Yesterday I posted an articles on Chen Guangchen and Zhao Yan. One would think that since I do think that China should be more liberal and have much more rule of law that I would be on the same side as Human Rights Watch, Reporters Sans Frontiere and other Western NGO’s, but unfortunately I find myself on the different side of the fence. Let me explain why.
The basic issue is that I am trying to do everything I can to keep the Communist Party in power and to prevent a revolution from happening, because I believe that the costs of a political collapse or of a revolution are far worse than the benefits. This might sound odd. If’ I’m trying to keep the Communist Party in power, then what am I doing trying to circumvent the Great Firewall with wikipedia or what am I doing supporting Chen Guangchen and Zhao Yan? The answer is simple. I’ve worked in large bureaucracies. You do not do anyone any good by being a “yes-man.” If you really want to help an organization, you must constantly challenge it, and push it to improve itself. Loyalty to an organization or cause means being a constant irritant, and it means constantly finding fault with it.
There is a tendency for Western groups to sensationize and mischaracterize what is going on. Chen Guangchen and Zhao Yan are important figures, but they are only one of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people that are putting pressure on the Chinese Communist Party to liberalize and institutionalize rule of law. The two of them have received far more attention in the Western press (because of Time Magazine article on Chen and because Zhao worked for the New York Times), but in the grand scheme of things what they are trying to do isn’t very unique. If you look at people that are involved in this, sometimes they lose, sometimes they win, but in all cases its helping to slowly create a society based on rule of law.
The mischaracterization happens because one of the principles of rights defense is the legitimacy of both the law and the Communist Party’s legitimacy to rule. Both principles, that I have accepted (for lack of another alternatives).
People in rights defense are not basically interested in overthrowing the Communist Party. People are merely trying to defend their rights under Chinese law. This is important because the law provides a balance between freedom and anarchy, and without that balance, you end up in the state of nature which resembles Iraq. The Chinese government is worried that if it relaxes these too far, it will end up in a situation like Russia, the EDSA or Color Revolutions. So am I. People power revolutions look great on television, but depressingly little happens afterwards.
The key to prevent this collapse is strict observance to “rule of law.” There is a law on the books that outlaws “state subversion, “threatening national unity” and “releasing state secrets.” Zhao Yan and Chen Guangchen were doing none of these things, and the things that they were convicted of had enough procedural irregularities that the convictions need to be reexamined on appeal. In the case of Chen Guangchen, his “crime” was to basically to insist that local officials act according to national directives.
The thing HRW talks about sanctions by the US government. This is bad for a number of reasons:
First, it makes the actions of the US government relevant. Frankly, in discussing the human rights situation in China, the human rights situation in the United States should be irrelevant. Encouraging the United States to try to influence China through state action just makes things more complex since we get into a “your human rights abuses are worse than my human rights abuses” argument. Overall, the human rights situation in the United States is better than China, but it’s nowhere good enough so that the US can expect to lecture people on how to run their countries.
Second, whenever you organize political action, you have to build coalitions, and some people in those coalitions may have agendas that are different than yours. Western human rights groups always has very little political power, and to do anything useful they have to cooperate with people with much more power and different agendas. In the case of China these include labor unions in support of protectionism and “dragon slayers” who want to maintain US power in East Asia. Even at a smaller level, my views are simply irreconcilable with those of the Tibetan government-in-exile or Falugong, and I simply cannot cooperate with these people.
One thing that you see in “people power” demonstrations is that you have the loud demonstrations in front, and then you have the power brokers in back. In the case of the 1911 Chinese revolution, the power brokers were New Army militarists. In the case of EDSA revolution, they were the Philiphines military. It’s very important to understand who the power brokers are, because after the revolution, they will be in charge, and the power brokers behind some of the measures on Chinese sanctions are people that I just don’t like.
Something that has to be recognized is that over time, the PRC government is getting more and more powerful, and is less and less subject to external pressure. I think this is a good thing, but that means that what happens to the government will be more and more determined by people within the PRC with the rest of the world standing merely as bystanders.
And I think that is the way it should be.