Protests in China, while very common, are usually silenced as quickly as possible. So it's pretty unusual to see a protester invited to write an op-ed in the China Daily. The case suggests that Chinese civil society may be gaining ground under the new administration.
The case of Zhan Haite, which has become a cause célèbre in China during the past two weeks, is in many ways a departure from the norm. It addresses a middle-class issue; it is directed at changing a national law rather than resolving a local dispute; and it has triggered a national debate spanning social and state media.
Zhan, the fifteen-year-old daughter of a migrant small businessman in Shanghai, is at the center of protests against China's hukou, or household registration, system. She is demanding the right to attend high school in Shanghai, which is currently denied to migrant families in all Chinese cities unless they can obtain a residency permit, and therefore to apply to universities under Shanghai's relatively generous admissions quotas.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Zhan attended primary and middle school in Shanghai, but Chinese local governments are not required to provide free secondary education, or other social services, to migrants, and generally do not do so. It is a situation faced by millions of families every year, both rich and poor — most have to send their children back home to rural towns, where standards of education are lower and there is more competition for university spaces, but wealthier families frequently choose to send their children overseas. The issue also implicates the one-child policy — children born past the limit are frequently punished by being denied hukou — but Zhan is one of three children, all of whom were successfully registered in the Zhan's rural Jiangxi hometown. Zhan's family took the problem to the Chinese public, beginning a Weibo campaign and organizing an October 25th demonstration in front of the Shanghai Bureau of Education.
The Zhans have received widespread and sympathetic coverage from the Chinese media (these English examples are fairly representative of the tone in Chinese-language stories) and online community, but also a hostile response from registered Shanghai residents — a group calling itself the “Shanghai Defense Alliance” has emerged to stage counter-protests, attempting to stop Zhan's group from entering the Shanghai Bureau of Education to present their petition in October. The Zhans have also been evicted from their house, and her father was held in jail for several weeks for allegedly “scratching a police officer.”
The Shanghai Defense Alliance has so far been depicted in the Chinese media as an ugly nativist group, chiefly represented by a man calling himself “Old Cui,” who is identified on his Weibo account as a Feng Shui expert at a Shanghai construction company. He has been quoted making vicious attacks on the Zhans, accusing her father of tax evasion, calling her family “migrant locusts,” and, last Friday, claiming to have a video proving that she has “connections” with the French Embassy. (So far attempts to reach Old Cui in order to confirm his identity and check quotes have gone unanswered; the story will be updated if he responds.)
The question to ask here is how the Zhan case became a national story without triggering either efforts to suppress coverage or, as is usual in protests, a rush to resolve the dispute by paying off or jailing protesters. Willy Lam, speaking to Bloomberg, suggests that central leaders are behind it, trying to rally supporters of hukou reform to overcome the resistance of wealthy provinces like Shanghai. This may seem a bit outrageous, but it may have some truth — after all, traveling to Shenzhen has traditionally been a part of the path for challenging conservative interests in Beijing. A widespread outcry for change would make it much easier to push through reforms of this type, and hukou reform is a widely popular measure that would help cement Xi's growing image as a populist reformer.
But it's worth bearing in mind some alternative hypotheses — the Zhans may simply have chosen an issue that local and national authorities are tolerant about. They are not accusing anyone in particular of corruption, and, being in a big city, no one official has to take responsibility for the failure of social management. As I've written before, China’s national media is often willing to examine sensitive questions, and may simply be exploiting the space created by Xi's evident interest in reform — and the Information Ministry's uncertainty about what needs to be censored — to push the envelope on policy discussion in public.