Tag Archives: Human Rights

Online Voices Aren't Everything in China

In the months leading up to the Beijing Olympics, which began Friday, English language media have published countless stories on China and its capital. But many of these stories echo each other and few break new ground in the world’s understanding of China. Many emphasize a consistent set of outside concerns and, in portraying conflict, oversimplify the wide variety of viewpoints to be found even without leaving Beijing.

Reporting in China is not easy, and difficult conditions while pounding pavement encourage an over-reliance on the easily accessible but skewed commentary online. After the unrest in Tibet this year and demonstrations on the Olympic Torch Relay route, especially in France, a torrent of nationalist commentary and push-back emerged from people who thought China was being portrayed unfairly, and there were dozens of stories on “angry Chinese youth.”

Writers (including this one) have also written frequently about internet censorship and efforts to circumvent restrictions. In the last year, LexisNexis finds more than 350 mentions of “great firewall,” one of several ways reporters refer to China’s online controls.

But internet phenomena can only be so big in China. If the government’s July numbers are correct, the country now has 253 million internet users, more than any other country in the world. But with a population of 1.33 billion, that’s still only 19 percent of the population. That’s compared to more than 70 percent in the United States, the second largest national internet population, and a global average of 21 percent, according to Kaiser Kuo at Ogilvy.

What happens online in China, therefore, doesn’t involve most of the laobaixing, a term used widely in China to refer to “regular people.” Further, in a poll conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, more than 80 percent said they thought the internet should be controlled, and just as many said the government should be in charge of those controls.

Even if reporters do get off the internet and mingle with the 80 percent of Chinese who don’t log on, it’s impossible to tell the full story of how the laobaixing see the Olympics. But I’ll relate one story that unfolded over several weeks in my former neighborhood in central Beijing.

Across from the entrance to my alley, the flags of the Communist Party, China, and the Olympic rings flew above a small home that had until recently also been a dried fruit and beverage store. The residents had erected the flags and plastered much of the exterior with pictures of Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping (whose son still lives in a large complex nearby, according to neighbors), and the current Chinese president and premier, Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao.

Their home had been marked for demolition in a pre-Olympic beautification effort. In a pattern that played out dozens or hundreds of times during Olympic preparations, the residents were concerned that they might not get sufficient compensation and resisted leaving as long as possible.

On several evenings when the demolition was thought to be imminent, hundreds of neighbors and passers-by gathered on the street waiting and talking. A police van and some plain clothes officers kept an eye on the crowd most of the time, but people were outspoken and opinions divergent.

Some echoed the residents’ slogan posted atop the small home, “Premier Wen Jiabao should look out for the livelihood of the laobaixing.” Some said they thought the family should just move out, or were sympathetic but thought the Olympic flag shouldn’t be involved. Some spoke of frustration with the Olympics for making life so complicated this year in Beijing, and some said they were proud to welcome the world to their city, despite recent inconveniences. Some neighbors didn’t care one way or another about the Games but were strained by higher food prices, which they attributed to a ban on outside trucks entering Beijing. Others mused that it’s been an unusually hot summer and wondered why I kept wearing long pants.

The home was torn down in late July. The internet is still censored. Some people are enflamed about perceived anti-China statements. But if a news story makes any of this sound simple or un-nuanced, remember the multitude of opinions on one street corner.

Note: This column was prepared for a different publication that elected not to publish it. (Please forgive the lack of hyperlinks.) It was written about a week ago in Berlin, and I’m posting now from Bologna, Italy. This site will remain mellow in the coming days as I make my way to the United States, where I begin graduate school studying East Asia next month.

Obama Says He Would Hear From Dalai Lama Before Going to Olympic Ceremony

Credit: Center for American Progress Action FundWithout saying definitively he would not attend the Olympic opening ceremony in Beijing one month from today, U.S. Senator Barack Obama said as president he would skip the ceremony without hearing from the Dalai Lama that there had been progress on the Tibet issue.

“In the absence of some sense of progress, in the absence of some sense from the Dalai Lama that there was progress, I would not have gone,” Obama said at a news conference, according to the Associated Press.

From a Chinese perspective, the statement that Obama would take cues from the Dalai Lama is quite bold and constitutes a public articulation of which side the candidate has chosen in the Dalai Lama–P.R.C. disputes. While few would be surprised to hear a Democratic candidate support human rights in Tibet, it’s diplomatically significant if enunciated.

The AP article notes that Obama had encouraged President George W. Bush to skip the ceremony, as had Senator John McCain in April.

McCain, Obama’s Republican opponent, also issued a hypothetical ultimatum, similarly saying that he would only attend the ceremony if he saw improvements on human rights issues. McCain’s April statement was in some ways stronger than Obama’s most recent one, though he did not allude to taking cues from the exiled Tibetan leader.

“If Chinese policies and practices do not change, I would not attend the opening ceremonies,” said the Arizona senator, who has clinched the GOP nomination for president. “It does no service to the Chinese government, and certainly no service to the people of China, for the United States and other democracies to pretend that the suppression of rights in China does not concern us. It does, will and must concern us.”

These statements, which apparently promise to show symbolic support in exchange for concessions on human rights issues, recall the early Bill Clinton administration principle of conditional engagement: The United States would work with China on trade in exchange for rights improvements. What the candidates haven’t mentioned is that when Clinton tried this tactic, it either failed or was abandoned in favor of, say, less-conditional engagement.

Could the candidates be reacting to George W. Bush’s friendly behavior toward China in the way that Clinton reacted to George H. W. Bush’s? The current president, for one, comes near toeing the Chinese line in his most recent statement, promising to attend the ceremony. Skipping the event would be “an affront to the Chinese people,” he said.

How to 'Pressure' 'the Chinese' on Human Rights

At Foreign Policy, former Amnesty International Executive Director William F. Schultz considers how to “pressure Beijing.” Aside from taking a little too literally Chinese government statements about “the Chinese” and their supposed hurt feelings, Schultz, who is now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress (disclosure: my former employer), makes an interesting suggestion:

What is the appropriate tack to take? The most successful human rights engagement with China—such as that of John Kamm, a former head of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong who has intervened on behalf of hundreds of political prisoners—is characterized by what one might call respectful tenaciousness. Trying to crack Chinese Internet censorship or highlighting the cases of those mistreated for seeking to advance the rule of law or exercise free speech, for instance, is always appropriate. But so is applauding China’s attempts to control corruption or experiment with local elections.

Effective human rights work requires two things. First, it requires a tragic sense of history—a recognition that, no matter what we do, we will never be able to save everyone from misery or suffering. Sometimes, for example, despite its immense power and resources, the U. S. government’s own ability to influence human rights is limited, and its willingness to do so in a bold way is compromised by competing interests. We who care about human rights would do well to recognize that and shape our recommendations to the U.S. government accordingly. Otherwise, we risk even greater marginalization than we already experience.

But secondly, good human rights work requires persistence and a long view, the recognition that human rights have become the lingua franca for much of the world and a ticket of admission to widely honored membership in the international community. The United States with its plummeting approval ratings around the globe has learned that the hard way. China too will learn eventually that the best way to avert hurt feelings is to avoid prompting criticism in the first place.

The whole construct of “pressure” feels problematic, but I think what Schultz proposes is a significantly more sensitive tack for advocacy and diplomacy. It’s an open question, though, whether a government that stakes much of its domestic persona on a national sense of pride will really change behaviour for the sake of avoiding criticism.