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Transcript:

August 22, 2008

BILL MOYERS: No American has had a closer look at China's abuses than my guest, Philip Pan. A graduate of Harvard who studied Chinese at Peking University, Philip Pan was the Beijing bureau chief of the WASHINGTON POST between the years 2000 and 2007. He traveled far and wide in the country and his reporting won awards from the Asia Society and the Overseas Press Club. He's now enroute to Moscow where he will be the POST's new bureau chief. But he stopped in New York to talk with me about his new book: OUT OF MAO'S SHADOW: THE STRUGGLE FOR THE SOUL OF A NEW CHINA.

BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the JOURNAL.

PHILIP PAN: Thanks.

BILL MOYERS: We saw so many of the wonders of China, the Wall, the Gorges Dam. We saw these splendid athletes in competition. But there was a lot we didn't see. What were you imagining that we were not seeing as the games developed?

PHILIP PAN: Well, I think there's a lot going on beneath the surface of this beautiful China that's being displayed. There's a struggle really, underway for the future of the country. And a lot of the people pushing for change, and their voices, were not going to be heard during these Olympics.

In the long term, perhaps these games will have a liberating effect on the country. But certainly in the short term, certainly in the run up to the games, we've seen a tightening of controls across the country, not just in Beijing.

BILL MOYERS: Why is that? If they wanted to send a valentine to the west and say, "Look at us, we're really changing," why these crackdowns?

PHILIP PAN: Part of the answer is that the priority isn't really with the Olympics. Their priority really isn't the west. They want to use this Olympics to send a message to their own people, most of all. They want to demonstrate to the Chinese people that their government is legitimate, that it has been successful, and that world approves of the government.

And when I say "this government", I mean the one-party system, in effect. You know, communism as an ideology is dead, essentially. But the Communist Party needs something to justify its continuing rule. And using the Olympics was part of their strategy, I think.

BILL MOYERS: So do you think that they cracked down on dissenters before the games in part, to keep them from spoiling the celebration?

PHILIP PAN: Oh, yes. They're worried about what the Chinese people think of the Party. They don't want the Chinese people to know that there are other voices. They want to present a united front, that this is an effective government, that everyone is happy with it, that this political system, a one-party political system merged with capitalism, can be just as effective as a democratic system in the west. And they want their people to believe that.

BILL MOYERS: Watching President Bush there at the games, I thought back to when he said, "Trade freely with China, and time is on our side." And I thought of President Bill Clinton, who went there and said, "The spirit of liberty is coming to China, just as inevitably, the Berlin Wall fell." Are our leaders making it easier for the Chinese to crack down on dissenters?

PHILIP PAN: That's a tough question. I think we have this assumption in the west that free markets lead to free societies, that capitalism will lead to democracy in China. That it's almost an automatic process. Once income levels reach a certain level there, that this political liberalization is going to happen in China, just as it did in other parts of the world.

But my argument would be that it's not automatic, certainly. You know, we've seen 30 years now of strong economic growth, and the party is arguably stronger now than it has been ever, in these past 30 years. The party has been able to use capitalism to strengthen its hold on power.

At the same time, though, the party has retreated in many ways. Its people have much more personal freedom than ever before. Because so many people have been lifted out of poverty, they have many more options in life.

So it's a mixed picture. But I think it would be na´ve for policy makers to assume that this is going to be an automatic process, that, you know, we just have to continue to trade with China, and the political change is just going to happen. This party is determined to hold on to power. And they're not going to let anything happen without a fight.

BILL MOYERS: I was watching the beach volleyball the other night. And suddenly, I got up and looked at the T-shirt I was wearing. And it had a "Made in China" label. Help us understand what life is like for the women who made that T-shirt.

PHILIP PAN: Most of the women in these factories, they're from the countryside, poor villages. Many of them are young, often underage, who have been pulled out of school because their parents can't afford to pay the taxes just based on their farm income. They have to send their children to the cities to make extra income, in order to just pay taxes.

