The iconic big-character posters (dazibao) of the 1970s and 1980s are often thought to have lost their purpose in a China now dominated by smartphones and WeChat. Popularized during the Cultural Revolution, big-character posters were used by competing political factions to instigate “mass mobilization.” In the revision to the 1982 Constitution, the right to use big-character posters was removed. During the June Fourth protests of 1989, the posters became ubiquitous when protesters used them to criticize the path of economic reform. In official narratives, authorities used the word fandong (reactionary), implying a hindrance to progress and reform, to describe cases involving big-character posters.
Today, these wall-mounted posters, often handwritten and on a few sheets of paper are used by activists and petitioners seeking to air grievances and direct attention on a range of issues from forced evictions, to government corruption, to wage theft. In some cases, big-character posters allow the disgruntled to circumvent the extensive surveillance and censorship of the internet.
In December 2017, Tianjin dissident Zhang Changhong (张长虹) was sentenced for using big-character posters to call for the rehabilitation of the June Fourth protests. In June 2013, Zhang put up posters at various bus stops and subway stations and in December 2016, he filmed videos of himself in front of his posters, one of which read “Do you know about the Tiananmen Massacre?” He published videos and articles calling on the public not to forget about the bloody suppression. The court accused Zhang of provoking a serious public disturbance for disseminating “fabricated” information and sentenced him to three years and three months’ imprisonment. Zhang is scheduled for release in 2019.
In April 2018, big-character posters appeared on the campus of Peking University. The posters were put up in support for Yue Xin, a female student who sought information from the university about an alleged rape case in the 1990s involving a former professor. Yue wrote online that she had been warned by the school to stop requesting information about the rape case, or risk facing “treason” charges. The posters were promptly removed by the school security personnel.
The following month, during the 120th anniversary of the university, 24 big-character posters briefly appeared on Peking University’s campus. Written by alumnus Fan Liqin, the posters stated that Mao Zedong’s promotion of a personality cult was disastrous for China. Fan warned the Chinese people to be vigilant of history repeating itself under Xi Jinping’s reign, following the removal of presidential term limits and the insertion of “Xi Jinping Thought” into the party constitution. Fan was reportedly escorted away by police officers and campus security personnel; he is not known to have received any coercive measures.
Switching Tactics of Criminalization
As big-character posters continue to be used for political purposes, Dui Hua has noticed an increasingly prevalent tactic of criminalization – a shift from charging “reactionaries” caught with big-character posters with inciting subversion to charging them with “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.” When “endangering state security” was introduced into the 1997 Criminal Law, inciting subversion was frequently used against “reactionaries” who used big-character posters to “vilify” party and senior leaders. In recent years, the term “reactionary” has disappeared from official narratives about petitioners. Instead, petitioners are more likely to be charged with the crime of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.” At first glance, this shift seems like a welcome reform as inciting subversion is a more serious crime carrying a harsher sentence than picking quarrels and provoking troubles. However, Dui Hua’s research shows that in cases involving big-character posters, those charged with picking quarrels and provoking troubles can still find themselves serving as harsh of a sentence as those charged with incitement for committing similar acts. The reason behind this shift is unclear, but given the similarity in the harshness of sentencing, perhaps there is an attempt to obscure cases of a political nature that attract scrutiny by putting them into a pocket crime like picking quarrels and provoking troubles. In 2016 alone, China’s public security bureau filed more than 77,000 cases involving picking quarrels and provoking troubles; the scope of acts that count under this crime is indeed obscure, ranging from criticizing local officials on Weibo to drunken assaults.
Incitement Cases involving Big-character Posters
Dui Hua’s library research into government gazettes has uncovered several previously unknown incitement cases involving big-character posters. One of the earliest cases concerns Ding Qingyun (丁青云), a man from Zhenjiang, Jiangsu, who was caught putting up “reactionary” big-character posters on three separate occasions. In October 1997, he put up a poster titled “New Tongmenghui Propaganda” at a farmer’s market, signed by the “New Tongmenghui Dantu Township Branch.” Tongmenghui bore the same name as the secret society and underground revolutionary movement founded by Sun Yatsen in 1905 against the Qing Dynasty. Available sources did not provide further information about Ding’s Tongmenghui.
