The Challenges Facing China’s Young Activists

Matters, a blockchain-powered media started by Initium editor Zhang Jieping, has published a lengthy report on youth activists in China, looking at their reasons for becoming , challenges they face, their views of democratic values, and the political environment they operate within. The China Youth Development Concern Group interviewed 36 in a range of fields. Most are involved with activism around labor and gender issues, and the “majority of youth become involved in advocacy out of concern about social inequality.” At the same time, in order to mitigate their political risk, “for the most part, their actions and opinions do not tend towards any ‘red lines,’ such as challenging the legitimacy of the Communist Party or the political regime, ethnic separatism, or Taiwan independence,” according to the report. Mental health is an issue of particular concern; as the report shows, often bear intense political and personal pressure, but mental health care can be difficult to obtain due to financial, political, and social limitations.

From the report:

Our study found that the vast majority of youth activists become involved in advocacy out of concern about social inequality. A small number were drawn to the movement by idealistic hopes of changing the sociopolitical system. Their work primarily centers around a single issue, from which standpoint they advocate for the rights of vulnerable populations and promote social progress; once the political crackdown intensified, a portion of our subjects also became involved in helping political prisoners. In general, their work and activities are not overtly political. For the most part, their actions and opinions do not tend towards any “red lines,” such as challenging the legitimacy of the Communist Party or the political regime, ethnic separatism, or Taiwan independence. Our study of the subjects’ personal development also showed that the vast majority of young Chinese activists lack systematic support in their daily work and lives, and that their capacity to respond to and manage political risk is fairly rudimentary.

The most serious problem they face is the relentless escalation of political risk. 94% of interviewees have encountered varying degrees of political suppression. Consequently, the organizations and groups in which youth activists take part have stalled in a period of low growth due to a lack of funds and manpower. Youth activists themselves face a whole host of vulnerabilities, such as economic insecurity, lack of family support, precarious institutional support, and a dearth resources for mental health. They often must bear political risk alone. Add to this that they cannot see any prospects for their personal economic or professional growth, and the result is widespread depression and other mental health problems. As external pressure builds, it becomes more difficult to mediate conflict within activist groups. These internal problems can easily be the last straw for already-stressed youth activists, overwhelming them and harming their mental health. Youth activist groups are fragmenting, and the attrition of individual activists is accelerating. [Source]

Youth activists, many of whom are students or recent graduates of elite universities, have recently worked to support protesting workers in Shenzhen. Many of them have been detained in an ongoing crackdown on labor activism. University students have also been active in China’s #metoo movement against sexual harassment and other feminist activism. But women’s rights activists have also suffered tremendous pressure and persecution from the government, notably with the detention of five feminist activists in 2015. Several activists have chosen to move abroad to continue their work out of the grasp of the Chinese government, though that comes with its own challenges. For GlobalPost, Katherine Fung reports on Chinese feminist activists who are now working from the U.S., including Lü Pin, whose pioneering Feminist Voices group had their social media account shuttered in 2017:

While China’s government has cracked down on women’s rights activists through censorship, arrests and evictions, an informal network of Chinese citizens living abroad are working to support their efforts to combat sexual harassment and inequality back home. They want to bring the stories of activists and other women in China to international audiences.

[…] One Sunday morning this past winter, about 30 women met in New York City for a Mandarin-language workshop on feminism led by Lü Pin, one of China’s leading women’s rights advocates. Most were in their 20s and had grown up in China before coming to the US to study and work. They were there to meet other Chinese feminists and learn about how activists in China are trying to change the status quo.

Speaking via video chat, one activist told the participants that she is studying psychology in hopes of becoming a counselor for survivors of sexual assault, who have few resources for support.

“Sometimes, I feel powerless when I think about women’s situation in China,” said Nico, a college student who attended the workshop and did not want to give her last name for fear of political risk and pressure on her family members. “But we do what we can in daily life and hopefully change the situation incrementally.” [Source]