Their opportunities are limited. In these factories, their rights are limited as well. They cannot form unions. They have very few venues to complain about working conditions. And because the labor force is so large, they have little leverage as well, in terms of wages.

At the same time, though, these factories are paying them much more than they could have ever made in the countryside. And so, they're willing to take these jobs, and often times, they improve their lives through these jobs, if they can survive the conditions.

BILL MOYERS: In other accounts, I read of women crammed into dark and damp dormitories, working seven days a week with three days a year off. Their workshops filled with smoke, their eyes burning and watery, the skin on their hands peeling and painful. I read of 50,000 fingers slashed off in China every year, of more than a million workers contacting fatal diseases, of workers trying to organize, as you say, and being beaten and hauled to jail. And the picture that emerges to me is of a communist police state enforcing the most extreme model of capitalism.

PHILIP PAN: There are officials in this party who still cling to the old communist values, I would guess, of egalitarianism, of labor rights. You know, after all, this party did promise a worker's paradise.

And so, there are parts of the party that are concerned about this issue. And other parts of the party are also concerned, just simply because they're worried that if conditions get too bad, they would have a revolution on their hands. But generally, yes. You know, they call themselves Communist, but they've adopted a form of capitalism, capitalism without democratic checks on it, essentially. And so, you have market forces in the extreme, as you say, with very few options for workers to fight back.

BILL MOYERS: What makes them Communist?

PHILIP PAN: Well, that's a good question. I've asked them that. They have long answers about ideology and all that, how this capitalism is only a temporary phase, that they're using this to achieve real communism. But there are aspects of the political system, I think, that recall communism. I don't know if it's the communism that Marx might have envisioned. But it's still a one-party state. They still have a propaganda bureau. They still control the press and the television stations and the radio stations.

BILL MOYERS: But one could say that of fascism, or could say that of any dictatorship, but they still proudly call themselves Communist?

PHILIP PAN: Well, they're not willing to let go of that legacy.

The party has built its reputation on the revolution in 1949, the Communist Revolution. Even though there were 29 years of violence and famine under Mao, Mao is still revered by many people as a hero. They need that history in order to stay in power. It's a history that they've defined. But they need that in order to stay in power.

PHILIP PAN: They call themselves Communists, but they're only in power, really, because they've been able to deliver economic growth now. And they believe that the only way to deliver this economic growth is through this extreme form of capitalism. They're worried that if they allowed checks on the market forces, that if they allowed workers to organize, that their own political power would be threatened.

BILL MOYERS: Last year, there was something of a revolt in several factories, after workers doing 50-hour shifts died of organ failures, the workers rose up and demanded some change. The government seemed, for a while, to be panicky, to be willing to give them some of their rights, even to let them have elected trade unions.

But American corporations, Microsoft, Nike, Ford, Dell, among others, working through the American Chamber of Commerce, threatened to take their business elsewhere if the Chinese government allowed these workers to organize. What should we make of that?

PHILIP PAN: I think it's a little bit more complicated. I think the Communist Party is never really going to allow workers to organize, though. That's the first thing.

BILL MOYERS: Even though the coal miners' effort to organize their revolt triggered the start of the Communist Party many years ago?

PHILIP PAN: That's right, that's right. This party was built on this promise of workers' rights. But right now, they are much more concerned about the economy. And for them, that means suppressing worker rights, essentially. Many of the factory managers themselves are party officials, or are relatives to party officials.

BILL MOYERS: But are American corporations, are we American consumers, is the American government sticking our fingers in our ears while our businesses work with a Communist government to make sure workers don't get their rights?

PHILIP PAN: Yeah. I think American companies, well, let's put it this way. The factories in China that are run by American companies, which are only a few, because most of the Americans subcontract to Chinese factories. The ones that are run by American companies, conditions are generally better. So let's put that out there first.

BILL MOYERS: Right.

