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Weiquan, the Chinese People Rise Up to Protect Their Rights

More and more Chinese people are standing up to protect their basic
rights and taking on the government to seek justice, a phenomenon
dubbed with the Chinese term "weiquan."

On October 27, 2004, about 50,000 peasants in Hanyuan County, Sichuan Province, took a stand and confronted thousands of armed policemen at the construction site of a hydroelectric dam on the Dadu River.

The hydroelectric dam project is known as the Pubugou (meaning Cataract Ravine) project. It is located in Hanyuan County, and was approved by the State Council on March 2, 2004. The project will flood 44,000 Chinese Mu of farm land, approximately 7,300 acres, and force 100,000 people to relocate. Peasants protested because they allege that the local government absconded with a large part of the relocation compensation and left very little for the peasants who have to relocate. They first protested and demanded a higher compensation for their land and houses. The government refused to listen to them. Instead, the date for the dam closure was pushed forward. Tens of thousands of angry peasants went to the dam site to stop the construction. The government, in response, sent armed police to meet them.

When the armed police beat an over-70-year-old woman, the peaceful protest turned into a confrontation. During the confrontation, the police killed a middle-aged peasant with a brick. This made the local people even angrier. Over the next two days, over 100,000 people took to the streets. Carrying the body of the dead peasant, they broke into the county government building. It turned into a mass riot.

The government sent in more police reinforcements and soon got things under control. On November 3, the government announced the resumption of the dam construction. This ignited another confrontation. The number of people participating in the protest was in the tens of thousands; at its peak it reached about 150,000.

On November 5, the Sichuan Province Party Secretary, Zhang Xuezhong, went to Hanyuan County to look over the situation. The protesters surrounded him and he could not escape until late that night. On November 7, about 200 military trucks carried military personal to Hanyuan. According to eyewitnesses’ information sent out by telephone, military police fired teargas on and shot into the crowd. They killed 17 people and injured 40 more. The Chinese military force put down the unarmed "rebellion."

Beijing came to intervene at last. They designated the protests as a "large-scale assembly of people who did not know the truth." They fired a few top county officials, who may face corruption charges as a result of their acts. The central government also ordered an increase in compensation for the relocating residents from 320 yuan (US$38) per square meter of living space to 428 yuan (US$51). It has been reported that Party General Secretary Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao ordered "not to resume the dam project until the issue of the Hanyuan peasants is resolved."
Even though there was some loss of blood and life, in a way the Chinese peasants finally won over the corrupt local officials. Everyday people in China hardly know anything about the event itself, because the Chinese media are not allowed to report any details. However, in the recent movement of Chinese people fighting for their rights, the Hanyuan event marks a great breakthrough. It is an important step in the Chinese "weiquan movement."

What is the Chinese People’s Weiquan Movement?

A new word, weiquan, has become popular in the past few years in China. It marks the emergence of a Chinese rights movement. The word weiquan means citizens fighting against the abuse of their rights. This new phenomenon comes at a time when China’s economy is on the rise. Even though China signed the U.N. International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1997 and the U.N. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1998, and made promises to protect human rights, government and local officials’ violations of human rights are on the rise.

The Chinese are well known for their endurance. In the years under communist rule, the Chinese people have been made totally obedient, through the use of constant terror and the threat of violence and bloodshed. As documented in The Black Book of Communism, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has caused an estimated 65 million deaths in China in the 80-plus years of its existence. As a result, the Party and government officials have come to have absolute control over the people, including their property, their life style and their very thoughts.

At the turn of the century, gradual economic and political changes in China weakened the Party and revived people’s longing for human rights. At the end of the 1970s the Chinese government began to seek foreign investment and to allow a market economy in its effort to save the close-to-bankrupt socialism. The relaxed economic control freed the Chinese people’s creativity and the Chinese economy went on a fast track. Meanwhile, the reality in China as well as in Eastern Europe proved the failure of communism and the failure of Marxist ideology. The ideas of human rights, rule of law, and checks-and-balances have entered and started to influence Chinese people’s thinking. In spite of this new vision, no true "reform of the political structure," as the CCP terms it, manifested in any meaningful way.

