On Human Rights at the Close of 2009

On the eve of the trial of pro-democracy activist Liu Xiaobo, Bao Tong, former aide to ousted late premier Zhao Ziyang, calls for more freedom of expression in China.
By Bao Tong
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Bao Tong, political dissident and aide to former Chinese premier Zhao Ziyang, Sept. 14, 2009.
Bao Tong, political dissident and aide to former Chinese premier Zhao Ziyang, Sept. 14, 2009.

The human rights situation in China in 2009 has an objective existence which is observable, and which can be discussed and analyzed.

Everyone has the right to expression. Chinese people, foreigners, officials, ordinary citizens, should all be allowed to express themselves freely.

The belief that only oneself, but no one else, has the right to freedom of expression, is arbitrary and monopolistic, and inconsistent with the rule of law and the building of a harmonious society.

Expression is of great importance. From the Qin Emperor who burned books and buried Confucian scholars alive, to the Han and Wu periods where a single orthodoxy was respected, to the Qing dynasty, which imprisoned men of letters, to "Down with anyone who opposes Chairman Mao" of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, to "Mussolini is always right" from the Italian Fascists, all of these phenomena, all over the world at all times in history, have one thing in common: they refuse freedom of expression to all but a single voice, and they are all autocratic societies in which there is no place for human rights.

Human rights determine the nature of a country and even of a society. The People's Republic of China gets its name from the single line: "All power in the People's Republic of China comes from the people."

This section of Clause 2 of the Chinese Constitution contains the spirit of the entire constitution. You can revise the letter, but you can't take away the spirit. If the sovereignty of the people were to be taken away, the Republic would fall.

To subvert the state would be to remove power from the people and put it elsewhere. Any act that does not have this result cannot be called subversion.

It is patriotic to defend the sovereignty of the people. All movements that try to do this are patriotic movements. It is patriotic to defend the rights of ethnic minorities, or the freedom of religious belief. It is patriotic to expose official corruption in the plunder of land, housing and natural resources.

It is patriotic to demand that the government investigate "bean curd" buildings, or that it tell us what became of trillions of yuan in funds. It is patriotic to defend the rights of rural residents, workers, and administrative staff to be paid, and the right of university graduates to find work.

It is patriotic to defend the right to freedom of speech, publication, association, demonstration, and public protest, and to safeguard the public's right to know what is happening, to express themselves, to take part in political life and to oversee the government.

It is patriotic to demand that the Constitution be implemented, or to demand the nationalization of the armed forces. It is patriotic to ask for a federal system of government, or for full and direct elections, or for the safeguarding of the Republic.

Any form of individual, coordinated, or mass civil rights activity is patriotic, if it has as its overarching principle the preservation of sovereignty in the hands of the people. You can argue with it, you can disagree with it, but you can't suppress it.

To proscribe the citizens' rights movement is to deny people the right to be patriotic. This is the real form of subversion: of the Republic. Patriotism does not mean that ordinary citizens follow the orders of their leaders, but rather that their leaders talk their lead from democracy and the rule of law. The former situation is one of autocratic rule, while the latter is an open and pluralistic republican polity.

As for these "Chinese characteristics," things end up according to their essence. If power genuinely rests with the people, then the U.S. cannot be subverted, no matter whether there is a black or a white president. Hong Kong would not be subverted by full and direct elections, no matter which faction won the Chief Executive seat, or outnumbered the other in the Legislative Council.

The People's Republic of China would not be subverted either, were direct elections to be taken all the way from the villages and townships to the central government, and if the candidate fielded by the Communist Party were to lose. Indeed, only then would the People's Republic be worthy of the name.

The government says the human rights situation is better now in China than at any other time in history. Really? The best-ever human rights situation, when we have closed candidate lists for election to public office? The best-ever human rights situation has resulted from the failure to allow full and direct elections? This is cast-iron proof that elections don't even appear in the world view of officials.

Any discussion of China's human rights situation in 2009 must include Charter 08. But Liu Xiaobo's case hasn't gone to trial yet, and there are still some undecided factors which need continued observation. For example, a lot of the drafters and signatories have asked to be given equal responsibility alongside Liu Xiaobo. Former U.S. attorney general Dick Thornburgh has applied for a pass to attend the trial as an observer. If the Chinese government has confidence in its own justice system, then it is sure to give a positive response.

But the most important thing is the outcome of the trial. If the court finds Charter 08 not guilty, then we can be sure that China's leaders have been able to accept criticism gladly, and are willing to change; that their upholding of human rights is genuine and responsible. This would truly be a praiseworthy development.

But if they tell the courts to pronounce Charter 08 guilty, then this will be nothing other than a stripping away of citizens' right to freedom of expression, publication, association, protest, and demonstration. It will mean nothing less than an announcement that the Constitution is null and void. Actions speak louder than words. We shall have to wait and see which of these two scenarios unfolds.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.





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