PHILIP PAN: At the same time, though, most of the products that we purchase here that are sold by American companies; they buy them from Chinese factories. And I don't think they're doing enough.

BILL MOYERS: Like my T-shirt?

PHILIP PAN: Like your T-shirt, almost certainly. It's not going to be made by an American factory. It will be made by a Chinese factory. And I don't think the American companies are probably not doing enough to see what kind of, they don't want to see what kind of standards workers are..

BILL MOYERS: Look the other way?

PHILIP PAN: The interesting thing is, if the American business community wanted to take a stronger stand for labor rights in China, if they wanted, for some reason, to push for the right to organize labor unions, I think the government might consider it. But especially since this is supposed to be a Communist Party. But I don't see any real pressure from American companies to push for labor unions.

Wal-Mart, for example. They don't actually own factories there. But Wal-Mart runs stores all across China. And they've been - even the Chinese government there's actually one labor union in China. It's run by the party. It's not a real labor union. But even that fake labor union, which is essentially a tool of management in most factories even that fake labor union, Wal-Mart doesn't want in their stores.

For them it seems this company it seems, I think this is just that they have a strong anti-union stance, and they just don't want to give into this. Even though it would really not affect their bottom line at all. It's just a principle they have.

But the larger picture is that we have multinational companies, not just American firms, but from around the world. Especially from overseas Chinese communities investing in China. They believe that they're improving the lives of these workers. And in many ways, they are.

At the same time, though, there are abuses. Because frankly, most of these companies subcontract to Chinese companies, and these Chinese managers are often in bed with the party officials. They can easily pay bribes to avoid the inspectors who are supposed to enforce Chinese labor standards. I've heard from the companies, the factories that make goods for Wal-Mart, for example, that Wal-Mart is so insistent on the lowest price, that they are forced to do all they can to cut costs. And inevitably, that would mean tougher, lower wages and longer hours, and less safe conditions for workers.

BILL MOYERS: Here's something we didn't hear about during the Olympics, Philip. A report by the Economic Policy Institute in Washington that the growing U.S. trade deficit with China cost our economy 2.3 million jobs over the last seven years. Are these lost American jobs subsidizing a communist regime?

PHILIP PAN: Well, these lost American jobs are being replaced by jobs in China. And these jobs are taken by people who are even worse off than American workers, and who are, you know, this is a tremendous opportunity for many of these Chinese workers. Their lives are improving.

At the same time, you ask a very tough question. Does the fact that we're improving, that we're helping to improve the lives of people in China mean the government is stronger? And I think inevitably, that's true.

But, you know, what is the purpose of government, we have to ask? Isn't it to improve people's lives? And this is the argument that the Communist government would make, that we have lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. We do have one of the strongest economies in the world. People are freer and they have more income. They're doing better. They're healthier. They're more educated than ever before. And isn't that enough to justify our authoritarian system? That's what they would say.

BILL MOYERS: What you describe is a fusion of capitalism and authoritarianism that can resemble a mafia organization. That's a criminal enterprise.

PHILIP PAN: It is a criminal enterprise, in parts of the country.

BILL MOYERS: The government?

PHILIP PAN: The government; and you'll see party officials arrested all the time for criminal activities.

BILL MOYERS: For corruption?

PHILIP PAN: Corruption.

BILL MOYERS: Bribes.

PHILIP PAN: Corruption is...

BILL MOYERS: Kickbacks.

PHILIP PAN: It's endemic. And the major challenge for the party is, it's a great source of public frustration. It's one of the problems, the leading cause of the last major protest movement against the government in 1989, the Tiananmen movement. It was for democracy, but it was also against corruption, against inflation, against the situation at the time.

You have a situation that party officials really have unchecked power. And so, at the local level, especially in the countryside, they squeeze peasants for taxes, if they're allowed to do that. Recently, they've tried to rein in the tax situation. And now, they're seizing the farmland from peasants and selling it to developers.

