Documents on Democracy

Issue Date July 2023
Volume 34
Issue 3
Page Numbers 178–86
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Xu Zhiyong began his career at a legal-assistance center, an experience which led him to found the New Citizens Movement (an anticorruption activist network) in 2012. On April 10, he and fellow New Citizens member Ding Jiaxi were sentenced to fourteen and twelve years in prison, respectively, for attending a December 2019 discussion about current affairs and civil society in China. Excerpts follow from Xu’s court statement, “A Democratic China Must Be Realized in Our Time, We Cannot Saddle the Next Generation with This Duty,” which was published in translation by China Change on April 9:

I have a dream, a dream of a China that is beautiful, free, fair, and happy. It is a democratic China that belongs to everyone in this land, not to any one ethnicity or political party. It is truly a country of the people, its government chosen by ballots, not violence. . . .

Law will no longer be a tool of class dictatorship, but the standard for fairness and justice. Judges are no longer the “knife handle” with which the privileged concentrate power, but the guardian of justice. In a China with the rule of law, all powers move in its order, people believe in and trust it, and justice flows downward, like an ever-flowing river. That’s a free China. . . .

I abhor a society where power is unrestrained and human nature is distorted, and where a few bureaucrats decide what 1.3 billion people should believe and speak, what news they should listen to, and what movies they should watch. They’ve built a high firewall to isolate China from the civilized world. They’ve kept millions of internet inspectors, police, and commenters to beat down people’s voices. They’ve created an air-tight surveillance network using ubiquitous cameras and big data that renders everyone naked. They’ve also invaded the spiritual world of the people, burning crosses, demolishing Buddhist seminaries, and forcing newer and native religions into exile. . . .

I yearn for a free China where power can not run amok, where our freedom to believe in a religion or an -ism is a personal choice and cannot be interfered with by those in power, and where we have the freedom of speech without large-scale censorship and political restriction, and no one is imprisoned for expressing their political beliefs. . . . In a free China, people thrive to bring the rebirth of our ancient civilization in which we live in truth and become the best of ourselves without being bent out of shape by power.

In today’s China, people have no rights; resorting to connections to get things done is a common sense of the Chinese. Injustice exists in every country, but in China, it’s something else — no independent judiciary, no free media, no dissenting voices, and “anti-corruption” is how the rulers eliminate their perceived rivals. In China, the greatest injustice is the one-party rule, a privileged group monopolizing the political and economic lifeline of the entire country. People are exploited and burdened by high gas prices, high housing prices, and high taxes, but the exploiters say they lose money year in and year out. . . .

You are born in China, and you don’t need a reason to love her. It’s a seed planted in your soul. But loving China means to make her better through our efforts.

To that end, I’ve been imprisoned three times. . . .

This time, I’m charged with “subversion of state power” for expressing my desire for a beautiful China and for calling on Chinese to become real citizens.

Why is it “subversion” to aspire to be real citizens? Why is it “subversion” for Chinese to exercise their core values and pursue democracy and freedom? Why is it “subversion” for them to sing “Arise! Those who do not want to be slaves,” which is the opening stanza of the national anthem of China? How hypercritical and absurd their regime is! How rotten it is!

I’m proud to suffer for the sake of freedom, justice, and love. I do not believe they can build national rejuvenation on the quicksand of lies. I do not believe the Chinese nation is destined to authoritarianism and slavery. I don’t believe freedom can be forever imprisoned behind high walls. And I do not believe the future will forever be a dark night without daybreak.


On March 14, Russia called a UN Security Council meeting on “Russophobia” in an attempt to give its claims of persecution of ethnic Russians (particularly by democracies) greater international weight. Russophobia features among the Kremlin’s primary justifications for invading Ukraine. But by fighting Ukraine, the Kremlin does not prevent but commits acts of Russophobia, argued Timothy Snyder in his 14 March 2023 testimony to the UN Security Council (entitled “Playing the Victim”). Excerpts from his written remarks, published on his Substack, follow:

I come before you as a historian of the region, as a historian of eastern Europe, and specifically as a historian of mass killing and political atrocity. I am glad to be asked to brief you on the use of the term “Russophobia” by Russian state actors. I believe that such a discussion can clarify something about the character of Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine and Russia’s illegal occupation of Ukrainian territory. I will speak briefly and confine myself to two points.

My first point is that harm to Russians, and harm to Russian culture, is primarily a result of the policies of the Russian Federation. If we are concerned about harm to Russians and Russian culture, then we should be concerned with the policies of the Russian state.

My second point will be that the term “Russophobia,” which we are discussing today, has been exploited during this war as a form of imperial propaganda in which the aggressor claims to be the victim. It has served this last year as a justification for Russian war crimes in Ukraine.

