If a group of five Chinese citizens assemble in a Beijing park with a "Democracy Now" sign (or its equivalent in Chinese characters) for a few hours every Saturday, are they likely to be arrested within a year? How long are they likely to stay in jail?

I have a friend from China who claims that they will be put in jail for more than one year (even if the "group" was just one person instead of five!), but I find that hard to believe. These people are just promoting democracy for their country. I know that I am biased by a Western view of freedom, but I also concede that assemblies with free speech can lead to uprisings which disrupt peace.

Edit after one day of answers:

  1. It's unfortunate that @Joe has twisted my words in his leading comment below and made any potential responders less serious. I hope he will edit or delete it.

  2. The five demonstrators do not chant anything or bother other people beyond having a sign. They don't befriend the trouble-makers which surely will be drawn to them. If questioned by others/police about their goals, they just say that they want local election ballots to freely include parties beyond the CCP.

  3. From the first four answers, the outcome is very unpredictable. Everybody going to jail for 5 years and nobody going to jail are both equally plausible.

  4. I hope some Chinese citizens answer, whether or not they want any political change in China. In fact, Chinese citizens who are happy with current Chinese laws/politics (even Xi Jinping himself!) would be ideal.

Edit after two days:

  1. I am continuing this in chat since it was too speculative to stay open here.
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    Asking how soon they would be arrested or how long they would be kept in jail is just too speculative for this site. (As you'll note, the answer didn't address that.) The rest of your question-post is not a question. – Fizz May 21 '19 at 14:00
  • Lots of comments deleted. Please keep the comments relevant to the question. For more information and how comments should and should not be used, please review the help article about the commenting privilege. – Philipp May 24 '19 at 8:36

Assuming your question is to be interpreted as "show me examples", what happened more recently that's reasonably relevant to a scenario like you propose was Wukan, in which local anti-corruption and to a certain extent pro-[local]-democracy activists were eventually suppressed:

During the 2011 protests, Zhuang helped barricade the coastal hamlet of 15,000 people against battalions of riot police. He spoke by telephone with Reuters from New York, where he is now in exile after leaving Wukan in 2014. [...]

A months-long insurrection against local authorities and riot police put a global media spotlight on Wukan, leading to a rare populist victory in Communist China when the provincial authorities eventually backed down. [...] a free election was allowed that saw all seven of the protest leaders voted into public office.

This village committee soon came under pressure from allies of the old leadership seeking retribution, they said. Over the course of the next few years most of the protest organizers left public office, including their leader, Lin Zuluan, who was jailed for corruption last summer.

The protests last year erupted after villagers demanded Lin’s release. Many villagers say the charges were concocted and that a confession by Lin on state television was forced.

The protests ran for several months and were quelled by hundreds of riot police firing rubber bullets, hurling tear gas and beating up villagers with batons, victims and witnesses told Reuters at the time.

Last December [i.e. of 2016], the People’s Court of nearby Haifeng town, which oversees Wukan, sentenced nine villagers to jail terms ranging from two to nine years for a number of charges including illegal assembly, disrupting traffic and spreading false information, according to a notice on its website. [...]

One villager, Zhang Bingchai, was jailed for two years for allegedly spreading false information, the court said. Two acquaintances who knew him said he had spoken about the situation in Wukan, to outsiders on his mobile phone and had posted some images of the crackdown.

Zhuang said his 67-year-old father, Zhuang Songkun, was jailed for three years on a charge of gathering a crowd to block traffic during the protests.

The methods were not as drastic as in Tiananmen, so to more localized events the Chinese authorities respond somewhat differently nowadays.

For more see Wikipedia article on the 2011 protests at least 54 dissidents were arrested in the aftermath, some just for expressing sympathy with the protesters.

Also of some relevance are the "preventative" measures that Chinese authorities apply to known dissidents (often after they are released from jail), including "touristing" them under police escort.

  • Interesting, and actually defends the government's harsh approach since Lin Zuluan admitted that he himself became corrupt after his democracy win! Then again, it might have been a forced confession... – bobuhito May 21 '19 at 15:19
  • Saying Wukan is eventually suppressed is misleading and oversimplified at best. – user23013 May 21 '19 at 17:45
  • I marked this as the answer because it shows the government is a bit more tolerant than it was at Tiananmen Square, but still will severely penalize any activists. The activists in my example should expect to be arrested for more than a year in some sense. – bobuhito May 23 '19 at 1:30

In 1989, a large number of Chinese citizens did exactly this on Tiananmen Square.

