Under the threat of violence
Chinese citizens are starting to stand up for their rights, and they are doing so collectively. Over the past couple of years, increasing numbers of grass-roots-based rights campaigns have been taking place across the mainland, both in cities and rural areas.
These have been prompted by a wide range of issues, all related to the growing problems of social injustice, economic inequity and poor governance that have come in the wake of two decades of economic reform.
Citizens have been voicing their protests - in an organised way - against such abuses as land requisitions without compensation, forced evictions of residents to make way for urban redevelopment, and the siting of polluting factories in heavily populated areas.
Worker unrest has typically been prompted by excessive working hours, unpaid wages and lack of overtime pay, unsafe working conditions, and forced redundancies following factory 'restructuring' (often mere asset-stripping exercises) that have seen managers become wealthy overnight.
This loose but broad-based social movement - involving, by the government's own estimate, tens of thousands of collective protests in which several million citizens have taken part each year - is being referred to on the mainland as the wei quan, or 'rights defence', movement. In fact, it deserves to be better known as China's emerging civil rights movement.
The new movement's strength lies in its avoidance of political rhetoric and focus on issues of social justice, livelihood and local governance. This has allowed it - in contrast with the mainland human-rights movement which government repression has largely succeeded in marginalising in recent years - to win broad support from the local communities where wei quan struggles are under way.
Moreover, a wide range of social actors - rights lawyers, social scientists and academics, investigative journalists, and even some local legislators - have begun supporting the local citizens' groups involved. An important synergy between the grass roots and elite levels of society is thus gradually emerging, giving added impetus to the calls for greater civil rights protection.
Many of the wei quan groups seek common ground with the central government, which has been stressing the need for more attention to be paid to social justice concerns and the building of 'social harmony'.
And Beijing may even be reciprocating. There have been signs lately of a more tolerant official attitude towards these community-issue campaigns. Police repression still occurs, but it tends to be more sporadic and less severe than would have been the case five or 10 years ago.
But if Beijing has withheld the green light to 'repression as usual' in at least some of the civil rights struggles now under way, a disturbing new threat to basic citizens' rights has recently begun to emerge - the use by local power holders of hired thugs and vigilante-type groups as a means of intimidating and dispersing the activists.
Such unsavoury scenes were evident in the Taishi village protests in Guangdong, when lawyers, academics and local activists were beaten by gangs of unidentified youths.
Similarly, after dozens of migrant workers publicly complained about the non-payment of wages in Chengdu and Xian last year, gangs of hired hoodlums were sent in to break up the protests.
And leading civil rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng claims that he was the target of a hit-and-run attempt on a Beijing street late last year.
Worse still, in Dingzhou , Hebei province , about 250 armed civilians launched a dawn raid in June on protesting farmers camped out on land requisitioned without due compensation by a power plant, killing at least six. A court later found that the raid had been ordered by the Dingzhou party secretary.
The general aim, clearly, has been to frighten activist groups into remaining silent about rights abuses and the violation or neglect of community interests. Whether or not local officials themselves unleashed these violent forces, the fact remains that, in many of the reported cases, police officers have simply stood by and watched.
In the past, despite a flawed legal system, the authorities at least followed 'due process' in dealing with those singled out as social troublemakers. Dissidents were tried and sentenced in court, or were given police-imposed sentences of re-education through labour. The recent use of hired thugs by local power holders to put down wei quan campaigns indicates a worrying trend towards outright lawlessness.
The move flies in the face of the central government's declared aim of building a stable and harmonious society based on the rule of law. The clear-sighted response to rising public calls for greater civil rights protection would be to grant them.
That, rather than the use of illegal violence against the emerging civil rights movement, is the only viable way to head off and defuse growing popular unrest in China.
Han Dongfang is the director of China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based labour rights group