Let me begin from the first point. The premise, when we discuss “Russophobia,” is that we are concerned about harm to Russians. That is a premise that I certainly share. I share the concern for Russians. I share the concern for Russian culture. Let us recall, then, the actions this last year which have caused the greatest harm to Russians and to Russian culture. I’ll briefly name ten.

  1. Forcing the most creative and productive Russians to emigrate. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has caused about 750,000 Russians to leave Russia. . . . This is irreparable harm to Russian culture, and it is the result of Russian policy.
  2. The destruction of independent Russian journalism so that Russians cannot know the world around them. This, too, is Russian policy, and causes irreparable harm to Russian culture.
  3. General censorship and repression of freedom of speech in Russia. In Ukraine, you can say what you like in either Russian or Ukrainian. In Russia, you cannot.

If you stand in Russia with a sign saying “no to war,” you will be arrested and very likely imprisoned. If you stand in Ukraine with a sign that says “no to war,” regardless of what language it is in, nothing will happen to you. Russia is a country of one major language where you can say little. Ukraine is a country of two languages where you may say what you like.

When I visit Ukraine, people report to me about Russian war crimes using both languages, using Ukrainian or using Russian as they prefer.

  1. The attack on Russian culture by way of censoring schoolbooks, weakening Russian cultural institutions at home, and the destruction of museums and non-governmental organizations devoted to Russian history. All of those things are Russian policy.
  2. The perversion of the memory of the Great Fatherland war by fighting a war of aggression in 2014 and 2022, thereby depriving all future generations of Russians of that heritage. That is Russian policy. . . .
  3. The downgrading of Russian culture around the world, and the end of what used to be called “russkiy mir,” the Russian world abroad. It used to be the case that there were many people who felt friendly to Russia and the Russian culture in Ukraine. That has been brought to an end by two Russian invasions. Those invasions were Russian state policy.
  4. The mass killing of Russian speakers in Ukraine. The Russian war of aggression in Ukraine has killed more speakers of Russian than any other action by far.
  5. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led to the mass death of Russian citizens fighting as soldiers in its war of aggression. Some 200,000 Russians are dead or maimed. This is, of course, simply Russian policy. It is Russian policy to send young Russians to die in Ukraine.
  6. War crimes, trauma, and guilt. This war means that a generation of young Russians, those who survive, will be involved in war crimes, and will be wrapped up in trauma and guilt for the rest of their lives. That is great harm to Russian culture.

All of this harm to Russians and to Russian culture has been achieved by the Russian government itself, mostly in the course of the last year. So if we were sincerely concerned about harm to Russians, these are some of the things that we would think about. But perhaps the worst Russian policy with respect to Russians is the last one.

  1. The sustained training or education of Russians to believe that genocide is normal. We see this in the president of Russia’s repeated claims that Ukraine does not exist. We see this in genocidal fantasies on Russian state media. We see this in a year of state television reaching millions or tens of millions Russian citizens every day. We see this when Russian state television presents Ukrainians as pigs. We see this when Russian state television presents Ukrainians as parasites. We see this when Russian state television presents Ukrainians as worms. We see this when Russian state television presents Ukrainians as Satanists or as ghouls. We see this when Russian state television proclaims that Ukrainian children should be drowned. We see this when Russian state television proclaims that Ukrainian houses should be burned with the people inside. We see this when people appear on Russian state television and say: “They should not exist at all. We should execute them by firing squad.” We see this when someone appears on Russian state television and says, “We will kill 1 million, we will kill 5 million, we can exterminate all of you,” meaning all of the Ukrainians. . . .

The claim that Ukrainians have to be killed because they have a mental illness known as “Russophobia” is bad for Russians, because it educates them in genocide. But of course, such a claim is much worse for Ukrainians.

This brings me to my second point. The term “Russophobia” is a rhetorical strategy that we know from the history of imperialism.

When an empire attacks, the empire claims that it is the victim. The rhetoric that Ukrainians are somehow “Russophobes” is being used by the Russian state to justify a war of aggression. The language is very important. But it is the setting in which it is used that matters most. This is the setting: the Russian invasion of Ukraine itself, the destruction of whole Ukrainian cities, the execution of Ukrainian local leaders, the forced deportation of Ukrainian children, the displacement of almost half the Ukrainian population, the destruction of hundreds of hospitals and thousands of schools, the deliberate targeting of water and heat supplies during the winter. That is the setting. That is what is actually happening.

The term “Russophobia” is being used in this setting to advance the claim that the imperial power is the victim, even as the imperial power, Russia, is carrying out a war of atrocity. This is historically typical behavior. The imperial power dehumanizes the actual victim and claims to be the victim. When the victim (in this case Ukraine) opposes being attacked, being murdered, being colonized, the empire says that wanting to be left in peace is unreasonable, an illness. This is a “phobia.”

