China's tradition of dissent needs America's unwavering support
© Getty Images

It is easy for all the names to blend together — Liu Xiaobo, Xu Wenli, Dai Huang, Chen Guangcheng, Tan Zuoren, Ilham Tohti, Ai Weiwei, Cao Shunli, Teng Biao, Hu Jia, Xu Zhiyong and Gao Zhisheng, among them. All are renowned Chinese activists — lawyers, scholars, journalists and artists — who share a common interest in political change, whether to rectify a single abuse of power or to advance broader systemic reform. All have suffered for their principles. Some have been jailed. Others have been exiled. And still others, such as Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, have died.

From outside China, it often appears as though they are acting alone — well outside the norm of Chinese political life and disconnected from the rest of the country. But it is a mistake to view them as isolated actors. They are deeply connected to Chinese history and to a larger ecosystem of political activism and dissent in today’s China.

China has a long and storied tradition of political dissidence. As the renowned Chinese cultural historian Theodore de Bary described, “For each instance of repression there had to be someone willing to resist the abuse of power, someone ready to stand in opposition regardless of the personal consequences. It is true that many of these were acts of lonely heroism — exceptions to the rule — yet, on the other hand, it cannot be said that they were wholly unique or unprecedented. Indeed, we have enough successive instances to constitute a virtual tradition of principled dissent.”


Chinese history is replete with officials, scholars, leading cultural figures, and even ordinary citizens who questioned the legitimacy of their leaders or leaders’ actions. In the late 1800s, for example, the writer Zou Rong criticized the Qing government, calling for free speech and press, as well as equal rights for women. He died in prison at the age of 21.

Zhang Zhixin was one of many devoted Communist Party members to speak out against the excesses of Mao Zedong and the Gang of Four during the Cultural Revolution, declaring at one point, “You should not force me to deny what I think is right.” She was executed in 1975. Even as noteworthy a scholar as Zhou Youguang — celebrated as the inventor of Pinyin, which is the romanization system for Chinese characters — was persona non grata politically in China until his death in 2017 at the age of 111 because he spoke out against one-party rule.

Yet the story of political dissidence and activism in China is not exclusively one of individual heroism. In addition to those individuals who have been memorialized for their bravery are countless others who also have refused to stay quiet. Chinese people protest on the streets against the government’s failure to protect the environment, safeguard their health, or defend their land from unscrupulous officials. Behind the closed doors of the National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, delegates will voice their discontent, occasionally calling for political change alongside economic reform.

Until recently, a number of China’s wealthiest and most prominent businesspeople used the internet to advocate for elements of political reform. Surprisingly, the greatest censors in China, such as the editors of Xinhua and People’s Daily, often emerge as democracy advocates after they retire. And there are more organized forms of political activism as well. While less active today than a few years ago, the New Citizens Movement engages hundreds of lawyers and other activists throughout the country to promote Chinese civil rights.

Political activism in China comes in many forms, but all of it is dedicated to improving transparency within the political system, holding officials accountable for their actions, and promoting the rule of law. The success of such activism benefits the United States as well. A China that is more transparent and observes the rule of law will be a better place for American companies to do business. It will also be a more trustworthy partner for the United States in dealing with North Korea and other global challenges. And it will be a China that actually merits the mantle of global leadership that Beijing so actively seeks.

While the nature and pace of political change in China rest with the its government and people, the United States can play an important role in supporting reform. Above all, the United States can serve as a positive example of democratic principles for Chinese rights activists. A noted Chinese blogger, for example, has pointed out that the passage of the gay marriage law in the United States profoundly boosted the cause of gay rights activists in China. (Today, however, given the vituperative nature of political discourse and regressive policies in Washington, he notes, Chinese activists no longer draw hope or support from American democracy.)

The United States can also take steps to amplify the efforts of Chinese activists within China by ensuring that western institutions, including nongovernmental organizations, media companies, and the U.S. government’s educational program American Corners, have access to Chinese society — both politically and economically — in the same way that their Chinese counterparts now engage in the United States. This means employing a degree of reciprocity in the relationship that Washington has largely rejected to date.

Without threatening China with a loss of access to our society and market, however, we willingly place ourselves at an economic and political disadvantage both at home and within China. Finally, U.S. political leaders should continue to speak out both publicly and privately in support of Chinese democracy activists. The world will not be a better place with an increasingly powerful yet politically repressive China. How a nation behaves abroad is a reflection of how it treats its people at home. Both the United States and China should be judged accordingly.

Elizabeth Economy, Ph.D., is a senior fellow and director of Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is the co-author of “By All Means Necessary: How China’s Resource Quest Is Changing The World.”

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.