The Liu Xiaobo Nobel Peace Prize
Opportunity or Obstacle to Change?
Opportunity or Obstacle to Change?
October 27, 2010
Speaker: Phelim Kine
Chair: Andrew Nathan
Audio clip: http://www.columbia.edu/cu/weai/phelim_kine.mp3
NATHAN: Phelim Kine, who works with Human Rights Watch, is posted in their office in Hong Kong. I will keep the intro brief, and go right to it.
KINE: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much for coming. I really appreciate it. Liu Xiaobo, and the Nobel win, has put China and China’s human rights record and environment squarely in the front of the world attention, media attention. And I want to talk about that, because it’s a real opportunity but also a real challenge in terms of how, from both inside and outside China, this award can be used as an attraction for meaningful change. But if I’m going to talk about Liu Xiaobo, it’s really important that I talk about the wider context in terms of human rights in China and how we have gotten to this, because Liu Xiaobo’s arrest, conviction, and Nobel is very much a piece in terms of how things have changed and are changing in China, and, with regard to human rights, how in many ways the human rights situation in China has deteriorated over the last four years.
Over the last thirty years, as we always say it, things have only gotten better in many ways, in terms of human rights in China. Chinese citizens now have rights that thirty or forty years ago people couldn’t imagine. They are able to travel, in a way that their parents couldn’t. They have access to portions of the Internet. They are able to own private property. And human rights are now enshrined in the Chinese constitution. These are all really good and positive things. Now, to a large extent, what’s happened is that there is an unspoken compact in terms of how the Chinese government deals with its citizens. This unspoken compact, which we’ve seen in the thirty years of reform and opening since Deng Xiaoping drew up these changes in the 1979-1980, is this: the government says to its citizens, “you can go forth and multiply and make money, and get rich, but don’t talk to us and don’t push the envelope in terms of key universal rights and freedoms, and definitely do not mention anything that we might perceive as a challenge to our sixty, sixty-one year monopoly on power.” This compact has to a large extent resulted in a certain amount of, to use the Chinese Communist Party’s terms, “harmony and stability.” Things are better than they have been for a long time. A spinoff of that has been the assumption by foreign policy makers, and to a large extent the business community which engages in China, that economic opening, which climbed up with China’s entrance to WTO in December 2001, will inevitably, inexorably lead to political liberalization, a kinder, gentler Chinese government that observes and respects universal human rights and freedoms, and the rights and freedoms embodies in its own constitution. There is a reason to think that, obviously when you look at what happened with South Korea, with Taiwan, after authoritarianism.
Now unfortunately over the last four years, that conception, and this idea that things are inevitably going to a better tomorrow in terms of rights and freedoms in China, has taken a bit of beating. What happened? In 2007, in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Games, which, by the way, the Chinese government promised explicitly, would be an accelerant and propellant of, quoting a Chinese government official, “advancing human rights and democracy in China,” we saw a crackdown, a tightening on the activities of China’s nascent civil society, NGOs, human rights defenders, and lawyers. We saw an intensive occasion of control on the Internet freedom and the media. This is something that began in 2007, and things got much worse in 2008. On March, we saw the unrest on the Tibetan plateau. At that point, it was gloves off. It looks from the outside like the security services in China really got the ascendant, that they started really calling a lot of shot in terms of how civil society, how dissents, was handled in China. The Olympics were the “coming-out party” for China of course, but during that period things are rough in the ways that I just mentioned, and the hope, both by the policy makers and by international and domestic human rights workers, was that things would get better after the Olympics – “once we go through this, we’ll have a better day.” And the fact is: that didn’t happen. And you can see that even during the Olympics, what do we have? We have the melamine poison scandal, which erupted right ahead of the Olympics, but didn’t get exposed until after the Olympics in September. Hundreds of thousands of children were poisoned, and six confirmed death. In December 2008, we have the arrest of Liu Xiaobo – Liu Xiaobo is at the tip of this, so I’m going to leave that for now.
2009 wasn’t much better. Things got a lot worse, and of course the rationalization was that “you know what, it’s this year of inconvenient anniversaries. It’s the 60th anniversary of the birth of the People’s Republic of China; it’s the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen.” So again there was a rationalization that “things are bad, but there will be a better tomorrow.” And what happened in 2009? – More arrests. For example, we saw the parents of the thousands of children, victims of the Sichuan earthquake, were harassed, intimidated, detained and jailed for merely asking why their children died, why so many schools collapsed. We saw advocates, people like Huang Qi and Tan Zuoren, people who were looking into and investigating why this happened, why so many children died, being arrested and sentenced on fairly disputed charges of “subversion” or “state secrets.” July 2009, things got even worse. We have horrific ethnic violence in Urumqi, Xinjiang. Make no mistake: it was a massacre of Xinjiang Uyghurs on Han – horrific. Unfortunately in the aftermath, we’ve seen many of the same types of abuses that troubled the Tibetan unrest in 2008: mass arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, and abuse of suspects. So this is the wider context in terms of what was going on during this whole period in which Liu Xiaobo was under detention and was prepared for trial and eventually was tried.
