Why Political Activism Doesn't Matter in China

Recently, Chinese artist and political activist Ai Weiwei opened up to the press for the first time about the “immense pressure” that he endured during his 81-day detainment. He also broke his silence to netizens on Twitter to show his support for his colleagues who he alleges suffered equally inhumane treatment. But while he has captured the attention of the Western press, it is hard to say whether he (or any Chinese political activist) can gain any traction where they need to most – behind the Great Firewall of the PRC. The 1.3 billion people whose lives these political activists are trying to change couldn’t care less about them.

Living in the United States, when I see an international political dissident making headlines, I get the sense that they must have significant influence in their homeland — after all, their story, cause, and influence has transcended national boundaries. Mohamed Boazizi, who ignited the Arab Spring, comes to mind. 

However, that is not the case when it comes to China’s dissidents, who are projecting their message to anyone who will listen. But with web censors crawling between everything from personal emails to Weibo (Chinese Twitter), the only people who will listen are the indignant international community. Unfortunately, China has not been one to cave to international pressure. To the PRC, the only opinions that matter are those of the Chinese people.

Whether we like it or not, political dissidents of the likes of Weiwei are more international figureheads for Chinese government oppression than movers and shakers of national politics. Sure, the U.S. press loves them, and netizens like to show their support for the political artist, but perhaps my father best captures the average Chinese citizen who does not care to know much about the government detainee. This is not a sentiment that you will find in Weibo’s echo chamber, because apathy does not lend itself to taking to public broadcast. But this is the opinion that matters, because unless activists are able to move the hearts and minds of China, no one will rally with them to force the government to change.

The apathy isn’t all that unwarranted. All of China’s activists are mostly creative intellectuals at the pinnacle of their careers. Figures like Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo and Ai Weiwei are completely unrelatable to the average Chinese salary man in the city whose only concern is how big his bonus is going to be on his next paycheck, or a toiling farmer or migrant worker who is constantly discriminated against, when they preach the wonders of a “democratic and scientific” system of government and bemoan the striking lack of creativity among the Chinese. These figures can easily be antagonized as Westernized sell outs.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that the Chinese people are incapable of rising up against the government. In fact, public reaction to the Wenzhou train crash shows that when the crime is grievous enough, the media does not hesitate to attack. Prior to the press black out, Chinese newspapers attacked the government at all angles for their mismanagement and corruption, and when the government finally clamped down, the damage was already done. There are ways to drive change in China, but unfortunately they have to simmer and hiss from the government’s own missteps.

In order to incite change and widespread activism, intellectuals and artists are not the answer — they are not China’s answer to the Tunisian fruit vendor, and they will not be able to spark a successful Jasmine Revolt that the Communist government is so afraid of, purely because they have failed to connect with the masses inside the great Firewall. As the Arab Spring has shown us, revolution and change do indeed begin with one single voice of dissent — but that voice has to be clear, emotional, and above all, it has to come from a person whose life story resonates with everyone. And while China may have many very educated and intelligent voices, these people seem to be preaching to the international choir instead of trying to rally the Chinese people.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons