Stop dancing with dictators, says Chinese human rights defender Teng Biao

March 17, 2015

‘Chinese leaders are not known for tolerating dissent, but Xi Jinping is less tolerant than his predecessors.’  Photograph: EPA/WU HONG

‘ Xi Jinping, even less tolerant than his predecessors.’ Photograph: EPA/WU HONG

Human rights defender Teng Biao, a visiting fellow at Harvard Law School, President of China Against the Death Penalty, and Co-founder of the Open Constitution Initiative, is in Ireland as the guest of Front Line Defenders. In a post of 10 March 2015, he depicts the grim situation of human rights defenders in China since President Xi took office. ‘Chinese human rights defenders are facing the most severe crackdown since the Tiananmen massacre in 1989’ he statesThe hard-hitting piece [“Over 1,000 human rights activists were detained since President Xi took office“] is interesting enough to provide in full:

“I remember Cao Shunli’s speech during her trial. She was a brave activist who fought for land rights, documented cases of human rights abuse and participated in the United Nations human rights system.Tang Jingling, a lawyer in Guangzhou, is a prominent leader of the non-violent civil disobedience movement.

Ilham Tohti is a Uighur professor who set up a website to promote the rights of the muslim Uighur people. He advocated mutual understanding and reconciliation between Han Chinese and the Uighurs.

Pu Zhiqiang and Xu Zhiyong are both well known lawyers who have played a key role in abolishing the laws allowing extrajudicial detentions, in breach of China’s own constitution. Xu also founded an NGO called the Open Constitution Initiative, focusing on religious freedom and free speech. The organisation worked on the issues of forced eviction, forced abortion and ensuring transparency in local elections.

Guo Feixiong, Liu Ping, Ding Jiaxi, Zhao Changqing, all took an important part in the New Citizens Movement which has campaigned for constitutional government and for Communist Party officials to declare their assets.

Cao Shunli was arrested on her way to a human rights training in Geneva and died in custody as a result of torture, on March 14th, 2014. All the others are now in jail.

Chinese leaders are not known for tolerating dissent, but Xi Jinping is less tolerant than his predecessors. Over a thousand human rights activists have been detained since Xi took office, and Chinese human rights defenders are facing the most severe crackdown since the Tiananmen massacre in 1989. Xi’s suppression is widespread, targeting not just those at the forefront of the human rights struggle in China, but also faith groups, internet users, universities, and the media. Many members of China’s budding civil society, who have avoided politically risky issues so far, are now also being jailed.

In the past, those who crossed a red line, who stood out, took to the street, or who engaged in organised actions were the main targets of the crackdown. Now, the dragnet is much wider and is being used against anyone who demonstrates. At least 10 feminist activists were detained last week as they planned to stage a small protest against sexual harassment on public transport, which is a common occurrence in China. The government seems to be targeting all the nodes that connect civil society, picking off emerging civil society leaders, and destroying the capacity for civil resistance.

It seems that the Communist Party of China has never been stronger or more confident: China is the second largest economy in the world. China is exerting more influence on the international stage. There is no viable opposition, and the Chinese model is more effective than western democracies that have been bogged down by financial crises and intractable social problems. But as David Shambaugh pointed out in his recent article in the Wall Street Journal, “A more secure and confident government would not institute such a severe crackdown. It is a symptom of the party leadership’s deep anxiety and insecurity.”

For the Communist Party of China, “governing the country according to law” does not mean the “rule of law” as you and I understand it. It is first and foremost a tool to further control society, as the Party understands perfectly well that the rule of law, freedom of information, religious freedom, property rights, and other basic features of democratic governance would mean the demise of the Party’s rule, as Freedom House pointed out in its recent report.

Chinese civil society, fragile as it is, owes its emergence to the dedication and sacrifice of many human rights defenders. Every day, we receive information from all over the country about human rights defenders being detained, disappeared, tortured, or sentenced. But despite the perilous journey, more and more Chinese people – lawyers and journalists, farmers and bloggers, poor and rich, young and old, males and females – have stepped up to join the human rights movement, driven by their dignity, belief in freedom, and the desire to make a difference in our time of great change.

These Orwellian rulers can only do so much damage to the spirit of the people. A few are silenced but many more are inspired by a combination of international and domestic recognition, the admiration of “fellow travellers”, a sense of mission, and occasional victories in human rights cases. I speak from experience. I have been banned from teaching, fired from my job, disbarred, disappeared, detained and tortured for my human rights work since 2003, but I have never felt that I should stop. I believe it is my responsibility to fight for freedom for the next generation, for the dream that my children can live in a free and democratic country. This dream is shared by more and more Chinese people, even at this unlikely moment when the night seems the darkest.

Most Beijing watchers in the west misunderstand Beijing. Every time Beijing has a new slogan like “rule by law” or “harmonious society,” they embrace it as a sign of change, ignoring all the evil the Communist Party of China has been perpetrating. They fail to see where the real hope lies and remain fixated on the ruling class. Their selective blindness has hindered the West’s understanding of the real state of affairs in today’s China. If we human beings can learn anything from modern history, it is that it is time for the West to stop wishful thinking, to stop dancing with dictators, and to support human rights activists who are challenging the one-party dictatorship in China. History will judge the crimes committed by dictators against universal values, and it will also remember those Western governments who adopted short-sighted policies of appeasement in dealing with autocratic regimes and favouring trade over human rights.”

Over 1,000 human rights activists were detained since President Xi took office.

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