Publication: China Brief Volume: 3 Issue: 5

Politics itself is immoral and dirty. We have to use immoral, dirty means to overthrow this regime. Then we can set up a moral and clean regime.
–Peng Ming

Peng Ming hopes to bring democracy to China, but he does not ask Beijing for the right to vote or even to speak as he pleases. The Hubei native is a revolutionary, and he will, if he gets his way, bring down the Communist Party by force. “We want to overthrow this regime–to grab complete power from them,” he says. “We do not want them to give us certain rights to exist under them.”

China’s oppressed minorities, especially the tough Muslim Uighurs and even the normally peaceful Tibetans, have long used violence and terror to achieve independence from the Chinese. Now those who want to change Beijing’s political system–not merely escape from it–are adopting rough tactics. “We are a revolutionary organization, and revolutionary organizations use extreme means,” Peng Ming says. The middle-aged revolutionary has been plotting to bring down the world’s largest authoritarian state for years. He formed the China Development Union Party in June 1998. Peng claims that his group, which had its offices in the Asian Games Village in Beijing, had 10,000 members at one time. When the authorities caught on to the nature of the party, Peng was jailed. After his release, he fled the People’s Republic, staying just one step ahead of Chinese agents who chased him throughout Southeast Asia. He finally found asylum in America, where today he makes preparations for the next Chinese revolution.

The world wants to see the People’s Republic change and hopes that change will occur gradually. The Chinese people have suffered enough during the last century as two revolutions racked their nation. We all expect that current trends, especially growing affluence, will lead to an evolution of the political system. The hardline authoritarian state, we hope, will give way to a democratic one.

But we have to see China the way it actually is, not the way we want it to be. The government in Beijing shows few signs of permitting structural reform of the country’s political system. Members of the Communist Party may openly talk of political change, but senior leaders insist that they remain in control. How can reforms be meaningful if they cannot result in the ouster of the Communist Party? Younger cadres may wish to see a more open society, but the old men who lead that organization are only interested in window dressing.

So democracy advocates are losing patience. “The people have the right to overthrow the government in violent revolution,” wrote Wang Bingzhang, a well-known activist. It seems that Wang will not be overthrowing any government anytime soon, especially the one in Beijing. In February, that same government put the poor fellow in jail for the rest of his life.

Wang was lucky that he only got a life sentence. He was, after all, facing the death penalty. The fifty-five-year-old dissident was charged with crimes relating to state secrets. He was also accused of espionage, “leading a terrorist organization,” and engaging in “violent terrorist activities.” He is the first democracy activist to be charged under Beijing’s new antiterrorism laws, reports The New York Times.

Beijing said that Wang, called by some the “Chinese Mandela,” advocated violence and terrorism in articles posted on the Internet. The official Xinhua News Agency says that Wang claimed in those articles that he “had plotted, organized and committed violent terrorist activities.” He has also been accused of plotting to blow up Beijing’s embassy in Bangkok and assassinate China’s senior leaders back home. As The Asian Wall Street Journal tells us, “Dr. Wang is no Mahatma Gandhi.”

Wang lived in exile in New York beginning in the early 1980s. In 1998 he entered the mainland under a false name and with a forged U.S. passport in order to meet other dissidents and form an opposition group, the China Democracy and Justice Party. He was caught after a nationwide manhunt and then deported. Agence France Presse says his return to China “then was considered one of the boldest challenges to Communist Party rule in years.”

Some editorial writers, on the other hand, have portrayed Wang as a bit of a joke, “a Chinese Don Quixote, an impractical romantic with poor judgment.” The leaders in the mainland capital, not known for their sense of humor, do not agree with this assessment, however. They apparently thought that the time was ripe for ending Wang’s excellent adventure in subversion. Although officials claimed that they found him tied up in a temple in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, he was, in all likelihood, kidnapped by Chinese agents in Vietnam and dragged across the border into Guangxi.

Wang was held without charge for almost half a year before he was formally arrested early last December. At least some of the charges against Wang appear fabricated: the trial, which lasted just a few hours, was held amid extraordinarily tight security and, most tellingly, behind closed doors.

Wang, whether or not a terrorist, posed a threat to the continued rule of the Communist Party due to his unrelenting efforts to organize an opposition and his belief in the right to use force. So Beijing was taking no chances with him this time. “That suggests,” writes The Asian Wall Street Journal, “there are still many within the government who see the Communist Party’s rule as extremely precarious.”

Peng Ming certainly agrees it is. “When I was in jail, the prison warden and guards in the jail were very respectful to me,” he says. “Even when I criticized them, they would not criticize me back. Why? They said, ‘This regime will not last long. Who knows you won’t be our next leader. If we mistreat you now, you will come after us when you come to power.'” Peng believes that the attitude of the guards in Beijing’s Chongtian prison shows that “the important organizations within the regime have already lost hope.” Is this merely wishful thinking on his part?

“Now it’s easier than at any time to overthrow the regime. There is a strange phenomenon. On the surface, the Communist regime looks like the strongest in history–nothing has seemed so strong in five thousand years,” he says. “Yet, at the same time, it is at its weakest.” Peng Ming is certainly exaggerating, but he at least points us in the direction of the truth when he says: “Now, no Communist official is loyal to or will sacrifice for the Party.” Rampant corruption, for one thing, suggests that he is not too wrong.

Of course, that was not always the case. “During Mao’s time, if anyone attempted a coup, there were people who would have fought with Mao, who would sacrifice to quash these forces,” he notes. “But today, if there is someone who attempts a coup to overthrow Jiang Zemin, no military man will sacrifice for him. There is no one to quash even a small group.”

So the almighty modern Chinese state cannot stop a small group? That’s fortunate for Peng, because a small group is all he has. He claims to have training bases in Laos and Burma and an organization in China. In addition, he has a network of friends in North America and, it appears, Western Europe as well. Nonetheless, he seems only to scrape by, managing his organization from coffee shops around the world and living off of donations from a circle of sympathizers. Does his small group stand a chance?

[Upcoming: How a small group can bring down a very large state.]