Content

Tobias Bohne, Chapter VI: Spaces of Resistance in China: The Weiquan Movement from a Socio-Spatial Perspective in:

Nele Noesselt (ed.)

Reassessing Chinese Politics, page 119 - 139

National System Dynamics and Global Implications

1. Edition 2019, ISBN print: 978-3-8288-4325-7, ISBN online: 978-3-8288-7265-3, https://doi.org/10.5771/9783828872653-119

Series: East Asian Politics: Regional and Global Dynamics, vol. 1

Tectum, Baden-Baden
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119 Chapter VI: Spaces of Resistance in China: The Weiquan Movement from a Socio-Spatial Perspective Tobias Bohne “These spaces are produced. The ‘raw material’ from which they are produced is nature. They are products of an activity which involves the economic and technical realms but which extends well beyond them, for these are also political products, and strategic spaces.” (Lefebvre 1991: 84) “Space is political!” (Lefebvre 2009: 179, italics in the original) Introduction: The Ambiguity of Contentious Politics in China When discussing political activism in China in general and the weiquan movement in particular, the dynamics and theoretical implications of contentious politics playing out in an—sometimes highly ambiguous— authoritarian political setting is the most prominent theme in the academic literature (Fu/Cullen 2008; Fu 2016; O’Brien 1996, 2013). While this focus is insightful for discussing how contentious movements can operate in such a setting and how structural limitations shape the set of political practices available to activists, it does—at least to some degree—also ignore or only implicitly acknowledge the importance of the spatial dimension of political activism. That is, the way in which “space” is utilized and even produced by actors involved in social struggles (Swyngedouw 1997: 141; Delaney/Leitner 1997). One example of this blind spot in the literature is the unquestioned territorial framing of the space in which movements—such as the weiquan lawyers—operate (i.e. the territory of the Chinese state). As this essay strives to show, space must not be understood as a quasi-natural fixed, one-dimensional, and external structure in which political practices are enacted but rather as a strategic tool in itself to advance interests and secure or challenge power relations. In this sense, the territorial lens through which the weiquan movement is predominantly analyzed here is not regarded as being a “neutral” constant but is understood instead as an outcome of a deliberate political process or strategy; it becomes a part of the political or social struggle itself, and should 120 therefore be incorporated into the analysis of contentious movements and practices. Discussing the spatial dimensions and spatial practices of the weiquan movement (and thus also the Chinese state’s counterstrategies) not only enriches the empirical description of the movement itself but can possibly also uncover broader trends within the “politics of space” in China. In the tradition of Henri Lefebvre (1991), social space has to be understood ontologically in its amorphous complexity—it cannot be reduced “to a singular principle or all-encompassing pattern” (Brenner 2009: 31). Lefebvre offers his readers a—surprisingly insightful—culinary analogy to further portray his understanding of the complex, ambiguous composition of social space: for him, space is “far more reminiscent of flaky mille-feuille pastry than of the homogenous and isotropic space of classical (Euclidean/Cartesian) mathematics” (Lefebvre 1991: 86). The political environment in which social activists operate in China is similarly ambiguous. Since the election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States, and especially since the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, the public perception of the role that China is currently playing in the international political realm has undergone a significant shift. China has been labeled as a threat to the West (or even the world) for a long time now. An emerging power whose rise will undeniably lead to violent conflict with the Western world order (Mearsheimer 2006); a provider of “rogue aid” (Naím 2007), selfishly undercutting the West’s efforts to improve the lives of people in the Global South; and, a constant security threat preparing for “cyberwar” (New York Times 2013) targeting, among other things, critical infrastructure in Western states. Now however, it seems, China is—in the public discourse—more often depicted as the global player who is a guarantor of global prosperity, who respects and is thus strengthening global governance institutions meant to facilitate cooperation in the sphere of international politics, and who is at the forefront of the fight for a sustainable, environmentally friendly future. Per the latter, also upholding the Paris Agreement, as the only suitable framework for cooperatively dealing with man-made climate change (Boffey/Nelsen 2017)—that while Donald Trump nominates a climate change denialist to head the Environmental Protection Agency and vocally pursues a nationalist “America First” path as the panacea for all the evil that globalization has wrought. This story of a “good” and globally leading China is obviously also told by Xi Jinping who, for instance, portrayed the country in a speech given at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2017 as one 121 of the leading advocates of free trade and globalization, of a stable global governance regime, and of the Paris Agreement (Xi 2017). As Xi’s words were openly addressed to the then new president of the US, and thus to the country that has long been regarded as the global symbol