David Wertime

“Stand Up, Citizens!” One Chinese Web User’s Viral “Civics Lesson”

(The COM Library/Creative Commons License)

It’s proof positive that China’s Internet remains a vibrant place. Despite widespread and increasingly multifarious online censorship behind China’s “Great Firewall,” Web users are still writing about political reform–and getting away with it.

Take “Alice,” or @向莉alice, a user on Sina Weibo, China’s pre-eminent micro-blogging platform. On August 17, she shared a long-form document (shown below this article) which at first appears to carry the audacious title, “Constitution of The People’s Republic of China.” Alice then follows with a subtitle, “civics class” [公民课], that provides plausible deniability as to whether she is in fact re-imagining China’s Constitution, or simply providing a quick refresher on the meaning of citizenship.

Alice is wise to hedge. After all, China already has a constitution. The latest (and fourth) version  (in English here) was written in 1982, and it has been revised four times since. It provides for, among other things, “freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.”

Unlike the United States Constitution, however, the Chinese version is not a founding document that binds the nation’s rulers. Instead, it was written by the Communist Party, for the Communist Party, and the core freedoms it confers are often not respected in practice. It’s telling that the first operational paragraph in the Chinese constitution states that China “is a socialist state under the people’s democratic dictatorship led by the working class and based on the alliance of workers and peasants. … Sabotage of the socialist system by any organization or individual is prohibited.”

Contrast this with Alice’s rhetoric. Her opening (or is that a preamble?) reads, “Taxpayer money is what nourishes the government, [so] government should listen to [taxpayer] demands, and be happy when they are happy. When I put money into a vending machine and my beverage comes out I don’t need to be [impressed]; if it comes out slowly, they need to fix the machine. Say it loudly: We are citizens!”

Twenty-three clauses follow, alternately praising and chastising Chinese citizens. The first three:

Say “citizen,” not “ren min” [the latter being the Communist government's preferred term for China's inhabitants]
Marx was the first in human history to openly say that some groups of people needed dictators [sic]. It was [Chairman] Mao that brought up the concept of two warring groups of enemies. Citizens don’t have stature, no one knows who the “ren min” are, so there’s just the residents and the subjects. Here I’d suggest that we use ‘citizen’ instead of ‘ren min.’ ‘Citizen’ implies equality, peace, rule of law, tolerance, unity, the individual at the center.

Patriotism in fact refers to a deep and profound feeling, forged over thousands of years, toward one’s motherland. The powers that be can change, but a nation is relatively stable. The Han, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties have all vanished, but China still exists, Chinese still deeply love their mother country. Let’s remember what Mark Twain said: My loyalty is to my country, and not to any law or to any bureaucrat.

Modern citizens have a strong sense of their own rights
Citizens have their country’s nationality, the right to speak on public matters within that country, and the right to participate. Rights are held by the citizens, granted by the constitution, [and] the state has the right to protect these things. The constitution holds that every citizen is born equal, every citizen has certain basic rights, with corresponding political and civil rights. If you have the consciousness and rights of a citizen, then you are a citizen.

Alice has made amply clear that citizenship and servility to China’s ruling Party are not the same. In some ways, in fact, a citizen is like a customer, who has a right to get angry when they’ve been jilted. But like China’s actual constitution, Alice’s document conceives of citizens as having both rights and duties. She segues into describing the “basic qualities of a citizen,” or at least the basic qualities which she believes a citizen should possess. They include:

An independent approach: The government must let information flow freely, citizens have the right to all the facts.

Respect for the individual: No one should impose their values on others.

Possesses a just heart: When another citizen comes upon a threat, or [their home] is forcibly demolished, or they die in vain …when public power is abused…please come out and condemn the evil power, please extend a hand in help, please supervise public power.

Full of love: Please become every kind of volunteer, please get involved in every kind of NGO activity.

[And, in bold:] Worships freedom.