The reaction by the Chinese govenment was to declare martial law and order the army to attack the protesters with lethal force. The military complied and killed several hundred to several thousand protesters (estimations differ a lot depending on source).

Now this was 30 years ago, and we were talking about a large scale protest, not just a small group of 5 people. But the Chinese government hasn't become much more open to criticism since then. Political activists with opinions contrary to the party position are frequently harrassed and arrested. The crime protesters usually get accused of is "Inciting subversion of state power". The maximum penalty is 5 years, even more for ring leaders.

Chinese citizens who publicly divert from the party line also face economic and social isolation through the Social Credit system.

So yes, the concerns of your Chinese friends are entirely justified.

  • Thanks, but can you please include whether you expect the group of five in my example to be locked up for more than a year? I was aware of Tiananmen Square. – bobuhito May 21 '19 at 13:40
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    @bobuhito This is a question you should ask a lawyer who is an expert in Chinese criminal law. But I think it is plausible. – Philipp May 21 '19 at 13:41
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    @Philipp I don't think the law rules in China. – knallfrosch May 22 '19 at 11:00

China claims it protects Free Speech in it's constitution, but it does have laws against "Subversion of the State" which is a very broad law that basically criminalizes criticism of the state. According to wikipedia, anyone found guilty of this crime shall be sentenced to jail for no more than Five years (< 5). Anyone found to be a ringleader or organizer of such activity shall be sentenced to jail for no less than five years (> 5).

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    It's worth noting that the portion of the Chinese constitution that is claimed to protect free speech merely says "Chinese people have freedom of speech." As opposed to actual laws and constitutions that explicitly limit the government's power. – Joe May 21 '19 at 22:35

I think the answers to this question are overlooking a reference to Liu Xiaobo, who was a Chinese human rights activist that was arbitrarily imprisoned for many years for non-violently advocating for Human Rights and Democracy in China. He was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 2010 for his non-violent struggle, while he was in jail.

Given examples like this (and many of the others given in other answers), which show the repressiveness of the Chinese regime, I find it hard to understand the OP's skepticism of the claim their friend was making.

  • I tried to make my example the most peaceful by design, so I'm not sure why my skepticism is so hard to understand. Tiananmen Square (with Liu Xiaobo), on the other hand, had a background of looting and riots and arson, and the square itself was becoming a mess. To be clear, though, I don't defend the government's actions at Tiananmen Square nor would I have put Liu Xiaobo in prison. – bobuhito May 22 '19 at 20:18
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    @bobuhito as far as I can tell, most of Liu Xiaobo's protests over the years have been highly peaceful and non-violent. So, if China is willing to jail someone like that, who has such a high profile and is a Nobel Prize winner, for as long as they have done, despite global outcry, I don't see why they would think anything at all of throwing a handful of lowly citizens in jail for X number of years. Why would they, when the regime has shown repeatedly that they have scant regard for basic human rights? – Time4Tea May 22 '19 at 21:30

Directly answering your question:

If a group of five Chinese citizens assemble in a Beijing park with a "Democracy Now" sign (or its equivalent in Chinese characters) for a few hours every Saturday, are they likely to be arrested within a year?

Honestly, it depends what you mean by "assemble".

Case 1:

If they are just hanging out every Sunday, and just happen to have a sign - or t-shirts - that say something like "Democracy Now", they will most likely not be arrested. In China they have all manner of silly T-Shirts. For example, "US Army" or USA Army" of "US Amy" or "USA Ary" or my favorite, "US RMY". People are wearing these everywhere. I meet a high level communist official wearing one of these funny shirts. My point is, about case 1, is that if they are not causing trouble, they will probably get no trouble either.

Case 2:

If they are chanting "Down with the state!" or "Free elections now" and they are harassing people to make sure their message is heard, and propagated, they will have trouble. However, in my experience, if it is limited to 5 people, it will not cause immediate arrest and imprisonment.