of freedom, progress, and stability, one might feel like the world has been “turned upside down” (Momani 2017) compared to even a century ago. The perceived reversal of both countries’ images in the realm of international relations is undoubtedly a simplistic reduction of reality , however. A striking example of the harsh environment that government critics in fact face in China, and of the authoritarian character of the Communist Party leadership, is the case of human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, who was not allowed to receive adequate medical treatment while serving an 11-year prison sentence. He subsequently died of liver cancer, under the eyes of the international community, in 2017. This episode of recent history points to the ambiguous domestic and global roles that the Chinese government currently plays: On the one hand, nongovernmental organizations working in the realm of environmental protection are relatively free to push for better related standards in China—even being supported by the Party leadership and used on the international scale to underline the image of a progressive, environmentally friendly China upholding the principal of global cooperation. On the other, critics of the existing Chinese system who try to hold the Party leadership accountable for guaranteeing basic human rights like religious freedom are massively oppressed. Thus, civil society’s space for maneuver is highly dependent on the policy field (e.g. environmental politics) in which it is active—and, according to the argument of this chapter, the geographical scale and scope too (e.g. international versus local; territory versus network)—which is the dominant reference point for civil society action. This essay thus deals with the strategies used by civil society actors operating in exactly these politically controversial sites embedded in an authoritarian system. The underlying research question asks: Which spatial strategies do weiquan activists use in the setting of an authoritarian state, limiting and directly obstructing the organization of collective contentious polit ics? And, further to this, what can socio-spatial theory tell us about the weiquan movement (and, indeed, Chinese politics)? To tackle these questions, the object of study—the weiquan movement—will first be introduced. Next, the employed theoretical framework—based, as noted, on Lefebvre’s conceptualization of space—will be discussed in light of the specificities of the authoritarian setting in which the weiquan movement 122 operates. In the subsequent section, the implications of a socio-spatial approach for analyzing the weiquan movement will be discussed; this is followed by concluding remarks. Law and Contestation in China: The Weiquan Movement The object of investigation in this chapter is the weiquan movement and, consequently, it has to first be introduced by defining what it actually is. Although the convenient label used in the scholarly literature—weiquan movement—suggests that we are dealing with a rather clear-cut phenomenon, a homogeneous social entity, the reality proves to be a little more complicated. Entering the discussion on the definitional outlines of the movement by taking a closer look at the etymology of the word weiquan already reveals the rather complex nature of this study’s subject matter: for instance, Jonathan Benney (2013: 153–54) states that the term does not really have a fixed meaning and can only be understood on the basis of the context in which the term weiquan is employed. While the social-scientific literature generally translates weiquan as “rights defense” (Pils 2007: 1225; see also, Teng, Biao 2012: 29, Nesossi 2015: 961) or “rights protection” (Fu/Cullen 2008: 111, 2011: 41), and thus locates the movement within the realm of legal activism (Human Rights Watch 2008: 14), Benney rightly points to the shifts in meaning over time and, related to these, the different dimensions of weiquan (Benney 2013: 154). What, initially, was used to describe government action that aimed at educating its citizens in the idea of law (“rights consciousness”) has since been picked up by individual citizens to criticize local government entities who fail to adhere to the laws and principles institutionalized by the central government. Parallely, then, it has developed into a term that describes the work of professional lawyers trying to hold the government accountable regarding its noncompliance with the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) constitutional law by both legal and extralegal means. While this detailed reading of the weiquan movement is important, and cautions us not to oversimplify a rather complex phenomenon, this essay will still focus on the more narrow understanding of what the weiquan movement actually is, as employed by the mainstream literature : the legal realm of weiquan lawyering. Nonetheless, the disaggregation of the divergent sets of weiquan actors helps us to understand the social and political environments in which weiquan lawyering was able to flourish. First, the basis for legal activism is obviously the existence of a legal system; in an authoritarian system, therefore, the idea of the “rule 123 of law” had to even first be introduced by the ruling elite (Fu/Cullen 2011: 40). The beginning of the reform and opening period , starting in 1978, under the rule of Deng Xiaoping marked not only the restructuring of the economic system but also a change in the official language of the Chinese state—which moved away from the Maoist discourse of “class struggle” and “cultural revolution” and reintroduced, among other things, the idea of “ruling the country in