Ding went on to write more “reactionary” slogans in April and May of 1998. In a restroom of the Dantu Township government building, Ding hung up big-characters posters reading: “Down with the Communist Party,” “Down with Socialism,” and “Down with the proletarian dictatorship.” In May 1998, Ding was taken into custody on suspicion of inciting subversion. Although the gazette record did not reveal Ding’s fate, a government response subsequently provided to Dui Hua confirmed that Ding completed his two-year sentence for inciting subversion in May 2000.
Dui Hua previously reported on an incitement case involving Chen Shifu (陈世富), a coffin seller from Hunan who used big-character posters to call on residents to oppose local government policies on property demolition and forced evictions. The prosecution statement claimed that Chen’s big-character posters that called on people to overthrow the CCP and reestablish Kuomintang rule posed a threat to state security. The statement also described the books Chen possessed about Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek as “reactionary.”
The Switch to Picking Quarrels and Provoking Troubles
Today, those who use big-character posters to criticize the government and party are likely to face the charge of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.” Dui Hua uncovered a judgment involving a farmer from Shaanxi surnamed Zhang, who was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment in December 2017. On July 1, 2017, the 96th anniversary of the founding of the CCP, Zhang stood in front of a series of big-character posters, which the court judgment later described as “distorting history,” and proceeded to deliver a three-hour long speech that “insulted the party and Chinese leaders.” Zhang had hired someone to film his speech while he delivered it on a busy street in a village in Shaanxi. The court deemed Zhang’s actions as leading to “social disorder” as crowds of onlookers gathered and vehicles stopped in the middle of the street to listen to his speech.
In his speech, Zhang criticized a court decision to side with the township government over a longstanding property dispute. After futile attempts at petitioning, Zhang began pointing fingers at the central government. In 2000, he put up big-character posters calling past and present Chinese leaders, including Jiang Zemin, “traitors” and their rule “a disaster for the country and ruinous for the Chinese people.” Zhang accused local officials of colluding with mafia groups. His big-character posters made references to the “Tiananmen Massacre” and ridiculed Deng Xiaoping’s “black cat, white cat theory.” In 2005, Zhang was sentenced to one years’ re-education through labor for “insulting” the party and various leaders. After repeated detention and time under re-education through labor, Zhang allegedly refused to repent and continued to put up big-character posters. In December 2017, the court decided that Zhang had persistently refused to show remorse and that his slanderous remarks against the party, senior leaders, and other cadres qualified as a public disturbance. Zhang is scheduled for release in June 2019.
In this case, the court described Zhang’s remarks about the party and leaders as “improper.” The same act would have been tantamount to a “vicious attack on the people’s government,” a phrase commonly used in official narratives about counterrevolution propaganda and former incitement cases such as that of Ding Qingyun’s and Chen Shifu’s. Although Zhang’s big-character posters were as politically charged as that of Ding and Chen’s, the political nature of Zhang’s case was obscured by its categorization under the crime of picking quarrels and provoking troubles, most telling is that the sentence he received was as harsh as Ding’s.
Obscuring Political Cases
The latest available statistics from China Law Yearbook shows that 576 individuals were arrested for endangering state security in 2016, a significant drop from 1,105 in 2012. However, this decline is no cause for celebration. As the big-character poster cases show, individuals previously charged with inciting subversion are now more likely to be prosecuted for picking quarrels and provoking troubles. The number of endangering state security cases alone does not give a comprehensive picture of the scale of suppression of dissent in China.
The crime of picking quarrels and provoking troubles has long been decried as a pocket crime, meaning that because of its vague definition “anything can be stuffed into it,” after all 77,451 such cases were filed in 2016. Given the enormous variety of acts that can be prosecuted under this charge, it is no easy task to identify which ones are of a political nature. Dui Hua researchers continue to delve into government sources to uncover the names of political prisoners incarcerated for this charge.