When dissident lawyer Chen Guangcheng escaped extra-legal house arrest to make his way to the U.S. Embassy, he became “an instant hero” on the Chinese Internet, writes Perry Link, co-editor of The Tiananmen Papers:
How had he escaped? How could a single blind man tear such a hole in the government’s pervasive blanket of weiwen, or stability maintenance? Many called it a “miracle”; stories of “China’s blind spiderman” went viral. Eventually someone who had helped Chen tweeted an account. Chen had done merely this: “In nineteen hours climbed eight walls, jumped a dozen or so irrigation ridges, fell down a few hundred times, injured a foot, and finally crossed a stream that got him out of the village.”
“The Internet is the first medium in the history of Communist rule in China that the government has not been able to fully control,” notes Link, a celebrated China scholar at the University of California, Riverside:
The authorities hire hundreds of thousands of police and spend billions of yuan annually monitoring the Web and blocking unwanted messages. Yet for hundreds of millions of Chinese, the Internet continues to grow as a source of uncensored news and platform for popular expression. Regarding Chen, Internet opinion has been overwhelmingly positive.
So it is all the more regrettable that experts on U.S.-China relations insist on using “China” and “the Chinese” to refer “exclusively to elite circles within the Beijing government,” Link writes on the Washington Post:
For these experts, “the Chinese” view of anything — currency, technology transfer, cyberwar, Tibet, Taiwan, Syria — is inevitably the government’s view, no matter how far it departs from the views of other Chinese. They warn that such adherence is a matter of respecting the “sensitivities” of “the other side” and that if Washington supports human rights or democracy it will be “seen in China” as American sabotage.
But seen this way by whom in China?
“In the days since Chen left U.S. protection to go to a Beijing hospital, Chinese opinion online has weighed heavily on the side of saying the Americans did not help Chen enough,” Link observes.
Considering the cases of Fang Lizhi and Chen Guangcheng in parallel reveals how “remarkably different the political landscape is for dissidents and activists” in today’s China compared to 1989, writes Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China:
The 1989 demonstrations began with calls to end corruption. They later expanded to an appeal for democratic reforms, something that had not been heard since 1978, when the human rights activist Wei Jingsheng declared that democracy was the “fifth modernization.” He was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
After Tiananmen, the only options for pro-democracy dissidents were exile or prison, Hom writes on Foreign Affairs:
During most of the 1990s, China used imprisoned dissidents as bargaining chips: it parlayed permission to leave China for independent trade union leader Han Dongfang* (1993) and political dissident Liu Qing (1992) to keep U.S. most-favored-nation status; it used the 1998 release of student leader Wang Dan to pressure the United States to withdraw its sponsorship of a UN resolution condemning China’s human rights policies.
Today’s China is a leading global power, a member of the World Trade Organization, Hom notes, a significant creditor of Western governments, including the United States. Beijing has ratified all the key international human rights treaties, with the exception of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (signed in 1998, but not yet ratified).
At the same time, the nature, scope, and impact of activism in China have changed, in large part due to the Internet. By March of 2012, the number of netizens in China was over 500 million (up from 16.9 million in 2000)………….As popular discontent and citizen activism have spread online, they have also spread in scope to include demands not only for political reforms but also for official accountability on environmental crises, rampant corruption, tainted consumer products, massive theft of community land, dangerous workplaces, and increasing social and economic equalities.
“The increasing number of mass protests, independent lawyers, and online citizen activists urgently demonstrates that the only way forward for China’s future is one shaped through respect for the rights of the citizens,” Hom concludes.
“The question now is: Are the authorities reading the writing on the wall, or are they too blinded by their own self-interest for party survival at all costs?”
While Chen’s plight has attracted the global media spotlight, the case of a less celebrated dissident also merits attention, writes Ying Ma, a policy advisor at the Heartland Institute.
Like Chen, Yu Jie (left) occupied an incongruous political terrain “in that space between political dissent and silent submission, between open opposition to the regime and fearful acceptance of its edicts,” she writes.
About fifteen years ago, Yu began writing about “the anger, sadness, resignation, and desperation of this incongruity,” Ying observes.
“He wrote about the shallowness of a society that cares more about money and status than honesty and justice, the desperation of a people who cannot, and are not allowed to, think for themselves, and the tragedy of a country that mistakes wealth for glory, power for righteousness,” notes Ying, author of Chinese Girl in the Ghetto, completed as a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution:
Across China, readers recognized in Yu’s essays the China they knew: a creature that was not, and could not, be whole. At a time when it was common for the wealthy to build villas for their mistresses and hire prostitutes, Yu wrote about the innocence of a girl who would always shed a tear for the indigent who beg for money by playing the harmonica at subway entrances. At a time when the youth of China appeared obsessed with consumerism, Yu wrote about the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and the cravenness of those who do not. …. At a time when material goods were ever more abundant in China, Yu lamented that his fellow citizens’ souls were becoming ever more impoverished, and that the intangibles, such as liberty, truth, and ideals, were becoming ever less interesting.
“Yu got into trouble because he did not stop there,” she writes:
Almost ten years ago, his writing and activities began to veer from social critique to outright democracy promotion. From 2005 to 2007, he served as the vice president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center, a non-governmental association of Chinese writers, editors, translators, and publishers and a grantee of America’s National Endowment for Democracy.
Human Rights in China and the Wei Jingsheng Foundation are supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.