accordance with law” (Teng, Biao 2012: 30) to official statements. The then beginning juridification of the PRC was accelerated by the international pressure exerted following the Tiananmen Square44 massacre of 1989 (Fleay 2013: 117). Opening up space for legal activism, and thus laying the foundation for the weiquan movement, were two developments in particular. These were the Law on Lawyers of 1996, which changed their status as “state legal workers” (Fu/Cullen 2008: 124) to independent persons “who are licensed to provide legal services” (ibid.: 124), and the several amendments to the constitution of 1999 and 2004, adding the principle of the rule of law and even the protection of human rights to the Chinese legal system (Teng 2012: 30; Fu/Cullen 2008: 123, 2011: 40). Second, related to the “opening up” of the Chinese system, the state-sponsored effort to increase the rights consciousness (Teng 2012: 30; Fu/Cullen 2008: 125) of the Chinese people created a social environment in which more and more citizens would come to know their rights and consequently be willing and able to assert them—either individually or with the help of weiquan lawyers—in court (Fu 2016). A third enabling factor is the diversification of the media, especially the rise of online forms—which are harder to control by the authorities, easily and immediately accessible by a growing number of Chinese citizens,45 and thus help weiquan activists to communicate with and mobilize the Chinese public in order to build up pressure (Teng 2012: 30). Another important driving force accelerating legal reform and legal activism is the economic development46 of China, which has enhanced the living 44 It is interesting to note that many weiquan lawyers or activists without a background in law but related to the weiquan movement of the first generation had been socialized in light of the Tiananmen Square incident (Fu/Cullen 2011: 42). 45 According to World Bank data on internet usage, 53 percent of the Chinese population access the web on a regular basis. Looking at Macao and Hong Kong as separate political entities, these numbers go up to 82 percent and 87 percent respectively (World Bank 2017). The data set also indicates a significant difference between rural areas and cities. 46 Randall Peerenboom (2008: 2–7) offers a detailed discussion of the correlation between economic development and that of the legal profession system. 124 standard of a large part of the population and thus provides the basis on which mobilization can take place (ibid.). Human Rights Watch defines the weiquan movement as “a movement of lawyers, law experts, and activists who try to assert the constitutional and civil rights of the citizenry through litigation and legal activism” (2008: 14). The clients are, in most cases, ordinary citizens and members of vulnerable social groups who are represented by weiquan lawyers on a regular for-fee basis or, depending on the circumstances, pro bono (Fu/Cullen 2008: 112–114). Another definition also points to the legalistic approach used by rights defense lawyers, but also stresses that weiquan lawyering goes beyond the scope of individual cases: “Weiquan is a court-centric approach to conflict resolution, through which lawyers choose and exploit individual cases and use legal and extra-legal means to pressure decision makers to maximize the rights and benefits of a client and at the same time to achieve a larger objective.” (ibid.: 112, italics in the original) Depending on the individual lawyer, this “larger objective” can simply mean the general institutionalization of the rule of law by continuously processing conflicts in the courtroom without changing or criticizing the national law itself, slowly reforming the legal and political system, or nothing less than achieving a fundamental, radical shift toward democracy. Especially the idea that the weiquan movement can be one of the most influential and promising routes toward China’s transition into a constitutional democracy is stressed by some scholars (Feng 2009). The differing approaches pursued by weiquan lawyers have been picked up on by Hualing Fu and Richard Cullen (2008, 2011), and used to create an ideal-typical typology of actors involved in this heterogeneous phenomenon defined by them, as noted earlier, as the rights protection movement (see Table 1 below; see also, Peerenboom 2008: 8– 9). Classified alongside three dimensions—kinds of case, objectives, and their preferred set of methods/their approach (Peerenboom 2008: 8)—Fu and Cullen (2008: 116–123, 2011: 41) identify three types of weiquan lawyer: moderate, critical, and radical.47 Moderate lawyers take on cases that are not very controversial from a political point of view, such as consumer protection or labor rights ones. Their goal is not to challenge the existing legal framework but rather to strengthen it. These lawyers rely solely on legal action taken within the courtroom, and are often organized within the state-sanctioned All-China Lawyers 47 See Benney (2013: 142–144) for a critical assessment of Fu and Cullen’s typology. 