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Yang Jianli: Why China must change

Posted by David Beard, Globe Staff  August 7, 2008 09:51 AM

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(EDITORS NOTE: The following opinion column was written by Harvard scholar and human rights activist Yang Jianli before his detention by authorities in Hong Hong earlier this week. Authorities rejected Yang's effort to enter his country and forcibly placed him on a plane to Japan on Thursday).

By Yang Jianli

From Friday's opening ceremonies onward, the world’s television cameras will be focused on the Beijing Olympics. As someone who took part in the Tiananmen Square demonstrations of 1989, and who later served five years as a political prisoner in China’s infamous prison system, my interest in these Olympics has less to do with the medals that will be won and the records that will be broken, and more to do with how the Games will affect my countrymen in China.

As I have noted before, the attention these Olympics will generate provide the rest of the world’s people, especially us here in the United States, with an opportunity to pressure the Chinese government to improve its record on human rights. This would undoubtedly help the people of China, whose government’s only real remaining ideology is the furtherance of its monopoly on power: as pragmatic as it is antidemocratic, the Chinese government understands the language of pressure.

Unfortunately, without this pressure, the games will provide a potential for the Chinese Communist Party to take home a gold medal in public relations sleight-of-hand. It is a sad irony that while China’s rulers busy themselves with stage managing the presentation of the games so that only positive images flow out of Beijing for the rest of the world to see, a blind man sits in prison for his efforts on behalf of Chinese women in the Linyi region of Shandong province.

China’s official one-child policy is well known, but less well known are the inhuman, and often life-threatening means it has used to enforce this policy. Chen Guangcheng not only knew about these means, but also took measures to fight against them. But his brave fight did not earn him a place on a winner’s podium; his prize was a four-year prison sentence.

Chen Guangcheng lost his sight as a result of a fever he suffered in his youth, but that did not stop him from studying the law. Far away from television cameras, Chen Guangcheng worked with the women of Linyi to publicize the local authorities’ policy of forcing women to have abortions (some of which were allegedly performed as late as the ninth month of pregnancy) and/or undergo sterilization procedures; Chen also filed a class-action lawsuit against the local authorities on behalf of the victims. For all these activities, a beautiful example of what in Chinese is called “Gong Min Liliang” (Citizen Power), Chen Guangcheng was subjected to two sham trials and eventual imprisonment; this in spite of the fact that the coercive abortions and sterilizations were illegal even according to Chinese law.

Can we, as people of good conscience, aware of stories like Chen’s, watch the Beijing Olympics as mere spectators? Even if we ignore the Chinese government’s patent propaganda and focus instead on sport alone, can we really accept the fact that Chen Guangcheng, like so many other political detainees in China (Qin Yongmin and Wang Bing Zhang come immediately to mind), is deteriorating in prison while the world’s eyes are focused on that part of China that the Chinese Communist Party wants the world to see?

I cannot. Therefore, I am today calling for Chen Guangcheng’s immediate and unconditional release, along with the release of all political prisoners serving unjust sentences in Chinese jails. Additionally, I am calling on all people of good conscience in the Unites States and all over the world to join me in this call, and to do everything possible to see that the Chinese Communist Party—before, during, and after the Olympics—is made to feel the pressure of international opinion with respect to its policy of detaining and imprisoning individuals whose only crime is the exercise of one or more of their fundamental human rights.

China’s leaders must learn that as tenuous as their grip on power is now, it will become only more tenuous the harder they fight against the tide of international opinion which wants China’s people to be able to enjoy the freedom that is their birthright. We, as citizens of good conscience must, through the pressure we apply, make China’s leaders aware that no matter how strongly they seek to hold onto their power, there is, in the end, no escape from democracy.

Without our efforts, however, China’s leaders, emboldened by the success of the Olympics, will continue on with their bad habits, secure in their complacent belief that the world needs China (its markets and its cheap labor) more than China needs the world. In actual fact, the world does need China—a democratic China governed by the rule of law. So long as great Chinese citizens like my countryman Chen Guangcheng remain subject to arbitrary detention, sham trials, and unjust imprisonment, however, the world will not have the China it needs, but China’s leaders will have the world they want.

Yang. of Brookline, is president and founder of the pro-democracy group Initiatives for China and a Harvard's senior reserach fellow.

Readers, what's your view on this issue? Have your say in our comments section.

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23 comments so far...
  1. hey what you wrote was awesome. I agree china needs to change. There should be freedom of the press and etc. people should express how they feel without getting getting arrested and shot at. From Pam

    Posted by pamela boucher August 7, 08 11:24 AM
  1. Enjoy the sportsmanship in the genocide Olympics.