Toward the end, when we look at the end of 2009, things really kind of eclipsed. We had this feeling that was palpable in terms of anyone who was doing any type of contact with the Chinese government at whatever level – in the aftermath of the financial crisis, this really palpable sense of triumphalism by Chinese officials: they no longer really needed to listen to outside foreign pressure. Human rights organizations and diplomats noted that Chinese officials would no longer accept prisoner lists. – This is a tradition: here is a list of prisoners we are concerned about, what’s their status, where are they. – They don’t even accept them anymore. And at the end of 2009 we kind of reached the nadir in terms of international concern about where’s China going, what is this government about and where is it going. One example, December 2009, we saw the execution of the UK national Akmal Shaikh on drug trafficking charges, despite very compelling evidence, and the intercession of then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown, that he was seriously mentally ill and should not have been subject to the death penalty.
Now that’s the wider context, the context in which we have the ascendency of security services, we have also at the same time this round-up, arrest, and targeting of higher-profile dissidents, controls on civil society, media, and the Internet, and what we have also, unfortunately, is a retreat of traditional advocates and pressure points on the Chinese government, which are the US government, the EU, and the UK. To a large extent, over the last four years particularly, there has been a sense amongst the policy-makers in these governments that China now is too big, too important, to offend. Even worse, there is an almost Orientalist stance that China and Chinese policy-makers are different from other governments, with issues of face etc., and that it’s really not appropriate, or correct, to try to engage directly on human rights issues. We saw the nadir of this in March 2009 when Secretary of State Hilary Clinton stood up and said on her way to Beijing, that human rights would no longer get in the way of key bilateral issues of the US and China. Of course that argument is completely false, when you consider that even in the small round of US-China bilateral issues there are key integral human rights issues involved in that. For example, food safety is an issue the US government is very concerned about in the aftermath of melamine, toxic dog food, poison toys. In order to have an effective deterrence of the toxic materials’ entrance to the export stream, we need to have a free media, there needs to be a whistle-blowing facility on the ground in China, which no longer exists. So what happens? Things blow up at the grassroots in China, spread throughout China, and when we find out about it, when it becomes an international issue, it’s on the front page of New York Times. So this is the wider context.
Now Liu Xiaobo, who is Liu Xiaobo? – 54-year-old, former professor. He has done prison time before. He did prison time after 1989, because he was on the ground in the Tiananmen Square and negotiated with the military to ensure that there was a safe retreat of students who remained on the Square. This intervention spared the lives of potentially thousands. There apparently was no death on the Tiananmen Square. The massacre was on the periphery, the suburb, leading into the Tiananmen Square. This was due to the fact that Liu Xiaobo intervened. He suffered by going to the jail as a result. He was identified as a “black hand” in the protest. He did more time in 1995-1996 because he criticized the Chinese government on its policies toward both Taiwan and the Dalai Lama. So this is someone who has been an ongoing peaceful critic, but an advocate always of peaceful evolutionary change in China, working within the system.
He was arrested in December 2008, interesting timing – it’s in the aftermath of the 2008 Olympics, “opening to the world,” which was supposed to make China a better place in terms of human rights and democracy. What was he arrested for? He helped to draft, distributed and signed something called “Charter 08” – modeled on then-Czechoslovakia’s “Charter 77.” Basically it modeled that, and it calls for recognition of fundamental rights of equality, recognition of human rights that are essential to the stability, security, and harmony of a state; and it says that constitutional democracy is the key determinant in insuring that human rights are respected. This should not be a bombshell, because obviously these same freedoms and rights are already in China’s constitution, which is a beautiful document, and in China’s domestic laws.
So why is it a problem? – His high profile. He has an international profile: he is a former Columbia scholar; he’s known; he’s worked with PEN. But also this is the time when the security services are taking down, and the government decided they need to make an example of someone. They don’t like where this could lead. This is an evolutionary Communist Party. This Communist Party has learned from, and studies carefully, the lessons of the past. They saw what happened in 1989 with the Soviet Union. They’ve carefully watched and learned from, sent study missions to places like Georgia, in order to understand the “color revolutions”. This Communist Party is determined not to go down that road of history. So Liu Xiaobo is targeted for this. And he is detained – not arrested. One of the interesting things is that he was detained illegally for at least six months. In June, despite months and months of intense lobbying, both inside and outside China, including by Human Rights Watch, the US government, the EU, he’s not released. There is a period that perhaps indicated a difference of opinion within the leadership as to what to do with Liu Xiaobo. On June 23 they made the decision to charge him with inciting subversion, one of the many dangerously ambiguous laws in China that allow for a lot of leeway in terms of the government’s laying charges. He is in prison, and then on December 25, I remember it was the Christmas Day, and the phone started ringing. The Chinese government is very, very good at choosing dates, when most media are asleep, at least foreign media. On December 25 he is sentenced to eleven years in prison for inciting subversion.
Why is that significant? This is the most severe, the longest sentence that the Chinese court has ever leveled since this law has been on the books. So the Chinese government is digging in the tills. It’s saying “we are making an example. We don’t care what the domestic reaction might be, and we definitely are sending the signal overseas that ‘the rules have changed and we are no longer taking accuse that you want to give us.’” Over the past few months, there have been more and more cases of momentum; there has been a lot more pressure; there has been a lot of petition writing campaigns. He has remained on the radar, much to the distress of the Chinese government. What happened? Just about less than a month ago – of course we all know – the award that the Chinese government, a government that is obsessed with international recognition, would never want to win, they won. Liu Xiaobo wins the Nobel Peace Prize.
