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Can Nonviolent Action Shape Policy? People Power in East Asia and in the West.

Brian Christopher Jones, ed., Law and Politics of the Taiwan Sunflower and Hong Kong Umbrella Movements (New York: Routledge, 2017).

Jing Chen, Useful Complaints: How Petitions Assist Decentralized Authoritarianism in China (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2016).

Besides the hard power and soft power of governments and nonstate actors such as al-Qaeda, there is people power--nonviolent action by individuals and groups to alter government and its policies from below or outside. The anthology edited by Brian Christopher Jones and the monograph by Jing Chen provide authoritative case studies that illustrate both the possibilities and limitations of citizen action to shape government policy. Each book is a must for anyone concerned with the future of Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China. Each volume raises issues for other countries as well, including the United States. Let us consider the broader context of nonviolent action in greater China and worldwide.

There is a huge literature on nonviolent protest, both as passive resistance and as active struggle (Powers and Vogele 1997). For most of recorded history, people power without weapons did not count for much. Nonviolent action by those who wished to challenge or change political authority was nearly unthinkable in most major countries. Instead, protesters resorted to violence, as in the German Peasants' Revolts of the sixteenth century. Starting in eighteenth-century Europe and the United States, however, the potential of nonviolent action increased with growing acceptance of the belief that political authority requires the consent of the governed. Still, the American and French Revolutions were achieved with much violence.

A few individuals helped change the prospects of nonviolent resistance. Henry David Thoreau refused in 1849 to pay taxes to a government that permitted slavery and was invading Mexico. Thoreau acted alone in bearing witness against public wrongs--unlike the large-scale civil disobedience practiced by Martin Luther King, Jr., in the hope of actually changing the law. Ideas on civil disobedience have ricocheted around the world--from Lev Tolstoy's Russia to Mahatma Gandhi's India, King's America, Lech Walesa's Poland, Tiananmen Square, and the streets of Taipei and Hong Kong in 2014--usually with near-term losses but sometimes with long-term wins (Clemens 2014).

More than two millennia before the rise of republican and communist China, kings of the Zhou dynasty asserted that heaven would bless the authority of a just ruler but would withdraw its mandate from a despot. The Mandate of Heaven would then transfer to those who would rule best. Throughout Chinese history, rebels who opposed the ruling dynasty claimed that the Mandate of Heaven had passed, giving them the right to revolt and then rule. In China, as elsewhere across the globe, armed rebellions took place, but political change by nonviolent action was rare. As the Manchu dynasty weakened in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Sun Yatsen and other Chinese who had studied in the West brought to China the idea that the demos should rule.

China experienced many strikes, demonstrations, boycotts, and uprisings in the twentieth century. China's first large-scale, nonviolent direct action was the March Fourth movement in 1919. Thousands of students and intellectuals, joined by business people and workers, protested the Paris treaty permitting Japan to take over many previously German privileges in China. The protests and strikes in May 1919 persuaded the government to reject the treaty but failed to secure broad reforms in politics, science, and literature. Though a strong nationalist, Chiang Kai-shek and other Confucian traditionalists criticized the May Fourth movement for corrupting youth: it weakened respect for authority and allowed inroads for Western culture. Still, May Fourth became an inspiring symbol of student activism. Subsequent mobilizations often occurred on its anniversary. There followed significant protests against both nationalist and communist policies and practices in 1923-1924, 1925-1927, 1931, 1936-1937, 1942, and 1945-1946 (Li 1997b).

Open dissent became more difficult after 1949, when communists prevailed in China's civil war, because the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) permitted no political action except that organized by the party or government. Challenges to CCP rule or doctrine were and still are severely punished. Still, Mao Zedong's Hundred Flowers Campaign in 1956-1957 unleashed a flood of criticism that led him to mount an anti-rightist campaign that denounced and punished hundreds of thousands of intellectuals. Nonviolent action then disappeared until after Zhou Enlai's death in 1976, when thousands mourned his passing in ways that attacked Mao as well as the Gang of Four. Thousands of demonstrators were arrested and many killed, but the Gang of Four was soon ousted and Mao died of natural causes. In 1978 a new expression of protest emerged, the Democracy Wall in Beijing. The new paramount leader Deng Xiaoping did not tolerate these demands for change. He closed the wall, imprisoned many protesters, and amended the constitution to forbid demonstrations. During this period, hundreds of thousands of people came to Beijing or to provincial capitals to petition or demonstrate for redress of their grievances. There were general strikes in Yunnan in 1978, and in Shanghai in early 1979, each severely suppressed (Li 1997a).

