After Liu Xiaobo’s Death, Chinese Democracy Dream Fights for Survival — Fractured activist community at its weakest in a generation as the Communist Party tightens its grip

China’s activist community at its weakest in a generation as the Communist Party tightens its grip on society

A makeshift altar for Liu Xiaobo outside the Chinese government’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong.
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A makeshift altar for Liu Xiaobo outside the Chinese government’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong. PHOTO: KIN CHEUNG/ASSOCIATED PRESS
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July 14, 2017 6:33 a.m. ET

BEIJING—Nearly three decades after a bloody military assault ended student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, China’s democracy movement faces a new reckoning.

The loss of the country’s most prominent dissident, Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who died of cancer under police guard at a Shenyang hospital on Thursday, leaves China’s fractured activist community at its weakest in a generation as the Communist Party tightens its grip on Chinese society.

A steady shrinking of space for political action that began in late 2008, with the arrest of Mr. Liu for helping to draft and promote a pro-democracy manifesto, has intensified significantly under President Xi Jinping.

How China’s Loudest Voice for Political Change Was Silenced
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, who embodied the hopes of the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy movement, died on July 13 while serving an 11-year prison sentence for inciting subversion. Photo: AFP/Getty.
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As Mr. Liu and other activists have disappeared behind bars, lawyers and legal workers who had picked up the torch have faced mass detentions. Some are still in prison. Labor-rights campaigners have been detained, and popular critical voices on China’s social media have been silenced.

Two days after the death of Mr. Liu, Chinese political-reform advocates hope to welcome the release from prison of Xu Zhiyong, a legal scholar some consider Mr. Liu’s successor as head of the threadbare movement.

The founder of a loosely organized civic group known as the New Citizens Movement was detained in 2013 for organizing protests over corruption and access to education. Even if he is let out on Saturday as scheduled, he is likely to be under watch by security agents and his activities curtailed.

“Under the current circumstances, you can’t assume he’ll be free,” said an associate of Mr. Xu who said police have warned him against talking publicly about the scholar.

The Beijing Municipal Bureau of Justice didn’t immediately respond to request for comment about Mr. Xu’s release.

China’s Fractured Democracy Movement

The death of Liu Xiaobo, who had been China’s loudest voice for political change, comes as Beijing has tightened its grip on dissent and as the country’s activist community finds itself severely weakened.

Democracy WallAt the opening of China’s reform era following the death of Mao Zedong and end of the 10-year Cultural Revolution, people are briefly allowed to post criticism of Mao and the ‘Gang of Four’ that sought to succeed him on a wall in Beijing. After this leads to calls for democracy, authorities take down posters and arrest some activists.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Tiananmen Square ProtestsStudents lead pro-democracy protests in Beijing that are crushed by the military. At least several hundred protesters are killed.PHOTO: CATHERINE HENRIETTE/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

China’s government, which rejects Western democracy as unsuited for the country, has depicted human-rights lawyers and activists as tools of foreign governments threatened by China’s rise.

The ground has shifted so much since Mr. Xi’s crackdown began that some veteran members of the democracy movement say they don’t know how to move forward.

“It’s been 28 years since the ‘89 democracy movement. That’s an entire generation,” said Liu Suli, a Tiananmen participant and founder of an independent bookstore in Beijing who befriended Liu Xiaobo in prison in 1989. Over the years, he said, the Communist Party has grown both more confident on the world stage and more fearful of instability at home.

“Under these conditions, if you play the political game using traditional methods, you’ll lose,” he said.

Such attitudes are a far cry from 2010, the year Liu Xiaobo was awarded his Nobel. Chinese activists saw the award as a signal of international support and vindication. Some portrayed Mr. Liu as a Mandela-like figure who would emerge from his 11-year prison sentence to take the reins of a new, multiparty China.

Instead, China moved in the opposite direction. Mr. Liu’s name was erased from the internet by government censors and his family members were muzzled. Activists who had been criticized by others in the movement for being too moderate suddenly found themselves in prison.

That was the case with Mr. Xu. A former visiting scholar at Yale University, he stopped short of Mr. Liu’s calls for a complete overhaul of China’s political system. Instead, he organized protests and dinner discussions aimed at cultivating a “citizen consciousness,” which he believed could be used to pressure the Communist Party to abide by China’s constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech and assembly.

Mr. Xu and more than a dozen other activists affiliated with the New Citizens Movement were arrested in the first half of 2013 in Mr. Xi’s first major strike against dissent. Lawyers, scholars, writers and women’s-rights activists were detained over the following years, some of them shown confessing to crimes in jailhouse videos broadcast on state TV.

