Introduction: An Zhu, the youthful founder of an up-and-coming NGO, One Kilogram More, uses a humorous story about taking action to challenge individuals and NGOs to think more deeply about a critically important question in today’s China: How to carry out public action in a meaningful way that will foster social connections and public knowledge?
Two days ago, I shaved my head so that it shined like a light bulb. After I was done, I gave the thumbs up and asked my colleague to take a photo for me.
I did not shave my head because summer had come, but rather to support a group of young people seeking to “light up Guangzhou with an army of skinheads.” After the Asian Games, Guangzhou’s municipal government introduced a lighting project to beautify the city. According to its blueprint, the entire night sky is to be illuminated with colorful spotlights that inspire the people…
It seems beautiful. If I were a tourist, I would perhaps be fascinated by this sort of dazzling display. If I were a citizen of Guangzhou, I would perhaps feel a sense of pride. Unfortunately, however, the project’s plan is a bit disturbing: it will cost 150 million yuan.
After having spent over 100 billion on the Asian Games, why care about a mere 150 million? I think the officials in Guangzhou may have had such thoughts when making their decision. However, several young people in the city have been unwilling to go along. They believe that this is money spent meaninglessly. Guangzhou does not need this kind of project, especially given the fact that energy is currently in short supply. Given this situation, evening lighting does not really make much sense.
But how to take action? If you have been involved in your community for a long time, your initial reaction might be to:
(1) research the problem;
(2) design an advocacy plan and write up a project proposal;
(3) apply for funding; and
(4) ideally execute your plan after three months
The only problem with this tried and true approach is that you miss the here and now. While you take your time following protocol, the time to act slips away.
This group of young people in Guangzhou took a completely different approach, one that is very simple and direct.
They shaved their heads.
The implication is simple: Does the government really need lights? If we shave our heads, can’t we help the government save a little on electricity costs? Not only that, they started a micro-blog with ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures, launching a movement over the internet to recruit 1000 skinheads to light up Guangzhou.
So there is another implication: We recruited more than enough skinheads; isn’t Guangzhou’s night bright enough? Is there really a need for the government to implement any additional lighting projects? Look how considerate of the government we are…
The first person to shave his head was a young man, and he quickly became known as “Skinhead Man.” His bald head issued a call that quickly caused quite a stir. Before long, people spontaneously joined in online. There was no need for any specialized organization. Netizens merely posted photos of their shaved heads on micro-blogs and sent a copy to Skinhead Man. After that, he gave each photo a number and posted them on the Skinhead Movement’s micro-blog. Soon there were women skinheads, skinhead married couples, and baby skinheads. Not long afterwards, the local media began following the story. The first bald-headed photo appeared online on April 25. On April 27, there was a report on the Yangcheng Evening News.
But if an affair continues to unfold like this, it is a bit too placid and not very Chinese. At the beginning of May, Skinhead Man’s micro-blog was unable to post more photos, for reasons everybody knows. However, the people’s creativity is limitless. At the point Skinhead Man was squeezed to death, “Thumb Girl” gloriously appeared. Indeed at this stage, a beautiful woman entered the scene, giving the thumbs up and encouraging the Guangzhou Municipal Government to publicly announce the lighting project’s budget. She says, “I believe you, I believe you definitely will make your budget public. So I want to commend you.”
Do you know why I wanted to take a photo giving the thumbs up? Normally in this kind of situation, I would give the middle finger. But I have to admit, giving the thumbs up is more likely to promote interaction between officials and the people. You put yourself in a much safer position. At the same time, you enable the media to report on and broadcast the whole story.
Naturally, creative action does not necessarily solve the problem. As I write this at the beginning of June, Skinhead Man is not putting out any more photos, and Thumb Girl is being kicked around like a ball by the various government departments. But no matter what, at least their actions have made more people aware of the problem, and they have put the government’s reaction under the media and internet’s spotlight. Through their perseverance, more and more of the truth will come out.
