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Empower the People

A friend of mine, who works with the U.S. government, used to complain about the uselessness of criticizing the human rights practices of the People’s Republic of China.

He used to say, “Usually when you criticize Beijing, what you will get in response is some combination of these three typical responses: 1) Denial: ‘No, no, no. It’s a lie. Following China’s reform and opening up, the last two decades have been the best period for China’s human rights conditions.’ [1] 2) Counterattacks: ‘You in the U.S. also have a lot of human rights problems, so don’t point your fingers at us.’ 3) None of your business: ‘The U.S. should not rudely interfere with our internal affairs.'”

My friend said that it has seemed very difficult to change the behavior of the Chinese regime all these years. It seems like a waste of time to run into the same wall over and over.

In response, I told my friend that the point is actually not to expect the regime to change, but to use it as a vehicle to engage 1.3 billion Chinese people. It is a way to tell them that you care about their freedom and rights. When the 1.3 billion feel supported and empowered, they will change the regime’s behavior.

I went on with three points of my own:

Number one: People in China today are more courageous. In other words, they are less fearful of the Communist Party than they were 30 or 40 years ago. The older generation, who experienced rounds of political movements in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, have developed a deep fear of the Party. Today, however, we have many young people who have never had that kind of experience. In today’s society, via the Internet, people are more connected to each other and they are constantly encouraged by and educated about universal values. This is why, today, more and more people are standing up to the regime. According to a Tsinghua University sociologist, there were about 280,000 petitions, demonstrations, and strikes, both peaceful and violent, in 2010. That was up from 87,000 in 2005, according to the Ministry of Public Security. [2] We don’t see official figures for recent years, but from 2010 to 2012, for the first time and also for three years in a row, the government expenditures on public security exceeded the spending on national defense. The main function of the PRC’s public security is to suppress people. This means the trend is continuing and that China is far from a harmonious society. One could not possibly imagine this kind of thing in a country under Mao Zedong’s rule.

Number two: What people are doing is actually changing China, and the regime has to react. One example is the Party’s campaign against corruption. This is also a program highly touted by the new leadership of Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, but it is the Chinese people, Internet users, or netizens who first exposed many of the scandals about Chinese officials. From online photos, they discovered that the watch on the wrist of a low ranking official was worth thousands of dollars, and they found out that this guy had a dozen more such watches; they posted the photo of a naked official in the same room with a girl (or girls) who was not his wife; they blogged on Sina Weibo, the Chinese version of twitter, that one official had over 20 houses in his name; one woman even blogged about her improper relationship with a high ranking official. It’s not that the Party’s nature has changed. The bottom line is always the same – the Party always wants to control everything. But to avoid provoking even more anger from the Chinese public and to avoid an early collapse, it somehow has to react as a survival strategy.

Number three: What people are doing consumes the Party and leaves the Party with fewer available resources. A good example is Mr. Chen Guangcheng, the blind lawyer who successfully came to the U.S. last year by seeking refuge in the U.S. embassy in Beijing. According to his personal account, in 2011, the local government spent 60 million yuan, or almost 10 million U.S. dollars, keeping him under house arrest or under surveillance: 10 million dollars – for one person. [3] How many Mr. Chens can the Beijing regime afford to handle? Another good example is Beijing’s famous multi-billion dollar Golden Shield project, which is essentially an attempt to build an Internet version of the Great Wall around China and make the Internet of China an Intranet. Imagine that you have a wall around China. Overseas computer experts have developed technologies so that people in China can punch holes in the wall for free, but it’s enormously expensive to scan the whole wall all the time, find the holes, and patch millions of holes.

After listening to my points, my friend began to feel less frustrated.

All these years, much effort has been expended at the government level, but more work is needed for the people in China. The point is not about confronting or angering a small group of cadres in Beijing, but about winning 1.3 billion citizens. To achieve that, the U.S. government can support technologies to completely bring down the Internet firewall and also step up the uncensored TV and radio broadcasting into China. This will empower the people so that they can make well-informed choices for themselves and for China.



[1] As stated by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue at the 58th Session of the UN Commission on Human Rights, held in Geneva on March 18, 2002

[2] New York Times, “Indifference as a Mode of Operation at China Schools,” May 18, 2011

[3] Reuters, “China security chief down but not out after blind dissident’s escape,” April 30, 2012,