Alice’s document ends with a list of complaints couched as suggestions. Together, they are a thoroughly modern litany, marrying the idealism and impatience that characterize many Chinese reformists. Alice sees the Chinese citizen as a taxpayer (and thus a consumer), a well-meaning critic, and a private citizen, one who has to be taught to push back against government incursion:

Be vigilant against [those] selling out our country; strike against corruption
A good citizen is loyal to [his/her] motherland and is constructive toward their country, not destructive. If the government makes an error, and you severely criticize the government in hopes that it will improve, that is constructive. … If we continue to tolerate corrupt behavior and allow corrupt officials to send their earnings abroad, this is selling out our country, and that is a crime.

Every citizen is a taxpayer, the government is nourished by tax revenue
If we want to buy goods, we are responsible for paying the sales tax. The government’s military expenditures and its salaries for public officials come from the treasury, and the treasury [funds] come from taxpayers. Taxpayers should feel within their rights in overseeing how [authorities] spend our money.

China needs a spirit of contract
The spirit of contract is a kind of freedom, equality, trust … a spirit of private contract spurs economic development … and has important meaning for realizing human rights.

Study Hong Kong; establish an independent judiciary
Judicial powers must be separated from administrative and legislative powers, and only be exercised independently by the judiciary (the courts), and allow judges to adjudicate independently serving nothing but the law without prejudice.

Independent personalities
Having an independent personality means having an independent will, the ability to make decisions for oneself, rich in creativity. Traits include: … a recognition of one’s own value … and no fear of being opposed by others. … Because of many years of brainwashing, at present there are many people with servile personalities. This means that spreading common sense and recovering our ability to think and make judgments are the most pressing tasks.

Alice’s hard work has not gone unnoticed. Her constitution–more accurately described as a manifesto–is long and freewheeling. But its sheer moxie and punch save it from the jaws of what an American Web user might call “TL;DR”-dom (i.e. “too long; didn’t read”). Instead, the document has been retweeted over 33,000 times and drawn over 3,500 comments, most of them encouraging, if  pessimistic about the chances for reform and impatient with Chinese people as a whole.

@天崖一飘客-长沙陈文凯‘s comment evinced this ambivalence: “The Chinese people have been paying their taxes for thousands of years, and this has not given birth to a feeling of citizenship or rights consciousness, only feelings of imperial privilege and servility. Should [we] not reflect?” @刘彦辉Tony shared a personal story. “Starting when I was young, my mom inculcated this concept in me: ‘Pay your [imperial] taxes with the fruits of your land, care for your bride in order to have children!’ The Chinese concept of infinite royal graciousness will be hard to snuff out [when Chinese] are unable to stand with chests out from the time they are born.”

For others like @葡萄酒小皮, acquiescence reflected not servility but simple realism: “Not only don’t our vending machines give us our beverages, they take our money! But you can’t even kick them, you can just say ‘f*** your mother’ in a low voice.”

Of course, no matter how loud one’s online voice, most Chinese won’t hear it. @未得糊涂 wrote, “The saddest thing is: The people who most need to see this won’t be able to.” Chinese Web users now constitute about 40% of the Chinese population, with Boston Consulting Group expecting that number to rise to over 50% by 2015. That still means that hundreds of millions of poor and rural Chinese–the ones most in need of constitutional protections–are unlikely ever to see or hear of Alice’s effort.

Undeterred–perhaps even encouraged that censors have stayed their hands for months–Alice continues to promote her work. As recently as November 25, she wrote on her Weibo account, “Some people say, you’ve really got guts, writing more than 100 ‘citizen posts.’ I tell them that I study the constitution every day and my posts are written according to constitutional law, what do I need to be afraid of! It’s those who are violating the constitution that should be afraid! There are too many timid people in China, too many who grovel, so other people think you are servile and try every trick to push you around. When everyone understands their rights and stands up, the hand holding the whip will tremble. Stand up, citizens!”

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David Wertime

David is the co-founder and co-editor of Tea Leaf Nation. He first encountered China as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 2001 and has lived and worked in Fuling, Chongqing, Beijing, and Hong Kong. He is a ChinaFile fellow at the Asia Society and an associate fellow at the Truman National Security Project.