If they can, you know, do well enough and promote the economy enough in their communities, they can get promotions. They become like captains in the mafia system. They get more kickbacks. And so, this whole system, there's corruption all over, all from the top to the bottom.

The reason they've been able to stay in power, and the reason that we in the west are frustrated by this assumption that they would fall, is because of the private entrepreneurs. We've always assumed that businessmen would be supporters of political reform, that they would favor rule of law, they would favor independent courts that could resolve disputes and enforce contracts, that they would want some say in the government policy through elections and lobbying.

But in China, we've seen a different picture. You know, in this transition from socialism to capitalism, new markets were opening up almost every day. And if you could get access to those markets, you could make a fortune. So, people who got access to those markets were people with good connections to party officials.

BILL MOYERS: Tell me about the "rich lady chapter" in your book.

PHILIP PAN: I was just going to talk about it.

BILL MOYERS: We've got a photograph from there.

PHILIP PAN: Her name is Chen Lihua. She's one of the richest women in China. She suffered during the Cultural Revolution. She started out as a seamstress. But because of her connections with party officials, I've found in particular, she started out with just a neighbor who happened to go away on an assignment to Hong Kong, and she was left to take care of this man's children.

Started with that one relationship, she was about to build a network of friendships with party officials. And she got access to a new market, which was the real estate market in Beijing. She got access to land. And now, she's one of the most prominent and successful real estate developers in Beijing. Some of those boulevards that you see on television during the Olympics, those were built by her. Some of those buildings are her buildings.

And when I went to see her and asked her, what she thought about the political system, she said, she thought the one-party system was great. She thought it worked very well for China, and for herself, obviously.

BILL MOYERS: She learned a lot from the American railroads in the 1890s, right?

PHILIP PAN: I guess so.

BILL MOYERS: We're talking here of a party that survived Mao Zedong's disasters, that outlasted its comrades in the Soviet Union. A party that suppressed the Tiananmen rebels. What is the secret of their iron grip on an exploding economy like this?

PHILIP PAN: Well, I think an important part is that they've been able to redefine this history that you just recounted. They maintain a sanitized version of history. They've airbrushed out leaders who stood for change. They have rewritten the textbooks.

They've banned all mention of Tiananmen, for example, in the newspapers and on television. The Cultural Revolution, the famine of the Great Leap Forward, the violent purges that Mao was responsible for, these are all things that are no longer taught in Chinese schools, nor discussed really freely in the press.

BILL MOYERS: Flushed, as George Orwell would say, down the memory hole, right?

PHILIP PAN: That's what they're trying to do. But at the same time, I found it inspiring, actually, that there are still people in society who are trying to recover this history, who are trying to preserve it. And it's important to remember that the party's control of this is beginning to weaken.

You know, this has been key to their success holding on to it, but it's already getting shaky. And you have people like a documentary filmmaker I write about in the book, Hu Jie, who was a former air force mechanic, and was a cameraman for the state news agency. So he was at the pinnacle of the propaganda apparatus.

One day, he happens to hear about a woman who grew up not far from where he lived, who was a poet, and who was executed during the Cultural Revolution. He was intrigued by her story. And he spent the next five years of his life trying to find out what happened to her. He loses his job. The police come after him. He ends up working as a wedding videographer to make ends meet.

But he perseveres and keeps trying to dig at this woman's story, and I asked him why and he said that if he didn't do it, no one else would. He just wanted to find out what happened.

BILL MOYERS: What's happened to him?

PHILIP PAN: He's still making films. You know, eventually, his film, it was never released, obviously, in China, in the theatres. But he burned it to DVDs and he put it on line, and he distributed it on these discs. And it became an underground hit. The authorities came to visit him once, and they said, "You know, you're a famous man now. We can't protect you any more." But he continues to make films. He's basically walking this tightrope that many of these people pushing for change walk.

BILL MOYERS: You were the first reporter to learn about the blind lawyer who was opposing the government one child, the sterilization of all these women. How did you hear about it?