Student demands for reform emerged again in 1989. The regime's criticism and dismissal of students' petitions, coupled with mixed signals from the CCP Politburo, prompted a demonstration lasting from May to June of more than 1 million students, joined by workers and members of independent associations, in Tiananmen Square. Mourning the death of CCP General Secretary Hu Yaobang in April, three students knelt before the Great Hall of the People holding a petition over their heads, but not a single high official received them. Students also demonstrated in other cities and sent delegates to Beijing. When the government proclaimed martial law on May 20, up to 2 million Beijing citizens were in the streets blocking the troops' movements. On June 4, the People's Liberation Army moved against the students and other demonstrators, killing as many as two thousand. The communist regime proceeded to intensify the isolation and alienation of the intellectual classes, which had become carriers of demands for social reform ever since the Manchu dynasty's collapse (Li 1997c).

Organized dissent against authority in China and greater China has taken place against the backdrop of a long and complicated history in which Confucian respect for authority faced off against Taoist spontaneity and trust that "softness can conquer hardness"--buttressed or weakened by the teachings and praxis of "bourgeois" democracy and communism. Bringing this story to recent times, both the Sunflower and Umbrella movements in 2014 raised issues for democratic and authoritarian systems everywhere. Each movement showed the difficulty in claiming self-rule against the preferences of an adjacent authoritarian giant. The Jones book contains three essays specifically on the Sunflower movement in Taiwan and three on the Umbrella movement in Hong Kong, four essays comparing each case and two on the broad implications of each movement.

Jones writes that Taiwan's Sunflower movement and Hong Kong's Umbrella movement "demonstrated that civil disobedience in Asia can be just as democratically based, passionate, and effective as anything found in the West" (p. 1). But this claim is too broad. Consider each of the three elements: democracy, passion, and effectiveness. Yes, participants in each movement were "passionate," but protesters in each case were a minority in each polity. The Sunflower movement received fairly strong public support, but the Umbrella movement did not receive broad approval from the people of Hong Kong. Many complained that the demonstrations interfered with traffic and business and risked a police crackdown. (1) One can argue about the degree to which either movement was effective. The Sunflower movement failed to end the "black box" decisionmaking performed by Taiwan's executive on trade deals with little legislative oversight. (The Sunflowers protested the passing of the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement by the ruling party, the Kuomintang, in the legislature without clause-by-clause review.) Nor did the Sunflowers achieve a national constitutional convention. On the other hand, the movement did contribute to the election of Taiwan's first female president; it helped the Legislative Yuan to change hands for the first time ever; it challenged authority directly and made outspoken free speech an accomplished fact.

The long-term effects of each movement remain to be seen. The Sunflower movement could be a step toward the further democratization of Taiwan, with additional safeguards to let the people--not any political party--decide the country's future. The Umbrella movement, however, failed in its immediate objective: more self-rule for Hong Kongers. The Sunflower movement protested official circumvention of established democratic decisionmaking procedures, whereas the Umbrella movement struggled to expand democratic space within a quasi-autonomous political community subordinated to an external authoritarian power. The latter project was far more fraught than the former (Roth 2017). Meanwhile, Chinese communist controls in Hong Kong (and in all of China) have become more repressive since 2014.

Jones claims that the Sunflower and Umbrella movements were democratic, passionate, and as effective as anything in the West. But their impact was limited compared to the civil resistance that helped to destroy the Soviet empire and the Yugoslav Federation. The Singing Revolution in the Baltic countries triggered their independence from Soviet rule and helped to catalyze a successful split from Soviet rule in Ukraine and even in Russia (Clemens 1991; Smidchens 2014). The Baltic analogues to the Sunflower and Umbrella movements received strong backing from most of the demos and were energized by nationalist dislike for alien rule. As dominoes fell for the Communist Party west of Russia, the entire Soviet Empire across Eurasia also disintegrated--a process that also led to the collapse of the Yugoslav Federation.

The fate of popular resistance in mainland China has been darker than in Taiwan and Hong Kong. The students and others who demonstrated on Tiananmen Square from April to June 1989 were passionate and were supported by many sectors and regions of China's population, along with admirers in many other countries. Still, they were no match for the tanks and guns of the military. Since 1989, most Chinese have avoided politics and focused on improving their material well-being. Their political emotions were bought off by economic rewards and sublimated in mindless nationalism. Liu Xiaobo, the only Chinese citizen to win a Nobel Peace Prize, was kept in a Chinese jail until he was nearly dead. As of late 2017, his widow was still under house arrest. (2)

Some individual Chinese have tried to protest authoritarian rule. One of them, the artist Ai Weiwei, has intensified his efforts to support human rights in China and worldwide. Undaunted when Chinese authorities destroyed his studio in Shanghai, imprisoned him for months, and refused him permission to travel for a long time, Ai exhibited his work in thirteen countries in 2017, including the United States, where he set up more than 300 installations in New York City. In 2017, Ai Weiwei worked from Berlin, a one-man gang for political action, assisted by studio and logistics assistants.

