(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.
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