125 Association (ACLA)—even being supported by the Chinese government itself (Peerenboom 2008: 9; Fu/Cullen 2008: 118). Actors belonging to the second category are much more critical of the political system, and consequently also take on cases that are politically controversial. This includes those that center around, for instance, freedom of speech or human rights, but which are not explicitly “politically prohibited such as Falungong or to represent dissidents calling for the overthrow of the CCP” (Peerenboom 2008: 8). Hence, the case selection points to the objectives of critical weiquan activists: they are trying to reform the existing legal and political systems, but are aware of the repercussions of directly opposing them. As Fu and Cullen put it: “Critical lawyers, despite their aggressive advocacy and critical stance, prefer institutional transformation. They hope to end the endemic abuses of the authoritarian state by reforming it from within” (2008: 120). Their methods are, accordingly, not limited to the courtroom; they also mobilize people on the streets and cooperate with non-Chinese organizations, but do not cross the line into overt opposition. The critical lawyer’s approach can be situated within the general context of Kevin O’Brien’s concept of “rightful resistance” (ibid.: 127). Radical lawyers, meanwhile, take up cases that are, as stated above, “politically prohibited” (Peerenboom 2008: 8). Their general goal is to end the current legal and political systems of China by extensively using political means, such as instigating mass protests against the authorities. This approach—which does not solely rely on legal action (moderate lawyers), and tends to value political means higher than when just operating within the existing legal structure to push for change (critical lawyers)—stems from their understanding that “the authoritarian system is the cause of the problem and protecting rights through law makes little sense until the political system is challenged head on” (Fu/Cullen 2008: 122). These lawyers often face severe consequences personally for their actions, for instance daily harassment by the authorities or even incarceration and torture. They are also subject to harsh criticism coming from within the weiquan movement itself, as radical lawyers are— according to more moderate ones—recklessly trying to fight the system without taking the consequences (e.g. a government backlash) into account and/or ignoring pragmatic limits. 126 Table VI.1: Typology of Weiquan lawyers Moderate Critical Radical Types of Case Consumer protection; workplace conditions; dayto-day discrimination by public bodies Politically controversial cases: religious rights; workers’ rights; human rights Human rights; democratic rights Objectives Not challenging the political and legal system (main focus on individual cases); improving the operation of the system; promoting the rule of law Reformation of the system through legal activism in the long run; winning individual cases and advancing reform Abolishing the existing political and legal systems; individual cases as means to fight the oneparty state Methods legal means > po-litical mobilization Legal and moderate political means Political action/resistance > legal means Source: Author’s own compilation, based on Fu/Cullen (2008, 2011) and Peerenboom (2008). The criticism coming from within the weiquan movement is the basis for Eva Pils’ (2007) own discussion of the differences between actors within the movement. Similar to Fu and Cullen, Pils develops a typology that distinguishes between radical/critical lawyers and moderate ones, but draws the line between these groups differently by looking at the reasoning underlying the respective approaches followed by weiquan actors. On the one hand, she identifies a “consequentialist” way of thinking—which argues “that the moral rightness of an act is determined by its good consequences” (Pils 2007: 1213). According to this position, legal activists (and, indeed, activists in general) have to take the possible consequences of their actions—like a political backlash, and the violence ensuing after the Tiananmen Square incident—into account and adapt their approaches accordingly. Pils points out that this limits rights protection activists in their range of options, as these are only derived 127 from the consequences that can be predicted: “Their attitude puts them in danger of blinding themselves to the limits of legal reform in China’s current constitutional and political structure” (ibid.: 1212; see also , Fu/Cullen 2008: 126). Opposed to such consequentialist interpretations of legal activism, a “deontological” way of thinking, meanwhile, is not concerned with the consequences of one’s action but rather with a “moral ideal” (Pils 2007: 1218). This approach can be understood as being more radical than the consequentialist and “pragmatic” paths, as it does not pay attention to whether rights defense action produces any desirable or at least unharmful institutional reform outcomes. The very reason for even doing weiquan lawyering is grounded in the assumption that “unjust State actions must be exposed and criticized as a matter of justice, whatever the consequences for institutional reform” (ibid.: 1286). Hence radical, deontological lawyers are less restricted in their selection of actions by the existing legal and political frameworks, but—as pointed out by moderate consequentialist lawyers—also sometimes invoke a harsh government backlash as a result. It is no surprise that critical and radical lawyers cannot operate freely in China, and thus organizing rights activism “in plain sight” is almost impossible (Fu 2016: 2). An attempt by Teng Biao and Xu Zhiyong to form a central organizing platform for weiquan activism, in order to strengthen their position vis-à-vis the state, proved to be unsuccessful. Gongmen, the name of this platform, immediately came to the attention of the government as it was “insufficiently big and powerful not to be targeted by the party-state” (Benney 2013: 151) and was essentially dissolved in the end. While moderate lawyers can—at least to some degree—operate within and use the resources of the state-sponsored ACLA, critical and radical ones have to resort instead to informal networks to pool their knowledge and resources. The methodological approach of Fu and Cullen (2011: 42) is illustrative of how weiquan lawyers organize their actions in decentralized, closed-knit networks rather than in institutionalized organizations: to find interview partners , Fu and Cullen relied on a “snowballing” system; that is, they contacted several well-known lawyers and asked them to reach out to their peers, who should then do the same. Lacking an organizational locus, weiquan lawyers are, as this example shows, in touch with one another only through personal networks. 