What does that mean in terms of the wider issues here? Obviously in the short term what we see is that the Chinese government has lashed out. In what little official state media coverage of Liu Xiaobo’s case and the Nobel Peace Prize, we have seen him been branded a criminal; we have seen the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesperson referred to this awarding of Nobel Peace Prize as “profane.” We have also seen the Chinese government lashed out the individual activists; particularly Liu Xia, Liu Xiaobo’s wife, has been put under house arrest. It’s uncertain, quite improbable, that she will be allowed to attend the awarding of Liu’s Nobel in Oslo in December. – That’s the short term.
In the longer term, what are we looking at? I mentioned that there has been the back paddling by foreign governments in terms of how they interact with China, and what’s happened is that Liu’s arrest and conviction, and now this Nobel Prize, has really put human rights and the need for foreign governments of more robust human rights intervention front and center. This award is a running sore and will be a running sore for the Chinese government, as long as he is in prison, as long as there are news stories that refer to “in-prison Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo.” So this is something that foreign policy-makers, and those who are engaging with China about human rights, can no longer ignore. They need to really engage on the idea that this a state in which political prisoners are very real phenomena, and of course, unspoken but needed to be said is that there are hundreds more like Liu Xiaobo, who have no public profile, who are suffering under the same type of dangerously ambiguous laws of subversion or state secrets, merely for advocating the same universal rights and freedoms in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. – It is interesting to know that while the Chinese government keeps saying that they have nothing to do with these Western-imposed idea of rights, one of the key drafters of the UDHR was a Guomindang social scientist, philosopher Zhang Pengchun (Chang Peng-Chun), who found within the Chinese ideas from Confucius and Mencius about human rights. – So this has put human rights front and center. It makes governments much more difficult to doff the bullet of talking about human rights, because we have a very public profile, and people will be asking “what are you saying about this guy.” That’s on the international front.
Domestically, – and this is the most important thing, – China isn’t going to change because of the pressure from outside. It’s an essential ingredient of change, but it’s inadequate. What the award does is that it provides a critical mass and a focus for activists inside China to use this as a vehicle to express support for the same ideas that are of course already embedded in China’s constitution. We’ve already seen that. We’ve seen it in the fact that, shortly after the award, we have a group of retired senior Communist Party officials, who are on the record in a public letter to the Chinese government, saying “we agree with what Liu Xiaobo was advocating. We agree that China needs greater freedom of expression. We need a free media. The challenges that our country faces, true harmony and stability, do require more open society.” What do we see after that? We saw a group of one hundred senior key intellectuals write a public letter saying the same thing. So this is the tip of the iceberg that again is the longer term impact of this. It’s true that a lot of people in China don’t know who Liu Xiaobo is; his name is constantly scrubbed by the censors, except when they refer to him as a criminal. So what’s going to happen? The news of Liu Xiaobo and Charter 08 is going to go much more viral in China. Many more people are going to find out about this because it’s been given the higher international platform. This is going to result in more discussions in China amongst civil society activists about how to move forward. So that’s the other thing.
In terms of the government – what does this mean in terms of the government? I have said this several times, this is a running sore for the Chinese government to deal with. So at very least, after the initial lashing-out, there is probably going to be some serious discussion within the leadership, within the government, amongst those hard-liners who have appealed to the ascendant since the Olympics, and those individuals who advocate a more moderate approach and advocate China opening up more to the world and having greater freedom of expression and association. This is going to be a source of dialogue and debate.
And in the longer term, what are we going see? This current Hu-Wen leadership is in low-down right now. They are heading off stage, and they are concerned about their legacy. They don’t want to do anything that makes them look bad, makes them look weak, so we are not going to see any dramatic improvements, changes, policy announcements or anything to do with releasing Liu Xiaobo. I don’t think it’s going to happen. But like I said, this running sore, when Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang take over in 2012, is something they might want to address, a problem they have in terms of their international engagement, this horrible image problem. And remember that the Chinese government can, and often does, appear intransient and monolithic, but the fact is that it is acutely concerned about its international image, particularly as it goes on this “going out” policy of massive infrastructure investments and foreign aid in the developing world. The Chinese government wants to have what the United States has. It wants soft power. It wants to be respected. So this is something that this new leadership is going to have to weigh, and the fate of Liu Xiaobo, who does his eleven years as an in-prison Nobel laureate, this is something that they have to decide: what’s the cost-benefit ratio to this, and what can they afford to do to minimize damage to themselves, because this is going to be like a slow motion traffic accident, and of course we are going to see a taste of that, just to the run-up of the December award of the Nobel in Oslo. That is going to be the place where Chinese activists in exile and those who are allowed to leave China are going to converge. It’s going to be a “China dissidents’ party.” It’s going to be a massive and intense media focus. And this is something that the Chinese government is just going to despise.
That is sort of once around the kitchen in terms of what we are in terms of the macro to the micro. Since I did come unforgivably late, I would like to end there and turn this over to questions and discussions, because I am sure that I probably have as much or more to learn from you as you can ever learn from me. Thank you!
NATHAN: Alright, we forgive you for coming late. I wonder if you can talk a little bit about Human Rights Watch’s advocacy strategy, the role that Human Rights Watch had with Charter 08, and how Human Rights Watch as a professional advocacy organization has worked in support of Liu.
