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Advancing a peaceful transition to democracy in China through truth, understanding, citizen power, & cooperative action

People in Suzhou Continue Their Protests by Walking

By Chen Yu (Canyu News Reporting)

July 27, 2010

The fight against illegal eviction and demolition, and for fair compensation for property taken, has been going on for about two weeks in and around the small town of Tongan, Suzhou, in Jiangsu Province.   The government has mobilized its resources to contain the mass protests and cut their supply lines.  At present, there are over 10,000 paramilitary and riot police forces stationed presented in Tongan and neighboring towns. The local protesters are facing unprecedented pressure, and so on July 25, the protests in the towns of Tongan and Dongzhu were largely abated.  There were only a few groups of about one hundred people going out for a “walk” and “cooling down” at the Fortune Square in the town of Dongzhu, while policemen forcefully passed out government issued pamphlets to bystanders.  In the town of Fengqiao, where the protests began later than in other towns, the people defiantly continued to “walk”, and the security forces took new measures against them.

 One local participant of the 25th night protest at the White Horse Stream Commercial Plaza in Fengqiao told reporters that because of the large concentration of residents in this area whose property had been demolished against their will, several thousands waged protest by “walking” in the plaza every night. Many protesters questioned the armed police officers on the corruption and unfairness associated with the demolition. The police usually replied with silence. On the night of the 25th, the authorities used a new tactic. They set up police security lines on both sides of the road, and deployed large numbers of police forces to push the protesters beyond the security lines. The protesters complied because, according to this participant, it was by no means the protesters’ intention to create a traffic jam. The protests were aimed to catch the government’s attention and arouse public awareness. The protesters had certainly reached this goal without having a confrontation with the police. “It is important that they deploy a lot of police forces on this;” said the protester,” it touched their nerves and they would feel the pressure. Moreover, it is quite a sign of victory that on the nights of 24th and 25th, there were still so many people coming out to protest after the government issued a stern warning.”

Similarly, there were continuing protests in the Xinsheng Community of the Shishan Neighborhood. Residents kept pouring out on the nights of 24th and 25th. There was at least one participant from each family and the crowd was over two or three thousand. The police showed a decided lack of manpower, as there were only about 300 policemen on the scene.

On these latest developments, our reporters interviewed Mr. Jianli Yang, a Harvard Law School Fellow and the founder of a Non-Governmental Organization called Initiatives for China (“Citizen Power” in Chinese).

 Mr. Yang Jianli first expressed his respect for the protesters in Suzhou. He said that it was a real miracle that the protesters could take cohesive, collective action to defend their rightful interests against a one-party dictatorship which had a tight grip on every corner of their society. It was a very successful example of non-violent opposition which demonstrated firm determination, close collaboration, and careful calculation planning. These protests have already been effective in forcing certain key town officials from power and in stopping certain ongoing demolition projects. All these were concessions the government made under the pressure of protests.

Nevertheless, Mr. Yang condemned the Suzhou municipal government for its lack of response to the protesters’ main demands:  compensation for properties lost in previous demolitions, and punishment of corrupt officials who were responsible for these demolitions.  Mr. Yang pointed out that the Huqiu Development Zone is purely a commercial development project. The demolition and relocation of most residents’ properties do not affect public interest.  He noted that all transactions should be conducted within the principles of free market activity between the residents and commercial developers; unfortunately, the government had intervened with the transaction, forcing unilateral prices and terms onto the original residents, and thus causing numerous disputes that are still unresolved. The recent protests erupted as a direct result of the heavy-handed government-dictated demolitions. In Mr. Yang’s opinion, since the local government became a stake holder in these commercial activities, they should be negotiating as a fair and responsible partner.  Key government officials, he believes, should come out to have a dialogue with the protesters rather than send out riot police to confront the crowd. In addition, the government should run serious investigations on the allegations of official corruption and illegal activities, first reported by the protesters.