128 Contentious Politics, Weiquan, and Space Describing the defining features of the weiquan movement such as its organization and social practices finally implies looking at the importance of “space” for this movement. This is also reflected in the literature on civil society organizations in authoritarian settings, especially in the context of the PRC. One of the most influential concepts in this regard is O’Brien’s aforementioned one of “rightful resistanc”e (1996, 2013; O’Brien/Li 2006). Together with Lianjiang Li, O’Brien defines this resistance as follows: “Rightful resistance is a form of popular contention that operates near the boundary of authorized channels, employs the rhetoric and commitments of the powerful to curb the exercise of power, hinges on locating and exploiting divisions within the state, and relies on mobilizing support from the wider public.” (2006: 2) This not only resonates with the general mode of “resistance” employed by some weiquan activists—using the state’s own commitments to the rule of law and its rhetoric, as well as public outrage, to push for change—but also emphasizes a specifically spatial approach that is located in the idea of “exploiting divisions within the state” (ibid. : 2). As O’Brien writes elsewhere, these divisions predominantly lie in the “central-local divide”—that is, in the competitive vertical differentiation of the Chinese political system (O’Brien/Stern 2008: 14). For instance, weiquan activists can use the currently ongoing anticorruption campaign, initiated by the central government itself under Xi Jinping (South China Morning Post 2018), to legitimize and reinforce their legal activism against local cadres with the (sometimes perhaps even involuntary) help of the state. While rightful resistance is used as a concept to describe contentious practices, Diana Fu’s (2016) theory of “disguised collective action”—a recent addition to the literature—is more concerned with the role that the mode of organization plays for protest movements in authoritarian regimes. Fu is interested in the dilemmas that social movements face in these settings: according to research on contentious politics, a certain degree of institutionalization is needed in order to effectively mobilize aggrieved citizens; forming an organizational platform for, among other things, legal activism on the national scale is, however, almost impossible in an authoritarian environment (Fu 2016: 2, 20). Hence, she observes that less visible informal networks are used to “coach aggrieved citizens on how to contend with state officials through a pedagogical process” (ibid.: 2). Ultimately people do not 129 perform contentious acts of resistance in the name of an organization, but as atomized individuals who are loosely but invisibly connected through personal networks. This is what she labels disguised collective action. Both concepts—rightful resistance and disguised collective action— introduce intriguing perspectives on resistance movements in authoritarian regimes, but both nevertheless lack a theoretically grounded understanding of space too. This implicit taken-for-granted use of space is, from a Lefebvrian point of view, highly problematic as it (1) ignores, at least to some degree, the (social) production process of space and (2) reduces space to a dominant, narrowly defined dimension.48 These two points of criticism are based on the arguments unfolded by Lefebvre, in his groundbreaking work The Production of Space (1991 [1974]), and also on other authors’ works engaging with the Lefebvrian notion of space. One of his most cited claims is undoubtedly that: “(Social) space is a (social) product” (ibid.: 26). For Lefebvre, space is not a given, extra-social entity that structures our political practices; consequently, it has to be analyzed by social scientists in a way that takes the process of production itself into consideration (Lefebvre 2003: 87, 1991: 402; see also, Swyngedouw 1997: 141). Space as a result of a production process is thus also an outcome from social struggles; the analysis of this process can, therefore, potentially reveal the power relations inscribed in the historically produced spatial configuration of the present. Framing space as a process is one important contribution to the discussion on the interrelatedness of society and space; an additional one is Lefebre’s ontological critique of a one-dimensional account of the latter: “We are confronted not by one social space but by many – indeed by an unlimited multiplicity or uncountable set of social spaces […]. Social spaces interpenetrate one another and/or superimpose themselves upon one another.” (Lefebvre 1991: 86, italics in the original) Lefebvre illustrates this simultaneously observable multiplicity of spatial principles and dimensions with, as cited earlier, an apt culinary metaphor: “[Social space is] far more reminiscent of flaky mille-feuille pastry than of the homogeneous and isotropic space of classical (Euclidean/Cartesian) mathematics” (ibid.: 86). This is also reiterated in the 48 O’Brien’s concept of rightful resistance predominantly looks at the interplay of the national and the local scale. Fu focuses, meanwhile, on the spatial dimension of networks. 