PHILIP PAN: He was actually introduced to me by a lawyer in Beijing.

PHILIP PAN: The lawyers in Beijing, they're really at the forefront, not just in Beijing, but around the country. They're at the forefront of something of a revolution, really. Now, the government traditionally in China has a notion of the law as a tool that it uses to manage the behavior of the people, something to regulate and control what people do.

But, there's a new concept of the law emerging in China in the public. People are beginning to see the law as something they can use to protect themselves against the government, something to protect their rights. And also, they believe that the party officials should be accountable to the law as well, that the party isn't above the law.

And lawyers are at the forefront of pushing this change. They're really defining this new profession as they're going. And so, this blind man, he considers himself a lawyer as well. He didn't have a license to practice, but he had studied law.

I met him in a teahouse. Right away, he struck me as an interesting person. Not only because he was blind, but he was so charismatic. He was born in a village in Shandong Province, not far from where Confucius was born.

And so, his educational opportunities were limited. And yet, he had managed to go to college essentially. You know, his majors were, the only major really allowed for people who are blind, which was traditional Chinese medicine. But he took a few courses on the law on the side.

And when he returned to his village, he became something of a legal activist. He had sued on his family's behalf for a refund of taxes, and he won. And people came to him with all sorts of complaints. And they came to him with this complaint about the crackdown to enforce the one child policy. Essentially, local officials were taking women who were pregnant, even if they were seven or eight or nine months pregnant, and forcing them to have abortions.

BILL MOYERS: In order to enforce the one child policy?

PHILIP PAN: That's right. And so, this was their second or third child. And parents who had already had two children were being forced to be sterilized. Obviously, a lot of these people weren't willing to comply, and some of them fled. And what the officials were doing was arresting or detaining their relatives or neighbors, and basically holding them hostage until these people came back and submitted to these operations.

And so, this is not the way the one child policy is supposed to be enforced. It says very clearly in the law that coercive tactics are illegal. And so, he decided to try to file a class action lawsuit against these officials, which is...

BILL MOYERS: This didn't make them happy, did it?

PHILIP PAN: No, it didn't. He came to Beijing looking for help. He found some lawyers, some brave lawyers who were willing to do this. He found some writers who were willing to write about it. And he came to me, as a member of the foreign press, because he thought international attention would help.

BILL MOYERS: Where is he now?

PHILIP PAN: He's in prison now. After the story was published, the authorities suspended the crackdown, and they launched an investigation. But they also put him under house arrest. And about a year later, he managed to escape from house arrest. He said, because he was blind, he could run faster at night, than the men who were assigned to guard him. And he made his way to Beijing.

And I saw him one last time. And the next morning, I got a phone call from a friend of his, telling me that he had been, that two big men had basically grabbed him off the street.

Two things about this story, I think, are interesting, though. One is after he was arrested, there was really a big push in the legal community, which is among these lawyers, who are pushing for better protection of people's rights, to get him out of prison. The lawyers were basically met with violence when they attempted to defend him. Every time they went down the community to try to interview witnesses, thugs were assigned to beat up, to beat them up, essentially.

And they didn't know how to respond to this. Whether they should continue pushing the limits, and confronting this violence, which would put not only themselves at risk, but other people in the community. Or whether they should back off and take a more low key approach.

And this is the dilemma facing all people, I think, all these individuals who are pushing for change in China, in different ways. They have to decide how much can they confront the state, and how much should they try to compromise. And it's not an easy process.

BILL MOYERS: The President said he urged the Chinese to register the unofficial churches. He was pressing for more religious liberty. What's behind that?

PHILIP PAN: Well, I think that's partly or largely a part of, you know, President Bush's own personal conviction on this issue. But you have a situation in China where religion, they say they have freedom of religion. But essentially, that means you have the freedom to worship in the state-sponsored churches. There's a whole network of what we call underground churches, what the Chinese call house churches, that I think believers in these churches even outnumber the believers in the state-controlled churches.

