Dr. Yang Jianli is a human rights scholar, activist, survivor of the Tiananmen massacre, and former political prisoner of China. He heads Citizen Power Initiatives for China, a non-governmental organization based in Washington, D.C., that gives a voice to the democracy movement inside China. Dr. Yang holds a Ph.D. in mathematics from Berkeley, and another Ph.D. in political economy from Harvard University. He serves on UN Watch’s International Advisory Board. The following interview, conducted by UN Watch Fellow Hilary Miller, was condensed from the original.

What have you and Initiatives for China been doing to speak out against censorship and surveillance in China?

First, we are in touch with people on the ground in China to get accurate and truthful information about what is going on. We then provide that information back to people in China through direct communication, social media platforms, our publication, and our participation in various TV shows. Otherwise, people in China would not be aware of what is going on.

Second, we publish articles to educate the international community about what is happening in China and its mishandling of the coronavirus. Our process is to first find out the truth and document cases. Then we publish our findings as a way to advocate to the international community to come together to hold the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) accountable for this global pandemic and its economic consequences.

All of the information we have found points to the fact that Xi Jinping, the Chinese dictator, is principally responsible for allowing this outbreak to become a global pandemic, plunging the entire world into total catastrophe.

What can you tell us about China’s censorship and surveillance in the context of the Coronavirus outbreak?

It is important to know that the situation in China was bad before the onset of the virus, especially after President Xi Jinping took power in 2002. He cracked down on civil society and the space for free speech.

When the coronavirus broke out, no one in the government would dare suggest against Xi Jinping’s will that he must act immediately and urgently.

This public health crisis actually exposed the bankruptcy of this governing system under Xi Jinping’s leadership. The government intensified control and censorship of information, and continued to round up citizen journalists who dared to document and report the true situation in the epicenter of Wuhan, or other places in China.

Now we are seeing that the government’s policy of censoring courageous whistleblowers, like Dr. Li Wenliang, is accelerating months after the initial outbreak.

So, the pandemic has only given the government incentive to further tighten its grip on the whole society, and repress whoever dares to offer different narratives than those sanctioned by the government.

How should democracies confront China?

One concrete action democracies can take is rethinking the trade relationship with China, or rethinking whether we should rely on China for things used on a daily basis for supplies. If we continue that kind of relationship, then we will find ourselves at the mercy of China, and having to compromise our principles when it comes to security, the democratic way of life, and other universal values.

A second action is confronting China collectively, because China is not going away. I advocate for democracies coming together on human rights issues. For example, last year, when we commemorated the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I advocated for a “Human Rights NATO.”

A Human Rights NATO would work when democracies come together to form a treaty-based international organization like NATO and confront China, or Russia, or any other world dictators on human rights issues.

This organizational body would put human rights at the center of its international dealings with China. And, when one small country in the alliance is targeted by China or other dictators, all of the others would come to its defense in diplomatic and economic terms.

How can human rights activists help with your cause?

The civil society and human rights community is working very hard to help people who currently live under various dictatorships. What activists need to first understand is that China is a major supporter of world dictators. This is why China has become the focus of our work and other organizations. Defenders of human rights should pressure democratic governments and work with elected officials and parliaments to come up with the right policy towards China.

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