On one hand, having tasted the sweetness of private ownership in a market economy, the Chinese people want more freedom. Business owners want the law to protect their assets and their property; they want policies and decisions to be made in a transparent manner, and they want to read uncensored news from many sources. The working people want to have jobs and a social security system that can benefit them and their families. They want the law to be administered in a fair and reasonable way. In one word, Chinese people want to have a more humane society.
On the other hand, the top priority of the Communist Party is still to secure its monopoly of power. Despite its gestures of signing the U.N. International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and its effort to enact a large number of laws, the CCP still places its one-Party rule above all else.

In this conflict, the people have very limited resources to fight back while the CCP can use the state machine to crack down whenever necessary. To fight within the state allowed zone, to fight for the rights that the state already promised, has become a self-protecting framework for the new rights movement in China—weiquan.

Brief History of Chinese People’s Weiquan

Falun Gong Appeal as a Pretext

Falun Gong is a spiritual practice rooted in Chinese traditional values of Buddhism and Taoism. It was the first large group to openly appeal to the state for the right of freedom of belief as promised by the Chinese Constitution. On April 25, 1999, after fellow practitioners were unduly detained in Tianjin City, tens of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners went to the State Bureau at Zhongnanhai, the Chinese leadership compound; many wrote letters and made phone calls to Beijing to petition for their detained fellow practitioners. The then premier, Zhu Rongji, met with a few representatives from the group, listened to their request, and ordered the release of those detained in Tianjin. It was the first time that the Chinese government peacefully resolved a large-scale petition in the center of Beijing through negotiation. Zhu Rongji wasn’t able to set a good precedent for the government, however, because the then CCP general secretary, Jiang Zemin, soon ordered the massive persecution of Falun Gong, citing the group’s April petition as a major excuse.

After the CCP’s brutal persecution of Falun Gong started in July 1999, millions of Falun Gong practitioners peacefully appealed nation wide for the right to continue their practice and be treated justly. They visited the local and central governments, wrote letters to officials as well as to the press and other media, and eventually went to Tiananmen Square to unfold banners to protest. Practitioners’ efforts did not stop the government from trying to eradicate the Falun Gong, but their courage, their peaceful ways of resistance, and their stories became real-life lessons for the Chinese people on standing up for their rights.
A Workers’ Strike Was Harshly Suppressed in Liaoning

In March 2002, as many as 30,000 Liaoyang Ferroalloy Factory workers from around 20 local factories, demonstrated for their rights. At the time it was described as the biggest demonstration in China since the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square. The workers had been lobbying the authorities since 1998, demanding basic living allowances, pensions and back pay. They demonstrated against official corruption and mismanagement, which they believed led to bankruptcies and large public expenditures funded mainly so that officials could line their own pockets. When the workers took the demonstration to the streets, riot police violently disbursed the peaceful protesters and arrested their leaders.

The government identified two workers, Yao Fuxin and Xiao Yunliang, both in their 50s, as the demonstration leaders and charged them with "subversion." The two were sentenced in 2002 to a seven-year and a four-year sentence, respectively. Both are still in prison and are reportedly in poor health due to mistreatment. The harsh crackdown in Liaoning set an unyielding tone on how the government treats other similar conflicts between unpaid or laid-off workers and the corrupt officials who caused them damage. This situation is widespread in China with many noncompetitive state-run companies going bankrupt.

A Successful Internet Uproar

The Sun Zhigang case in April 2003 was a turning point. Sun Zhigang, a university graduate and young fashion designer who newly migrated to Shenzhen, died in police custody. He was detained because he forgot to take his ID and temporary living permit with him when he was walking down the street on his way to an Internet café. At the policemen’s instigation, other detainees beat him very badly because he disobeyed and did not have the "proper" attitude toward the police. He soon died of his wounds.

Sun’s friends disclosed the story of his death on the Internet, shocking many Chinese. People learned that the "regulation on repatriation" allowed the police to arbitrarily detain people while leaving no protection for migrants. Similar incidents happened before but the victims were low-class citizens. Sun’s story was particularly shocking because he was a university graduate, regarded as the elite in Chinese society. People suddenly realized that if the police could arbitrarily detain even an elite member of society when he was just walking down the street and then subsequently beat him to death, then everyone could be in danger.