This claim that the victims are irrational, that they are “phobic,” that they have a “phobia,” is meant to distract from the actual experience of the victims in the real world, which is an experience, of course, of aggression and war and atrocity. The term “Russophobia” is imperial strategy designed to change the subject from an actual war of aggression to the feelings of the aggressors, thereby suppressing the existence and the experience of the people who are most harmed. The imperialist says: “We are the only people here. We are the real victims. And our hurt feelings count more than other people’s lives.” . . .

The application of the word “Russophobia” in this setting, the claim that Ukrainians are mentally ill rather than that they are experiencing an atrocity, is colonial rhetoric. It serves as part of a larger practice of hate speech. That is why this session is important: It helps us to see Russia’s genocidal hate speech. The idea that Ukrainians have a disease called “Russophobia” is used as an argument to destroy them, along with the arguments that they are vermin, parasites, Satanists, and so on.

Claiming to be the victim when you are in fact the aggressor is not a defense. It is actually part of the crime. Hate speech directed against Ukrainians is not part of the defense of the Russian Federation or its citizens. It is an element of the crimes that Russian citizens are committing on Ukrainian territory. In this sense, in calling this session, the Russian state has found a new way to confess to war crimes. . . .


Fadzayi Mahere’s advocacy for the dignity of Zimbabweans has repeatedly provoked the ire of the ZANU-PF regime, which has imprisoned her on multiple occasions. Excerpts from her May 17 remarks at the 2023 Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, titled “The Tragedy of Zimbabwe,” follow:

Two years ago, I woke up in an overcrowded jail cell in Zimbabwe’s Maximum-Security Prison. No water. No toilet. No underwear. No dignity. No rights.

. . . I had committed the dangerous crime of tweeting against police brutality. Local police had been captured on camera smashing a baton stick into the windshield of a small public transport bus. In the video that went viral online, stood a woman, crying and grabbing the policeman by his collar. She was surrounded by a mob of people yelling that the policeman had killed a baby. The baby lay motionless and pale in the woman’s arms. By all accounts published online, the baby had died yet the state denied the death. . . .

I joined the country in calling for justice. I tweeted, condemning this act of rogue policing and the unconstitutional and disproportionate use of force that had caused the death of a child. Thousands tweeted about it, but they targeted me, a vocal opposition politician, for arrest. They alleged that I lied that the baby had died. The violent policeman was never brought to book.

This is how I wound up in a maximum-security prison, charged with “communicating falsehoods prejudicial to the state.” This offence has long been struck off the statute books by Zimbabwe’s Constitutional Court. However, in a nation where the [government] is at war with citizens demanding a better society, human rights don’t seem to matter. The legal system is weaponized as a tool to silence, intimidate, and harass. I was convicted four weeks ago and narrowly escaped a 20-year prison sentence.

I walked away from the ordeal knowing that unless there is true change in how Zimbabwe is governed, we are all serving a collective prison sentence. Nobody is free. . . .

Inspired by Evan Mawarire’s #ThisFlag campaign, I experienced an awakening. He started a movement that urged Zimbabweans to speak up, demand accountability, and be active citizens. I registered to vote, attended protests, and got arrested, but I kept going back because of the clarion call that we must be relentless in the pursuit of what is right.

Soon, we realized the limits of activism. Movements get people excited, but they cannot change the political system. Only active, ethical political participation can drive lasting social change. So when most women my age were getting married and starting a family, I announced my candidacy as an independent Member of Parliament for the constituency of Mount Pleasant. I ran for office under the tagline #Bethechange—for it is only when individuals step out and are counted that change takes root. We must intentionally shape the world into a better place and not accept it for what it is.

I believed that if our campaign could just inspire hope and a thirst for change, I’d change everything, but the person I changed the most was myself. I eventually lost the parliamentary seat, but I gained a cause undoubtedly bigger than myself, a pursuit for justice and fairness that goes deeper than the law but is personified in the everyday lived experience of the ordinary Zimbabwean. I have seen hope in action as I have proudly taken on the role of Spokesperson for the Citizens Coalition for Change, the country’s main opposition party. In spite of the violence, arrests, and manipulation of the legal system, we will fight to win the upcoming election in Zimbabwe against numerous odds.

I stand here today to let the world know that Zimbabwe is currently reeling under a dictatorship much worse than Robert Mugabe. Half the population lives under extreme poverty, 2.2 billion USD is lost to corruption annually, and we have the highest hyperinflation rate in the world—all because those in power would rather loot and persecute than lead. . . .

In closing, I wouldn’t risk my life and freedom if I didn’t sincerely believe that change is possible. Courage doesn’t mean that you’re not afraid. It means that you act in spite of your fear because you believe in a greater cause. I choose courage. And I choose hope. This August, Zimbabweans go to the ballot box with one simple mission, to win Zimbabwe for change, to install ethical, competent leaders who believe in freedom, dignity, and prosperity for everyone. The world must insist on the election being free, fair, and credible. The will of the people has to prevail. It is difficult, but we must emancipate the jewel of Africa from the imprisonment of its current dictatorship.


