It was disappointing to read The Economist‘s most recent piece about the atrocities in China’s Xinjiang province – “‘Genocide’ is the wrong word for the horrors of Xinjiang” given the hard stance it has taken in the past against the Chinese government’s violence, oppression and mass internment of Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims. But in its most recent article, by ignoring the sexual violence against Uighur and Kazakh women, The Economist demonstrates its lack of understanding of the crime of genocide under international law and perpetuates a misogynistic view of the crime.
Although sexual violence has been a key element of most genocides – from Armenia in 1915 to the Rohingya today – the term rape does not appear in either the Genocide Convention or the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. But the systematic rape of women has repeatedly been found to constitute the physical element of genocide. In 1998, the U.N. Tribunal for Rwanda found former Hutu mayor Jean-Paul Akayesu guilty of genocide for the systemic rape of Tutsi women in his community. Specifically, the Tribunal held that systematic rape constituted the genocidal act of “causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group.” More recently, the U.N.’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria concluded that the Islamic State of Iraq’s (“ISIS”) systematic rape of Yazidi women and girls constituted the physical element of genocide: “Rape can be a measure to prevent births [another defined genocide act under the Convention] ‘when the person raped subsequently refuses to procreate, in the same way that members of a group can be led, through threats or trauma, not to procreate.’”
But in arguing that genocide is the wrong word to describe what is happening in Xinjiang, The Economist ignores clear legal doctrine. Allegations of rape in Xinjiang’s concentration camps have been circulating since at least 2019. Earlier this month, the BBC reported on the systematic use of rape and sexual torture against Uighur women in the concertation camps, with different women, from different camps, describing the same horrific acts perpetrated by Chinese state actors. The eerie similarity in these women’s stories is what gives them credibility, especially as the Chinese government’s sole retort is to state that these sources are “untrustworthy.” The Chinese government has also failed to give the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights access to Xinjiang for an independent assessment of what is happening there. If The Economist failed to mention these women’s stories because it doesn’t think these stories “prove” genocide, “we should long ago have shifted the burden of proof away from the refugees and to the skeptics, who should be required to offer persuasive reasons for disputing eyewitness claims.”
In addition to ignoring the well-developed doctrine that mass rapes can constitute the physical element of genocide, The Economist implies that the only action that could be “intended to prevent births” is “the systematic sterilisation of all women.” As show above, the United Nations – and the world – moved away from such a narrow definition years ago. The Economist does a disservice to its readers – and female victims of genocide – by offering such an inaccurate assessment.
Ultimately though, it appears that The Economist wanted to make the argument that we shouldn’t get hung up on defining what is happening in Xinjiang as a genocide or as crimes against humanity; it’s all just a parade of horrors that need to end. China Law & Policy has made this argument too (see here) since for both genocide and crimes against humanity, U.N. member states have the same “responsibility to protect.” But The Economist went too big in definitively stating that what is happening in Xinjiang is not genocide. The Economist does not know that and offers no proof or legal analysis; instead it merely states that genocide “exaggerates” the Chinese government’s crimes in Xinjiang. But it doesn’t if you focus on the violence perpetrated against Uighur women. The Economist – and the world at large – would be wise to heed the advice of Samantha Power in her authoritative book on the world’s missteps in stopping genocide in the past: “A bias toward belief would do less harm than a bias toward disbelief.”
 Global Justice Center, Beyond Killing: Gender, Genocide & Obligations Under International Law, pp. 18-19 (Dec. 6, 2018), available at https://globaljusticecenter.net/files/Gender-and-Genocide-Whitepaper-FINAL.pdf.
 Samantha Power, “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide, pp. 485-86 (Harper Perennial 2002).
 U.N. Human Rights Council, “They came to destroy”: ISIS Crimes Against the Yazidis, ¶ 145 (June 15, 2016), available at https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/CoISyria/A_HRC_32_CRP.2_en.pdf.