130 writings of Neil Brenner, who warns against a reductionist interpretation of social practices through space if the latter is conceptualized as a “singular principle or all-encompassing pattern” (2009: 31). What do these observations tell us, then, about the weiquan movement in China? First, the processual conceptualization of space implies that it can be used as a strategic tool (Belina 2013a: 131; Jessop/Brenner/Jones 2008: 393; Nicholls 2009: 78; Nicholls/Miller/Beaumont 2013: 1); space can, therefore, be politically produced (Delaney/Leitner 1997). As Lefebvre puts it, and to return to one of the quotations opening this essay: “Space is political!” (2009: 179, italics in the original). Producing space discursively and materially is thus one way to challenge authority; for instance, the Chinese leadership. This strategic use of space is, second, not limited to an abstract unified concept of it but can consist of a combination of different dimensions therein, like the principles of territory, place, scale, and network (Jessop/Brenner/Jones 2008). The “ways in which geography matters to the imaginaries, practices and trajectories of contentious politics” (Leitner/Sheppard/Sziarto 2008: 158) have been studied by a handful of authors, and a variety of conceptual frameworks have been produced. For instance, Helga Leitner, Eric Sheppard, and Kristin M. Sziarto (2008: 159–165) base their own framework on the idea of “multiple spatialities,” and come up with five distinct but interrelated dimensions of space that become meaningful in the realm of contentious politics: scale, place, network, positionality, and mobility. Others, like Deborah G. Martin and Byron Miller (2003), use space, place, and scale as empirical indicators to analyze the spatial strategies employed by activists. Sometimes, the specific sociospatial configuration of a particular place is analyzed in the context of social movements. For instance, Walter J. Nicholls (2008) takes a look at the importance of cities in the successful formation of social movements. In this paper, the well-established TPSN—territory, place, scale, and network—framework of Bob Jessop, Neil Brenner, and Martin Jones (2008) will be used. These four interrelated dimensions are understood “as site, object, and means of social practices” (Jessop 2016: 21). The concept of “territory” is defined by its inherent logic of separating an inside from an outside. Put in strategical terms, territorialization is “the attempt by an individual or group (x) to influence, affect, or control objects, people, and relationships (y) by delimiting and asserting control over a geographic area” (Sack 1983: 56). This perpetual process of (re)producing territory is always structured by social power relations 131 (Paasi 2003: 110), and thus of utmost importance for studying social movements. “Place” refers to the geographical idea of proximity, the realm of everyday life (Brenner 2009: 36). It is a spatial dimension in which social relations come together in a dense, highly concentrated way (Leitner, Sheppard, and Sziarto 2008: 161). Although places are obviously physically founded, some authors emphasize that the conceptual core of place lies rather in a symbolic and discursive understanding of it (Belina 2013a: 110). Hence, “Social movements often seek to strategically manipulate, subvert and resignify places that symbolise priorities and imaginaries they are contesting; to defend places that stand for their priorities and imaginaries, and relate to the rest of the world.” (Leitner, Sheppard, and Sziarto 2008: 161–162) The spatial dimension of “scale” focuses on the vertical differentiation of (social) space; for instance, the differentiation of states into vertically ordered, nested levels of government (national–regional–local) or the relation between the national and the global scales. But scales can also be constructed, and are not limited to nested hierarchies; they can overlap and transgress one another (Brenner 2009: 41–45; see also, Leitner, Sheppard, and Sziarto 2008: 161 and McMaster/Sheppard 2004: 16– 19). Scale is especially interesting to look at when it comes to spatial strategies such as “scale jumping,” which is used to frame problems in relation to a number of differing scales. Civil society actors can, for instance, shift a local problem discursively to the national scale, in order to strengthen one’s own position vis-à-vis local elites (rightful resistance) or even produce totally new scales altogether (Leitner, Sheppard, and Sziarto 2008: 160; Cox 1998). As Eric Swyngedouw puts it: “The continuous reshuffling and reorganisation of spatial scale is an integral part of social strategies for control and empowerment” (1997: 141). As already discussed above, the organization of contestation movements within authoritarian settings is severely limited. The spatial concept of “network” offers a viable way to organize and orchestrate political action. Networks can help “connecting individuals, institutions and activists in different places, for preventing contestations from being contained spatially by stretching them to other places” (Leitner, Sheppard, and Sziarto 2008: 162) and can cut through the stiff barriers of territory— which is generally the locus of state power—as the spatial expression of the hegemony of the state elite. The politics of networking can thus be interpreted as a form of counter-hegemony. 