Brutality in China

Brutality in China

At the same time that President Bush is speaking up against Saddam Hussein’s human rights atrocities, he is appeasing China’s octogenarian leaders on the very same issue. In order to persuade China to cooperate in the United Nations actions against Iraq and on Cambodia, China’s foreign minister was invited to Washington in November and a vice-minister of trade was invited in December 1990. The United States has acquiesced in the World Bank’s renewal of loans to China. Except for the international ban on military shipments to China, the US, its European allies, and Japan have returned to business as usual with China just a little over a year after the June 4, 1989, crackdown.

The administration said last year that it would lift diplomatic and economic sanctions against China only if China improved its human rights record. It has not kept its word, for in recent months China’s record has actually become worse. China has claimed to have released over 850 political prisoners in response to America’s demands, but fewer than eighty released prisoners have been verified, and most of the released prisoners are under surveillance by the Public Security Bureau. Among them is the elderly Shanghai writer Wang Ruowang, who has been in and out of Nationalist and Communist jails during the last fifty years, and has long been known for his courageous willingness to speak out. After his release he refused to talk with a journalist and he must report to the Public Security Bureau once a week. Meanwhile, hundreds of intellectuals and students and thousands of workers are being kept in China’s prisons under terrible conditions as punishment for participating in the 1989 protest. A member of Amnesty International’s China Coordinating Group recently wrote that “torture during detention is commonplace, especially in cases involving workers and less well-known political activists.”

Most disturbing of all, while much of the world is distracted by the Gulf crisis, China’s leaders have finally taken formal legal action against the so-called black hands, whom they claim were behind the prodemocracy demonstrations. Thirty-three people have been charged with spreading counterrevolutionary propaganda, including the literary critic Liu Xiaobo, and the student leader Wang Dan, an historian at the Academy of Social Sciences, Bao Zunxin. The leader of the Autonomous Workers Union, Han Dongfang, is still being held in a prison for ordinary criminals.

Two intellectuals, Wang Juntao, thirty-two, and Chen Ziming, thirty-eight, are charged with seeking to overthrow the Communist system and engaging in counterrevolutionary activities, charges punishable by death in China. Their trials have not so far been held, and when they are they may not be open to any journalist or relative. In any case the sentences, which many suspect will be very long prison terms, have already been decided by the Party leaders.

* * *

Wang and Chen are much less well known internationally than older intellectuals such as the fifty-five-year-old physicist Fang Lizhi and the sixty-three-year-old writer-journalist Liu Binyan. China’s leaders apparently believe that they can act against Wang and Chen without provoking much international protest. Unlike the older dissidents, they were never allowed to travel abroad and therefore have fewer foreign colleagues and few contacts with human rights organizations that might protest their treatment.

Nevertheless, in some ways these younger intellectuals represent a much greater threat to the regime. The older dissidents have been eloquent and courageous in their criticism of the Party and demands for democratic reform, but, like their predecessors among the Chinese literati during the last two thousand years, they have acted as lone dissident voices, speaking out against the official abuse of power without many visible allies. By contrast the younger intellectuals represent not only a different generation but a different approach that is more in the style of dissident East European intellectuals of the 1970s and 1980s.

Fang Lizhi and Liu Binyan and the other dissidents of their generation began as loyal supporters of the 1949 revolution; they were badly treated during the campaign against “rightists” of 1957 and 1958, and particularly during the Cultural Revolution, they subsequently formulated increasingly radical criticisms of the Communist party in their writings and, in Fang’s case, in talks to university students. But they did not endorse or take part in organized movements of political protest until the 1989 demonstrations. (Liu Binyan was in the US when they took place and Fang, who knew some of the students, was careful to avoid Tiananmen Square itself, knowing that he could be blamed for inspiring the demonstration, as he was in any case.)

By contrast the leaders of the younger generation began their political careers by organizing a variety of protests among their fellow students. Wang and Chen took part in the demonstration of April 5, 1976, in Tiananmen Square against Mao, the Gang of Four, and the Cultural Revolution. Wang led his high-school class into the square on that occasion. Both were then imprisoned for over a year, but, after their release, they took part in the movement that called for more democracy and used the “Democracy Wall” in Beijing in 1978–1979 as a showcase for dissident views. Wang set up one of the unofficial journals of the movement which soon became a major voice calling for the end of Maoist policies and for political as well as economic reforms.