    Posted by Rick August 7, 08 11:46 AM
  1. here here, Rick. i'd love to know the back story of how china got awarded the olympics in the first place.

    Posted by lisa d August 7, 08 12:30 PM
  1. China has every right to enjoy the fruits of "genocide" as the white European Americans did. The white men killed off virtually alll my Native American brothers, enslaved millions of blacks, and drove off the Mexicans in order to profit and exploit. I don't think Americans feel any more guilt than the average Chinese so why should they not enjoy life like Americans do here. In fact, what Americans did was worse because there is no genocide in China. Chinese aren't evil to enough to kill all the natives like the Americans to preempt dissent.

    Posted by john August 7, 08 12:46 PM
  1. John - As a person with a good amount of Native American blood, I agree to a point with what you say. America has had its fair share of abuses, but I think your portrait of America is skewed by your lack of balance. America did not institute the slave trade it was a practice that predated America and I would say was imported to this country. They did not kill of virtually all of our Native American Brothers, this is a grand overstatement. They did infact kill and displace our brothers but to say virtually all is grandstanding.

    John you have allowed your view to be poisoned. You minimalize what has happened in China since the cultural revolution. I would challenge you to walk a mile in a Chinese person's moccasins. The media is guarded so tightly in China we have no idea of what ethnic minorities have been wiped out there.

    John your point should be this: Due to America's checkered past, I do not think that America or Europe for that matter is in a place to stand in judgement of China from a human rights perspective.

    Posted by Matt August 7, 08 01:29 PM
  1. That is just silly john...astoundingly silly. First of all, under Mao, the Chinese killed millions upon millions of their own people for political and ethnic reasons. And what of the Enthnic Mongolians/Muslims/Tebetans that are persecuted? What about the Chinese policy of stamping out local and indinginous populations by sending Han Chinese to all corners and mandade Mandarin is spoken. So I ask that you get your facts correct before you post tirades that full of half truths. Plus, if you think that the actions of our past would be tolerated today as Americans, you are soundly mistaken.

    Posted by BC August 7, 08 02:14 PM
  1. Are you familar with the peaceful Falun Gong movement? What about the oppressed minorities in the country including the Uiger poluation in the western provinces that are subject to nuclear tests? Forced abortions? Organ harvesting of prisoners of concience?

    No Olympics for me this time around.

    Posted by Jim August 7, 08 02:18 PM
  1. John, you're wrong. There is not one reputable American historian who would agree with your distortion of American history. Additionally, you either misunderstand "genocide" or deliberately misuse it. You have every right to highlight the crimes committed against your "Native American brothers", but you have no right to distort American history in your efforts to do so. Finally, you obviously do not understand the situation in China or you would not make such an inaccurate analogy. The circumstances are in no way similar. Choose another forum to spew your hatred of America. Lord knows there are enough of them. John H

    Posted by John Haggerty August 7, 08 02:29 PM
  1. So let me get this straight. When the Chinese government kills a baby in the 9th month it's Barbaric but when an American woman wants to kill a baby it's considered her right? Reversal or Roe v Wade isn't going to happen and shouldn't, however a review, with the evidence that has surfaced since the 70s when this was decided, should be completed. Remember, if we followed precedent only, blacks would still be slaves, women couldn't vote and gays couldn't marry.

    Posted by JR August 7, 08 02:59 PM
  1. if you choose to turn a blind eye to the positives in Beijing, of course you will find all the negatives in the world. China is a result-oriented country, as is most Chinese people. 300 million people has been pulled out of poverty. Think about what that implies. Freedom of speech, religion right, democracy,... those are good things to have. But when you can become 5x richer when you desperately need money, you will be willing to sacrifice some of your rights. I firmly believe that all those human rights abuse will become less and less as Chinese society continue to evolve. The government's reaction to the earthquake shows it's progressing, but It simply takes time. People, don't be hateful. A stable and prosperous China will be a positive force for the world.

    Posted by Jake August 7, 08 03:05 PM
  1. Shame on those people who use Olympics to make political statements. I can see that with China gradually become a economic power these dissidents' voice become weaker and weaker.

    Posted by Chinese August 7, 08 03:10 PM
  1. John,

    Stop looking at the past and look at the present and the future. Todays 'Whites' are no more responcible for yesterdays attrocieties than you are. In fact my ancestors were not even in this country until much later. So please stop refering to the "whites" back then with the "whites" of today. By the way I suppose all those Native American Brothers didn't kill each other or enslaved each other. Please read your American Indian history.