Despite this dark picture, Jing Chen shows what could be a brighter aspect of China's political life--the increasing use of petitions by the public to government authorities. While the Sunflower and Umbrella movements were novelties, petitions have long been a feature of China's political life. Petitions were presented to CCP authorities in the run-up to the Tiananmen massacre, but their bearers were ignored, beaten, or arrested.

While the Hong Kong authorities backed by Beijing have rebuffed citizen demands for greater self-rule, the government in Beijing has paid attention to and sometimes acted on complaints expressed in citizen petitions. This process, Jing Chen argues, has helped authoritarian rule to survive within a highly decentralized system. How decentralized is China? Central authority is still strong, but China is increasingly decentralized, with local authorities having greater say than ever before on land use, public spending, and other economic matters. The Chinese government, Chen writes, is a de facto federation with six levels from central to village--in a world where the mean number of tiers was 3.6 in the mid-1990s. The petition process, she avers, helped China avoid the fate of communist regimes in the Soviet sphere, which were pressured to democratize or collapse or both.

The petition bureau is a key institution in China, says Chen. It manages grievances and provides information through an official channel by which people can voice their grievances and disclose corrupt behavior. It helps to aggregate grievances into policy recommendations. Armed with information provided by citizens, the central government evaluates citizens' grievances and the performance of local officials.

Chen's book is based on fieldwork in five provinces in 2008-2009 and research that uses both quantitative and qualitative methods. She employed content analysis to study petitions, then conducted follow-up interviews with officials and ordinary citizens. Comparing how petitions worked in two villages, she finds that the township with the more efficient petition office was spared the occasional violence that took place between officials and citizens in the other township. Comparing China and the Soviet Union, she concludes that the failure of the Kremlin to keep abreast of local discontent contributed to the collapse of communist rule in the USSR.

Chen takes note of the sticks and carrots sometimes employed by local authorities to silence would-be petitioners. They include both "black prisons" to prevent citizens from complaining and "reverse bribes" to dissuade citizens from launching campaigns against them (pp. 168-169). Still, she is generally upbeat about the ways that petitions lubricate the system. Chen suggests that China's handling of petitions must avoid the extremes: suppression of local dissent and crippling of local authority. She proposes that more adherence to the rule of law would help thread this needle.

A scholar in Beijing (Liu 2015, 31) opined that the petition system is "still an unsolved problem." Despite much debate, "no consensus seems to have been reached.... The author thinks that the petition will always be a difficult problem which China has to face during the transition period." The solutions being considered can alleviate pressure but cannot resolve all the difficulties. For an adequate response, the "overall advancement of the entire social system and concept is needed" (Liu 2015, 31). China needs a guiding law to institutionalize the petition process throughout the country. "Nondisclosure and informality" produce a vicious circle. The present "one project one discussion" mode does not work. "By enacting a guiding law in the petition field, the unity of the legal system can be realized so that internal contradictions and conflict in the system can be avoided" (Liu 2015, 35).

Many petitions respond to economic and other inequalities. While the Beijing leadership pledges to develop a harmonious and prosperous society, China experiences greater inequality than most industrialized countries. Professor Zhang Jun (2017) at Fudan University notes that in 1988 and 1995, China's Gini coefficient of household wealth was just 0.34 and 0.4, respectively. But the coefficient grew and peaked at 0.74 in 2010. China's Gini coefficient is now comparable to that of the United States--circa 0.45 in recent years--but it exceeds the 0.24-0.36 range for most major developed economies. By 2014, the poorest 25 percent of Chinese households owned less than 2 percent of the country's total wealth, while the top 1 percent owned one-third. Is there any way that citizen action or one-party elections could narrow this gulf?

Comparing the Chinese system with the United States, Professor Chen notes that the right of the people "to petition the government for a redress of grievances" was guaranteed by the First Amendment (Chen 2016, 162-163). Over time, however, the importance of petition rights was neglected as the right to vote became more secure for most Americans. Still, the Obama administration established an online petition system known as We the People in 2011. It was still functioning in 2017. Some petitions endorsed President Donald Trump's policies but most were liberal and critical. More than a million signatures called for immediate release of Trump's tax returns.