KINE: Good question. After Liu Xiaobo was arrested in the aftermath of the dissemination of Charter 08 online in China, Human Rights Watch led a coalition of human rights organizations and individuals concerned with human rights in China, former Nobel laureate etc., in a letter writing petition campaign to try to get Liu released, to put pressure on the Chinese government. Since Liu had been arrested, we have ourselves conducted an unrelenting campaign, in terms of op-eds, everywhere from Forbes to International Herald Tribune, to try to publicize his case and try to get movement. In our interactions with government officials from the US to Brussels, any government that has contact with Chinese officials, we talked to them first and say “This is what you should say. Here are the key issues.” We put Liu at the top of the list of issues that need to press. Not because Liu is more important than, like I said, hundreds of thousands of unknown Chinese activists, but because he does have a profile, and what happens to him has residence and impact on others. So he can be the symbolic forefront of the wider campaign. So that’s what we were doing in the past year and we are going to intensify those efforts. Like I said, this is going to be a huge media circus, ahead of and during Oslo. So we are going to maximize exposure during that period.
AUDIENCE: I wonder if it fits more into the issue of triumphalism, and how it manifests itself.
KINE: That’s a good question. It’s no secret that the Chinese government has never been an easy interlocutor on issues of human rights. But what’s interesting is that particularly since the advent of the financial crisis in 2008, for everyone we speak to – in Washington, in Ottawa, in Brussels, every government and diplomats in Beijing – the rancor of the engagement, the vehemence and perceived arrogance of the Chinese, in terms of their diplomatic contact, is palpable. We have diplomats tell us that negotiations and contacts with Chinese interlocutors often turned into screaming matches, but the volume was all coming from the Chinese side. The things get ugly. People are really concerned about this. We spoke to representatives of a European government yesterday, and here is an example of how difficult it is to engage. It’s almost very difficult, if not impossible, according to this representative, to send a demarche to the Chinese government on human rights issues. Because they just don’t open the door. They don’t answer the phone. They probably got a tip by people in the embassy that something is coming. So it takes days and days, the issue cools, and they almost lost the impetus. So trying to get face-time on these things is extremely difficult.
I will give you another example. We take part in the EU-China bilateral human rights dialogue. The EU strut this deal that human rights organizations that are concerned about human rights in China have seats in some of the tables. And the interactions with Chinese officials at that forum have deteriorated in terms of the substance, but also in terms of the tenor and the congeniality of the interaction. So it is something that has been remarked across the board, and makes it really difficult to engage on.
It’s happening in the same time that in Chinese state media, or scholars, or officials, almost openly crow about how the US, the EU, countries outside China have got pounded by the financial crisis, and how their financial systems, their governance systems really weren’t as good as China’s. So there are these two tracks to this.
AUDIENCE: I like what you said about the changing things in China. But my question is when I was in China, I spoke to the locals and I saw this fear in those eyes whenever anything related to the government was brought up. So it is almost the sense that one needs to close one eye rather than to criticize or ask for a reform. What do you suggest we can do, as outsides to impact the insiders?
KINE: I think that’s fair: people definitely are afraid, your impression is valid. And of course they have very good reasons to be afraid. The last four years have been a lesson of why you should have been afraid in challenging the government, in asserting the rights and freedoms they would rather you not talk about. So for most people, this is something they don’t want to touch. What we are looking for, and where change begins, is the empowering and emboldening of those individuals who are willing to take a chance. Obviously we need people, and China needs people who are willing to get all of them roaring. And once people start to speak out, and if there is a more enlightened approach by the Chinese government, if space grows for those people to speak without severe represses, then it spreads. But I agree with you, in the short and medium term, that a lot of people are to understand implicitly that there are certain topics that can’t be approached, there are certain ideas that should not be discussed, and there are gray lines and red lines that must not be crossed. That’s going to remain the status quo, but we are hoping that in the short and medium term the fact that these ideas, that Liu’s prominence, is going to allow at least more room for discussion, more fuel for this nascent civil society, for greater things in the future. This is a marathon, not a sprint, and we are looking for changes over the long term.
AUDIENCE: Do you think an opposition party is required to the implementation of the Charter 08? And what is Charter 08’s advantage?
KINE: Good question. If you didn’t get the question, it is that “does China need an opposition party? And, is Charter 08 – its advocacy of rights and freedoms that are already in China’s constitution – necessary?” I will answer them this way. The Chinese Communist Party speaks the truth very often when they say something, basically they line is “without us, there is abyss. If we are not here, then it would be chaos.” And the fact is that it’s true, and the reason why it is, is that there is no opposition. The Chinese government has allowed no room, no oxygen for any type of meaningful opposition to be in the wings before any type of change. That means the unenviable position that China is in is that it does need the Chinese Communist Party at this point.
Now what can we hope for? We can hope for in the short and medium term the Chinese government could at very least allow greater freedom, that it will allow people for freer media, greater freedom of expression, freedom of association, controls of what we list as freedom of religion in China. In the longer term, again, this is a marathon, not a sprint. One of the things that impresses anyone who spends anytime in China is this is a fluid, dynamic, changing society. The one thing that China can always do is to surprise us, positively and negatively. We are definitely, as we watch China, going to be surprised. Perhaps, hopefully, one of the surprises is going to be a move toward a constitutionally guaranteed, pluralistic political system. But right now there is absolutely no snowball of chance that will happen.
