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China Cracks Down On Activism, Even When It Comes To Communist Principles


As the protests in Hong Kong press on, the clashes have grown increasingly violent. But there are peaceful gatherings too, like this one at a secondary school for boys.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: Fight for freedom.


UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: Fight for freedom.


SHAPIRO: Students in crisp, white dress shirts and black face masks gather at the school's front gates. They tape up hot pink Post-It notes with pro-democracy messages.


That is where our co-host Ailsa Chang started her recent reporting trip in China. Semi-autonomous Hong Kong is now the only place in China where real protests are even possible. Ailsa sat down with two people who understand that all too well. They also started out as young activists. They were pushing ideals the Chinese Communist Party once embraced, only to see that same party crackdown on their efforts.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: I want to start this story on June 4, 1989.


UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #1: This is a CBS News special report from Beijing.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #2: ...The main road to Tiananmen Square.

TOM BROKAW: A brutal massacre of Chinese students and other protesters by the Chinese army.

CHANG: Chinese military troops rolled into Tiananmen Square in Beijing and opened fire on pro-democracy demonstrators after weeks of protests.


CHANG: We met two people in China whose lives shifted course after Tiananmen, two people who would dedicate themselves to activism in the years that followed.

FENG YUAN: (Foreign language spoken).

CHANG: Feng Yuan, a 57-year-old feminist organizer in Beijing...

HAN DONGFANG: (Foreign language spoken).

CHANG: ...And Han Dongfang, a labor organizer. Han was a 26-year-old railway worker when he wandered into the crowds at Tiananmen that summer of 1989.

HAN: When we walk into the square, I saw the students talking about what is democracy. They was fantastic. And I was - I really admired them.

CHANG: So he decided to join the protests. He pitched a tent in the square. And within days, he was giving speeches himself. And then one night, Han was suddenly awakened by gunfire.

HAN: I hear bi-bap-bi-bap (ph) outside of the tent. And I walk out. I look at the sky, the dark sky with the pinky-color lines of bullets. And people ask me, what now? What we do?

CHANG: Han would spend the next 22 months in prison. After his release, he was never allowed back inside mainland China. So in Hong Kong, he founded a group called China Labor Bulletin, a workers' rights organization. And in those first years when Han was starting his new life, a woman in Beijing was struggling with her own memories of Tiananmen.

FENG: (Through interpreter) After what happened, I was very depressed for a few years. I felt like I could hardly do anything.

CHANG: Feng Yuan had been a reporter for Chinese state media in 1989. And after that crackdown at Tiananmen, her boss wouldn't let her go out and report.

FENG: (Through interpreter) For more than a year, I couldn't go out and do interviews. I was wondering, well, what can I do with my life? But I didn't see any real options at the time.

CHANG: She felt useless, listless. A few years crawled by. And then in 1995, the United Nations decided to host a women's conference in Beijing. Then-first lady Hillary Clinton gave a blockbuster speech.


HILLARY CLINTON: Let it be that human rights are women's rights. And women's rights are human rights, once and for all.

FENG: U.N. World Conference in Beijing helped me identify as a whole person. Yeah.

CHANG: That's when your identity became sort of fully formed.

FENG: Yes. My different identities - I can put them together. So then I say, oh, now I'm like a trinity - three identities together. Like an activist, like a watchdog because I was still a journalist and also a thinker.

CHANG: That trinity - activist, watchdog and thinker - forms the feminist that Feng is today. She runs a 24-hour hotline taking calls from women experiencing domestic or sexual violence. It's work that's done mostly in the shadows here.


CHANG: I met Feng in one of old Beijing's hutong alleyways.


CHANG: She rushes me into a small room with these windows all covered up with black paper.

Easier to talk with the door closed? Yeah.

FENG: Also, we don't know who...

CHANG: Is out there.

And this caution, it's for good reason. In recent years, feminist organizers have been harassed by authorities. Just planning a seminar now can land you in jail. Still, Feng says she's very proud to call herself a feminist, even though in China that word is loaded.

What does it mean to be a feminist in China today?

FENG: (Through interpreter) For many ordinary Chinese people, the word feminism is still a derogatory term. Like, a feminist is someone who is aggressive, disliked by men, a woman who is radical.

CHANG: Which feels like such a stark departure from 1949, when the People's Republic of China was founded. Back then, the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP, promised to elevate gender equality. It pushed through laws ensuring women equal pay and the right to divorce. But today, Feng says, so much has changed.

FENG: (Through interpreter) The CCP knows from its past the kind of power that grassroots organizations have to rise up from the bottom. So it fears the potential that another grassroots power can one day emerge to subvert the state, to subvert the regime, to subvert the Communist Party.

CHANG: The CCP was once a party of revolution. It acutely understands the power of a movement, whether the movement be about feminism or worker's rights.

HAN: The Communist Party is supposed to be the party of working class, but in reality, it's a manipulation.

CHANG: Han Dongfang also sees a disconnect between the founding ideals of the Chinese communists and how they govern today. He says now the CCP actively suppresses the labor movement in China.

Who do you think the Chinese Communist Party most protects?

HAN: The most ironic thing is on one hand in wording, they say they represent the workers. They are the pioneer of working class. On the other hand, in reality, the workers they should represent are living in terrible conditions, not allowed to organize a union, not allowed to bargain for themselves.

CHANG: In fact, the Chinese government has quietly disappeared labor activists who have tried to unionize.

What does the Communist Party here fear so much about workers organizing? What do you think it is?

HAN: I do understand their fear.

CHANG: What is the fear?

HAN: The party failed to deliver their promises - a society with equality, a society, a country that - leading by working class.

CHANG: What part of the Chinese Communist Party still feels communist to you today?

HAN: When they look at me.

CHANG: What do you mean?

HAN: There is still a communist group of people who believe in communism, believe in socialism. And they're still fighting for it every day in their work.

CHANG: You believe that you represent and your organization represents the true ideals of the original Chinese Communist Party.

HAN: I do believe, and I will continue to fight for that dream.

CHANG: A dream that Han Dongfang, a workers' rights activist, and Feng Yuan, a gender equality advocate, share. It's a dream that the China of tomorrow will be a better China than the country they see today.

KELLY: That was our co-host Ailsa Chang reporting in Hong Kong and Beijing. And our stories from China were produced by Mallory Yu and Sam Gringlas and edited by Julie Myers (ph). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.