An uproar of angry protest soon appeared on the Internet and then in the press, before the central government could put a lid on it. Petitions for abandoning the "repatriation" system and for following the rule of law, were at a high point in China. The government soon stopped the "repatriation" system, and prosecuted those who were involved in beating Sun Zhigang.
Sun Zhigang’s case started as a tragedy, but the successful petition afterwards made the Chinese see a way to protect themselves against the abuse of their rights. A new word in Chinese—weiquan—was born.

A Weiquan Website

The Chinese website is a website dedicated to weiquan. It was founded by Mr. Li Jian in Dalian, Liaoning Province, in late October 2003. It states on its home page,


Translation: This website is the result of individual citizens coming together in civil society, on the basis of humanity and the rule of law, using constructive and rational approaches, to follow up and fight for citizens’ rights, to raise citizens’ awareness, to build a humane and open society, and to build a country based on the rule of law.

The Beijing administrative authority soon shut down this website (its Internet service provider was in Beijing), the first one specifically devoted to weiquan. Mr. Li Jian filed a lawsuit in his effort to keep this website open. Not surprisingly, in early 2004, the court ruled in favor of the authorities. Mr. Li had to move this website to an Internet service provider located overseas. He soon found out the Chinese government blocked his URL so that Chinese Internet users could not access it.

The Increased Voice for Human Rights

The year 2004 saw an increase in the number of petitions addressing human rights. Their voices were able to spread widely because of the increased Internet usage in China.

On February 22, Professor Ding Zilin and 124 other relatives of the June 4th (1989) victims publicized their petition to the People’s Assembly asking for redress for the June 4th massacre.

On February 24, Dr. Jiang Yanyong, the Chinese hero who bravely broke the news of the SARS epidemic in Beijing the year before, openly petitioned to the central government to re-evaluate the 1989 June 4th massacre.

On March 5, Bei Cun and 30 other Chinese scholars petitioned to modify China’s Constitution to increase human rights protection.
Also in March, dissident Internet writer Zheng Yichun filed five petitions on various civil issues, including one that requested the restoration of Falun Gong’s innocence and rights.

Some government insiders also made petitions for human rights, including Guangdong representatives’ petitioning to demolish the "education through labor" system (also known as labor camps or Laogai), and former Beijing University president Ding Shisun’s petitioned to end the persecution of Falun Gong.

Internet Signature Campaigns

Signature campaigns on the Internet are becoming a popular vehicle for Chinese weiquan. The Internet allows rights protection to be moved from isolated incidents to collective nationwide efforts.

On February 1, dissident writer Liu Xiaobo and 102 other influential Chinese started a signature campaign for the release of Du Daobin, an Internet writer who was arrested for publishing articles criticizing the government.

In late February, Zhang Zuhua and 44 other Chinese scholars started a signature campaign for increasing funding for education.

On March 7, a worldwide effort started a signature campaign for Jiang Yanyong, who the authorities arrested for his earlier petition. This campaign soon got over 6,000 people’s signatures. It was one of the largest in Chinese Internet weiquan history. Jiang was later freed-a remarkable success for the weiquan movement.

Widespread Weiquan Activities

The Chinese rights movement does not have one central focus. The concept of weiquan covers a wide range of subjects and involves many different social groups. For example, many migrant workers cannot get their pay after months of work and they have become a huge weiquan group, demanding their unpaid wages. Laid-off workers who cannot get promised compensation are another large group in weiquan. City residents forced out of their home by land developers form a popular weiquan group, demanding fair compensation. Many Chinese people find they have a need to stand up for their rights. When petitions to the government fail, many resort to demonstrations, and sometimes they collide with the police or with the Public Security Department. The effect has been a dramatic increase in incidents of social unrest.
According to China’s Ministry of Public Security, there were 8,700 incidents of social unrest in 1993 and 32,000 in 1999. In 2004, however, the number of incidents of social unrest increased to 78,000, involving 3.8 million participants.

Chinese Lawyers in Weiquan

Taking a stand for the rule of law is the essence of the weiquan movement. However, most weiquan activities are not fought in courtrooms. The Chinese legal system is not independent of the Party and people have little trust in it. In addition, most Chinese lawyers do not want to fight for human rights cases due to fear of government reprisal. The few who are willing to represent people in weiquan cases have become great advocates for the Chinese rights movement. Attorney Zheng Enchong is one of them.

Mr. Zheng had a law firm in Shanghai. On October 28, 2003, the Intermediary Court of Shanghai City sentenced him to three years in jail for "unlawfully supplying State secrets or intelligence to an organ, organization, or individual outside the territory of China." His defending lawyer, Mr. Guo Guoting who now lives in Vancouver told Chinascope how Zheng Enchong got into trouble by helping Chinese people with weiquan, "This case gave me a deeper understanding of China’s legal system. The Zheng Enchong case was a typical retaliation against the attorney. It was a typical case of a joint action of the courts, police, and the government framing the attorney."

Before he was arrested, Mr. Zheng had represented people in more than 500 cases of citizens being forcibly relocated. The lawsuits were usually filed against real estate developers and local governments. When Mr. Zheng won the case for his clients, he also made enemies with the rich developers and the corrupt government officials. In many corruption cases, the property developer colludes with officials to make huge profits by paying unfair prices as compensation for the confiscated land and property. In representing a high-profile case in Shanghai, Mr. Zheng offended the interests of some senior officials and eventually paid a heavy price.

The retaliation was carried out in two steps. First, the government refused to register Mr. Zheng, making him unable to take the annual lawyer’s examination. Despite the fact that Mr. Zheng couldn’t operate as an attorney anymore because he could not renew his license, he continued assisting people by writing their complaints for them or giving legal advice. When the government realized that he was not only continuing to help people, but also disclosing such information to Human Rights Watch, it escalated the retaliation. That’s when he was charged with "leaking national secrets."
During the whole process, Mr. Zheng’s alleged crime changed names three times. First it was "leaking national secrets." Then it was "leaking national secrets" and "unlawfully supplies State secrets or intelligence to an organ, organization, or individual outside the territory of China." Then it was "unlawfully supplies State secrets or intelligence to an organ, organization or individual outside the territory of China."

According to his attorney Mr. Guo, the fax Mr. Zheng provided to an overseas recipient was merely an internal report from the Xinhua News Agency. The report was called, "Forced Evacuations Cause Conflict; Reporters Encounter Group Attacks at the Demolition Site." It talked about how a conflict developed over forcibly moving someone and how the police surrounded and attacked the Xinhua News Agency reporters. Mr. Guo said, that the Shanghai Secrecy Bureau provided an affidavit in which it determined that report was a "national secret." This affidavit was used as key evidence for sentencing Mr. Zheng. However, the affidavit simply provided a conclusion without any deduction process. It also didn’t bear any individual’s signature. According to China’s criminal law, a business or organization cannot provide a valid affidavit without such content.

"The Zheng Enchong case was one in which the lawyer had to finally deal with his own rights. If even lawyers do not have basic rights, then how can we trust that the rights guaranteed by China’s Constitution can be upheld?" Mr. Guo said.

Mr. Guo himself is another real-life proof that Chinese lawyers lack basic protection. Mr. Guo, 46, was the best Maritime lawyer in China in 2001 and 2002. He dealt with thousands of cases of business conflicts. In recent years, Mr. Guo started defending pro-democracy advocates, dissident writers, and Falun Gong practitioners. Then on February 23, 2005, he found himself under house arrest. Not able to continue his law practice in China, Mr. Guo went to Canada.

In explaining the difficulties Chinese lawyers face when defending human rights cases, Mr. Guo told Chinascope that the Bar Associations in China were quasi-governmental organizations. Lawyers in China may have their licenses invalidated and even face survival issues if they accept cases that the government doesn’t like. So most of the lawyers simply keep their heads down, ignore such rights cases and keep making money. When Zheng Enchong got into trouble, he wrote to the Shanghai Bar Association to ask for help. He didn’t get any. Not one person commented on his situation. When the government harassed and threatened Mr. Guo, none of the 5,600 lawyers in Shanghai gave him any public support. One lawyer called him in private to express his sympathy. The next day, the police gave that lawyer a strict warning.

Terrence Chen is a correspondent for Chinascope.