NATHAN: Let me sharpen this question you are asked from another aspect, which is that some dissidents in the Chinese dissident movement have said that it’s exactly because of what you just said, the Nobel Prize and Human Rights Watch and people like that have chosen Liu Xiaobo as their favorite, because he doesn’t threaten the regime; he advocates long term change from within, etc.; stuff like what you just said: “we are afraid of chaos.” – “But to really change China you can’t afford to be afraid of chaos. You have to organize, and to really overthrow the god-damn dictator. So how come you white men are supporting this guy, because he is moderate?”
KINE: I really like that inflammatory question; great question. You know, look, Human Rights Watch is not about regime change. We are dealing with the world as it is in the facts on the ground. So what are we dealing with? We want to, and we do, engage with the Chinese government. We will talk to anyone who talks to us. And the fact is no meaningful change is going to happen in China anytime soon, unless you are engaging with the government, unless the government is on board for this. Obviously this type of approach might be seen by some outsiders, particularly perhaps exiles who are extremely, and perhaps justifiably, bitter about how things are unfolded in the homeland, as “selling out.” But that is not the case. Liu Xiaobo is actually an excellent avatar, exemplar of the type of change that we want to see and what we think the Chinese people want to see, because he is all about peaceful evolutionary changes. That’s what China needs arguably. China has had more than its fair share of bloody revolutions and disruptions, and this is somebody who speaks for the need of working with this system, or at least with the laws as they exist, and making it a better place, without an overthrow of something. We are not about regime change. That’s not our – Human Rights Watch’s – term of reference.
NATHAN: And certainly the Nobel Peace Committee is not about violent regime change. That’s not their mandate – they are about peace. But if I can look at this point from another angle, I think this is the way why he is so threatening to the regime. It’s because he’s playing this trick – from their point of view – of using this idea of peaceful change and the Chinese constitution, to generate a lot of international support. It’s like the Dalai Lama. What could be more threatening? – A person who turns your constitution against you and appeals right to the “soft spot” of the Westerners. He’s being very good at liaising with a lot of people inside and outside of China.
KINE: I think that’s the way of the future. If you talk to people like human rights defenders and lawyers like Teng Biao, or scholars like Yu Jianrong, they say: “The way forward is to go to ‘xianfa,’ or the constitution. We always have to go back to the constitution. There is no guarantee that we are not going to get harassed, intimidated, detained, jailed, prosecuted, but at very least we are talking the language and using the term that the Chinese government cannot say it’s foreign and alien. It’s ours. We drafted it.” I think this is part of the trend.
AUDIENCE: I am interested in the parallel between Charter 77 and Charter 08, and I was wondering whether perhaps one of the reasons the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Liu Xiaobo is the Committee saw this parallel and hoped that this award could help the elevation of a similar peaceful change in China. Is it what happened in the Committee?
KINE: Good question. Unfortunately I have to say from the outset that I am not privy to the internal decision-making of the Nobel Committee, which is an extremely opaque organization. But I would say this. I would say that, in the exact wording of Nobel Prize, Liu Xiaobo was awarded due to his unflagging dedication to peaceful political change. And that is what Charter 08 is all about. Was it perhaps upon Charter 77 as a model for how peaceful change can unfold? – Obviously the reform in Czechoslovakia was a beautiful example of how things can change beautifully, how an authoritarian state can become a democratic state or two democratic states. Quite possibly that’s what they were thinking, but I don’t know.
AUDIENCE: I’m a high school student from China. I don’t have much knowledge on human rights. On the website of Human Rights Watch, I noticed a document about the black jails – “hei jianyu” – and “shangfang,” and I noticed that in state media more information, more news about black jails and shangfang has been spread, and was not censored by the government. Can it be seen as progress in our human rights? The second question: China Daily has published critical pieces on the Nobel Peace Prize. Since the Committee consists of Norwegian parliamentarians, they call it Norwegian Congress Prize, and say it is political. What do you think?
KINE: Great questions. Thank you very much. As to the question referring to the black jails, I can back up for a second. We did a report on black jails. Black jails are a huge problem in China. Black jails, which exist today in China in urban centers like Beijing and other large urban cities, are a network of secret, illegal detention facility, where there are “fangmin,” or petitioners, who come to Beijing to seek to address the abuses in countryside from illegal property seizure to local corruption to police brutality. If they can’t get justice at the local level, due to interference by political bodies, due to the broken court system, they eventually make their way to Beijing where you have this petitioning offices, you can sort of gamble that maybe the central government will intercede to help you. This is an ancient system that still exists on the book of the People’s Republic of China. Now what’s happening is, more and more people are coming to Beijing, because there are more and more problems in the countryside – we have this yawning rural-urban gap; we have catastrophic environmental problems; we have corruption at epic levels. And what’s happening is that, because grassroots officials are judged by the central government by the number of petitioners who go to Beijing – the more people go, the worse their standing; they suffer in terms of salary, career, trajectory; it’s a big problem – so what happened is that local government paid for, often outsourced, the abduction services. They abduct people from their areas off the streets of Beijing, and they put them into these black jails, which can be anything from an empty governmental building to a mental hospital to any place where people can be kept quietly and secretly for anywhere from a few days to several months. We wrote a report on this, called “An Alleyway in Hell”, and what we found is that in black jails horrific abuses occurred. Food deprivation, sleep deprivation, sexual violence, physical violence, etc. Children are routinely held in these places. I have copies of this report to hand out later. On the cover, there is a kid who is nearly about four years old behind bars. This is all completely without due process. So that is the wider issue.
