An Interview with Chen Guangcheng: 'Be Confident and Speak Out'

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I have two short items in this November issue, before a long story in December. One is a tech column q-and-a with David Allen, the creator of the Getting Things Done, or GTD, approach to modern life. The magazine article is here; some outtakes from our interview are here; and some other GTD news is here.

In this issue I also have a brief appreciation of Chen Guangcheng, the civil-liberties activist from China who sought asylum in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing earlier this year and whom we have recognized as one of our Brave Thinkers of the year.

While researching that essay, I had a chance last month to interview Chen Guangcheng about the motivation for and significance of his work, and about his long-term aspirations for China. We spoke by telephone for about half an hour. I asked questions in English, and he answered in Chinese; an interpreter sitting with him in New York, at his new base at New York University, rendered each side's words into the other's language. The explanations in brackets below, [like this], are insertions by me where I thought extra background might be needed.
 
Mr. Chen made clear ahead of time that he would not discuss personal details of his detention by provincial authorities or ultimate escape from China. He will go into these in depth in a forthcoming book. But he did discuss the overall prospect for political reform in China, and why in the face of great adversity he remains optimistic. On a day when the New York Times has published David Barboza's revelatory front-page piece about the family-business empire that surrounds even the most "kindly" and "socially aware" of China's political leaders, Chen's assessments are particularly timely. (For another view on the NYT expose, see China Daily Show.)

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Telephone interview with Chen Guangcheng, September 4, 2012.

Q. As you think about the overall situation for the rule of law, and development of civil society and individual liberties in China, would you say that things are on the whole getting better? Or getting worse?

Chen Guangcheng:
    My answer is two-fold. First, from the perspective of civil society, I would say that we have been witnessing a rising awareness by the Chinese people of the rule of law, of their rights, of rights-consciousness. All of those are on the rise, and it is an accelerating process.

    This is an inevitable trend of history. There is nothing that can stand in its way. With the help of advanced technology, and the experience of Chinese people, this rise in rights-consciousness is something that must happen, and will happen.

    In the past, people might hear only about themselves and their situations. Now this has been transformed into a situation where people do not care only about themselves but also about others, and they help each other.

    In the past, people largely relied on government officials to achieve the goal of justice. But now people have more and more relied on themselves to achieve this goal.

    I also have to say that from the legislative perspective, there has been a lot of improvement. A lot of progress has been made. The basic structure of the legal system has been established, in terms of having laws governing every aspect of the society. Nonetheless, most of the time those laws are just empty words in the eyes of the rulers.

    So Chinese people have come to realize that in order to realize their rights, and to have their rights protected, they have to go to the root of the problem, instead of just focusing on individual cases.

    It is becoming apparent that Chinese people who used to focus only on their individual cases, have now been paying more attention to the institutional changes that are called for by their rising rights-consciousness. For example, a call for the abolition of the notorious re-education through labor system. [JF this is a reference to prison-work camps.]

    In the face of these calls by the public, the rulers -- they just ignore those calls. They ignore the problems. They refuse to right the wrongs. They try to cover mistakes with even more mistakes.

    So the conclusion I would draw, from all of the above, is that in terms of the role the law plays in the society, the rule of law is absolutely sliding back. Even to the age of the Cultural Revolution.

    I think China has taken the first step, which is to make sure that there are rules and regulations and laws that govern the society. China is not doing a great job of the second step, which is to make sure that those rules are implemented and complied with in practice. Law enforcement generally speaking cannot function in today's Chinese society. That is what has given rise to all these numerous cases in which the government ignores the rules that they themselves have set up. For instance, the case of my nephew [Chen Kegui, arrested after Chen's departure], and my own case. These are all examples of the government's blatant ignorance of the law.  The government acts contrary to the law, tortures people, 'disappears' them, does all sorts of things to the innocent people without any legal basis,


Q. You say that the evolution of individual rights, and rights-consciousness, in China is "inevitable." If that is so, do you think this transformation of China will be a natural, relatively calm process? Or do you expect it to be difficult, even violent?

Chen Guangcheng:
    First, I think the shift of the Chinese society to democracy and rule of law, and of constitutional operation - all of that is definitely the trend, and there is nothing that can change this trend.