When I started seeing the Grayzone, a website that describes itself as “dedicated to original investigative journalism,” touted in various Chinese media reports (see here and here) for a study that allegedly debunked the estimate of one million Uighurs detained in internment camps in Xinjiang, I felt like I had to read it. But to call the Grayzone piece an analysis – or even objective journalism – would be a serious overstatement. Instead, Ajit Singh and Max Blumenthal, the authors of “China detaining millions of Uyghurs? Serious problems with claims by US-backed NGO and far-right researcher ‘led by God’ against Beijing,” largely dedicate their piece to the character assassination of the two organizations/people who first estimated the one million figure: the Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) and Adrian Zenz, a social scientist at the European School of Culture & Theology and now a senior fellow at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.
By focusing almost exclusively on ad hominem attacks, Singh and Blumenthal conveniently ignore that subsequent data sources have confirmed a one million number as credible. And most absurdly, after portraying the CHRD and Zenz’s admissions that their numbers are merely estimates as a fatal flaw, Singh and Blumenthal completely fail to acknowledge why we can only estimate the number detained. The keeper of the exact numbers – the Chinese government – refuses to publish any numbers let alone permit international monitors to enter Xinjiang and conduct their own, independent, on-the-ground analysis.
Protest to free one million Uighurs, held in Geneva in 2018
But regardless of the uselessness of the Grayzone article, it is good to periodically question our assumptions and re-review where exactly the the one million number comes from. About a year ago, Jessica Batke, a senior editor at Asia Society’s ChinaFile and a former intelligence analyst at the U.S. Department of State, did just that, meticulously explaining why the one million estimate is likely not off the mark. This post largely summarizes Batke’s piece in the context of the Grayzone article.
Singh and Blumethal begin their piece by questioning the CHRD study which was based upon interviews with eight ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang. For Singh and Blumethal, drawing a conclusion of one million detained from just talking to eight people is preposterous. But the two choose to ignore the reasons why CHRD extrapolated one million detainees from its eight interviews. As Batke points out in her analysis, each of these eight Uighurs were from a different village in southern Xinjiang. Each person gave their estimate of the number of people who have gone missing in their village. Based upon that number, CHRD formulated a detention rate for each village which ranged between 8% and 20%. From those rates, CHRD chose a rather conservative estimate of a 10% Uighur detention rate province-wide, or, given that there are approximately 10 million Uighurs in Xinjiang, a one million detention number.
A prison camp in Xinjiang
Certainly there are things to question on CHRD’s numbers: how did each of these eight people know the number of people missing? Are they interned or did they just move? But Singh and Blumenthal do not ask these questions. Instead, for them, the death knell for the reliability of the CHRD estimate is the fact that CHRD receives funding from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). But they never explain why this link matters or provide any evidence that this funding somehow undermines the reliability of CHRD’s estimate.
Similarly, Singh and Blumenthal’s review of Adrian Zenz’s study is more focused on his religious and political viewpoints, and his current source of funding, rather than on the data itself. In the little attention the two give to Zenz’s data, they completely mischaracterize it. Singh and Blumenthal state that Zenz’s one million estimate was based upon numbers reported by Istiqlal TV, a Uigher television station based in Turkey that often features interviews with suspected terrorists, which Singh and Blumethal believe reflect Istiqlal’s inherent unreliability. But they conveniently leave out the fact that it was a Chinese public security official that leaked this data to Istiqlal TV, a fact later reported inNewsweek Japan. Batke also noted this fact in her careful analysis of Zenz’s one million estimate, highlighting that the Chinese-leaked data listed around 892,000 individuals in 68 different counties in Xinjiang as detained. However, as Zenz pointed out, the data was missing key population centers. But instead of simply assuming that the same detention rate applies to the missing population centers, a method that would produce much more than one million detained, Zenz did a deep dive on the missing population centers, taking into account important difference, and according to Batke, comes up with a conservative – and plausible – estimate of one million detained.
