April 23, 2017 5:00 pm JST

Among Chinese rights activists, a new voice emerges

Protester at Xi summit calls attention to village that stood up to Beijing

OKI NAGAI, Nikkei staff writer

Zhuang Liehong, a native of Wukan, China, protested in early April near the hotel where Chinese President Xi Jinping was staying in Florida.

BEIJING -- Because China effectively bans protests on its own soil, demonstrations greeting Chinese officials traveling overseas have become a standard spectacle, offering a glimpse into the type of hard-line tactics the state employs against its own people.

Predictably, demonstrators came out in droves in Florida when President Xi Jinping met with his U.S. counterpart Donald Trump for a two-day summit earlier this month. But a new face has joined the usual mix of persecuted factions.

Xi supporters vs. Xi opponents

Xi touched down in Palm Beach on his official jet in the afternoon of April 6. Waiting for his motorcade outside the hotel where he was staying was a large crowd of supporters wearing matching red shirts and caps, and waving equally crimson Chinese flags. Participants included students studying abroad and other ethnic Chinese, and several held signs enthusiastically welcoming him.

Interspersed within that throng were people associated with Falun Gong, a homegrown spiritual movement that has been outlawed in China. They wore blue and yellow shirts and waved flags denouncing the crackdown. Standing in the shadows of the two larger groups were Free Tibet protesters as well as Vietnam partisans demanding China relinquish the disputed Paracel Islands.

Remember Wukan

Each category of demonstrators was present the previous time Xi visited the U.S. -- except for one particular activist. A man standing beside placards sang popular Chinese songs over a loudspeaker, apparently trying to draw attention to his cause.

The banners called for the release of those arrested in Wukan, a village in the Chinese province of Guangdong. Wukan grabbed headlines in 2012 when it chose its mayor in a direct election forced by protests against land seizures by officials. The village had been seen as an experiment in democracy, but that came to an abrupt end in 2016 after Chinese authorities arrested the mayor, Lin Zuluan, on suspicion of receiving bribes. When villagers protested the imprisonment, police repelled them using rubber bullets and tear gas.

The Wukan activist became very talkative when approached. "Look," he said, showing a piece of paper, "this is the notice of my father's arrest." He then pointed at the photos laid out on the ground. "These are the villagers that were injured during the crackdown."

He continued breathlessly: "One elderly woman died after taking two rubber bullets. They took the corpse and silenced the family."

The man's name is Zhuang Liehong, who says he escaped to the U.S. from China, raising awareness about the village while working as a taxi driver in New York.

"If I don't raise my voice, then no one on the outside will hear about the situation in Wukan," he said. "We have done nothing wrong, yet we are being violently repressed -- it's completely unacceptable."

Opening a dialogue

Zhuang had raised the banners when Xi passed by on his motorcade. But the red-shirted demonstrators reportedly stood between Zhuang and the street, blocking the view.

"Democracy rattles a communist state," said Zhuang. "So they've snuffed out the fire of democracy no matter what the cost."

One young woman wearing a red shirt suddenly showed up, listening in on the conversation.

"Don't you know the truth about Wukan?" asked Zhuang. "I have a right to know, too," replied the woman, speaking in a Chinese dialect common in Guangdong Province.

"I support the law. I'm a lawyer," the woman said after hearing Zhuang speak for a while. Her remark can be construed as supporting either the man or the government. But at the very least, the woman did not criticize Zhuang.

The current Chinese leadership has employed strong-arm tactics both at home and abroad, sparking fresh outcries and giving birth to new dissidents. Those voices will likely be represented in future protests in America, inevitably leading to more loyal red-shirts being exposed to the views of the oppressed.

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