Liu Xiaoyuan’s blog recently described two instances of citizens kneeling before officials, asking for change. The first was “a woman who kneeled before the Municipal Party Committee Secretary of Nanping, Fujian, to communicate a grievance.” The result was that she was “taken into administrative detention.”
The second incident, however, involved a lot more people, and had a happier outcome for the protesters:
“Over a thousand citizens of Zhanghe, Liaoning knelt down before the mayor of Zhanghe to request he accept reports about official corruption […] and in the end they kneeled him right out of the picture [i.e., he resigned].”
In fact, it’s a bit more complicated than that. According this Xinhua article, he was forced to resign by the Municipal Party Committee in Dalian after they determined that he had “handled the situation improperly.” The protesters were asking for a number of things; in essence they wanted speedier and more effective investigation from the government into complaints they filed about corrupt local cadres. Exactly how he handled the initial kneeling protest is unclear from reports, but what is clear is that there’s no love lost over this guy’s resignation. “A stupid c**nt mayor,” wrote one netizen commenting on the story. “Not bad!” wrote another.
But despite the happy outcome in Zhuanghe, cynicism remains widespread. Liu Xiaoyuan’s post notes that given the unfavorable outcome of the other recent “kneeling protest”, it’s hard to do much more than sigh. Other netizens agreed. “What is there to be happy about?” wrote one. “He’ll just go somewhere else and become an official who knows if the poor and out-of-work in that place will have to kneel down all over again.” “Don’t be happy,” another netizen wrote, “he’s just gone to be an official somewhere else.”
And, of course, getting rid of the mayor who handled the protest improperly doesn’t actually have any effect on the original grievances. “Did the problem of reporting things to the authorities get resolved?” asked a commenter. No one seemed to have an answer for that.
“Kneeling before officials might sometimes cause them to find their consciences,” wrote Liu Xiaoyuan, “but it does nothing to change the source of the problem. Kneeling down shows our servility, and also the meanness of officials. On this, I’d offer a bit of advice: in the face of power, straighten yourselves up!”
Kneeling in China, as in many cultures, indicates submission and servility, and thus can be a powerful gesture for protesters. For thousands of years, subjects knelt whenever they were in the presence of the emperor, so kneeling before the supposedly-equal cadres is a way of embarrassing them, and of connecting them to the exploitative imperial culture that Chinese students all study in history classes. Perhaps one of the most remembered, most moving moments of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 was the moment when several students knelt on the steps of the Great Hall of the People, their heads bowed and arms outstretched, holding a petition.