132 Producing “Spaces of Resistance”: The Politics of Network, Place, and Scale How, then, do these spatial dimensions come into play regarding the weiquan movement? The above discussed internal differentiation among its lawyers, as observed by Fu and Cullen (2008; 2011) and Pils (2007), is a good starting point for exemplifying a socio-spatial approach to weiquan activism. Especially the deontological way of reasoning and critique (ibid.: 1213) is helpful in this regard. Fu and Cullen (2011: 59) observe a “radicalization” process among weiquan lawyers: while most begin as moderates trying only to reform the legal and political system from within, they become more and more radical as they experience little change in the structures that they are challenging. This process of becoming a radical, deontologically reasoning weiquan activist is, for example, visible in the biography of Gao Zhisheng, who began as “a legal professional believing that there would be a slow and incremental development toward rule of law in China” (Pils 2007: 1226) but who then eventually turned into a radical rights defender in the process of practicing weiquan lawyering. In so becoming, he stopped “appealing to the existing system’s legal institutions” (ibid.: 1212) and also started—as a consequence of no longer taking the existing system seriously—“calling for the creation of a new system” (ibid.: 1212). If we take seriously the assertion made by Chongyi Feng (2009: 151) that the weiquan movement is one important step in the direction of a transition to constitutional democracy, then this radicalization process is nothing more than a necessary strategic move for achieving this goal. Incremental change towards democracy through legal activism in the sense of rightful resistance (O’Brien 1996; O’Brien/Li 2006)—that is, resistance within the boundaries of existing legal and political settings— is currently unlikely, as the Chinese leadership seems to be more powerful than ever before (see also, Fleay 2013). Playing by the rules could, in fact, also lead to a reinforcement and legitimization of the state’s discourse of it promoting the rule of law49 (Noesselt 2016: 109–111)—and hence help consolidate the authoritarian nature of the PRC. Weiquan lawyering can therefore only be successful in achieving its goal—that is, the transformation of the PRC into a democratic state (Feng 2009)—if 49 The interpretation of the rule of law by Chinese authorities differs significantly from the Western, liberal-democratic reading thereof. The major difference herein is undoubtedly the adherence to the principle of the primacy of the Party vis-à-vis the law (Noesselt 2016: 110). 133 it radically challenges the status quo, that by pushing the boundaries of the law. Performing weiquan activism as rightful resistance means, in spatial terms, to stay within the scalar differentiation of the national and the local, and to harness the asymmetric power relations and competing interests of both (O’Brien/Stern 2008: 14). While this path of action may potentially lead to a legally achieved positive outcome on the local or even also national scale, the territorially defined idea of a “Chinese” rule of law remains nevertheless unchallenged. When radical lawyers begin to frame their legal action by referring to a universal idea of, for instance, human rights, they are jumping from the territorially defined national scale—which is the spatial site of the existing legal and political systems—to the global one of universalism so as to back their claims. The importance of territory to the Chinese government is also visible in one of the most widely discussed spaces of weiquan activism: the internet (Teng 2012; Hung 2010). For instance, overcoming or challenging the territorially understood legal system is possible by generating pressure on the territory of China through transnationally connecting with NGOs, governments, civil society, and similar abroad, in order to raise awareness of human rights abuses. Connecting with the “outside world” through networking is also useful for obtaining information that is not openly available within the territory of China itself. It is no surprise, then, that the Chinese government attempts to (re-)territorialize the internet by blocking VPNs and other such technologies that allow Chinese citizens to break free of online censorship (Haas 2017). Transgressing the hegemonic configuration of space by using strategies of networking and rescaling is important, but simply replacing one spatial paradigm with another is—as discussed in regard to Lefebvre’s basic understanding of space—highly problematic (Jessop/Brenner/Jones 2008). The pitfalls of ignoring this point—multiple spatial logics are present at the same time and only become relevant in specific social processes—are exemplified by David Chandler’s (2013) critical account of global activism; that is, activism beyond the territorial state and enacted through, for instance, networks. He concludes that the “rejection of the formal political sphere, as a way of mediating between the individual and the social, leaves political struggles isolated from any shared framework of meaning or from any formal process of democratic accountability. […] The rejection of state-based processes, which force the individual to engage with and account for the views of other members of society, is a reflection of a broader 134 problem: an unwillingness to engage in political contestation.” (Chandler 2013: 47–48) Although this critical observation is coined towards contestation activists of the “new left” (ibid.: 34) based in what are more or less democratic systems, the implications of this critique are also important for weiquan activists too: while challenging the state by moving beyond its spatial