On April 17, Rached Ghannouchi, the democratically elected speaker of the Tunisian parliament, was arrested. He joins dozens of activists, judges, lawyers, and others whom the government has jailed for their political beliefs. Once a beacon of Arab democracy, Tunisia has descended into authoritarianism since President Kais Saied declared a state of emergency and suspended parliament in July 2021. In May, nearly two-hundred public figures and academics around the world issued a call for the release of all political prisoners in Tunisia:

As the Arab Spring’s once promising and inspiring democratic transition faces its fiercest onslaught, threatening to take Tunisia back to the darkest eras of dictatorship, Tunisian democrats are bravely resisting and defending their hard-won rights and freedoms. While opposition leaders make progress toward presenting a united, diverse, and broad front for the restoration of democracy, they are facing a wide campaign of arbitrary arrests, politically motivated charges, demonization, and threats. All believers in the shared values of freedom and democracy around the world must stand by them in their struggle for freedom.

Most recently, Rached Ghannouchi, who was democratically elected as Speaker of Tunisia’s Parliament that was unconstitutionally dissolved by President Kais Saied, was arrested at his home on 17 April 2023 to join the dozens of opposition leaders in jail. The charges against him and other opposition leaders are a desperate attempt to eliminate the leading voices of opposition to the destruction of democracy in Tunisia and distract attention from the deepening political, economic, and social crises in the country. . . .

At the age of eighty-one, Mr. Ghannouchi is recognized as one of the most prominent advocates of democracy in the Arab world and of Muslim democracy. He has been one of the most consistent voices of moderation and condemnation of extremism. His consensus-building approach and consistent calls for dialogue and unity across political, intellectual, and ideological lines are needed in Tunisia, the wider region, and beyond more than ever. Depriving Tunisia, the region, and the world of one of the most prominent voices of moderation and democracy would be a tragic loss far beyond Tunisia’s borders.

Mr. Ghannouchi’s arrest is part of a wide-ranging “politically motivated witch hunt,” as described by Amnesty International. The Tunisian authorities have arbitrarily prosecuted, arrested, and detained democratic political party leaders, civil society representatives, union members, judges, and journalists, many of whom are facing the same charges of “conspiring against state security” for their defense of Tunisian democracy.

We call on the Tunisian authorities to release all political prisoners and to restore freedoms and human rights in Tunisia.


In response to the 1 February 2021 military coup that deposed the democratically elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets and participated in a general strike, bringing the country to a halt. In the following interview excerpt, a university student recounts her experience as a strike leader in her home city of Monywa in central Burma. Her testimony is intended to be featured in a book of personal reflections on Burma’s democratic prospects entitled The People Demand Democracy. The Democratic Futures Project at the University of Virginia is raising money to enable the publication of the book at

I walked from my village to the border of India to be able to talk to you.

Before the coup, I was in my third year of university, majoring in English. I was the Vice-Chairperson of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions, meaning I was very politically active before the coup. When the coup occurred, I went home to fight the injustice of the military takeover. I believe if you accept such an injustice, you are physically alive, but you are spiritually dead. We needed to fight back against this injustice.

Within five days of the military coup, I was organizing a general strike in Monywa, the capital city of Sagaing, which is one of 14 regions in Myanmar. When organizing the strike, I also made sure there was medical care and first aid to those who were being injured by the military. They were brutalizing and shooting at the non-violent protests. They are also driving cars into protestors. So, when a car was coming, you did not know if you were safe. You didn’t feel secure. During these protests, I also kept track of gender-based abuses by the military. Women were being attacked and sexually assaulted while in detention. This is a major concern of mine, beyond the military. I’m trying to work for gender equality on a day-to-day basis while also working for the Spring Revolution.

I’ve faced mental and physical insecurity as a result. I’m in hiding, moving from place to place. I do not have any place to sleep for more than two or three days. And at night if I hear a car in front of the house, I wonder if it’s the terrorist military coming to arrest me. But they don’t just arrest you. Normally, they torture you. What they do is to open you up at the chest and take out your organs while you are alive. Then they burn the cavity that remains. That’s very normal. So it’s not the fear of being arrested, but the torture. That is what I have been facing on a day-to-day basis for the past year and one-half.

Many people might portray the situation in Myanmar as a civil war or ideological division between military and the civilian. It’s not at all a civil war or ideological division between military and the civilian. It is the civilian people who are defending their rights and their existence against the bullying of the military with their weapons. So, it’s not about ideology. It’s not about a civil war. It is about right and wrong. It is about justice and injustice. . . . It’s not political at all. . . . It is about good and evil.”


Copyright © 2023 National Endowment for Democracy and Johns Hopkins University Press