So, what can learn from these young people’s actions?
First, start with your surroundings. People more readily identify with their personal community, local issues and individual concerns. Why did causes like halting the Xiamen PX project, protesting garbage incineration in Guangdong’s Panyu District, and fighting to preserve the Cantonese language gradually succeed1? They succeeded because they mobilized members of the community. When seventy and eighty year olds are staging a sit-in at City Hall, how can you not succeed?
Second, find a way to express yourself. Personal expression is the safest and most basic course of action. You can use your body to express yourself just as Skinhead Man and Thumb Girl did (just don’t set yourself on fire). Don’t worry about it being too frivolous; personal expression will reveal the truth, spark discussion, and eventually initiate action.
Third, turn your movement into an art form. It doesn’t have to be a masterpiece. As long as it shows your creativity, it doesn’t matter if it is rough around the edges. The signs used by the so-called “Placard Men” in Guangzhou only had a few handwritten words on them, but they nevertheless expressed dissatisfaction with the money spent on renovating the subway. There is also the case of the woman who protested eating shark fins. The shark she drew was just so-so, but its meaning was clear. In both instances, simplicity did not prevent these people from conveying their message.
Fourth, make full use of the Internet. Only through the internet were these creative movements able to be widely publicized, allowing a wide group of skinheads and thumbs-up followers to link up. It is hard to imagine Skinhead Man and Thumb Girl having such a large influence without the Internet.
But while applauding these actions, we need to recognize that such creative action is merely the first step, and there is still a long way to go before realize the change we hope to achieve. This forces us to consider the question: What is the next step?
This problem raises two questions. The first question is how to continue the movement and deepen participation in it. In other words, how do we stimulate discussion and action to ultimately bring about change? This not only requires awareness, courage, and creativity; it also demands more knowledge, experience, and resources. Today in our country, knowledge of public action is quite lacking. Building a team, even if it is virtual, is especially critical to realizing effective internal dialogue and learning.
The second question is how to duplicate the activist’s experience in other regions. This article has pointed out several examples of activism, almost all of which occurred in Guangzhou. Are these kinds of movements possible in other cities and regions? Obviously that requires organizing and disseminating knowledge about how to promote a movement, as well as finding potential local activists.
Therefore, we must ultimately determine a way to link people and create knowledge. How can we connect people who care about public issues, and how can we build on effective dialogue and experience to create localized activist knowledge? As we face these two questions, we not only need activists to target critical issues and take direct action, we also need individuals to design epistemic tools and basic methods for connecting people.
I am interested in one final question: What role can our friends in NGOs play in all of this?
The answer does not exactly inspire optimism. In reality, urban citizens (and perhaps one day, rural citizens) are closer to the scene and issue and are much better than most NGOs at using the internet to link up and disseminate information. Moreover, there is not much readily available knowledge or many precedents in this area. Simply put, everybody is still in kindergarten on the subject, and nobody has any great knowledge on the subject. Furthermore, for reasons everybody knows, NGO involvement in social movements is greatly constricted. In a country where even a demonstration can only be called a “stroll.”, you can’t afford any risk to your organization.
But this does not mean that NGOs should stay out of things, blithely acting like a goody two-shoes whose hands are tied. In light of their new space and new opportunities, NGOs should position themselves to better interact and collaborate with activists. There is no clear answer; it all depends on us trying harder.
I’ve gone on too long, so I would just like to make one more point: Whether you are an individual or an NGO taking action, the most important thing is not having lots of expertise or lofty principles, but rather being in the here and now.
That is only way not to miss out on this new, modern era.
Editor’s Note: The Xiamen PX project was a chemical factory that was planned for Xiamen until city residents got a hold of the news and, in June of 2007, spilled onto the streets in a “stroll” against the project. The protests succeeded in getting Xiamen authorities to put a hold on the project until another location could be found. Two years later, a decision was made to move the PX project to the neighboring city of Zhangzhou. ↩