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Why China Doesn’t Have an Opposition Leader Like Navalny

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Why China Doesn’t Have an Opposition Leader Like Navalny

The popular Russian opposition leader has died in prison, but even his tragic career would have been impossible in China.

Why China Doesn’t Have an Opposition Leader Like Navalny

Rain drops cover a portrait of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, placed between flowers in front of the Russian embassy in Berlin, Germany, Feb. 21, 2024.

Credit: AP Photo/Markus Schreiber

The recent death of Russian democracy activist Alexei Navalny shocked and saddened observers around the world. In China, despite government propaganda that portrayed Navalny as a criminal who espoused extremism, many on the country’s highly censored internet were deeply touched by his vision, conviction, and courage. “Each nation has such heroes. They are willing to sacrifice their life for the freedom of their people,” wrote one Chinese netizen.

Some also lamented that a similar hero could not exist in China. Under a post on a speech that Navalny gave in a Moscow courtroom, another netizen commented, “At least he could spit out his words,” pointing to the fact that Chinese authorities would never allow dissidents to speak freely during court hearings and share their uncensored remarks with the public.

China does lack some of the conditions that enabled Navalny to become a larger-than-life, popular figure in Russia. It would of course be a mistake to downplay Navalny’s extraordinary ingenuity, ability, and bravery as a political activist, or the utter cruelty, vengefulness, and shamelessness of his adversary, Russian President Vladimir Putin. However there are significant differences between the two regimes’ systems of repression. 

Freedom House rated both Russia and China as Not Free in its 2023 global assessments. In the “Freedom in the World” report, which analyzes political rights and civil liberties in a given country, Russia received a total of 16 points, while China received 9, near the bottom of the report’s 100-point scale. Conditions in both countries have deteriorated in recent years. In the 2015 edition, for example, Russia and China earned 23 and 17 points, respectively. In the most recent edition of “Freedom on the Net,” which assesses global internet freedom, Russia scored 21, while China received 9, again on a 100-point scale.

In Russia, Navalny rose to national prominence after he became a leader of antigovernment protests in the 2010s. He set up an anticorruption foundation supported by private donations, through which he published investigations into alleged graft by high-ranking Russian officials. Navalny ran unsuccessfully for Moscow mayor in 2013 and for president in 2018, though he was excluded from the 2018 ballot due to a trumped-up criminal conviction. In his early days, he appealed to Russian nationalism to gain popularity. He was always charismatic and witty, gathering millions of followers on his YouTube and Telegram channels. Even during his final years behind bars under worsening physical conditions, Navalny continued to project his unbreakable spirit to the public by communicating through his lawyers, who were granted some access. 

None of the above activities are as viable in China, given, among other factors, the total penetration of societal institutions by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the vast and pervasive security apparatus, the presence of informants in communities and workplaces, the ban on unauthorized private donations, the utterly opaque nature of the criminal justice system, and the lack of even a façade of multiparty elections. Most importantly, the CCP prioritizes the suppression of any form of association that could build capacity for a protest movement.

Anything approaching Navalny’s robust internet presence would also be unthinkable in China’s political context. Despite early hopes that the arrival of the World Wide Web would liberate the country, the CCP managed to “nail Jell-O to the wall” and create a tame version of the Internet. Antigovernment content is suppressed almost as soon as it appears. Major international social media and messaging platforms are all banned in the country. Domestic platforms, while highly convenient and entertaining, are stringently censored. 

In recent years, ever-evolving digital surveillance has made it even more difficult to escape the CCP’s watchful eyes. Citizens are monitored through the mobile phones in their pockets, facial-recognition cameras and vehicle number-plate readers on the street, or enforced real-name registration for every service they use. Police across China are deploying technology that purportedly harnesses this massive trove of surveillance data to predict unwelcome acts and thwart them before they happen.

Perhaps the closest analog to Navalny in China was Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize laureate who died from liver cancer while in state custody in 2017. Liu was a literary critic and leader in the pro-democracy Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, imprisoned three times for his peaceful opposition to the CCP’s authoritarian rule. 

But while Liu was widely known in Chinese intellectual circles, and was recognized internationally after winning the Nobel, most people inside China likely had – and still have – no idea who he was. In terms of mass mobilization, the best Liu was able to muster was Charter 08, a pro-democracy manifesto that he coauthored in 2008 and was signed by thousands of supporters online. And all of this happened before current CCP leader Xi Jinping took power in 2012 and began to tighten controls on dissent even further.

Because of the CCP’s relentless suppression of any political organizing, awe-inspiring acts of defiance now emerge mostly as complete surprises carried out by individuals with no previous public profile. In October 2022, when China was still under its draconian COVID-19 lockdown, a man unfurled two banners on a bridge in central Beijing, calling for an end to the “zero COVID” policy and for “despotic traitor” Xi to step down. The authorities quickly took the protester, whose name netizens believe to be Peng Lifang, into custody, and moved to censor all references to the incident. Peng’s whereabouts remain unknown.

Nevertheless, some images of Peng’s heroic action escaped censorship for a time, and a month later they helped to inspire many protesters across the country to denounce the COVID-19 restrictions. This nationwide “white paper” protest movement is thought to have been the largest since the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations.  

The CCP regime may have prevented the rise of a Chinese equivalent to Navalny for now, but the lack of a well-known leader will not extinguish ordinary people’s innate yearning for freedom. So long as that freedom is denied, the Chinese public will remain frustrated and hungry for unlikely heroes.