The US experience can also be seen as throwing cold water on the utility of organized protests such as the Sunflower and Umbrella movements and the petition system in China. Thousands of protesters took part in Occupy Wall Street in 2011-2012. They protested a capitalist system that they said fostered inequality. Their complaints became well known and generated much support, but the system they challenged did not budge. If such action achieved little in a relatively democratic society, what could it accomplish in a one-party state?

While the many channels of social media, radio, and television can serve as vehicles for complaint and petition, they have probably divided Americans more than united them for or against government policies. Also, moneyed interests continue to far outweigh public sentiment. Nearly every policy of the Trump administration favors the policy preferences of oil-coal-weapons-chemical magnates regardless of popular sentiments. Most members of Congress bow to the National Rifle Association, even though most Americans favor some kind of gun control.

Greater diversity in news and opinion media for Americans led to a paradoxical result in the November 2016 elections. As Julian Borger put it in The Guardian (November 19, 2017), "libertarians viscerally opposed to centralised power made common cause with a brutally autocratic state apparatus in Moscow, an American plutocrat with a deeply murky financial record, and the instinctively authoritarian far right." Borger quoted Jamie Bartlet, director of the Center for Analysis of Social Media at the think tank Demos: "The radical libertarians and the autocrats are allied by virtue of sharing an enemy which is the mainstream, soft, establishment, liberal politics." Steve Bannon noted that some Catholic conservatives admire Vladimir Putin because he stands for something traditional: nationalism.

Borger also reported that the European Union's counterpropaganda unit detected an upsurge in pro-Kremlin fake news on the Catalonia crisis in Spain. As for Italy, "the Five Star Movement (M5S), combines its anti-establishment stance at home with close alignment to Moscow's line in foreign policy." The M5S Web guru, Gianroberto Casaleggio, claimed that M5S is pioneering "a new, direct democracy that will see the elimination of all barriers between the citizen and the state." He "established news sites that circulate conspiracy theories, many of them cross posted from Russian outlets. One such story suggested the US was covertly funding the flow of immigrants from Africa. It linked back to a story on Sputnik Italia" (Borger, 2017).

Reporting in Morocco on a conference of IT experts from around the world, Jim Hoagland (2017) reported a widespread view that "the communication revolution embodied in social media has hollowed out the political parties in democracies, enabling demagogues to whip up mobs by remote control."

Americans are regularly told that they live in a great majoritarian democracy. The reality of American political life is very different, according to Benjamin Page and Martin Gilens (2017). They argue that "the wishes of ordinary Americans actually have had little or no impact on the making of federal government policy. Wealthy individuals and organized interest groups--especially business corporations--have had much more political clout.... The will of majorities is often thwarted by the affluent and the well-organized, who block popular policy proposals and enact special favors for themselves" (2017, 53). Majorities favor "programs to help provide jobs, increase wages, help the unemployed, provide universal medical insurance, ensure decent retirement pensions, and pay for such programs with progressive taxes. Most Americans also want to cut 'corporate welfare'" (2017, 54). Yet the wealthy interests and structural gridlock have mostly blocked such policies. Thanks to this "oligarchy," as Page and Gilens call it, the United States ranks at or near the bottom of the list of rich nations when it comes to key measures of social health: economic disparity, intergenerational social mobility, racial inequality, racial segregation, infant mortality, poverty, child poverty, life expectancy, violence, incarceration, depression, literacy/numeracy, and environmental sustainability and resilience.

"Elections alone," Page and Gilens (2017, 5) caution, "do not guarantee democracy." Their book shows that majority progressive public opinion is regularly trumped by a complex of forces: campaign financing; candidate selection; lobbying; the policy agenda-setting power of wealthy activists; the special primary election influence of extreme party activists; the disproportionately affluent, white, and older composition of the active (voting) electorate; the manipulation of voter turnout; the widespread dissemination of "distracting, confusing, misleading, and just plain false information" (2017, 55); unrepresentative political institutions (the Electoral College, the unelected Supreme Court, the overrepresentation of the predominantly white rural population in the US Senate, and "one-party rule in the House of Representatives" [2017, 56]); constitutional and related partisan government gridlock; and the fragmentation of authority in government.

Taking a very long view, it may be that civic action from below can over time shape the values and policies of society. Meanwhile, nonviolent protests have often drowned in miasmas of repression. Often their efforts achieved no immediate gains but, over time, fostered healthy changes. The breadth and intensity of protests against police and grand jury treatment of blacks in twenty-first century America may produce major refinements in how the United States is governed. And while overt resistance may diminish in Hong Kong, it could resurface. (3) The spirit of the Umbrella movement may spur unrest in China--not only among minorities but also among Han Chinese seeking greater freedoms and self-rule. These changes could multiply, not only because human conscience deserves to prevail over raw power, but also because predatory exploitation tends to boomerang over time. Still, the most liberal changes in Taiwan politics came from above, when Chiang Ching-kuo became president in 1978 and ended martial law in 1987 (Clemens with Zhan 1994).

