Xu Zhiyong is on trial in China for public disorder after assembling a protest relating to the Chinese constitution and transparency in government. He is a founder member of the New Citizens Movement, which is a network of activists campaigning on various social and legal issues, notably challenging Communist party politicians to declare their assets. Chinese authorities have targeted the New Citizens Movement dissidents with public order legislation.
Why are these individuals putting themselves at risk to challenge the Chinese government? What have they to gain; and, importantly, is it worth it?
The power of citizenship is an electoral power. The franchisement of the masses is the most important demonstration of citizen power in the history of democracy. Once elections take place, elected representatives in the Executive and Parliament have the power to govern. Given this inherited sovereignty, it is then the citizens’ role to monitor governance.
The only tangible power maintained by the citizens is retrospective. The default position is that the government’s power is absolute until challenged; the state has an automatic mandate to govern as it sees fit. Given that most democratic governments act within the protection of the law – which the government both interprets and implements – it is only in retrospect that its decisions can be challenged and deemed unlawful. Without the capacity to challenge, citizens are mere subjects of power. Democracy depends on the reaction of citizens. It is not merely enough to vote, obey the law, and pay taxes. More is required to balance the democratic structure of power.
The New Citizens Movement of China seeks to challenge the government and is criminalised as a result. Is democracy worth it?
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