TOPICS > Politics

In China, a Struggle for Rights, but Hope for Future

November 17, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Jim Lehrer speaks with a human rights activist and a China expert about the state of the struggle for human rights in China.

JIM LEHRER: That follows, from President Obama’s talk of human rights in China, a look at what rights the ordinary citizens of China actually do have.

It comes from Xiao Qiang, a Chinese human rights activist who now edits China Digital Times, a bilingual Web site. He also is an adjunct professor at the University of California’s Graduate School of Journalism in Berkeley. And Winston Lord, a longtime China expert who was the U.S. ambassador to China in the late 1980s, and was most recently there in May.

Ambassador Lord, in general, how would you describe the rights that Chinese citizens have at this moment?

WINSTON LORD: I would sum it up this way, Jim.

First, China is much better than North Korea, and it’s much worse than Iran. It’s going backwards. And, in some areas, it’s worse than when I was ambassador 20 years ago.

And I can give specific examples.

JIM LEHRER: OK. We will go through the specifics in a moment.

Mr. Qiang, what would you — how would you summarize the situation now?

XIAO QIANG, China Digital Times: Well, I generally agree that China has been moving further and further away from the totalitarian days of the Mao era. Chinese people are in general living in a much more prosperous and have increasingly personal freedom society.

However, it still is an authoritarian regime, that fundamental human rights, particularly political and civil rights, are still routinely being violated, and system — systematically being abused, and the Chinese Communist Party, yes, still a monopoly of political power.


OK. Well, let’s go through some of those. We will pick up on what each one of you have said, beginning with you, Mr. Ambassador.

How would you describe the situation, just simple freedom of speech? What can a citizen say or not say under the — the — the laws of China at this moment?

WINSTON LORD: Well, whether it’s freedom of speech or freedom of the press, they’re both severely circumscribed.

You can talk about economic issues. You can even dance around the edges of corruption and issues like the environment. But any challenge to the Communist Party or sensitive topics like Tiananmen Square or Tibet or the Falun Gong, you are immediately circumscribed.

And, certainly, what they’re most concerned about, the authorities, is any organization of individuals cutting across a broader spectrum. That’s why they severely censor the Internet and other forms of expression, as well as the media.

Free speech a 'taboo'

Xiao Qiang
China Digital Times
Any expression that challenges the legitimacy of the Communist Party rule will be immediately put on stop.

JIM LEHRER: So, generally, Mr. Qiang, the right to dissent is -- publicly, is not -- is not there?

XIAO QIANG: Well, the right to dissent has never been there in the Chinese history, for thousands of years, except some brief period of time during the last century.

However, the totalitarian regime of the Mao era and the People's Republic of China has pushed that limit to the extreme. The last 30 years has been much better in terms of freedom and information environment, but the fundamental rights -- that means being guaranteed to express something different from the ruling elite -- is still a taboo.

Any expression that challenges the legitimacy of the Communist Party rule will be immediately put on stop.

JIM LEHRER: Ambassador Lord, how -- what percentage of Chinese citizens are actually members of the Communist Party?

WINSTON LORD: I believe about 5 or 6 percent.

I want to make a couple other points. I do, of course, agree with Xiao Qiang's point that the situation is much better than it was during the Cultural Revolution or the Mao years. And, certainly, in areas like choosing your job or your university, travel in the country or abroad, the situation has improved. So, in those sense -- those senses, the citizens' rights have expanded greatly.

But we should not sanitize China, any more than we should demonize China. And this is a cruel regime, in many respects, or a cruel system. It's not just on political issues. When the parents of the Sichuan earthquake victims, the children who died because of shoddy construction in the schools, tried to air their grievances, or the parents of children who have died because of tainted milk, or people suffering from AIDS, or their lawyer activist friends are locked up in jail, that goes beyond just sensitivity to political issues.

I also want to stress that I'm in favor of good relations with China, despite these terrible flaws, because we have a tremendous range of interests that this very long joint communique that was issued and which your very good report at the top of the program illustrates.

But this has to be part of our agenda. It can't dominate it. We have got too many other interests.


Mr. Qiang, would you use the same word, cruel, that the ambassador just used to describe the system?