A long time advocate and practitioner of non-violent principles, Mr. Yang Jianli also suggested a strategy for future protests. He noted that as a test of non-violent opposition, the protesting event reflects the courage and wisdom of the people in a new format. The key to success is the sustainability of the protests, not instantaneous excitement. At present, the protests are still ongoing, and have put the local governments under considerable pressure.  As one participant pointed out,” Even if there are only 50 people protesting , the government would have to allocate a police force several times as large to play along.”  On the other hand, we should realize that if the local governments continue to increase police presence and add the administrative efforts, the protesters will face greater and greater pressure as well. That means we may need to have the mental preparation to temporarily cease the open protesting on the street. That, of course, does not mean we should give up resistance outright. Instead, we could keep doing such underground activities as private networking, web campaigning, etc. And when the right time comes, we will take to the street again.

Mr. Yang Jianli told us that he had summed up a 3-sentence strategy after talking with the protest participants. That is, “We do not panic when the police move in; we will retreat whenthey actually use force; and we will come back as soon as they leave.”  Mr. Yang elaborated that there is no reason to panic (in the presence of the police) because the protesters did not use banners, posters, and slogans, nor did they form any formal organization. The authorities thus cannot find any fault with the forms of protesting such as walking, by-standing, chilling out, etc. On occasions when the risk of physical conflict becomes too great to tolerate, the protesters could choose to leave the site to avoid direct conflict. It does not cost the protester a thing to leave the site, but it costs the government dearly to deploy all these policemen. When eventually the police deployment has to be withdrawn, the protesters could choose to come back to the street. Therefore, a firm determination and prolonged sustainability are crucial, and also extremely powerful qualities for non-violent resistance.

Mr. Yang also gave some detailed suggestions and advice to the protesters in Suzhou. They are, “Do not escalate the demands and do not let go of the protests” and “Never use violence or you will lose.”  You have to contain the demands within a certain level to yield concrete results. In the last two weeks of protests, most of the police officers present were reasonably self-restrained and physical abuses were rare exceptions. Therefore, the protesters should and could have a dialogue with the policemen to gain their understanding and sympathy. The fact that there were only scarce reports of mild physical conflicts showed that the protesters effectively applied the principle of non-violent resistance to reduce unnecessary loss.

Mr. Yang Jianli shared with us that he was amazed and excited about two things he found out from the Suzhou protesters: (1) The protesters are mainly young people between age 20 and 40, and (particularly those born after 1980) they were full of enthusiasm;  (2) Many protesters mentioned the ideals of liberty and democracy in conversations, showing that these self-oriented civil rights activities could potentially evolve to democratic movements. Mr. Yang said, “I learned a lot from the protesters in Suzhou, who walk the walk of non-violent resistance. We all should observe, study, and participate in their activities in different ways. In the Internet age, the government cannot easily block the flow of information.  We can spread the demands of the protesters, to give them suggestions and advice. But these proposals should not be those that encourage people to take unnecessary risk. On the contrary, we should persuade some of the extremists to avoid extreme actions, thus leaving the authorities less excuse to make arrests and make the protesting more sustainable.

Mr. Yang Jianli stated that there were rumors of multiple arrests in Tongan and other towns.  If there was a truly overwhelming police presence and street protesting became too difficult, the protesters could turn their efforts to gathering accurate information and passing it to outside media, hoping to form a larger public opinion that might force the authorities to release the arrested.  These activities are a part of protests proper.

Are there “interventions of foreign hostile groups”?  Mr. Yang explained that the protests were caused by illegal and unfair demolition of people’s properties. The local governments and their officials are to blame, not the so-called “foreign hostile groups.”  The protests in Suzhou are public events. And anybody has the right to offer his opinion. As Chinese citizens, we have the right to support the protesters in Suzhou and to give them sound advice. As it happens, the Chinese government always blames “foreign hostile groups” every time there is a mass incident rather than looking for the root cause. It is plainly ridiculous and useless. They should learn how to respect public opinion, respect the rule of law, and respect human rights. China is a country for all Chinese people, not a hunting field for just a few powerful.  Mr. Yang Jianli calls for all friends of the Chinese people to show concern for China’s civil rights situation by spreading the news on the Suzhou protests, pushing for media coverage, and voicing their support at all possible occasions.

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