Monday, July 29, 2013

China: Citizens united

Financial Times
July 29, 2013

When the Chinese police arrested rights lawyer Xu Zhiyong on July 16, they charged him with “gathering a crowd to disturb order in a public place”.

As Mr Xu had been under house arrest since April, the charge triggered an outcry. But in the eyes of China’s ruling Communist party, the softly spoken but stubborn lawyer is still a threat, even while confined to his Beijing home. Over the past year, Mr Xu has worked to link activists who were each running individual campaigns, marshalling them into a broader movement called “citizenry” to foster a sense of rights and responsibilities across a range of public issues. It is the virtual equivalent of a crowd in the street.

This has touched a raw nerve with the new leaders in Beijing because Mr Xu is not alone. Despite the Communist party’s claim that China must take its own path of development and that concepts of western democracy do not apply, the middle class has begun following the lead of its counterparts in South Korea and Taiwan. After achieving a degree of economic affluence, people are starting to demand a greater voice in determining how society is run.

“Civil society has already become very firm and deep-rooted in China,” says Gao Bingzhong, director of the Centre for Civil Society Studies at Peking University. He adds that delegates at the National People’s Congress, the country’s legislature, who traditionally did little more than rubber stamp government plans, are now consulting civil society groups on policy proposals and legislation. “The transformation of civil society into political demands is a general phenomenon. China is no exception,” he says.