By: YANG Jianli

Jan. 21, 2012

Last Wednesday (January 18, 2012), U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke had an interview with NPR while in Washington presumably helping to lay the groundwork for the upcoming visit of Chinese vice president Xi Jinping. Amb. Locke said in interview “The human rights record within China seems to rise and fall over time, but it’s very clear that in the run up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics and since then there’s been a greater intolerance of dissent, while the human rights record of China has clearly been going in the wrong direction.”

Since he took over the ambassadorship from former GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, Locke has become aware of public demonstrations large and small throughout China as efforts that ordinary people were using to pressure the government to address their grievances. He singled out a recent protest in the southern Chinese village of Wukanover the confiscation of land without reasonable compensation. The Ambassador stressed that he believed ” there is a power of the people ” inside China. When asked whether he thinks that the situation is fundamentally stable in China right now, he responded “I think, very delicate – very, very delicate. And – but there were calls earlier this year for a Jasmine revolution and nothing came of it. I think it would take something very significant, internal to China, to cause any type of major upheaval.”

Ambassador Gary Locke is probably the first senior U.S. official in many years to be so candid when publicly commenting on the human rights record in China, power of the people/ citizens rights, and possible changes of the political climate within China. Later, when asked for comment at a State Department press briefing, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland backed up Amb. Locke’s comments on human rights and the rule of law in China. “[Locke] obviously speaks for the administration in expressing continued concern that we seem to have an increasing trend of crackdowns, forced disappearances, extralegal detentions, arrests and convictions of human rights activists, lawyers, religious leaders, and ethnic minorities in China,” she said. Although Nuland declined to repeat Locke’s assertion that the Chinese government was potentially unstable, neither did she differ from his statements. “I think our message to the Chinese government on these issues is the same message that we give around the world when we have human rights concerns – that governments are stronger when they protect the human rights of their people and when they allow for peaceful dissent,” she said.

It is understandable that she, as a spokesperson for the United States Department of State, chose a more cautious tone in her comments. However, strong and delicate can clearly be an antithesis and the Chinese government obviously does not “protect the human rights of their people and allow for peaceful dissent.” Therefore, we can conclude her statement is actually in accordance with the Ambassador’s stronger opinion according to his interview.

I would be cautiously optimistic to assume that these two senior U.S. officials’ comments represent an adjustment of the U.S. government’s attitude toward the political situation of authoritarian states. This is a necessary adjustment. We still remember when, a little more a year ago, United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held a meeting with leaders of prominent human rights groups such as Amnesty International. When Mrs. Clinton talked about the present and future situation of Egypt, she firmly noted the political situation “is stable in Egypt,” and there were no issues with Mubarak’s reign. Less than a month after this statement, the Egyptian people began large-scale demonstrations in Tahrir Square. 18 days later, Mubarak stepped down from power. The mistaken judgment and passivity of the U.S. government was demonstrated during that time.
The revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East, which seemed sudden to outside observers, arose out of profound political, economic and social causes. As outside observers, however, people usually pay more attention but to the words and deeds of the politicians, the conservative attitude of the elites, and the distribution and transfer of power within the regime. They do not treat the feelings and fundamental demands of the people as an actual variable and ignore the potential influences of ‘people power’ on political and economic changes. They did not pay sufficient attention to ordinary people on the ground levels, what they are thinking, experiencing and demanding, or what they might do if given the chance. In short, how every-day people can influence their own political processes. This is surely a blind spot of the U.S. policy assessment on authoritarian states and societies. Misjudgments and mis-calls caused by this kind of blind spot have been recurrent in history. To be fair, the formation of this blind spot often results from the difficulty of obtaining data, facts, and information from within closed authoritarian societies. And in fact, once it realizes its mistakes, the U.S. government makes every effort to adjust its policies and respond in a timely manner.

The drastic changes in North Africa and Middle East drew international attention to the power of the people. Innate demands for freedom and democracy coupled with the convenience of instant communication give people who live under authoritarian regimes a voice on the political issues. They are no longer voiceless or unheard. Through a multitude of media, they may articulate their innate demand for human rights and basic freedoms within an open and civil society. These same opportunities can exist for China. Thanks to the convenience of the Internet, even we who are living abroad may have regular contacts with ordinary Chinese people inside China. Personally speaking, through these contacts I try to minimize the discussions about abstract concepts and choose to get to specific issues related to rights violations and the interests of the people. However, it is they who always bring up democracy and human rights and related concepts such as freedom of speech, freedom of press, judicial independence and justice, freedom of association, right to protest, suffrage, and public supervision of government officials. This should not be surprising. Their mishaps and sufferings at the hands of party officials, and their personal experiences of seeking to have their grievances redressed yet finding no recourse to do so, can only have made them realize that their misfortunes stem from the deprivation of basic civil and political rights and that their lives would be different if their rights were respected by law and by the authorities. Therefore, pursuing human rights is their natural demand. The development of education and communication make the concepts of human rights, freedom and democracy no longer academic terms, but rather common values that relate to the concrete interest of the people. Therefore, it is very wrong (or at least inappropriate) to assume that people are indifferent to democracy.