Likely, for case 2, the first few times one or two police will show up, ask them what they are doing, then tell them to disperse. After a few times, the police will report it to their superiors, who will find out where they work, or speak to their parents. Then their bosses or parents will tell them to knock it off. Generally bosses/parents are listened too, especially if family income is at stake. If none of this works, then there will be some sort of arrest. It is unlikely they will be sent to the countryside or to Xinjiang for re-education. A day in prison, and a friend bailing them out would be enough to stop it.

I recommend reading this post of mine over at expatriates SE about How to know what you can openly discuss in China.

As another anecdotal story about Chinese people and protests. A relative of mine lived in an older neighborhood in a million person city. The neighborhood is all single family homes; sort of a suburban feel. A wealthy real estate developer was planning to eminent domain the whole neighborhood, demolish it, then build a 20 story high rise investment grade residential property. Everyone in the neighborhood would have received a huge amount of money, and an equal area of condo to boot. However, the people in this neighborhood really liked their lifestyle, and they didn't want to sell. The law, of course, was on the side of the developer.

The people in the neighborhood had a choice - they could go to court and file an injunction, or they could protest by "city hall". They decided to try protesting first, and if that didn't work, go to court. Every morning, they arrived early to city hall plaza. They stood in front of city the whole work day hall protesting. They did this for about 5 days. It was about 20 people, and they were not causing trouble. Just protesting.

In the USA, it would be tear gas or something else unless they had a permit. In China, after 5 days the mayor realized they were serious. He came outside and asked them what the problem was. He was confused - "what do you mean, you don't want a big pile of money and a condo? what is wrong with you people?" was his response.

They told him, "no, we like our neighborhood. Please stop the demolition." The mayor decided to side with the people and stop demolition, and 7 years later, the crappy old single story neighborhood remains, surrounded by high value residential properties.

The point of this story is that for limited, reasonable protests, the Chinese govt can be fairly responsive and responsible. I want to point out, however, that had the mayor decided to demolish the neighborhood, and an injunction in court failed, that everyone would vacate and take the money.


So in summary, it depends how well the democracy protesters behave. Case 1, probably no trouble. If they are reasonable, they will not be bothered. Case 2, If they attempt to evangelize everyone, and are working take the CCP out of power, they will not be treated well.

  • Thanks, I appreciate this inside answer and hope other people from China post their expectations too. Case 1 is more of the passive reasonable demonstration I was thinking about, and it seems reasonable to me too that the police would ignore it a few times, but repeating this every week for a full year still leaves me wondering... – bobuhito May 22 '19 at 2:40
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    I'm downvoting this despite its useful perspective because it tries to present what I view as a rosy image of the Chinese government. In particular, this statement is misleading "In the USA, it would be tear gas or something else unless they had a permit" is misleading. While this certainly does happen., it would not be the usual outcome of a protest outside city hall. – Obie 2.0 May 22 '19 at 4:33
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    The implication someone would likely get would be that it doesn't happen in China, but that wouldn't be correct. – Obie 2.0 May 22 '19 at 4:36
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    Other points that seem highly dubious to me across both answers include: emphasizing that nothing bad will happen to protesters if they're "reasonable"(!), implicitly discrediting the movements for Tibetan independence to much more marginal movements like Texan independence, and suggesting that people should emphasize how bad things are in their own countries whenever something like corruption is brought up. – Obie 2.0 May 22 '19 at 4:47
  • Various comments deleted. Please keep the comments relevant to the question. Surveillance is only tangentially relevant to freedom of assembly and surveillance in other countries is not relevant to this question at all. – Philipp May 23 '19 at 8:12

The 2014 Hong Kong protests organized and lasted for about 10 weeks before disbanding. These protests were in response to the mainland government enforcing that only their own selection of candidates would be allowed to run in the upcoming Hong Kong elections.

During the protests, there were multiple incidents of police brutally attacking protesters in a group, in isolation, and attacking nearby journalists.

In 2017, protest leaders were charged with unlawful assembly / inciting: Wong, Law and Chow were imprisoned for 6-8 months, and are subsequently barred from running for political office for 5 years due to these sentences.

Recently in April 2019, nine protest leaders were further prosecuted for conspiracy / incitement to commit public nuisance.

Reports from Amnesty International indicates that at least 37 mainland citizens have been detained in connection to the protest. They also reported that two of those arrested were also tortured, nine have been refused legal representation and four have gone missing.

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