Now this gentleman very rightly said: is there progress because the Chinese government is talking about this? And I would say yes, because after two weeks when we released this report, in November 2009, something unheard of happened in terms of our relationship with the Chinese government: a government magazine called Liaowang ran an article all about black jails, and basically it said the same stuff as was in our report, except there were more details, even more horrific details and the numbers of people involved and the types of abuses. And it said specifically that the Chinese government should do something about that – this is the Liaowang article – because it hurts the image of the Chinese government. So, as I said, this is the image problem. Since then the Chinese government has come out and essentially through one organ to admit that they have this problem. That’s progress right there. Number two, they announced in January that the liaison offices of local governments, which very often are used as black jail facilities, – there are hundreds of these offices, for county level, city level, and provincial level, across Beijing – have to announce a closure schedule. So they try, apparently, to limit the means of local governments to put people into black jails. And most interestingly, within the last month, in the Caijing magazine and also in the Southern Weekend media group ran stories about how a private company called Anyuanding was being used to outsource their personnel to abduct people from the streets and to put them into black jails, and like you said the China Daily announced the Beijing police were announcing an investigation. This could be just a lot of talk, you know. The China Daily is mostly the Chinese government talking to the outside world, so it might not reflect what it is going do at home. But it is progress, and it is at very least words of organizations like us can try to hold the government accountable to in the future. Is there progress? Yes. Is there movement? Yes. That’s the thing we try to say: things are bad, and in many ways have gotten worse, but there are gleams of light that we really need to hold on to, and say, “This is a fluid and dynamic society, and things are on the move.”
And the second question. The China Daily said that the Nobel Committee was a political grouping. Look. How the Chinese government has reacted to this in the English media is to lash out. And what they want to do is, they want do scare Norway. A lot of the reticence of foreign governments engaging with China in human rights is that they feel China is too big to rumble, that China is too important, because China is our trade partner; we want to do business with China; China is going to save the world through the financial crisis. The fact is that a lot of these claims are overblown. In the aftermath of the Nobel Peace Prize been awarded, the Chinese government canceled the meetings with the fishery minister in Norway, and also they banned the entrance of a Norwegian band that won the Eurasian rock competition. This is all pretty petty stuff. The fact is that Norway’s relationship with China is lubricated with oil – and guess where it goes? It goes from Norway to China. Is the Chinese government going to disrupt that? I don’t think so. I can give you an example of how this is going to go down. I’m a Canadian citizen, and for years Canada has had problems in its relationship with China, because in Canada there is a guy named Lai Changxing, who is the “god of corruption” in China – I think Zhu Rongji said he should be executed a thousand times. China wants him back so badly, and Canada won’t, because they are afraid that he would be executed – death penalty concerns. Does it mean that the Canada-China relationship is destroyed? No. It’s a minor area that comes up sometime, and meeting might be canceled, and there is some bad language from them, but life goes on, because this is a supremely pragmatic government. It knows where the priority should be, and it’s on economic growth – to keep these numbers up and to make people like you to graduate from university and get a job – that’s their concern. And they want to make sure that continues to happen.
NATHAN: The Nobel Peace Prize was established, as I understand it, by money from the Norwegian parliament, and the Committee includes some parliamentarians, but it operates independently of the government. I think those are the facts, and you can make of that when you look.
AUDIENCE: I have a quick comment that I think highlights the progress and rollback in freedom you are talking about. I actually know the journalist who published the big Caijing article on private agency running black jails. He left the country after it was published, and was traveling abroad. And it was a good thing he did, because he was told by people who work for Caijing that the security agents showed up every single day, questioning every member of the stuff about the reporter who had written that. So he brought a lot of trouble that way…
NATHAN: Since you know him, do you happen to know whether that article was in preparation before the Human Rights Watch report?
AUDIENCE: It was.
NATHAN: Because you said ahead that there was a lot of additional information, I assume that is true, and maybe they had to publish it when your thing came out, because you were scooping that?
KINE: No, the Caijing article came out last month.
NATHAN: But you said two weeks after your report?
KINE: That is Liaowang. The Caijing one is the one about the outsourcing of Anyuanding.
AUDIENCE: Anyway I thought it was interesting that he left his country, and these police officers were there. But the question I have was that, working for Human Rights Watch, I understand that you are frustrated with the Chinese officials, and by the reports and the human rights issues you are following, but you must be equally frustrated with foreign governments. You mention this issue why governments are no longer bringing up human rights issues with China; that they are taking what some people call a more pragmatic approach, leaving out sensitive issues and talking about economic issues rather than human rights. Do you think that might change in the future, as now the Nobel Prize was awarded to Liu Xiaobo. Do you predict that foreign government will intervene more on human rights again?
KINE: Good question. I would say that the Peace Prize for Liu Xiaobo adds to a number of pressures and a number of factors that will probably prompt a number of governments to take a more robust stance to engage with China in human rights. To a large extent, this reticence to engage with China in human rights has been powered by concerns that it might hurt economic engagement and trade ties. And the fact is that if you read the Wall Street Journal over the past few months, there is a palpable curdling in sentiment of international investors in China: things aren’t working out the way they thought they would. You don’t have to look far to see this. There are at least two WTO cases filed by the US against China. People are saying they are not getting the access there used to be. Also we have probably around the edge of a currency war with China. So there are all these other variables that, in terms of political convenience, can allow China’s human rights to also be part of that engagement. So I think it’s going to be one more factor that is going to make it more of an issue for governments to take up. I think it is harder to dodge, for sure.