“Rights defenders under Xi Jinping are regarded as enemies of the state,” says Eva Pils, a researcher of China human-rights issues at King’s College London. Where once Chinese officials were more circumspect about punishing critics, she says, now “they are very open about how they target the people who express dissent.”

Some activists in China’s democracy movement blame their predicament partly on withering support from Western countries afraid to confront Beijing over human-rights abuses, given China’s growing economic sway.

Several countries urged China to let Mr. Liu seek treatment abroad, but few leaders publicly voiced such requests during his final days.

Photos: Chinese activist Liu Xiaobo 

A prominent iconoclast for decades, dissident Liu Xiaobo dies while on medical parole

Protesters calling for the release of Mr. Liu and other jailed activists in Hong Kong on June 30, as Chinese President Xi Jinping visited for the 20th anniversary of the handover of sovereignty from Britain to China.
Protesters calling for the release of Mr. Liu and other jailed activists in Hong Kong on June 30, as Chinese President Xi Jinping visited for the 20th anniversary of the handover of sovereignty from Britain to China. ROMAN PILIPEY/EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY
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Poet and literature professor Liu Xiaobo at a doctoral-thesis defense at Beijing Normal University in 1988.
Poet and literature professor Liu Xiaobo at a doctoral-thesis defense at Beijing Normal University in 1988. OPEN MAGAZINE
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Teaching at Columbia University in 1989, Mr. Liu returned to Beijing to join the Tiananmen Square democracy protests, where he played a prominent role that included going on a hunger strike. Here, before it began, Mr. Liu—in the pale blue shirt—and fellow strikers talked with journalists in front of the Monument to the People’s Heroes.
Teaching at Columbia University in 1989, Mr. Liu returned to Beijing to join the Tiananmen Square democracy protests, where he played a prominent role that included going on a hunger strike. Here, before it began, Mr. Liu—in the pale blue shirt—and fellow strikers talked with journalists in front of the Monument to the People’s Heroes. REUTERS
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Mr. Liu addressing the Tiananmen crowd, with Mao Zedong’s mausoleum in the background. After the government crushed the protests June 4, he was imprisoned on a charge of ’instigating counterrevolutionary behavior.’
Mr. Liu addressing the Tiananmen crowd, with Mao Zedong’s mausoleum in the background. After the government crushed the protests June 4, he was imprisoned on a charge of ’instigating counterrevolutionary behavior.’ DAVID TURNLEY/CORBIS/VCG/GETTY IMAGES
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Mr. Liu, right, and his friend Bei Ling, a poet and essayist whose works include a biography of Mr. Liu.
Mr. Liu, right, and his friend Bei Ling, a poet and essayist whose works include a biography of Mr. Liu. DPA/ZUMA PRESS
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Mr. Liu and his wife, Liu Xia.
Mr. Liu and his wife, Liu Xia. LING LING/ROPI/ZUMA PRESS
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Pro-democracy Hong Kong lawmakers wearing paper masks of Mr. Liu in the Legislative Council chamber in January of 2010, a few weeks after a Chinese court sentenced him to 11 years in prison. Mr. Liu had been detained a year earlier and charged with subversion over his role as lead author of Charter 08, a manifesto that called for freedom of speech and multiparty elections.
Pro-democracy Hong Kong lawmakers wearing paper masks of Mr. Liu in the Legislative Council chamber in January of 2010, a few weeks after a Chinese court sentenced him to 11 years in prison. Mr. Liu had been detained a year earlier and charged with subversion over his role as lead author of Charter 08, a manifesto that called for freedom of speech and multiparty elections.BOBBY YIP/REUTERS
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A plainclothes policeman making photography difficult outside the home of Ms. Liu in October 2010, after her husband was named recipient of that year’s Nobel Peace Prize. She has been under house arrest since.
A plainclothes policeman making photography difficult outside the home of Ms. Liu in October 2010, after her husband was named recipient of that year’s Nobel Peace Prize. She has been under house arrest since. PETER PARKS/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES
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A poster of Mr. Liu at an exhibition at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo on Dec. 9, 2010, the day before the awarding of the prize. With Mr. Liu in prison and Ms. Liu prevented from leaving China—and Nobel Committee rules stipulating that the prize can be collected only by laureates themselves or close family members—it was only the second time no one was on hand to accept the prize.
A poster of Mr. Liu at an exhibition at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo on Dec. 9, 2010, the day before the awarding of the prize. With Mr. Liu in prison and Ms. Liu prevented from leaving China—and Nobel Committee rules stipulating that the prize can be collected only by laureates themselves or close family members—it was only the second time no one was on hand to accept the prize. ODD ANDERSEN/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES
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Nobel Committee Chairman Thorbjørn Jagland after placing the Nobel Peace Prize diploma and gold medal on the vacant chair reserved for Mr. Liu during the ceremony in Oslo on Dec. 10, 2010. The only other similar case came in 1936, when Germany’s Nazi government prevented Carl von Ossietzky, recently moved from a concentration camp to a hospital, from leaving the country.
Nobel Committee Chairman Thorbjørn Jagland after placing the Nobel Peace Prize diploma and gold medal on the vacant chair reserved for Mr. Liu during the ceremony in Oslo on Dec. 10, 2010. The only other similar case came in 1936, when Germany’s Nazi government prevented Carl von Ossietzky, recently moved from a concentration camp to a hospital, from leaving the country.HEIKO JUNGE/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES
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In June, more than seven years into his sentence, Mr. Liu—diagnosed with advanced liver cancer—was released from prison on medical parole and moved to a hospital in the northeastern city of Shenyang. Here he was fed by Ms. Liu.
In June, more than seven years into his sentence, Mr. Liu—diagnosed with advanced liver cancer—was released from prison on medical parole and moved to a hospital in the northeastern city of Shenyang. Here he was fed by Ms. Liu. ASSOCIATED PRESS
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An online video of unclear provenance—but certainly shot by Chinese authorities—showing Mr. Liu receiving medical treatment, an apparent response to criticism that Beijing was failing to provide sufficient care.
An online video of unclear provenance—but certainly shot by Chinese authorities—showing Mr. Liu receiving medical treatment, an apparent response to criticism that Beijing was failing to provide sufficient care. ANDY WONG/ASSOCIATED PRESS
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Protesters calling for the release of Mr. Liu and other jailed activists in Hong Kong on June 30, as Chinese President Xi Jinping visited for the 20th anniversary of the handover of sovereignty from Britain to China.
Protesters calling for the release of Mr. Liu and other jailed activists in Hong Kong on June 30, as Chinese President Xi Jinping visited for the 20th anniversary of the handover of sovereignty from Britain to China. ROMAN PILIPEY/EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY
Poet and literature professor Liu Xiaobo at a doctoral-thesis defense at Beijing Normal University in 1988.
Poet and literature professor Liu Xiaobo at a doctoral-thesis defense at Beijing Normal University in 1988. OPEN MAGAZINE

