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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

China's new freedom fighters

July 7, 2008

Countless thousands of people in China are blacklisted, harassed,
intimidated and locked up merely for what they say or because of the
job they do. Nineteen years after the Tiananmen massacre, six
dissident voices explain why their battle for freedom of speech must continue
Interviews by Lijia Zhang
The Observer (UK)
July 6, 2008

* * * * *
Ma Jian, novelist, 53

I am a writer. Being critical is a writer's responsibility. In China,
however, writers are encouraged to sing the praises of the
government. Since being too critical may lead to the banning of their
work, many exercise self-censorship or write books to please the market.

I left Beijing in the late 1980s to live in Hong Kong because, having
been blacklisted by the government, I couldn't publish my works on
the mainland. My novella Stick out Your Tongue, which draws on my
experience of travelling in Tibet, had been denounced as 'filthy and
shameful' and banned. In spring 1989 I returned to witness the
student-led democratic movement. As the government brutally cracked
down on the protest, my brother went into a coma after an accident. I
just couldn't find the words to describe the sense of shock and
despair I felt then; it forced me to see the evil face of the regime.

My brother finally woke up after six months. I went back to Hong Kong
until the handover in 1997. Then I moved to London. When I make trips
back to China I am often struck how people seem to have forgotten
about '4 June'. The whole of society, increasingly money-oriented,
seems to have slipped into a coma. I spent 10 years writing Beijing
Coma, exploring the double tragedies that took place in 1989. I want
to wake people up from this vegetative state.

I divide my time between London and Beijing. I am trying to persuade
my family to spend more time in China. It's no fun to be in exile. I
can't even figure out the basic 26 letters, let along operate in
English. I often feel that although I've found the sky of freedom
above my head, I've lost the soil I stand on. I need to be back in my
motherland, where I can find inspirations.

I am concerned as to whether the government will let me back in after
the publication of Beijing Coma in China later this year. But I have
to speak the truth. My next book is a novel about the cost of the
inhuman family-planning policy. But it is not just books. I openly
criticise this dictatorial regime in my articles and interviews or
whenever I can. If we don't, it will never change. And I want to
remind people; when a country forgets its past, it will have no future.

· Beijing Coma is published by Chatto and Windus at £17.99. To order
a copy for £16.99 with free UK p&p, go to or
call 0870 836 0885

* * * * *
Wan Yanhai, China's foremost aids and gay rights activist, 45

I was probably among the first Chinese researchers to look into Aids.
That was in 1990 when I was working for the Ministry of Public
Health. I realised there was a huge amount of ignorance; one official
openly said China had no Aids and called it a foreign disease caused
by decadent lifestyles. That kind of attitude is all too common
today. I set up an Aids hotline and launched Project Aizhixing to
meet the challenge of Aids armed with love and knowledge. I was
sacked for 'encouraging homosexuality, sympathising with prostitutes
and advocating human rights'.

I was and am sympathetic to prostitutes, with whom I had a lot of
dealings for my research. They have the same rights as the rest of
us. It was my deep belief in human rights as well as democracy that
made me participate enthusiastically in 1989's democratic movement
and that was why I chose to do what I am doing now. I didn't
encourage homosexuality, though I am immensely interested in it, not
only because I experienced some confusion myself, but also because I
was appalled that it was regarded as some sort of mental illness.

I went to America to work on my MA in mental health and sexual
orientation. I returned on graduation because I decided that the best
way to fight for my cause was at grassroots level. Now my NGO,
Aizhixing, funded by foreign organisations such as the Open Society
Institute and the National Endowment for Democracy, is dealing with a
wider range of issues. It promotes the rights of those living on the
fringe, such as drug-users, prostitutes and haemophiliacs infected with HIV.

Thanks to the sensitive nature of my work I have had many brushes
with police. The first time I was arrested was on Aids Day in 1994
when I was distributing condoms and Aids leaflets. Two years later I
was locked up yet again on the eve of a large conference where we
planned to help those infected by HIV through blood transfusions to
demand compensation from the government. In China, Aids and rights
issues are deeply entwined. Because I am on the government blacklist,
the Chinese media are not allowed to interview me. With the
tightening up in the lead-up to the Olympics, our work is getting
more difficult, but we are determined to soldier on.

* * * * *
Li Fangping, human rights lawyer, 34

Since I was young I have admired martial-arts masters from the past
fighting to uphold justice, which was probably why I chose to become
a lawyer. I have been practising since 1995, dealing mainly with
civil, criminal and economic cases. And it wasn't until recently,
when I met Chen Guangcheng, a blind advocate for peasant rights, that
I became interested in human rights.

He called me in 2005 to inform me that he was under house arrest. Two
friends and I went to Shangdong to see him. Before reaching his
village we were attacked, then interrogated throughout the night
before being kicked out of the province. I had never expected to
experience such open violation of the law by the law.

I became one of Chen's two defence lawyers. His crime? Inciting
crowds to disturb social order. The truth was that he had exposed
local officials' abuse of human rights, including forced abortions.
You can imagine the difficulties we encountered. At one point I was
beaten up and had to be hospitalised because of a severe head injury.
But I wasn't going to give up.

Chen was given four years' imprisonment. I am not sure that our
defence had any impact on the sentencing. I believe that the verdict
was reached before the trial. Still, it was important that lawyers
tried to defend him so that the rest of the world could know what was

Since then I've taken many rights cases. Right now I am defending Hua
Jia, an impassioned human rights campaigner in Beijing. He was
sentenced to more than three years' imprisonment for 'inciting to
overthrow the government', the evidence being six articles he wrote
on a website, Boxun, and two interviews he granted to foreign
reporters. It is a classic case of 'being charged for one's words'.
We are planning to appeal. As in Chen's case, I don't think I have
the power to set him free but if we lawyers accept that it can be a
crime simply to say something, then the government will never change.

