Last week on Wednesday, May 12, artist and activist Ai Weiwei posted a three and a half hour long recording “NianNian”, which made by 3,412 volunteers from Twitter listing the names of every student who died in the Sichuan earthquake. This list has been strongly guarded by the Chinese government due to the tragedy’s obvious connection to corrupt and inadequate school construction. Those of you who don’t know the cruel reality of China’s freedom of speech may have difficulty understanding just how brave these volunteers are for doing this.
Just a few days before the “NianNian” was released, Ai Weiwei invited all of the Twitter users to have dinner together in Hangzhou on May 7. One of the dinner organizer’s emails was hacked by the government on May 5, and all the RSVP information was revealed. The domestic security department of Hangzhou started sending requests to those who had RSVPed for that dinner to “have tea” with them. By 4:00 p.m. on May 7, more than 32 people had had conversions with the domestic security department and were threatened for planning to attend the dinner.
What the domestic security department didn’t know was that the “tea” action had gone live on Twitter under the tag #5/7tea. These real-time reports of the security department’s repeated interventions encouraged Twitter users from Shanghai, Dalian and other provinces to join the dinner party to show their support to Ai Weiwei, and to deliver a massage to the government that having dinner together and chatting is a basic human right.
After 5/7tea, it has become clearer and clearer that a new wave is appearing on the Internet in China. This is especially the case on Twitter, which, due to its decentralized nature and API policy, has become the frontline of China’s democracy and human rights movement. The theme of this new wave is this: do not be afraid to exercise your human rights, especially the freedom of speech and the freedom of assembly; do not be afraid of the government and its domestic security department; plead, appeal, do everything in your power to ask for administrative review of the government for its illegal behavior, abuse of power, and so on.
The seeds of this fearless new wave first appeared on December 10, 2008 on the 60th anniversary of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. On that day, Charter 08 (named after Charter 77 issued by dissidents in Czechoslovakia) was published and signed by over 303 Chinese intellectuals and human rights activists to promote political reform and democratization in the People’s Republic of China. Hours before the online release of the Charter, police detained its author, Liu Xiaobo. He was later arrested on June 23, 2009 on charges of “suspicion of inciting the subversion of state power” and sentenced to eleven years in prison on December 25.
Despite the Chinese government’s tight-lipped approach to the Charter and the strict punishment of its draftsman, a great deal of Chinese from inside China and abroad signed the Charter. Many of them have been forced to “have tea” with domestic security officials, which is the first time “having tea” (he cha 喝茶) became a phrase describing the forceful “heart to heart” conversations with Chinese security. Now, with the majority of these politically active citizens online and using Twitter, details of this disgusting process have begun appearing live on the internet. People update their Twitter page on the way to the local security bureau, while talking with officers, or on a short break in the bathroom. They write blog posts immediately after returning home, receiving advice and sparking discussion online. A few have even begun attempts at educating their tea “partner” on democracy and human rights, sparking a competition over who can give the best speech to the heavily brainwashed security officers. When the mysterious mask is ripped off, together with the fear, the man behind is just a normal guy with basic human needs.
Following Charter 08, the Citizen Investigating Movement, and now the recent 5/7tea and NianNian, many are becoming more educated about human rights violations and Chinese security practices. With the new wave of political and social activism online, the human rights movement in China is growing and many are becoming bolder in exercising their right of free speech. The future is bright for sure, but the path is twisted and dangerous. We must keep moving forward.