BILL MOYERS: Did you go to some of these churches?

PHILIP PAN: Sure, I did. And there is a lot of fervor. You know, since the collapse of Communism as an ideology. Communism really was a state religion for many years in China. Today, because that's dead, people are really searching for something to believe in. And religion of all sorts, not just Christianity, which is one of the fastest-growing religious in China, but also traditional Chinese religions. Taoism, Buddhism, they're all making a big comeback in China.

And it's beginning to affect the struggle as well. Many of the lawyers I spoke about are Christians. You know they use that faith to strengthen what their convictions, and what they're doing in politics.

BILL MOYERS: Is there a Chinese Solzhenitsyn?

PHILIP PAN: There hasn't been a person with the impact of Solzhenitsyn. And that may just be in part because of lack of attention in the rest of the world. You know, Solzhenitsyn became who he became partly because the rest of the world embraced him, and embraced what he had written.

There are individuals in China writing about the prison system, about the horrors of the past. And a lot of their work hasn't been translated into English. And certainly, it hasn't been published in China, in Chinese. Now, Solzhenitsyn, I think, had his opportunity. He showed up at the right time. Khrushchev agreed to allow his work to be published.

We don't have that kind of thaw yet in China. You have a gradual thaw, but you don't have one of these, what we used to call Beijing springs, where there would be openness, and something like that could be published in China.

BILL MOYERS: So here's the question you left me with at the end of your book: Is this one-party state winning the battle for the future of China?

PHILIP PAN: I think if you looked at it right now at this moment, the answer is yes, that they've had 30 years of success. The economy continues to boom. It seems like it's going to do well into the near future. They have won over many of the private entrepreneurs. Much of the educated middle class is supportive of the government. People are, understandably, not getting involved in confronting the government, because their lives are getting better.

And so, I think right now, the answer is yes. But I don't think that's necessarily going to hold forever. And, I think, there are already, you already see people pushing for change, and they're making progress, slow as it is, and at great cost. But there has been progress.

BILL MOYERS: What can we do?

PHILIP PAN: That's a very tough question. And I think it also echoes some of the dilemmas that these activists face. There is a concern, and I think a legitimate concern, that the more we push for change, we, meaning the United States government pushes for change in China, the more of a backlash there is by the hardliners. It gives the people in power who want to resist change, an excuse to, and it gives them not only an excuse, but it gives them an enemy. They can use this to rally the public, this is another reason they've been so successful. They've been able to manage patriotism and shift that into nationalist support for the party. You know, if you love your country, you must love this political system. You must love this party, as well. And they've been able to do that.

And every time the United States tries to get involved and push for change, they can use that involvement and turn that against the people who are trying to push for change. So it's a dilemma. Because, on the other hand, can we just sit still? Can we not say anything?

And I think one of the disappointing things about President Bush's performance is that he hasn't been focused so much on individual cases and I think that many of the activists overseas and in China believe that if he had focused on individual cases for example, if he had brought up this blind lawyer, Mr. Chen, in public, or even in private, with the Chinese leadership, that could have an effect.

Now, some people say, "Oh, individuals. That's just individual cases. That's not going to have a long term effect on the country." But I think that these are the individuals who are changing the country.

For example, you have evidence of this in other countries as well. If we hadn't pushed for Nelson Mandela's release from prison in South Africa, maybe events would have turned out differently there as well. So these individuals can make a difference if we help them.

BILL MOYERS: The book is OUT OF MAO'S SHADOW. Philip Pan, thank you for being with me on the Journal.

PHILIP PAN: Thanks for having me.

BILL MOYERS: We try to deal with reality on the JOURNAL and all too often that means bad news. But there's a lot you can do to make a difference. On our website at pbs.org you'll find out more about organizations that you can support that fight human rights abuses in China. There's also a map that will show you the location of food banks and other social services at which you can volunteer. Look at it at pbs.org. I'm Bill Moyers. That's it for The JOURNAL. See you next week.

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