Engaging, not hectoring, China

My following article appears in the Amnesty International Australia’s Uncensor campaign about human rights in China:

The future of human rights in China after the Games will require constant negotiation and patience, writes Antony Loewenstein

The Olympics are nearly upon us (and dog is allegedly banned from sale during the event.)

Beijing residents are reporting a draconian crackdown on anything deemed “subversive.” “The dichotomy between what Olympics visitors will see and what residents experience”, writes Jen Lin-Liu, “may be most visible in the stadiums once the Games begin.”

There is no doubt that the departing New York Times correspondent Howard W. French is correct when he writes: “”¦Political change, however gradual and inconsistent, has made China a significantly more open place for average people than it was a generation ago.”

But the behaviour of authorities, both Chinese and the IOC, in the lead-up to the Games – insecure and petty – reveals a mindset that all-too-easily resents freedom of expression. Though it was amusing to read about Yahoo, one of the leading Western multinationals who has assisted the regime’s filtering system, caught out by promoting a picture gallery of the, “Tiananmen Square Massacre Remembered”, some commentators are comparing the Beijing Games to the 1980 Moscow event. Technology may have changed, but the nature of oppression is eerily similar. The Guardian explains:

“The similarities between these two coming-out parties are eye-popping: dissidents jailed; ”˜social undesirables’ – mainly poor migrant workers – kicked out of town; three rings of police checkpoints surrounding the city; old buildings bulldozed; security so overwhelming as to squeeze all the fun out of the party.”

The China Model, furious economic development with general political impotence, is continuing (especially in the hi-tech sector). But it has its limits, not least the benefits brought by satellite television and the internet.

He Weifang, a professor of law at Peking University, says that China is slowly democratising, but at a vastly different rate to what the West thinks it deserves.

“Today, even the farmers in remote areas have satellite TVs,” Mr. He said. “So whenever they see an election, such as the one held in Pakistan recently, they may wonder why, even though we have approximately the same economic conditions, they can elect their top leaders, and we can’t even vote for the leader of a small county. I think a consciousness of political rights has increased more than anything.”

As a visitor to China in 2000 and again in 2007, it is patently clear that the country has become far more confident in its identity. Though a craving for global acceptance is key to understanding the recent nationalist surge, the Olympics are the ultimate opportunity for the regime to showcase its modernisation. It won’t totally succeed, and nor should it, because there is simply too much known about Beijing’s authoritarianism (and its denial of past revolutionary violence).

But human rights activists should not only damn the rising power. Nuance is the key, as is engagement. It’s hard to disagree with the conclusion of George Walden, a British diplomat in China during the Cultural Revolution, who says that the Games must be allowed to succeed:

“We need perspective on this. I was there during the Cultural Revolution, and I watched people being carted away in the streets to be shot in the back of the neck. About 3 million people died. I’ve been back often since, and each time there is a sort of incremental freedom, though sometimes it moves backward.”

I argue in my forthcoming book, The Blogging Revolution, that China’s internet may be the key to advancing the interests of its citizens. A regime can’t hide all the “subversive” material all of the time, no matter how hard they try. What was impossible only a few years ago – such as local citizens complaining online about corrupt, local officials – should give us hope that Chinese netizens are not the mindless drones often imagined by the Western media.

Technology and capitalism certainly don’t automatically guarantee democracy (something far too many neo-cons fail to understand) Until Western, IT multinationals are convinced that colluding with repressive regimes is not in their best interests, it will be close to impossible to change this current vicious cycle.

China’s entry into the world club will be a tortuous process, but respect is a two-way street.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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