Because of the danger of resisting the Chinese government, the authors of this piece have asked to remain anonymous and to use a pseudonym — Kvker — for their organization. 


The Chinese government reaches far into the private worlds of its citizens; however, some of us are walking a new path towards liberation. Young grassroots artists and activists in an urban village  (chengzhongcun, 城中村) near Guangzhou are connecting and working together toward social justice. We call ourselves a loosely connected counter community. We have developed decentralized self-organization, and we are subtle in our agenda so as not to be noticed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In this article, we introduce the concepts, methods, and practices of the Kvker, one innovative arts organization that practices the loosely connected counter-community culture in China. 

The Kvker includes three different but closely connected components: a hand-made magazine, a workshop to share methods for producing the magazine, and space for connection. The content of Kvker magazine changes from issue to issue depending on its theme (for example, the Kvker has focused on LGBTQ+, gender, and the pandemic as different themes). Sometimes, special issues focus on people’s personal experiences with oppressive and exploitative conditions in China. For instance, we published a special issue called L’s Story, based on the WeChat posts of a package deliverer, who received 80% of the magazine’s proceeds. The issue documented L’s joys of being a father and his struggles at work. A low-wage worker who barely has a safety net, L photographed and recorded the tension and hostility he witnessed in the workplace. As L recounted, "there is a group of bandits in the recruitment bridge, and they charge a 10 RMB ‘protection fee’ even for temporary workers." On the same bridge, he photographed two workers engaged in a fight and commented, "fighting every day." People responded to L’s story through collages, paintings, 3D drawings, and writing. Such criticism of the oppressive conditions facing workers is a necessary step toward social justice.

As a handmade magazine, the Kvker uses woodcut, home printing, and hand binding. Woodcut is a medium of democracy; it allows untrained people to use pictures to express feelings that have been denied and words that have been forbidden. Censorship by the Chinese government limits access to information as well as means of self-expression. The Kvker is addressing this problem by sharing methods, tools, and space for people to express themselves. Doing wood carvings with sharp tools can help people vent their depression, and woodcut gives the final product a sense of rawness that disrupts systemic oppression. In one instance, contributors created broken keyboards combined with chain-like mouse cables — transmitting workers’ feeling of being trapped by tools. 

Home printing and hand binding is a low-cost, convenient, and sustainable approach for self-publishing, and it gives the Kvker a rough and unrestrained style. The do-it-yourself quality of the magazine makes it easy to replicate: in our experience, it only requires a short introduction to the material to empower people to use woodcut techniques. The Kvker has held magazine-making workshops in over ten cities around China, based on the existing network of loosely connected counter communities. All the workshops are organized in close collaboration with local NGOs, self-organized spaces, or independent bookshops. The workshops give participants an opportunity for civic engagement and collective action — and they help to build our network of loosely connected counter communities. 

The Kvker provides a live-work community space, including a printing room, library, activity room, and accommodations. Artists and activists from different regions of China can find places to stay and work at a low cost — the exchange of labor is a common way to pay for accommodation. The community space breeds a loose and free connection between activists all over China, allows concepts and artifacts to be circulated in different cities, and cultivates collaboration among organizations. One example is the Rafting Bookbags project. Working with a Malaysian youth community, the Kvker designed four book bags containing around 20 books each — small libraries that are traveling through the counter communities in different cities in China. 

Since 2020, the Kvker has begun collaborating with other grassroots organizations, including an NGO that provides community services and a platform of mutual support for migrant women. The NGO has self-published collected works written by female migrant workers, and the Kvker initiated a campaign to create woodcut covers for an anthology on women workers. We also worked with local art galleries from loosely connected counter communities to develop an exhibition about the life experiences of migrant women workers. In the process of self-expression and spontaneous connection, we recreate ourselves, redefine the collectives, and thus co-create a new reality. The exhibition, for example, not only helped bring visibility to women migrant workers but also provided a platform for open dialogue, subtly encouraging people to develop critical consciousness on social issues. 

It is a slow, step-by-step process to develop loosely connected counter communities, and there have been many challenges along the way. The increasingly severe repression from the authoritarian government forces us to develop deliberate decision-making processes to avoid drawing unnecessary attention. For example, if you explicitly advocate for workers' rights, you may find yourself in a secret jail the next day; however, if you tell workers' stories, it is likely that nothing will happen to you. Using words like "freedom" or "rights" is more likely to get you into trouble because these words tend to fall into a “sensitive words” (mingan ci, 敏感词) category that is carefully censored by the government. 

Our decision not to criticize the government openly leads to another challenge: how to find collaborators if we don’t openly talk about our beliefs and goals. The answer is embedded in the development of loosely connected counter communities: we connect with friends within existing counter communities to find possibilities for action toward change. These communities are human-centered rather than social issues-centered. Before we collaborate on sociopolitical topics, we make friends with each other. Some of our collaborators share our radical ideas, but we also collaborate with those who don’t think much about politics as long as we can do something good together.

Another difficulty the Kvker confronts is financial sustainability. The Kvker’s funding comes from awards we received in innovative book fairs, financial support from foundations within counter communities, and magazine sales. We have adopted a flexible income distribution mode that takes into account the needs of all participants and the cost of producing the Kvker itself. Maintaining this balance actually helps us enhance connections with our community because we keep ourselves updated about people’s real-life situations. We also employ new methods to market our magazine, like selling it through a livestream from a Chinese website. As with all our practices, we avoid using political language when marketing the magazine. 

Even though the situation is terrible for activists in China, it doesn’t mean there is no room to take action against oppressive conditions. Resistance is a natural way of living for those of us who refuse to dance to the tune of dehumanizing governance. The practice of the Kvker is a joy: we design and embed little games in the magazines to surprise our readers, and we create our own space to live and thrive, despite the oppression we face. We empower ourselves through human connections. Through loosely connected counter communities, we are seeding collective actions that can bring significant change to Chinese society. 


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