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Lessons from the Overseas Chinese Democracy Movement

Key point: forms of activism have become more diverse, going beyond the exiles’ capacity to sway state policies, into the various civic political realms. The movement is now defined less by famous dissidents’ rise and fall, infighting and disrepute, but more by the less historic figures’ routine but useful pursuits trying to make the best out of perennial exile.


Genesis in Democracy Wall Movement (1978-79) but expanded with Tiananmen exodus of 1989. Has fluctuated and fragmented since mid-1990s. Some creative activists and groups remain active and influential, engaging in more diverse fields of activism.

History and operation of OCDM can be gauged from this summary of lessons and environment.

• Operational environment involving host state, home state and the diaspora: beyond exiles’ control

• Host states’ relations with China; or Western states’ policies towards China.

• China’s “3 Ds” approach towards political exiles: demonize, divide and destroy. Infiltration and drastic measures (abduction in Southeast Asia).

• Relations between the diaspora (grassroots of exile campaigns) and homeland.

• Shifting role of Taiwan. Risk of entanglement in Taiwan’s domestic politics

Lessons: negative

• Internal feuds, or infighting: partly to do with the CCP’s 3Ds tactic and infiltration; but also caused by dissidents’ clashing personal egos and fight over financial resources. Very damaging to credibility and reputation. Hard test for any exile movement out of the Tibetan and Falun Gong movements.

• Decline of proper opposition party: mass membership-based groups with a formal system of checks and balances are not sustainable in exile politics.

• All fames have use-by date. Those who are effective today may not be Democracy Wall or Tiananmen Square icons.

• Lack of capacity or willingness to deal with human rights issues confronting the diaspora in the host land.

Lessons: positive

• Do what you can do best while in exile: concentrate on diverse niche roles. Government lobbying but also the social, cultural, educational, informational and humanitarian fields.

• Small NGOs oriented toward action useful: such as specialised lobby and public relations groups.

• Focus on the core supporters in the Western governments, particularly legislative branches including the US Congress and European Parliament. Frame the exile campaigns according to the mainstream policy framework but also seek to reshape it.

• Explore steady funding sources: NED, TFD and other funding agencies.

• Collaborate with issue-oriented INGOs: religious freedom, press freedom, release of political prisoners.

• Collaboration in the transnational political sphere under CCP influence and suppression: OCDM, Falun Gong followers, Uyghurs, Tibetans, Mongolians, Hong Kongers, Taiwanese. Useful but should also be critical.

• Smart use of info tech and social media: self-broadcasting channels.