“I think it’s shocking how few heads of state have weighed in on behalf of a Nobel Peace Prize winner,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch.

The hopes of many Chinese democracy advocates have shifted in recent years to Hong Kong. However, the city has increasingly felt the presence of the Chinese security apparatus, including with the abduction of employees of a Hong Kong store selling books critical of China’s leaders.

“If they think China’s human-rights abuses stay inside China’s borders, they have not been paying attention,” Ms. Richardson said of the silence of foreign leaders.

After Mr. Liu’s death, hundreds of people gathered outside the Chinese government’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong. Passersby laid flowers and signed a condolence book underneath a makeshift altar with a large photograph of him.

With eyes now on whether Mr. Xu can play a unifying role, the experiences of others in the New Citizens Movement suggest it will be a struggle.

Zhang Kun, an activist who helped Mr. Xu organize dinners, has been jailed multiple times since his first detention in 2014. He has been unreachable since March. Several other supporters of Mr. Xu, including Wang Gongquan, a venture capitalist who helped fund the movement, have refrained from political activity after being released from detention.

“I hope Zhiyong recovers his health, and enthusiastically sets about creating a new life for himself,” said Mr. Wang, who is currently working on a travel startup.

Some activist groups have switched tactics, said Teng Biao, a lawyer who along with Mr. Xu helped launch the rights-defense movement among Chinese lawyers.

“Everyone has adopted the approach of activities without centralized leadership,” said Mr. Teng, who is now based in New York.

Last Sunday marked the second anniversary of one of the Xi administration’s most aggressive moves: a nationwide sweep of human-rights lawyers and their associates in which hundreds were interrogated, jailed and, in some cases, tortured. The only large event to commemorate the date was held in New York, organized by lawyers living in de facto exile in the U.S.

Write to Josh Chin at josh.chin@wsj.com and Eva Dou at eva.dou@wsj.com

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https://www.wsj.com/articles/after-liu-xiaobos-death-chinese-democracy-dream-fights-for-survival-1500028406

 

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