    As for how China will achieve this shift, it depends on a rich combination of factors. There are lots of things to take into account here. These include the approach taken by the leadership [in the Chinese government], the role played by human rights activists and by other people in Chinese society, and the attention the international society pays to these issues. And what kind of assistance the international society is willing and able to provide. For now, the leadership has shown no willingness to take this approach to make the shift happen. If that is the case, I believe that there will be more and more cases like Wang Lijun appearing in the near future. [Wang Lijun is the Chongqing police chief, previously allied with Bo Xilai, who broke with him and attempted to defect to British and American authorities.]

    I personally think that international society has not been ready for this shift in Chinese society. If that is really the case, it can make things worse.

    So given all those possibilities that we are facing, I think that if China remains the way it is now, that it is possible that a lot of good things will develop. But it is also possible that things will be getting worse.  But I think that this kind of uncertainty is itself exactly the sign of this coming trend and shift. It is what we would expect given what the Chinese government has been doing in terms of its lawlessness and blatant crackdown on civil society.

    Other issues that will face China in terms of how it manages its transformation include the following three: The public's loss of faith in the government. Also the loss of credibility, or lack of credibility, by the government. And the third is what has happened because of the internet censorship that China has launched with the great firewall. This has blocked information that could have gotten into China and could have affected the transformation.  What is really critical for the transformation, which will eventually determine whether the shift will be gradual and peaceful or difficulty and violent, is whether Chinese society can get itself back onto the right track.

Q. I know that there are limits to what anyone outside China - individuals, organizations, or governments - can do to affect this process. In some circumstances outside pressure or "interference" can even make things worse. What do you think outside individuals or organizations who support China's evolution to a rule-of-law society can most usefully do?

Chen Guangcheng:
    I think that for the United States - and not just the United States but also other democracies in the world -- there are a couple of things they could be doing.

    They should be aware of the coming shift in the Chinese society. And they should get ready for it. For instance, we have seen more and more mass "incidents" [demonstrations and protests, sometimes suppressed with violence] happening in China. What if the government had another massacre like the one 20 years ago [at Tiananmen Square]. What if this kind of thing happened again? What would be the international society's reaction to it? This needs to be considered.

    The Chinese government has not been performing its obligation to maintain the fairness and justice of Chinese society. The power is basically in the hands of the elite, and it has been manipulated by them. The least the international society could be doing is to exert more pressure on the Chinese government to make them deliver on whatever promises they have made to their people. The fundamental principles of fairness and justice- they don't have boundaries. They should be universal.

In May this year, the Chinese government openly promised, not only to me but a promise made to the whole world, that they would launch an open investigation into my case and make sure to bring to justice those perpetrators. [The local authorities who had arrested and abused Chen and his family.] But so far there has been no sign whatsoever of any progress on that front. This kind of blatant ignoring of one's own promise is something we should pay attention to.

    In the face of all these kinds of violation of universal values and social justice, I think that countries, including the US should, not worry about "offending" the perpetrators [in the Chinese government] if they take action. They [Westerners] should make their stance clear. They should stand behind the principles they claim they believe in. They should not ignore or turn a blind eye to the obvious social injustice, with its cost for humanity and for universal values. That is something we [Chinese people] don't want to see here. What we want to see here is our hope that the US can, as it always does, take the lead in this case to show its long standing adherence to the universal values and the international norms.

    So, we should do whatever we can to improve China's situation in protecting human dignity, and realizing the rule of law, and achieving social justice and social fairness. We should not do anything or the basis of whether the rulers of China will be pleased with it or not. And anything that runs contrary to the values I have just enumerated, the United States should not do that -even if that is what the Chinese leadership hopes they will do.

    This brings up a very critical point. The government of the United States should ask the U.S. companies that operate in China to realize that they are not only earning money in China. They should also earn the confidence of the Chinese public.

    Take Google as an example. It really has played a model role in this respect, even though its withdrawal from China may put it at a disadvantage in terms of its economics.  So far I believe that Google has earned the confidence of the Chinese people.

    I want to deliver this message to people in any democracy in the world. I want to let them know that every effort they have made in this respect will make a huge difference in China. I urge them to have faith in their ability to make changes in China.   Be confident and speak out.  The sky won't fall just because people speak up on their own opinion.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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