* * *

Their demands, however, were not as radical as their fellow activist Wei Jingsheng, an electrician and former Red Guard, not a student, who denounced the Communist party, China’s leaders, and Marxism-Leninism as wrong for China. In the eloquent essay that all subsequent regimes have not forgotten, and apparently will never forgive, Wei Jingsheng urged China to introduce democratic reforms along with economic reforms. For his advocacy of democracy, Wei Jingsheng was sentenced to fifteen years in solitary confinement where he is reported to have been treated with great cruelty and to have become mentally deranged. Wang and Chen, on the other hand, still thought it was possible to bring about reforms within the Leninist system and they hoped that Deng Xiaoping, who returned to power in 1978 in part because of their protests, would carry them out. In early 1979 Wang was among the small number of protesters invited to visit the home of Deng’s supposed successor, Hu Yaobang, who tried to persuade them to use less visible forms of protest. He was allowed to graduate from the prestigious Beijing University in physics and Chen from the Chemical Engineering College in Beijing. Wang even became an alternative member of the Central Committee of the Communist Youth League, a position that had in the past opened the way for young people to become leaders.

By the mid-1980s, however, both began to lose hope in the Party’s ability and willingness to make serious political changes. They then tried to launch a movement to reform China by establishing new institutions and publications outside Party control. With the proceeds from a financially profitable correspondence school Chen had set up, Wang and Chen established the Institute of Social and Economic Research in Beijing in 1986, where they sponsored research, conferences, and opinion polls asking citizens their views on reform. Located in the university district of Beijing, the institute—the first private social science institute set up in China—held regular meetings with other young intellectuals to discuss how their ideas might be put into action. In 1987 Chen bought the Economic Studies Weekly from the Central Committee of the Communist Youth League, and Wang became its chief editor. They used the paper to argue for changes not only in the economy but in the political system. Unlike the older dissidents. Wang and Chen also established links with students leaders, young professors, the prominent entrepreneurs who emerged during Deng’s reforms, and to a lesser extent with workers.

* * *

The student demonstrations that began on April 16, 1989, the day after the death of the reform leader Hu Yaobang, started spontaneously, but once they got underway, Wang and Chen acted as advisers on strategy to the young people who moved into Tiananmen Square. That the demonstrations were so well organized and the slogans in the early stages were moderate may be in no small part owing to their advice. At first, the demonstrators did not call for the overthrow of the Communist party (as is now being charged). Such slogans as “Down with Corruption” and “Support the Correct Leadership of the Party” demanded reform of the system and were genuinely aimed at setting up talks between the students and the Party leaders. Most of the young leaders originally asked for no more than gradual political reform. As a first step they proposed that student organizations become independent of Party and government control and that their newspapers should have more freedom to publish, a position that Zhao Ziyang and the faction of the Party allied with him had been willing to accept. It was only later in May after the student leaders working with Wang and Chen lost control of the demonstrators and Zhao Ziyang had been purged as the Party’s general-secretary that more radical demands for the overthrow of Deng and the Party began to be heard.

The severity of the new charges against Wang and Chen may be therefore explained in large part by their success during the early weeks of the 1989 demonstrations. Having shown that they could join with people from other social groups, they have aroused deep fears on the part of Deng and his allies that they might be able to bring off an alliance between intellectuals and workers resembling the one that emerged in Poland during the early 1980s. This prospect panics China’s leaders more than the eloquence and prestige of China’s older dissident intellectuals or their disaffected leaders.

If the United States relaxes pressure on China to grant elementary human rights, it will do so at the expense of people like Wang and Chen, whose political ideas and skills as organizers might, if given a chance, do much more to achieve reform in China than anything the US might accomplish by kowtowing to Deng’s council of elders or by lending China millions of dollars that are, in any case, often wasted as a result of extensive corruption. Avoiding open criticism of repression and rewarding China with international aid may make Deng’s government more accommodating on some international matters; but only genuine political reforms will make China a reliable ally of the United States and gain for China the respect that its people intensely desire.

  1. The New York Times (December 21, 1990), p. A38.
Merle Goldman is a Professor Emerita of History at Boston University. Her specialization is in Chinese history. She is the author of a number of books on modern Chinese history and culture. Her last...

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This article was first published in the issue of the New York Review of Books.



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