads of the same agency.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinby feather

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *