As the Chinese state tries to submerge the story of Liu Xiaobo, Western media and public intellectuals are mourning the death of the country’s most famous dissident. In commemorating the writer, poet, and activist, the Economistargued that Liu “represented the best kind of dissent in China”; the Guardiandeclared that “a particular dream of a different China, is also lying on its deathbed.”
While the contrast between the cruelty of the state and the courage of Liu Xiaobo couldn’t be more stark, treating Liu’s death as symbolic of the end of all meaningful dissent in the country is misleading.
Our emphasis on the spectacular—the heroes, the exceptional—is natural, but it creates dichotomies: democracy versus authoritarianism, dissidents versus conformists. The reality, of course, is more complicated. Most dissent in authoritarian states, not only in China, occurs in the realm of the ordinary, in the shadows of the system. While the majority of Chinese might be incapable of Liu’s sacrifice, many resist in silence—they fight smaller battles, often striking awkward compromises with the state. These individual acts of defiance are all the more remarkable given that the past few years in China have been marked by sharp shrinkage of already fragile spaces for political expression.
My interviews with Chinese journalists, university students, educators, and even propaganda officials over the last decade have revealed their creative armor, a palette of negotiation strategies.
China’s critical journalists, the group I am most familiar with, have continuously reinvented their tactics for dealing with political pressures. They investigate officials outside their home jurisdiction, use social media to collaborate with each other, leak stories anonymously, and join and at times even start campaigns, such as Deng Fei’s famous initiative to crowdfund lunches for rural children, which eventually won support from the government. Often, they echo official discourses of progress and solutions in order to voice veiled criticism of the state. Would they prefer absolute freedom of speech? Of course, they would. But, given the unlikelihood of a wider opening for dissent in the country, those who remain on the margins of the media plough forward, despite frustrations and disappointments, in whatever ways they can.
This past June, a journalist friend showed me the striking photographs he took in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, home to China’s Uyghur population. He can’t write about Xinjiang, given its political sensitivity, but he has, over the years, collected images documenting the community’s tensions with the majority Han population. One day he hopes to present these at an international exhibit. “Not yet, but maybe in two years,” he says. An investigative reporter in Beijing expressed a similar quiet fortitude. “If we can do 70 percent of topics, well, then that’s better than nothing, right?” he remarked, as he came to terms with tightening restrictions on his work. This resilience is what makes these ordinary individuals extraordinary.
Journalism students I have met and interviewed have expressed their dissatisfaction with the status quo by choosing to quit journalism in order to avoid becoming propagandists for the government, by choosing to work for Western or Hong Kong news outlets instead of Chinese ones, by studying abroad, and by openly reflecting on the ideological underpinnings of their education. These students are far from brainwashed or indifferent. Some quietly mask their inner conflicts and pursue more lucrative paths, while others address them head on.
Chinese educators, on their part, try to instill values of objectivity and professionalism when teaching journalism, form international partnerships, and encourage students to be self-reflective—again, within the confines of what is permissible. After being laid off from his academic job, a close friend and mentor in Beijing still graciously gathers together his former students to discuss the traumas of the Cultural Revolution over a meal. Staving off pessimism, he smiles as he tells me how he just shared Chinese contacts with a PhD student from Paris, as part of his efforts to help the world see and understand China’s many layers. Over the past ten years, he has taught me the nuances of Chinese media politics, introduced me to journalists and intellectuals and urged them to trust me, and then, over a steaming plate of dumplings, spilled the latest gossip about censorship directives. While he is exceptional, other educators also try to be critical, open, and honest with their students about both the constraints and possibilities of being a journalist in China.
Even officials (including former ones) I have spoken to from party and state regulatory agencies have the ability to reflect on the limitations of the system. Another friend, a former high-ranking official at the Central Propaganda Department, uses a pseudonym to publish books and essays on Chinese society and culture that present a more complex and contradictory portrait of the country than what one might expect from someone enforcing the state’s policies of censorship. Other officials I have encountered have since quit their positions to become academics, often expressing more critical views than that of the average Chinese citizen, given their intimate knowledge of how the system operates.
These expressions of dissent are not mainstream, even if they might appear trivial to someone living in a Western democracy. While Western journalists and students quickly brush off the importance of critique unless it reaches the highest levels of the system, the individuals engaged in ordinary resistance see themselves as having some agency, and they take personal risks, even if they’re small, in expressing their discontent. Most wouldn’t consider their behavior resistance, but rather, a normal part of the daily reality of negotiating official lines and personal beliefs under an authoritarian regime.
What Liu Xiaobo showed the world was the possibility of radical dissent in the face of an all-powerful state. As we honor Liu’s courage, we should resist the reductive narrative of the demise of China’s resistance movements. Even in the most complex and controlled political societies, the possibility of creative rebellion is never closed. After all, it was these very inner conflicts and dualities, some argue, that yielded a “hegemony of form”—a superficial, performative, adherence to official ideology—that contributed to the eventual dissolution of the Soviet system. Though the space for dissent might be shrinking under Xi, the invisible struggles of ordinary citizens continue.