Admittedly, it is difficult to gather information on the number of people who have the strong minded will and determination to fight. It is also hard to estimate the occurrences or social variables that will cause a fragmentary and local resistance to turn into an integral power that could effectively challenge the authoritarian regime. Nevertheless, from personal resistance to collective resistance, from fights for economic interests to political rights, these are all important processes to establish the democratic movements in Chinese society. These processes are generating significant democracy movements, ‘power of the people,’ becoming a reality that cannot be ignored.

Due to restrictions on freedom of speech, foreign observers and policy makers are often led more by the opinions and attitudes of the conservative elite ruling class than by the people who directly experience the social issues. These policy makers tend to think that the majority of the society does not desire change, and conclude that “the political situation of XX is stable.” The inequitable distribution of interest based on power results in the fact that the elite class faces larger potential loss than the ordinary public. The elite class are not likely to be the pioneers of revolution (although this does not mean they reject universal value). Conversely, every social class makes their political choices based on the calculation of gain and loss. It is reasonable to assume the majority of elite classes would change their political choices if the power of the public had the potential to make breakthrough for changes in the political system.
In addition to the elite class, even government officials who are realistic and rational might turn away from traditional authority and become supportive of democratic revolution. There will be people like Gorbachev and Yeltsin who support the changing society. I believe that the local development of civil movements will become the power that causes political change and forces the social elites and the regime to become a supportive power for change. This is likely to be a direction for the democratic revolution in China, and it is a direction that we are striving for. Nevertheless, I have to admit, this prediction is rather obscure, and the timing is also unclear. At the same time, difficulties on statistics make it hard to determine the distance from the realization of political changes. Therefore, even the person who researches a long span of time on human rights and democratic movements in Chinese society can only make predictions on the breakpoint of political changes in China with a great caution. This caution is necessary. It can prevent us from being impatient and injudicious by focusing on the development of civil society as a whole. Nevertheless, from the viewpoint of outsiders, almost every collapse of an authoritarian regime is unexpected. I discussed this uncertainty with the leaders of the democracy movements in the Soviet Union and its satellite nations. Some of them felt they did not have enough preparation, either psychological or political, when they faced upheaval during the late 80s and early 90s. Therefore, they felt a sense of haste and disorder in effective change. This means the public’s potential power, which is always the iceberg under water, is usually ignored, especially by the international political society.

Ambassador Locke’s viewpoint is not unprecedented. Similar opinions have already been expressed by oversea dissidents, and similar statement also expressed implicitly on the internet in China. Locke’s opinion is valuable because he formed his judgment by his standpoint as a U.S. official observer, and he has the unique capability to influence the U.S. government and its officials. The two most important points of his opinions are: (1) the political situation in China is very delicate; and (2) there is power of the people that resists the authoritarian regime in China. This power is waiting for a “something very significant” as the activator of its performance. In fact, I think the Nobel Peace Prize Award to Mr. Liu Xiaobo demonstrates that the international community greatly respects and pays attention to the civil power in China. It shows this power is no longer treated by the international community as a dispensable and fragmentary resistance. Ambassador Locke’s statement furthermore indicates that even though the Chinese government implements cruel suppression and blocks on the civil powers which causes the resistance to face great hardships, the potential power of Chinese civil society is drawing international attention. This international attention will definitely become definitive supportive power for the resistance in China in different ways.

After I was released from Chinese prison in 2007, I spoke at various international events, and expressed my view that excluding the civil power from consideration of the future political changes in China will result in serious misjudgment. When evaluating the immeasurable potential power of the Chinese civil society on resistance, in addition to the hundreds of thousands of social conflicts in China, we have to consider people’s genuine attitudes towards the government, the speed of the spread of universal values in China, the concentrations of public opinion and its expressions, the perception of the government and the loss of its authority and so on. When expectation of changes overwhelms the society, the particular event that catalyzes the change is in fact not as important. We can assert it is going to happen in a particular period of time. Rather than this breakpoint for the change, I place more value on the social acceptance of universal values, the breadth and depth of right defenses, individual or collective communication, discussion or even argument among citizens, the formation of consensus on changes by different sectors of the society, and the extent of international support and assistance.

Mr. Locke, as the U.S. Ambassador to China, does not limit his focus to the authority but also pays acute attention to civil society and realizes this power is growing soundlessly. Instead of saying Locke’s point of view is unique, it demonstrates the potential power of the civil society. It is significant for the West to recognize this. China is a large country – changes in China must be important for the history of humanity. The world should analyze and judge the reality of China with a more accurate and comprehensive point of view, in order to prepare for the broad political changes to take place in China.