power structures is of prime importance, a total decoupling from the existing socio- and politico-spatial configurations (e.g. in the sense of “network-centrism”; Jessop/Brenner/Jones 2008: 391) would only serve to undermine the emancipatory potential of spatially sensitive activism. Another interesting aspect that becomes visible in the light of sociospatial theory is the importance of specific places. As discussed above, organizing protest or activism in China is highly problematic and only possible via informal networks (Fu 2016). In these, specific places constitute important nodes that reinforce the possibility of cooperation between lawyers (Teng 2012: 33)—by being somewhat “safe” environments for discussing sensitive political and legal topics in person. It is not surprising that most of the weiquan lawyers are clustered in cities like Beijing, being described by Fu and Cullen as “the most tolerant place for people who challenge the government” (2008: 113). Another example of the importance of “place-making” is Hong Kong, which might potentially act as a gateway to the internet due to its territorially defined special status vis-à-vis mainland China. Conclusion This chapter has explored the possibilities of a socio-spatial theoretical perspective—stemming from the currently marginal academic field of Radical Geography—on contestation movements in China, specifically the weiquan movement. It strived to be an “essay” in the original sense of the term—an “attempt”—and thus, one might point out, falls short of providing systematic empirical evidence for its claims. Closing this gap is the task for a methodologically sound and empirically rich follow up study, one that incorporates and elaborates on the ideas unfolded here in a systematic manner. Nevertheless, I have aspired to show that a socio-spatial approach—used as an interpretative framework—can add another insightful dimension to the research on contestation movements in authoritarian environments in general and on the weiquan movement in particular. In the tradition of Radical Geography, a socio-spatial 135 framework is not only helpful in analyzing a political or social phenomenon in the sense of an academic task but also in providing insights for practical emancipatory action—that is, to produce “spaces of resistance” challenging the geographies of the powerful (Belina 2013a: 158). By avoiding taking existing spatial configurations and frames as given (e.g. the territorial understanding of the state), scholars can uncover—and thus challenge—the hidden (spatial) strategies (e.g. the territorialisation of the internet) employed by certain actors. What does this all mean for the weiquan movement, then? First, to effectively challenge the currently existing political system via legal means, a more radical—or at least merely critical approach—is needed, one that openly questions the status quo. This means in spatial strategic terms, second, that the predominant territorial and national interpretation of the “rule of law” has to be challenged by jumping scales and networking beyond the borders of the state itself. Third, Hong Kong or Beijing play important roles as they offer “safe” environments—ones characterized by a concentration of weiquan lawyers—and thus are places in which intense collaboration is made physically possible (for reflections on cities and social movements, see Nicholls 2008). These places can also become important as nodes in networks connecting Chinese weiquan activists with their colleagues abroad. Furthermore, a follow-up study could also investigate the broader implications of the spatial strategies used by both the weiquan movement and the Chinese state itself as part of general political practice in the country. For instance, one could elaborate on the endeavors of the one -party state to harmonize and homogenize the space that is called “China” (e.g. by territorializing the internet, or physically constructing roads on the peripheries as part of the Belt and Road Initiative). Analyzed in the light of materialist state theory, this spatial strategy of producing an “abstract” space could be interpreted as a “state project” aiming to secure the power of the ruling class. Combined with a Levebvrian reading of the inevitable friction between constructed abstract and directly lived space,50 this tension could be analyzed as a possible moment of contestation (Belina 2013b: 168, 2013a: 75): namely, the source of an emerging space of resistance. 50 “For space ‘is’ whole and broken, global and fractured, at one and the same time. 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Abstract

The Chinese government has recently reconfirmed its “going global” strategy. Beijing is currently constructing a global “New Silk Road,” and has begun to engage in various transcontinental infrastructure projects. From the long-term perspective, the corridors of this New Silk Road might facilitate the exporting of Chinese governance paradigms and hence lead to the formation of institutions that pose a severe challenge to the existing liberal order. The essays in this volume thus take a closer look at recent governance innovations and domestic policy experimentations in China, and also discuss international and regional responses to China’s active positioning as a global power.

The book series East Asian Politics: Regional and Global Dynamics publishes cutting-edge research on dynamic changes in and recent development trends of East Asian politics. The series follows a multilevel framework of analysis: It examines the impact of global power shifts and the transformation of the international system on (domestic) politics in East Asia.