What motivates Chinese activists and journalists to speak the truth in the face of repression?

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Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in Wuhan in early 2020, one of the main areas of interest in international reporting has been the handling of history by the Chinese authorities. the BBC, CNN, the New York Times, PA, among others have investigated the attempt to build an official narrative of the pandemic nationally and internationally.

These reports cite a number of Chinese whistleblowers – citizen journalists and archivists who record and repost articles deleted from websites and social media by the government – who have tried to expose the government’s censorship campaign. on the Wuhan epidemic.

Although quickly removed, these “Covid truth tellersAs they have become known, provide a window through which to glimpse the nature of political dissent in China today, as well as the increasingly repressive nature of Xi Jinping’s regime.

As China is on the verge of overtaking the United States to become the the largest economy in the world, while simultaneously projecting an “increasingly ambitious and often rhetorically conflicting”wolf warrior”Foreign policy position, it is crucial to understand the sources of this internal dissent and potential opposition.

While academics still debate the nature of civilian activism in China, it is difficult to deny fundamental social changes and the growing objection to state control among many Chinese. Researchers based in the United States Guobin Yang and Merle Goldman and based in Paris Sébastien Végé have all documented various forms of online activism, pro-democracy and environmental NGOs, rights activists and grassroots intellectuals over the past three decades. A demographic group – the young and educated urban activists – have become key players.

“Covid truth tellers” – mostly lawyers, journalists or NGO workers in their 20s or 30s – have emerged from this constituency. Their reports and online publications are not isolated acts of activism on a single topic, but broader signs of the meltdown of “ice Age”Of political dissent in China.

A range of values, defying the official ideology of the party, motivate the dissent of these militants: Christian belief, republican pre-communist intellectual heritage and liberal or democratic position of human rights. Such beliefs and values, distinct but overlapping in many ways, have resurfaced since the “open door”Politics ushered in an era of engagement with the rest of the world.

Political dissent

Zhang Zhan is a citizen journalist with a distinctly Christian stance. Former lawyer, her legal license was revoked because of his involvement in “advocacy” activities. Zhang’s posts on Twitter and videos on Youtube – independently reporting the epidemic to Wuhan – are accompanied by demands for freedom of expression as well as prayers for the regime’s redemption and intercession for its victims.

Like a study by Lian Xi of Duke University in the United States, this is typical of how a significant number of public intellectuals in China have, since the turn of the century, “discovered in their new Protestant faith, sacred ground on which they oppose the arbitrary powers of the Party-State ”.

Lian also places China’s most prominent dissident, Liu Xiaobo, among these “cultural Christians”. Liu’s book No enemies, no hate demonstrates the connection between Christianity and its belief in the nonviolent struggle for democracy. Liu was sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2009 and died of liver cancer in prison in 2017 at the age of 61.

More recently, Xu Zhiyong, the leader of New Citizen Movement – a network of civil rights activists – cited Christianity as an inspiration for peaceful civil activism in his book Building a free China: a citizen journey. The movement’s slogan, “Free, Fair, Loving,” captures the spirituality behind Zhang Zhan’s courageous reporting on the Wuhan epidemic. Xu was detained in 2020 and accused of “subversion of state power”. He faces life imprisonment if convicted.

Republican freedoms

Two other citizen journalists – Chen Qiushi, a lawyer and Li Zehua, a vlogger – demonstrate a different source of political dissent in their accounts of the Wuhan epidemic. Chen Tik Tok Videos, reposted on Twitter, and Li’s Youtube video showing his police pursuit in Wuhan, both cite influential Republican intellectual figures – from the period following the last emperor’s abdication in 1912 to the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949 – as the nation’s “backbone”.

This enthusiasm for pre-Communist cultural icons is linked to what Cambridge University scholars Zhang Qiang and Robert Weatherley call “Republican fever”. Their study explores how the Chinese Communist Party’s calculated move since the 1980s to relax control of the Republican-era discussion to bolster its own legitimacy backfired.

Chen and Li are among the many who developed an appreciation for the civil liberties of the Republican era and began to see a Republican national identity as an alternative to the propagandized national identity of the People’s Republic of China. Chen is under house arrest, while Li has not been seen since uploading a video to his Youtube channel in April 2020.

Freedom of speech

Archivists Chen Mei and Cai Wei have retained information of Covid-19 which had been removed from Chinese websites and social media sites by authorities. Although less visible on social media, their opposition to official media censorship is supported by their commitment to human rights and civil liberties.

In an e-mail exchange with Chen Kun, Chen Mei’s brother who is in exile in France, he told me that Chen Mei’s archival activism began in 2017 when he was involved in an action in the New Citizen Movement to help migrant workers in Beijing targeted by a campaign of government expulsion.

Chen and Cai both embraced liberal values ​​of Li Ren, an independent educational organization – now closed – associated with “cultural Christianity”. Both are in detention and awaiting trial.

Covid-19 truth tellers are therefore motivated by various issues but share a passion for free speech and democracy. Their dedication to the truth and to a peaceful transition to constitutionalism in China has led to severe penalties.

The cruelty of this repression, as Andrew Nathan, a seasoned observer of China, points out in his item on the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party, arises from the party’s concern about maintaining a monopoly on power.

According to Nathan: “The Chinese Communist Party has made sure that there is no organized political alternative, so many Chinese believe that the collapse of the party would mean chaos.

This – and the plight of those who dare to question the official narrative presented by the Chinese Communist Party – demonstrates the profound incompatibility between liberal democratic values ​​and China’s one-party regime.

Tao Zhang is Senior Lecturer in the School of Arts & Humanities at Nottingham Trent University.

This article first appeared on The conversation.



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