    Posted by Paul August 7, 08 03:28 PM
  1. Chinese people are enjoying good life and freedoms regardless what you said, the things you listed may be true 20 or 30 years ago, but now China has changed so much, even Chinese people could not recognize her any more. Chinese people are the happiest people in the world according to a survey. They don't hate communist goverment, but love her and guard her. As a Chinese american, the author should know better about the facts and educate American with truth. That is why your pro-democracy groups are not supported by 99% oversea Chinese, because you are out of touch with what Chinese people really wants.
    Like or not China will choose her own path and history will prove you are totally wrong!

    Posted by Truth keeper August 7, 08 03:36 PM
  1. America is well aware of it's sordid past and mistakes which is why many of her citizens have come so far in fighting for equality and human rights. Your inability to move beyond the past is only hurting you. Instead of griping about 'past' wrongs maybe we can join in fighting against 'current' wrongs where these despicable acts of "genocide" and human rights violations are still being practiced.

    Posted by marie August 7, 08 03:48 PM
  1. Talk is cheap. Stop buying products made in China. Yeah, it's tough. Not impossible.

    Posted by Lynne August 7, 08 03:51 PM
  1. John, I'm not going to dispute or defend what you write- the same injustice has appeared over and over in mankind's history. Different players, different places. This is 2008- the here and now. As mankind, we've evolved. Hopefully we will continue to evolve into a more refined, compassionate, and humane society. Our biggest mistake would be to harp on the past, rather than fix today's problems. If not for today, but for our future generations.

    You and I can do nothing about the travesty committed by those before us, but we can impact the present and the not-so-distant future

    Posted by Drew August 7, 08 04:17 PM
  1. Bravo Yang Jianli for voicing your good conscience and support for political prisoners in China. I am torn in between the support for the fews who are defenders of basic human right and the majority of the people in China who benefit from a prosper China. I also question whether true human right defenders are exploited by the West who want nothing more than a contrinuous strangle-hold on the world's economy and, deep in their dark mind, despise people of the developing world, China has lifted 300 million peasants out of dire poverty, something that none of the leaders in the West can claim. Is it a better to have a confucian totalitarian China or a shanty town democratic India in this world? I am torn but for the moment I just want to enjoy the Olympic and be grateful to what 1.3 billion Chinese are offering to the world

    Posted by Terry Tam August 7, 08 04:25 PM
  1. article was fine, but these comments are some of the stupidest things i have ever heard.

    Posted by ian August 7, 08 04:50 PM
  1. John--

    Two wrongs don't make a right.

    Posted by SJB August 7, 08 05:21 PM
  1. Regarding John's comments. The settling of America and the slavery of blacks is ancient history. We have moved so far from there and can not castigate ourselves over ols history, but resolve to treat everyone with respect and caring, unlike how the Chinese dictators treat their own people.


    Posted by Ray & Ruth Bennett August 7, 08 09:02 PM
  1. --"China's people to be able to enjoy the freedom that is their birthright."?

    Mr. Yang, highly agreed.
    Chinese would like to increase their emission from 4.5 ton to 19.5 ton per person as Americans do, can you ask them if they agree without badmouthing China, though they believe in the equal right for every human beings?
    Time for you to stop being a foot-soldier on the bandwagon of neo-con geopolitical agenda and wake up from the dream that you can get the gold for the China bashing, the newest olympic sport.
    One day when you die overseas in shame, no your folks will shed one single drop of tear for your bloody traitor and the faker of Tiananmen story!

    Posted by eastman1 August 7, 08 11:57 PM
  1. Yang Jianli is very brave.

    Posted by Reggie August 8, 08 01:26 AM
  1. Well, talking about human rights and freedom of birth. How about letting 400 million Chinese famers to migrate to the US and gave birth to another 800 million fellow Americans in the next 20 years?

    I kept wondering how, on the earth, can a country feel so good to make playing God like a fun game.

    Since there's no way China can obtain enough resource to feed another 400 million population and education takes time. Enforcing the one child policy seems to be for the best interest of the 1.3 Billion people, of which the US won't take as his burdan.

    Of cause it is not perfect there, especially in some part of the country where forced abortion were excuted. But remember it is a country who just came out of an ancient history where head chopping was considered an usual punishment. What should be also noted is, THINGS ARE CHANGING. As far as I know, now there's rarely forced abortion as the centeral govn't starts to realize how servere this can have a bad impact its image. Instead, people who break the policy will be fined for a big chunk of money. Yeah,yeah it is not perfect either, but things are changing, for the best interest of the Chinese peole.

    Posted by WizBe August 27, 08 04:36 AM

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