Rise of consciousness

Winston Lord
Former U.S. ambassador to China
You have hopeful signs for the future, but we should have no illusion. Obama's access to the Chinese people was less than Bush and Clinton got when they went there in recent years.

XIAO QIANG: I would say that it is accurate to say that the current -- the Chinese Communist Party has no mercy to any organization or opposition which will challenge its status power quo.

However, here is something different than 30 years ago or 20 -- even 20 years ago, which is the rise of consciousness of human rights among the ordinary Chinese, whether you are the marginalized groups who are disadvantaged groups like the state employee, and employee, the workers, or peasants or, or you are the middle class, new middle class, which own apartment, and increasingly demanding the freedom of speech on the Internet.

The most illustrated example is at the Shanghai town hall meeting that one question coming from Chinese denizens about the great fire wall. Thirty years -- 20 years ago, at the Berlin Wall, it was President Reagan directly challenging the -- Mr. Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall.

But, 20 years later, it was Chinese denizens themselves express their urge to the freedom calling to tear down the great fire wall, and that voice being heard through the Internet to the visiting U.S. president, while the President Obama was saying that very politely, but still very firmly the value of free speech is a strength of a nation. And I think the Chinese people have heard that.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Ambassador, do you agree with that, that the people of China, when -- when President Obama said something or like what at the town hall, when people talk about rights that the average Chinese citizens -- citizen understands what that is and longs for it, just like anybody else in the world does?

WINSTON LORD: The Chinese have universal aspirations. They're not different from other peoples around the world.

A couple of points: I agree that, for example, the Chinese people now do not have to actively support the government. There's the freedom of silence, which you didn't have during the Cultural Revolution. I also agree with Xiao Qiang that the most hopeful -- despite the heavy censorship of 50,000 cyber-police and technical blockages on the Internet, the most hopeful development for expanding political rights is the Internet.

I would point out, in that town hall, however, that was the only interesting question was about the fire wall. And that came through the embassy's Website. It didn't come from the students, who were carefully selected, who could attend this and had to submit their questions in advance.

So, you have hopeful signs for the future, but we should have no illusion. Obama's access to the Chinese people was less than Bush and Clinton got when they went there in recent years.

JIM LEHRER: Well, what do you make of that, Mr. Qiang, that things from -- at least from the ambassador's point of view, that things are not getting that better that quickly, that things -- there has been some retreating?

Two faces of China

Xiao Qiang
China Digital Times
What we have is a rise of the consciousness of rights of the Chinese people, even gradually and incrementally, but I think in the long-term history is on the people's side.

XIAO QIANG: That's also very true, because the regime itself still has no agenda for the fundamental democratic reform.

Therefore, it's only become more savvy and sophisticated to control the public opinion and also trying to influence the world opinion on China. At the town hall, those 40-some Chinese students cadres actually, many of them are commonly called cadres, well selected and trained to put on a particular face for the world to see about China.

That is not something you will hear the same thing online, particularly to those active Chinese bloggers. So, we have to two faces of China. You have this power wants to preserve its status quo, continue ruling China in an authoritarian way, but also is the rising power in the global stage.

And then what we have is a rise of the consciousness of rights of the Chinese people, even gradually and incrementally, but I think in the long-term history is on the people's side.

JIM LEHRER: History on the people's side, Mr. Ambassador?

WINSTON LORD: Yes. That underlines the point, that change on political freedom in China, which I'm basically hopeful about over the long run, because of issues like the Internet that Xiao Qiang has not only talked about, but his Web site promotes, does lead one to hope for the future.

But, in the meantime, it's a real struggle for people to express themselves. I also want to point out that the Chinese are promoting some of this abroad. They're harassing American think tanks who discuss sensitive topics.

They harass German book authorities, book fair organizers.

JIM LEHRER: OK. We're...

WINSTON LORD: And they're -- so, they're -- and they're bullying countries about the Dalai Lama. So, this is of concern abroad, and not just in China.

JIM LEHRER: So, there's two faces. You would agree there are two faces of China at this moment?


And I want to stress that we should have good relations with China. But let's not overlook some of what's going on there.

JIM LEHRER: All right.

Gentlemen, thank you, both, very much.

XIAO QIANG: Thank you.