For a select group of young idealist intellectuals, it was going to be an exciting summer. July 28, 2013 to August 8 was to be the second annual meeting for the Co-China Forum’s summer camp, an event in Hong Kong organized by concerned Chinese intellectuals. The event was designed for students aged between 18 and 25 from Mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan to share their thoughts on social issues.

Last year, with the conflict between Mainland China and Hong Kong at its peak, campers focused on divining what “a good public life” meant. This year, participants were to discuss “Confrontations and Negotiations among the Local, National, and Global.”

The flyer for the 2013 camp reads:

As the globalization wave carries everything away, it becomes increasingly important to preserve local richness and uniqueness. Yet how can we preserve the value of our native land while becoming more open and pluralistic? How can we avoid becoming insular and exclusive while also establishing the recognition of [our] identity? Can we be understanding and tolerant while also facing outside ethnicities and cultures? As long as you have thought deeply about these issues, …you are welcome to join us in searching for a more open native land. [Emphasis in original].

That discussion has now been cancelled, or at least put on hold indefinitely. On June 7, organizers and sponsors of the Camp sent an open letter to its applicants, saying that they had been warned to call off the seven-day activity immediately; otherwise, they might face “more severe consequences.”

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Co-China Forum is a non-governmental and non-profit organization with the mission of “providing independent, objective and rational opinions and narratives as well as paying attention to issues or discussions that are overlooked by mainstream media.” The organization has received increasing attention through its 1510 E-Magazine, offline salons on social issues, and its summer camps.

Perhaps because organizers are well-known media practitioners and university professors, Mainland authorities appear to have directed their energies at the camp’s student applicants and volunteers.

In an open letter on Sina Weibo, organizers of the Camp discussed the underlying causes of the cancellation: “some applicants were called to ‘have a talk’ [while] verified Weibo accounts of mainland universities which re-tweeted relevant information about the Summer Camp were asked to write reports.”

Norah Liang, an architectonic student of Wuyi University in Jiangmen in Guangdong, southern China, is one of the applicants for the 2013 summer camp. On May 2, she wrote on her Weibo account (@绿光的坏品味 ) about her experience of being asked to “have a talk” with college authorities :

Today I was called in by the department head. The reason [why he wanted to see me] is that some classmates and I had applied for the Co-China’s summer camp. They suspected that it was an overseas cult organization. The way they had a talk is that, they would first have a casual conversation with you and then lure you to leak some information; with that  information they would probe deeper, [asking] what kind of activities your friends had been involved in recently.

To her, it was an act that exhibited how “the government has taken increasing measures to maintain stability.” But despite such pressure, Norah said that she “thought little of them” and that she would continue concerning herself with “things that go against a harmonious society and the China Dream.” The two terms refer to government priorities under former President Hu Jintao and current president Xi Jinping, respectively.

Authorities had taken note of the camp in 2012 as well, although it was allowed to proceed. User @苏黎世逆光而来 wrote, “A younger student was summoned to have a talk with her counselor last year when we were applying [for the Summer Camp], probably because her schoolmates or professors leaked her application to the counselor. I was spared because my counselor did not know I had applied.”

While Co-China’s board members were unable to comment on the cancellation, saying that the issue was “too sensitive,” analysts attributed Beijing’s move to two causes: on one hand, the incumbent government’s hardline attitude towards discussion that involves ideology; on the other hand, the potential influence of such public discussion workshops. In fact, although Co-China’s camp is based in Hong Kong, it has attracted mostly Mainland students, often those that are considered action-oriented and elite.

We’ve seen this movie before

Co-China Forum is not the only non-governmental organization that strives to promote social discussion, to prompt the younger generation to think critically, and to advocate regular online and offline events in China. Nor is it alone in facing warnings from Beijing. Two years before the Co-China Forum was set up, China Rural Library (CRL), a similarly education-oriented non-governmental organization, launched in Beijing.

Unlike Co-China Forum, which mostly hosts salons in cities, the CRL itself on promoting education, popularizing knowledge, and cultivating  people’s reading skills at the county level. Both organizations came up with meaningful study camps to actualize their missions. A year ago, while the Co-China Forum’s debut summer camp was drawing hundreds of young people’s attention and winning plaudits, the CRL’s project—Liren University — hit a wall with local authorities. The name “Liren” (立人) roughly means, “to educate people with knowledge and morality.”

In the CRL’s chat group on Douban, an IMDB-meets-Tumblr Chinese website allowing users to record information and create content related to film, books and music, user @Ma pasted an “emergency notice” issued by the user’s college: “Students are prohibited to take part in any activities under the name of ‘China Rural Library’; any related activity should be reported once spotted.”

Liu Junliang, one of the student applicants for the Liren University project, recalled a similar experience in his home page on Renren, a Facebook-like service: “The day before we registered and started the courses, police and officials from the Ministry of State Security came to us, saying that Liren University was too sensitive to be held.”

Ironically, CRL Founder Li Yingqiang may still have gotten part of his initial wish. Liren University had aimed to be “a new type of university that is based on the Internet and takes advantage of the power of technology to create opportunities for people that are excluded by the education system.” Although the project never came to fruition, the fact that ordinary social media users learned about it — and about its cancellation — at least raised online awareness of what the university wished to achieve.

In a similar vein, in the case of the forced cancellation of Co-China’s Camp, Chinese netizens have again learned how their government and current political system were affecting, if not suppressing, civil organizations and civil society. Weibo user @透明度观察considered the pressure from the government as “a special recognition of Co-China’s efforts to cultivate people’s independent thinking ability.” User @焦正墨 went a step further, saying that:

They think this is an ideological war against young elites. Clever thinking, but they just cannot stop the wave. Civil society will awakens with individuals’ awareness of their rights. You can ward off Co-China, but how about other similar organizations?

If raising social consciousness was part of the 2013 camp’s goal, it may have already succeeded. @Zfer林嘉丽要好好的, one of the applicants for the 2013 camp, observed:

I regret such an outcome. This April, I was inviting professors and friends to write me recommendation letters and trying my best to write articles, hoping to get the opportunity to expand my knowledge and thinking in the Chinese University of Hong Kong. We do not want to see such an end. But no matter what, being concerned about local …is a citizen duty that no one should evade.

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