AUDIENCE: My question is about the Chinese citizens’ mentality. You just said that, when the Chinese government accused the Nobel Peace Prize Committee of being political, the accusation was just rhetorical. I agree with that. But the point is that a lot of Chinese citizens buy that rhetoric. I was wandering on Chinese online forums these days, and there have been heated debates over the Peace Prize decision. Of course a lot of Chinese netizens applauded Liu’s laureation, but at the same time a lot of people exhibit this kind of mentality, maybe I should call the aversion to any foreign connection. A lot people said that, “Okay, I used to respect Liu Xiaobo, but now I found that he was receiving money from the National Endowment for Democracy and now he’s awarded a foreign prize, so he is a kind of tool for Western imperialism and things like that, and it might be justified for the Chinese government to sentence him for subversion because he is doing subversive things.” Well, part of this reasoning may come from brainwashing and propaganda, but the deep cause of that might be the collective memory of hundred years of humiliation and things like that. So how do you think the international human rights community should cope with this mentality, and what is the best way to engage with this kind of aversion to foreign connections?
KINE: Great point. The Chinese Internet is interesting, because there is a variety of opinion out there. But I think it’s overplayed in the media, as is placed with its real format. It’s obviously a new platform for civil society activists and for dissidents to exchange information, but it has to be done cleverly, using code words etc. To a large extent, what goes on in the Internet, particularly with reference to political ideas and political issues, is government content, and the fact that you see this type of opinions stays on there for a long time means that the government definitely agrees with it. And the government devotes massive financial, technological and human resources, to not just police the Internet and to scrub the content they don’t like, but to plant the Internet content. We have the “wumaodang” or “fifty-cent army,” and these things. So I would be skeptical to that type of opinion. It seems to me to a large extent that might be government or government sympathizers who are putting that out. I am not eliminating the concerns that people will have different opinions, but that is the one idea that I would throw out.
The other idea that I can put out is this. You mentioned that a lot of people might be motivated by the idea of a hundred years of collective humiliation and etc. I think there is something to that. But why is that? Why would people have that type of outlook? - Because their only information contour has been from the Chinese government. It’s been Chinese government propaganda, which, in terms of all the bad things happening in China last century, they have all been foreign imposed, Western imposed. To a large extent, there is nothing in the history books about the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, about the Tiananmen Square, the most painful, most tumultuous, most damaging events in China’s recent history are not in the collective memory. So that would tend to create a skewed view of both China’s place in the world and China’s interaction with the outside world. So that’s how I would answer that.
Is it a challenge? Yes, and that’s why what’s the bottom line – we need freedom of information. People should be around with all the opinions. I am not saying we should take away people’s opinions, but let’s have the real information, let’s have the complete exposure. That’s the key to really understand what’s going on, allowing people to have an informed opinion, rather than guided opinion.
AUDIENCE: Just a quick comment related to this question. After or before Liu Xiaobo’s award, the discourse in China has sometimes connected liberalism with nationalism, or the other way round: “those liberals are actually upon Western imperialism” and so on. What is interesting is that, I actually got this email – I don’t know who sent it, an name in Chinese – accusing, and actually quoting Liu Xiaobo’s writing selectively, many of which are supportive of, say, the US’s invasion of Iraq, and basically it sounds very neo-conservative. This raises a very interesting question: how is the Chinese liberalism related to the right-wingers around the world? How do the liberals in the West look at this? From their point of view, of course, I can understand it, but this is the challenge there. I don’t know what’s in the Chinese cyberspace discussion, since I don’t really spend time on that. I don’t know how that kind of right-wing image is received by netizens. Ironically, the official media haven’t used that as a weapon of criticism, but if you look at Liu Xiaobo’s writings selectively as well, he sounds like a neo-conservative in the US, not a liberal. This is an interesting phenomenon.
KINE: It’s fascinating that it speaks to the fact that this is an evolutionary communist party that is learning to do things in the Fox Channel era, in which you can’t look at a huge amount of writings and find isolated examples that fit your particular paradigm. I think that is an example of that.
I have a couple of things to say about the previous question. I’ve noticed, and people who spent a lot of time in China and particularly foreign correspondence in China have noticed, that, since early 2008, in the wake particularly of Tibet and the “anti-cnn.com,” an anti-foreign sentiment – the idea that China yet again is been degraded, is been exploited, and is been undermined by foreign forces – is been fed to the masses by the state media, and it’s really resulted in the changes on the ground. Foreign correspondence told me that in the aftermath, particularly people of television crews, when they are in some hutong or somewhere in some street, before, people would often ignored or helped them, but now quite often they will come and say “what’re you doing? I’m gonna take you to the local paichusuo. You foreigners are doing something.” This happens a lot.
I can say one other thing to boil it down. People who spent a lot of time in China, which I am sure includes you, would know that, whenever we talk to people, whatever it is farmers, petitioners, or shopkeepers, if you talk about the idea of rights, they are supportive of it. Right now we are in this time when Chinese people have generally never been more aware of their rights, and never been so vocal about wanting to assert that. This is a really special time. But it depends on the type of language…
AUDIENCE: But it is “rights,” not “human rights.” It is the framing of discourse. The government has framed it, or the official media have framed it, in the way that it is less sensitive, but “human rights” remain sensitive.
KINE: Yes, unfortunately this is a disadvantage they have in terms of a framed discourse. Is this a challenge? Yes.
