Why We Need More Pressure on the Chinese Government, Not Less

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By Wang Songlian, Research Coordinator of CHRD

When human rights organizations press international actors to exert greater pressure on the Chinese government, we are often told that quiet diplomacy might be better. After all, the Chinese government has a thin skin, and pushing topics so publicly might result in the opposite of the intended effect. The latest proponent of this “quiet diplomacy” approach, Chen Min, argues in an op-ed on the New York Times dated November 16 that the United States government should be “a bit more considerate, a bit more flexible and a bit more tactful about our leaders’ mind-set” when broaching the situation of, for example, blind activist Chen Guangcheng, who is currently held under illegal house arrest. Chen Min objects to a lack of tact on the part of the U.S. Congress, which recently passed an amendment in support of Chen Guangcheng, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who raised his case in a recent speech.


Is quiet diplomacy really a more effective approach? The burden is on its proponents to show that it is. Can they point to any concrete success of the human rights dialogues between the Chinese government and the U.S., the European Union and various European governments that have gone on for years? In the past year or so, diplomats have reported that it has become increasingly more difficult to engage constructively with the Chinese government in these dialogues. Nor is it at all clear that the privacy these formats provide, for instance in one-to-one informal conversations amongst state leaders, is capable of doing more good than open criticism.


In the specific case of Chen Guangcheng, Chen Min misreads the situation. Chen Guangcheng’s wife, fellow activist Yuan Weijing, initially told friends and other activists to keep quiet when Chen was released from prison in September 2010, in the hope that perhaps the authorities would let them lead a normal life. However, it soon became apparent that Chen and Yuan’s illegal house arrest was more than temporary and that the measures against the couple were harsher than ever before. Then, in October 2010, Yuan sent a letter to human rights lawyer, Teng Biao, telling him that she “regretted the [initial] arrangement to stay low key.” She said, “The situation must now change,” and explicitly asked for her wish to be conveyed to the international community that “they try their best to publish the truth” about their situation. In other words, the couple tried the quiet approach. They gave the government space, and yet, without any provocation on their part, they find themselves subjected to imprisonment in their home together with their six-year-old daughter. Chen Min suggests a false causal relationship when he says that the government saw “the gathering of activists as an affront, and responded harshly because the government could not afford to lose face.” The government’s illegal house arrest of Chen and Yuan started before the activists began to confront the government. The activists’ actions were in response to the government’s persistent persecution of Chen and Yuan, despite the latter being completely peaceful and non-confrontational in their actions. At the international level, foreign governments and the United Nations have repeatedly raised Chen and Yuan’s case privately with the Chinese government, ever since 2005 when the couple first became thorns in authorities’ sides for fighting against abuses associated with the implementation of the one-child policy. Such quiet diplomacy seems to have had limited results.


The idea that human rights activists bring on their own suffering is another variant of “blaming the victim.” The Chinese government is violating both its own Constitution, which says that “unlawful deprivation or restriction of citizens’ freedom of person by detention or other means is prohibited,” and its own laws, as well as international human rights laws. And when the government does so, must we be considerate about its feelings? As activist-blogger Wen Yunchao rightly pointed out, “Is it even feasible to use the feelings of the Chinese authorities as the standard with which to judge the legitimacy of outside actions?” If such are the standards, then we “should not have given Liu Xiaobo the Nobel Peace Prize,” and instead, giving it to Hu Jintao would definitely be much more soothing to the authorities’ “face.”


Looking at the human rights records of the Chinese government in recent years, one clear pattern emerges: Any advance in human rights in China has been the result of the hard work of Chinese human rights activists, whether lawyers, workers’ representatives, petitioners, or netizens. It is they who push the government to rectify injustices and stop abuses, often at tremendous personal cost. The Chinese government does respond to pressure. As Chen Min rightly noted, it has responded to domestic pressure to sack corrupt and abusive local officials. It has also responded to international pressure. The renowned artist Ai Weiwei was released following international outcry against his disappearance while Liu Xiaobo was allowed to attend a memorial service for his deceased father, the result of his global fame as a Nobel Peace laureate. “To change the situation in China,” activist Zeng Jinyan wrote on Twitter, “the question is not whether to take into account the question of face, but it is how to empower the people.”


In Chen Guangcheng’s case, in fact, domestic pressure has begun to have an effect. The couple’s daughter was only recently allowed to go to school, when domestic and international activism drew attention to the particularly outrageous denial of education to this innocent child. The fact that Chen Guangcheng is not yet freed, is not because there is too much pressure from foreign governments but because there is not enough.


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