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Introduction

January 26, 2011

An expression from the Song Dynasty, “drops of water piercing through rock” (水滴石穿), describes the power of persistent effort to accomplish the seemingly impossible. The human rights situation in China—with the heavy hand of the authorities blocking attempts at or even suggestions for reform—can seem like a fixed and immutable landscape. But changes in the forms of civic consciousness and action, even if sometimes imperceptible, are under way.

In this issue, we showcase the efforts of rights defenders using mainland or Hong Kong courts to seek justice; of activists, families of victims of hospital malfeasance, and even senior Party cadres using the Internet to expose critical problems or press for urgently needed reforms; and of netizens eloquently speaking out in ways that slip through official censorship and surveillance.

In section one, “Standing Up,” two articles by Chinese lawyers recount how families of victims of tainted milk powder used peaceful actions to seek redress and how their lawyers battled a judicial system that protects not the people but the manufacturers who used poison to increase their profits. “Justice for a Crippled Arm” is the story of a young worker in Guangdong who lost his hand in an industrial accident and his increasing awareness of his rights in the course of demanding just compensation from his employer. And “Defending Rights in Baihutou Village” tells the ongoing story of a group of villagers in Guangxi who continue to resist government-backed theft of their land.

Section two, “Speaking Out,” presents examples of citizens braving repercussions to tell their own stories, voice their grievances and their aspirations, and appeal to the nation’s highest leadership for change. They do so in words, photographs, video, and the most public manner possible: over the Internet. This section ends with the explicit yet subtle congratulatory message to Liu Xiaobo that managed to get on the front page of a mainland Chinese newspaper.

In section three, “Sustaining Hope,” Pei Minxin, a prominent China scholar, assesses the mistakes made by Chinese leaders following the announcement of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize; Albert Ho and Emily Lau, legislators in Hong Kong, reflect on the role that Hong Kong can play in advancing democratic progress in China; and Kong Lingxi, a young Chinese activist and inventor, takes a critical look at the collective failure of the previous generations to deliver security and justice for society and advances a vision of the historic mission of his generation to build a better future for China.

Like the flow of billions of drops of water, Chinese are standing up, speaking out, and nurturing an abiding faith that these efforts, however small, may someday wear down an authoritarian edifice. In this long process, the international community has a critical role to play. In the face of intense pressure and bullying by the Chinese government, the Norwegian Nobel Committee and the government of Norway demonstrated that principled and measured actions are possible and can send a powerful message of support and hope to all those who work for peaceful change in China and the world.

—The Editors

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