NATHAN: Yes, “quanli” or “quanyi,” but not “renquan.” About Liu Xiaobo’s career, I haven’t studied it very carefully, but I seemed to remember that he started out as a very sharp, sarcastic, bitter cultural critic: “Our culture is corrupt,” and “we need to be invaded by the West for three hundred years of colonization.” Then he found his way to this Gandhi-like position where the Nobel Peace Prize will endorse. He stood for this as a human story. He was not always like that. He wasn’t born out of the egg of Mother Teresa.
KINE: That’s true. I mean if Liu Xiaobo had been born in the Facebook age, you can imagine the Chinese government would have being taking the wall-shots and the comments he has made on the Facebook pages.
NATHAN: Also his posted underwear. But he unfortunately did publish dramatic stuff throughout his career, so it is all there to define.
AUDIENCE: The Chinese government has been issuing white papers on human rights in the US. I wonder how you would comment on those reports.
KINE: Great point. I think maybe for almost last ten years, I’m not sure, every year the Chinese government produces a white paper report on the state of human rights in the US. We think that’s great. We saved them for any opportunity to engage with the Chinese government on issues of human rights. We are not a US organization. We are an international organization. We happen to have one big base in New York, headquarter, but we are internationally focused. Nobody’s human rights record is perfect, and we believe that, when the Chinese government report on the US’s human rights, they cite us – they cite our reports on the US government’s failings on human rights. We look at the US, we look at the EU, and we look at everybody. And it’s really glad to find that they read our work, and we just hope they read the China stuff just as they read the US stuff.
AUDIENCE: Given that the government upholding of information censorship in China is not going to change in near future, and given that, as you said earlier, foreign intervention approach seems to lose credibility with Chinese citizens because the Chinese government has framed it in such a way that to rely upon foreign forces is to subvert our government, isn’t it that the Nobel Peace Prize would foster this impression, or at best make no impact on China’s civil society?
KINE: There is definitely a difference in terms of the impact on longevity of the initial Chinese government reaction which they brand Liu a criminal and is upon foreign forces. The fact is that the Nobel win has created this high profile international platform for Chinese activists within China. Remember that the Chinese government estimates that there are 320 million people in China online. The vast majority of these people are just like those in the US: they are emailing, they are on the local version of Facebook, and they are playing games. But what it does is that it empowers, and gives materials to, people who are able to circumvent the Firewall, who are able to get access and are interested in information that comes from abroad, to use that and to distribute it virally over time. So I would say it’s going to be more residence, more well-known among a growing number of Chinese people about who Liu is, why he won the Nobel Prize, in terms of the framing by the Norwegian Committee rather than the Chinese government’s initial and reflexive denunciation. This is where the history would play out, we will see.
AUDIENCE: I have one comment and one question. As I see it, the Chinese government tries very hard to move forward to political reforms, but the problem is China is developing so fast, and the society is facing so many challenges – of course it has achieved so many progresses. The government wants to implement political reforms, but it is not prepared as to how to deal with those challenges, and the foreign intervention will complicate the process. This is my comment. My question is, when we talked about human rights, we focused on civil rights actually. As to political rights, some people in China raise the question of deliberative democracy as an alternative to Western-style election etc. What do you think of this issue?
KINE: I want to address your comment first. Let me say this. Every morning when I wake up, I thank god I’m not Hu Jintao or Wen Jiabao, I don’t have to deal with the problems of a developing 1.3 billion population country. That’s true. But it doesn’t let the government off the hook. Organizations like us, and Liu Xiaobo, and civil society activists inside and outside of China, aren’t saying that the Chinese government has to change everything, or that we need a US constitution and you have to do this. We are saying, “Look, this is a law you have passed. This is something you’ve signed. You have the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. You have a constitution that guarantees the right to speak about these issues. Why do not?” That’s the first thing.
And the second thing is whether foreign influence is problematic. I would say that, for every Chinese dissident I’ve ever spoken to, when you look at the history books, it was only pressure from outside that really brought out and helped to prepare momentum for change inside. Even if you look at the fate of people who were put into prison after the Tiananmen massacre 1989, it was only the result of those cases being raised in bilateral forms that caused, firstly, an improvement of conditions in prison, and secondly, their eventual release. So the people who really put a lie to that, saying that’s not true, or people who have been through the Chinese system at its worse, said, “We needed that foreign intervention. We needed that foreign influence.” And the fact is, look, we are talking about universal freedoms, universal rights that are embodied in the UDHR. These are above the nation-state. Sovereign governments have a responsibility to respect them, and other sovereign governments have a responsibility to address them when they’re not been fulfilled or respected, just like the Chinese government can, and should, issue white papers on the US failing, whether it is in Guantanamo or other places.
NATHAN: We need to end. If some people still have comments, you can come up and address them directly. You have handouts?
KINE: I brought several copies of four of our recent reports. The first is a report on the abuses in Tibet, from 2008 to 2010 in the aftermath of the March unrest. The second is our black jails report. I am happy to say that we are doing a Chinese version of this report, and it will be the first Human Rights Watch report that is in the Chinese language, and we hope to do many more. So stand by for that. Keep checking our website, http://www.hrw.org/ . We will announce that. The third is a report about the abuses related to drug detention centers in China. And the last report is about enforced disappearances and arbitrary detentions in Xinjiang, following the horrific ethnic violence in Urumqi in July 2009. Thank you and have a nice day!