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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."

Don’t Believe China’s Promises

May 18, 2012


Fairmount Heights, Md.

FEW people understand the predicament of Chen Guangcheng, the blind human rights activist who sought and then gave up American protection in Beijing, as well as I do. No matter what he has decided, whether to stay in China or to leave, he has made both the right choice and the wrong choice. I faced a similarly difficult situation.

In March 1979, I was arrested and spent more than 14 years in solitary confinement for promoting freedom and democracy, and denouncing Deng Xiaoping’s attempts to create a new type of dictatorship in China.

In September 1993, one week before the International Olympic Committee voted on Beijing’s (ultimately unsuccessful) bid for the 2000 Summer Olympics, the Chinese government released me, six months ahead of schedule. This also coincided with President Bill Clinton’s efforts to persuade Congress to delink human rights and trade by making China’s most-favored-nation trade status permanent. With Congress deadlocked on the issues, Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher set up a meeting with me in Beijing to seek my views.

When the Chinese government got wind of it, they immediately detained me. The illegal practice, which has recently been written into Chinese law, is called “residence under surveillance.” An official, who claimed to represent President Jiang Zemin, came to negotiate with me. He had a simple request: I should not meet with the secretary of state, and if I agreed there was no need to make a public statement about my decision.

“We understand you very well and we never propose anything that you cannot accept,” the official said. “As long as you agree to cancel your meeting with the Americans, we’ll satisfy whatever requests you make.”

Their offer, even though accompanied by veiled threats, sounded very attractive. “We will not arrest any of your people,” the official promised, referring to other democratic activists. “Besides, we are going to release another batch of dissidents soon. We’ll allow you to establish an independent workers’ union as well as an organization to protect Chinese artists. We will not stop you from providing humanitarian assistance to your friends.”

It was a tough choice. I leaned toward accepting the conditions, because many of my friends were suffering in jail and others were about to enter jail. In addition, workers and artists needed to organize themselves and protect their own interests. However, I was keenly aware that saying yes to the government would also mean that the impact of international pressure would be diluted. Without such pressure, the Chinese government would step up its repression and I would eventually lose my own freedom.

The next day, I learned over the phone that two of my friends had been released. The news helped me decide. I reluctantly agreed to the offer, taking comfort in the fact that my action had at least benefited some of my friends. As for international pressure, I chose to believe that the Americans would stick with their values and not abandon their Chinese friends.

Therefore, I declined Mr. Christopher’s invitation with the flimsy excuse that I was indisposed and needed treatment at a place outside Beijing. To be fair, the Chinese government did release some dissidents, and no new arrests were made until 1995. Wang Dan, a leader of the 1989 student pro-democracy movement, was allowed to move freely following his release. But we had miscalculated the depth of American commitment. After Mr. Christopher left, President Clinton, in a reversal of his campaign promises, agreed to renew China’s trade benefits and delink them from human rights policy. As Chinese-American trade relations warmed, the crackdown resumed and I was detained once again.

The next May, Mr. Wang and several dissident friends were also arrested and locked up with me in the name of “residence under surveillance.” A friend in the police force warned me, “The two sides have reconciled their differences,” referring to China and America. “You need to figure out how to handle the new situation.”

In December 1995, after a hasty trial, I was sentenced to another 14 years in prison for “attempts to subvert the government.”

Mr. Clinton did keep some of his promises. He managed to bring me to the United States, in 1997, and Mr. Wang, in 1998. He intended to show that the granting of trade benefits and the removal of post-Tiananmen sanctions did not mean the United States would be indifferent to the human rights issues in China.

From my experience, one can see how the Communist Party operates — why it makes promises and what its so-called guarantees mean. It is obvious that Mr. Chen did not understand the emptiness of these promises, which explains why he initially accepted the government’s pledges and left the United States Embassy in Beijing, where he had fled after escaping house arrest in his village, for treatment at a hospital. (On Friday, a tentative agreement that would allow Mr. Chen to travel to the United States as a student was announced.)

In my time, the Communist Party kept its promise for as long as one year because human rights were directly linked with trade. Now that such international pressure does not exist, the party no longer feels the need to keep its word. The Chinese leadership does not fear the United States government; it only fears the loss of its power.

Human rights have been overpowered by economic interests; the cause is as hopeless as that of the big United States trade deficit with China. With the loss of any viable economic means to pressure and penalize the Chinese Communist Party, one has to ask: On what basis does America believe that the Chinese government will keep the promises it makes?

Wei Jingsheng is an activist for democracy and human rights. This essay was translated by Wenguang Huang from the Chinese.


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