* * * * *
Dai Qing, environmentalist, 67

How did I become involved in the Three Gorges Dam project or, rather,
in the campaign against the project? I was first drawn to it because
of my deep belief in freedom of speech. I am a journalist, and if a
journalist can't speak the truth, what kind of journalism is that?

I came across the project in the mid-1980s when I was working for the
Guangming Daily. We were told that no media in China could report on
the Three Gorges Dam in a negative way because it was a political
project that needed the whole nation's support. I learnt for the
first time about the potential ecological and archaeological
nightmares the dam could cause when a friend and politician invited
me to an internal meeting.

I mobilised my journalist friends to interview experts who had doubts
about the project. However, no newspapers or magazines dared to
publish our findings. In the end, through some contacts, we published
the interviews in a book called Yangtze! Yangtze!. Its impact was far
greater than we expected, for when the National People's Congress,
China's parliament, known as 'rubber stamp', voted on the project in
1992, one-third of the delegates decided against it.

If there was a free press or free public debate, this project would
never have gone ahead. It went ahead because Chinese leaders wanted
to make it a showcase for the idea that only socialist China could
conquer nature and build the largest dam in the world. Now some of
our fears have proved to be true - for example, sedimentation, the
interruption of river traffic due to the low water level, land
erosion and spiralling costs. Cracks on the dam have emerged, though
you won't read that in the newspapers.

With my friends I am compiling a collections of interviews with
families who have had to move away. I'd say that more than half of
them are unhappy about moving, which shows the human cost of the
project. Even when the families are compensated properly - and often
they are not because of corruption - they lose so much by giving up
their living environment and being separated from family and friends.

I speak out whenever I can, in the form of books, interviews and
articles, published outside the mainland, of course. I have not been
able to publish my works in China for 19 years. Now I have a new
platform - my blog. I write about the Three Gorges, as well as the Olympics.

Both are political games about which the government doesn't allow
dissident views. But if China really intends to become a powerful
nation, it has to grant its people the freedom of speech.

* * * * *
Dean Peng, economist, 40

For a long time I had hope in the government - as long as it was
willing to reform. One event in 2003 changed my mind. A girl known as
Stainless Steel Rat was arrested for criticising the authorities. I
thought, how can they arrest someone simply for what she has said? I
organised a news conference for foreign journalists to expose this.
Thanks to my action, and pressure exerted by fellow 'netizens', she
was set free. It got me on to the police blacklist. In 2005, when I
tried to attend the funeral of Zhao Ziyang, our reform-minded former
Communist party Secretary, some policemen tried to stop me. I
wouldn't oblige. We engaged in a fight; they sprayed mace on my face
and I produced a knife. Some friends asked me: 'Why aren't you
afraid?' Why should I be? The government is weak, while I am strong
because I have truth on my side.

I was born here and studied physics at Beijing University but later
became an economist. I have translated into Mandarin lots of articles
by Western economists and a satire about the need for a free market
called The Adventures of Jonathan Gullible. I don't think China can
have sustainable economic development in the long term with the
current political system. I write articles to express my views, which
are usually toned down before being published in the newspapers, but
I post whatever I want to say on the net. And I criticise the
authorities openly when I am being interviewed by the foreign media.

I work occasionally as a fixer.

Last September I went with two Channel 4 journalists to film a
detention centre where people who came to petition in Beijing were
being kept illegally. We were roughly handled by some policemen and
then detained for hours. I am now trying to sue the policemen.

I oppose the government just as I would oppose any dictatorial
regime. I just want to defend my human rights. If every Chinese
person did the same, then the authorities wouldn't dare do whatever
it wants, as it does at present.

* * * * *
Woeser, Tibetan writer and blogger, 42

I am only one-quarter Han Chinese - the majority ethnicity in China -
and three-quarters Tibetan, one of 55 registered minorities. And I've
always felt Tibetan. Even now I divide my time between Lhasa and Beijing.

I grew up in a Tibetan area in Sichuan and attended Chinese schools
with a standard 'red upbringing'; we were taught to become 'the
successors of communism' and to 'continue the glorious struggle'. My
ethnicity didn't play a big role in my life until about 20 years ago
after I read a book by John Avedon, In Exile From the Land of the
Snows, about life before the communists and about the Dalai Lama's
harrowing escape into India. I was fascinated because it was so
different from what I learnt at school. I heard home calling. So I
found a job in Lhasa as an editor of a literary magazine. I also
found my spiritual belonging as I converted to Tibetan Buddhism.

In 2003 I published a book called Notes on Tibet, a collection of
essays, travel writing and reportage. The book also touched on
sensitive topics. One story mentioned the monks' love for the Dalai
Lama, a simple fact denied by the authorities. After the book became
popular, it was banned. My bosses ordered me to write a
self-criticism and to promise not to write such stories. When I
refused, they sacked me.

When I inherited some wonderful black-and-white pictures taken by my
father during the Cultural Revolution, I decided to write another
book. If the Cultural Revolution remains a sensitive subject in the
rest of China, in Tibet it is taboo. But I felt the story needed to
be told. I interviewed 70 of the people in the pictures. Some
described being persecuted and insulted; others confessed to taking
part in the destruction of the city in the days of madness. The book
was published in Taiwan; there is no chance that such a sensitive
book could be published on the mainland. I was put on the
authorities' blacklist.

In March, while the drama in Tibet was going on, I was put under
house arrest. I do worry about my personal safety. A fellow Tibetan
writer was given 10 years' imprisonment, and others have suffered
worse fates. But I have this strong sense of mission that I must tell
people what I see and feel.
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