The Sum of Their Fears

Remarks to the Congressional-Executive Commission on China

September 20, 2006


Chairman Hagel, Distinguished Members of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China,

It is always a special occasion for me to address the Congress of the United States. I began my work in the field of human rights in China in May 1990, the month I made my first intervention on behalf of a political prisoner, and the month I gave my first testimony to Congress on China’s human rights record and US-China relations. I am especially pleased to be here for today’s important hearing. I was one of the first advocates of establishing this Commission, and Dui Hua enjoys a close relationship with it. The Chairman and other commissioners have been of great help to our work. Thank you.

For several years Dui Hua has been conducting a worldwide search for the names of individuals detained in political cases in China since 1980. Our database has information on more than 11,500 such individuals, of whom about 3,100 are currently in prisons, labor camps, and other places of detention. Many in the database are not in prison, though they are hardly free. We know but a small percentage of the population of those persecuted in China for political reasons.

We use the database to raise names with Chinese officials and make lists that are submitted to departments of the Chinese government. A key recipient of our lists has been the Ministry of Justice, which runs China’s prisons and Reeducation through Labor camps. Through a unique relationship spanning a period of 15 years, requests for information on about 1,000 individuals detained in political cases have been submitted. Information on hundreds of prisoners, many of whose names we discovered, has been obtained. Lives have been saved.

The Chinese government has now decided to close this channel. The Ministry of Justice has said it will not meet me unless I agree to stop raising names and submitting prisoner lists. This I cannot agree to do.

The Justice Ministry’s new position overturns years of cooperation in prisoner accounting, cooperation that has enjoyed the support of leaders, officials, and legislators in both countries, and especially in the Congress of the United States. It violates China’s own policy of conducting human rights dialogues on the basis of mutual respect and represents a setback to the principles of transparency and open governance. It directly contradicts President Hu Jintao’s recent statement that China is prepared to enhance dialogue and exchanges with the US on human rights. Eliminating a unique program of cooperation is not enhancement. It is a big step backwards.

Dui Hua will always find ways to put the cases we uncover in front of the Chinese government. We will work more closely with the United Nations, with the governments of countries that have human rights dialogues with China, with cities and states that have sister relationships with cities and provinces in China, and, most importantly, with members of Congress and this Commission. We will cultivate relationships with new interlocutors in China, and build on existing relationships with courts and procuratorates. We will find ways to contact Chinese NGOs working to build a civil society. Dui Hua sees the day when Chinese NGOs will be able to work effectively to secure information on and better treatment of political and religious prisoners and deal with other human rights issues. Dui Hua looks forward to the resumption of the official US-China human rights dialogue. When and if the two governments reach agreement to resume the dialogue, we’ll be ready with a list.

Various reasons have been put forward for why the Chinese government has clamped down on information relating to political dissent and public protest, both of which are growing at least as fast as the much-vaunted economy. I think the most plausible explanation has to do with the senior leadership’s fear of a “color revolution” that would topple the rule of the Chinese Communist Party, just as other color revolutions have undone regimes in the Middle East, Central Asia, and the former states of the Soviet Union.

Dui Hua is an NGO monitoring political crime and public protest. That it should be targeted in the campaign to oppose the color revolution, when so many other “smokeless guns” are being silenced, is not surprising. But what makes Dui Hua’s work seem especially threatening is that it has worked for and then publicized the release of dissidents and activists, not a mere handful, but hundreds. Our work has had the cumulative effect of helping to reduce the fears and inhibitions of those standing up police for their rights.

The Chinese Communist Party has a problem: The party is more and more afraid of the people, but the people are less and less afraid of it. Here’s how the NY Times’ Nicholas Kristof puts it:

“The basic problem for Mr. Hu is that the incentives have changed over the last half-dozen years, encouraging more challenges to the system. As one dissident told me, in the past getting in trouble would mean a 10-year term in prison, alone and forgotten. ‘Now if I go to prison,’ he said, ‘I’ll get out after a year, and I’ll be a hero.’

True, some people are sent to prison longer, like my colleague Zhao Yan, but few people seem much intimidated.

‘I’m not worried,’ laughed Jiao Guobiao, a professor who was fired from Beijing University for writing scathing essays about the Chinese Communist Party – which he continues to write. ‘If they want to arrest me, let ‘em.’

In Britain’s darkest hour, Winston Churchill addressed a group of officers aboard a warship. He asked what you’d get if you put the most gallant sailor, the most intrepid airman, and the most audacious soldier together at the same table.

Today we might ask what you’d get if you put the most gallant rights defender, the most intrepid underground priest, and the most audacious journalist together at the same table in China. The answer would be the same: The sum of their fears.

Those inside and outside China who labor to bring rule of law and respect for human rights to that great country have achieved something of inestimable value: by doggedly seeking justice for those in prison for their beliefs, we have helped reduce the fears of those working for change. This is our legacy, and it is one your Commission can be proud of. Now is the time to redouble our efforts. Thank you.