It may be that democracy is at odds with capitalism, modern technology, or--more basically--with human nature. If so, citizen action such as the Sunflower and Umbrella movements cannot be expected to alter the policy orientations of those at the top of power pyramids. The successes of people power in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania will be difficult to replicate elsewhere. As Isaiah Berlin warned, "Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made."


Walter Clemens is associate, Harvard University Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies and professor emeritus of political science at Boston University. His most recent book is North Korea and the World: Human Rights, Arms Control, and Strategies for Negotiation (2016). He can be reached at

(1.) See TVBS opinion polls cited by Jones and Su (2017, 16, note 3).

(2.) On "house arrest," see Myers (2017).

(3.) Starting with a World Cup qualifier against Qatar in 2015, Hong Kongers concerned about Beijing's increasing control over the territory booed China's national anthem at football games. Attempting to curb such behavior, China's National People's Congress in September 2017 extended to Hong Kong and Macau a law to punish "disrespecting" the anthem with three years in prison. In October 2017 Hong Kong fans turned their backs as the anthem was played during a qualifier against Malaysia, and some spectators jeered and made rude gestures before a friendly match against Laos. Some Hong Kongers said they would enter the stadium after the anthem was played or find their way to the restroom during its performance. Law professors in Hong Kong wondered if the punishment could be levied against thousands of football fans (BBC 2017).


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--. 2014. "The Power of Conscience: From Concord to Hong Kong." Global Asia Forum, December 22, ?bo_table=forum&wr_id=7546.

Clemens, Walter C., Jr., with Jun Zhan. 1994. "Chiang Ching-kuo's Role in the ROC-PRC Reconciliation." American Asian Review, vol. 12, no. 1 (Spring), pp. 140-163.

Hoagland, Jim. 2017. "The Fourth Industrial Revolution Is Upon Us." Washington Post, November 22 at /the-fourth-industrial-revolution-is-upon-us/2017/11/22/5ff97086-cd62 -11 e7-9d3a-bcbe2af5 8c3a_story.html?utm_term=.60fec 10d312e.

Jones, Brian Christopher, and Yen-Tu Su. 2017. "Confrontational Contestation and Democratic Compromise: The Sunflower Movement and Its Aftermath." In Brian Christopher Jones, ed., Law and Politics of the Taiwan Sunflower and Hong Kong Umbrella Movements. London: Routledge, pp. 15-29.

Li, Fang. 1997a. "China." In Roger S. Powers and William B. Vogele, eds., Protest, Power, and Change: An Encyclopedia of Nonviolent Action from ACT-UP to Woman's Suffrage. New York: Garland, pp. 73-81.

--. 1997b. "May Fourth Movement (China)." In Roger S. Powers and William B. Vogele, eds., Protest, Power, and Change: An Encyclopedia of Nonviolent Action from ACT-UP to Woman's Suffrage. New York: Garland, pp. 315-316.

--. 1997c. "Tiananmen Square Democracy Movement, Beijing, 1989." In Roger S. Powers and William B. Vogele, eds., Protest, Power, and Change: An Encyclopedia of Nonviolent Action from ACT-UP to Woman's Suffrage. New York: Garland, pp. 524-527.

Liu, Fei. 2015. "An Analysis of Institutionalizing Petition System in China." CS Canada Cross-Cultural Communication, vol. 11, no. 2, www.cscanada .net/index.php/ccc/article/view/6372.

Myers, Steven Lee. 2017. "In China, the Brutality of 'House Arrest.'" New York Times, November 25, -china-the-brutality-of-house-arrest.html.

Page, Benjamin I., and Martin Gilens. 2017. Democracy in America? What Has Gone Wrong and What We Can Do About It. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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Roth, Brad R. 2017. "Democratic Political Obligation with Chinese Characteristics: Civic Defiance in Taiwan and Hong Kong." In Brian Christopher Jones, ed., Law and Politics of the Taiwan Sunflower and Hong Kong Umbrella Movements. London: Routledge, pp. 191-204.

Smidchens, Guntis. 2014. The Power of Song: Nonviolent National Culture in the Baltic Singing Revolution. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Zhang Jun. 2017. "China's Vision for the Next 30 Years." Project Syndicate, November 14, -congress-development-blueprint-by-zhang-jun-2017-11.
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Author:Clemens, Walter C., Jr.
Publication:Asian Perspective
Article Type:Book review
Date:Apr 1, 2018
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