Satellite images show the rapid construction of camps in Xinjiang
Batke also highlights corroborating evidence: the satellite images and Chinese government documents that also point to an equally large number of Uighurs being detained. In October 2018, the BBC had experts review satellite images of the camps. That group of experts concluded that 44 of the camps had a high or very high likelihood of being security facilities and a separate team architects determined that in examining one of these facilities, it could hold anywhere from 11,000 people, if each inmate has his or her own room, to 130,000 people, assuming these are dormitories. Camp survivors have stated that they lived in cells with as many as 40 people. Batke noted that if we took the higher number of people detained – which seems to be credible given survivors’ accounts – there would only need to be 10 similarly-sized camps to get to the one million mark. Finally, as Batke points out, the Chinese government’s own documents – both its procurement documents and budget and spending reports –suggest that a very large number of people are being detained.
The one million estimate as the number of Uighurs detained is Xinjiang is not coming out of thin air. Four different sources – CHRD, Zenz, satellite images, government documents – all come to the same conclusion. Media outlets like ChinaFile and Quartz have also re-reviewed the data and found the one million estimate credible. These outlets actively engage the data, unlike But Singh and Blumenthal whose focus is more character assassination. Ultimately the only purpose that Singh and Blumenthal’s article serves is as a perfect example of the logical fallacy of argumentum ad hominem.
Last October, after denying the existence of internment camps in Xinjiang for over a year, the Chinese government finally admitted to their existence but claimed that they were nothing more than “vocational education and training centers.” Places where “students” – over one million of them and almost all Uighur and other Turkic Muslims – could rid themselves of Islamic extremism while simultaneously upgrading their job skills. But camp survivors’ stories paint an entirely different, and much darker picture. In story after story, former detainees talked about the prison-like conditions, of being held for months to years without access to the outside world, of physiological and physical abuse, and punishment solely for practicing their faith. Women have consistently spoken of rape, forced sterilization and forced abortion. Unfortunately, with the Chinese government’s refusal to allow outside monitors unfettered access to the camps, these survivors’ stories could not be corroborated.
Until now. In the past two weeks, both The New York Times and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (“ICIJ”) have published two different troves of confidential Chinese government documents (the “Xinjiang Papers” and the “China Cables,” respectively) that confirm the unlawfully detention of Uighurs in what are essentially prisons. According to the Xinjiang Papers, any direct inquiry by relatives as to whether their detained family member has committed a crime, officials are to answer no but immediately follow it up with the assertion that the their family member still needs “education” to rid themselves of “unhealthy thoughts,” likening Islam to a disease.
Inside a Xinjiang Camp – looking more like a prison than a job skills class
ICIJ’s China Cables provide even more detail into the everyday operations of the prison camps. Detainees are kept in “double-locked” rooms at all times and are constantly watched, even in the bathroom. Preventing escapes is paramount and there must not be any “blind spots” in the video surveillance of the detainees. Guards are trained in “combat exercises” to ensure their immediate response if “something happens.” Detainees are forbidden from having cell phones and family visits are never in person; only periodic phone calls and occasional video chats are permitted. Detainees are forced to remain in the center for at least a year. And while the government documents refer to the camps as “vocational skills training centers,” it is apparent from the guidance provided to the camp administrators that the focus is to Sinicize the Uighurs and stamp out their religion. In fact it is only after a year of ideological indoctrination do some – not all – detainees continue on for a three to six month “skills improvement” training, a training that is more responsive to future employers’ needs than to the individual’s.
In no way did the Chinese government ever want these documents released. And the people who leaked these documents to the New York Times and to ICIJ put their lives on the line to stop the mass atrocities in Xinjiang. According to Margaret K. Lewis, a professor of Chinese law at Seton Hall University, at least some of these documents would be considered state secrets. “What is a state secret is very vague, can be defined retroactively and doesn’t need to be stamped ‘state secret’ to be considered a state secret,” Lewis told me when I asked her about the leak of the Xinjiang documents. Under China’s Criminal Law (“CL”), leaking state secrets is a serious offense, carrying a sentence anywhere from 10 years to life where the circumstances are especially serious (CL, Art. 111), which one would think is present here. A death sentence is possible if the leak causes particularly grave harm (CL, Art. 113).
“They could also be charged with subverting state power,” Lewis told me. “It’s not just what the documents were but also why they were giving these to foreigners” Lewis continued. Like state secrets, subverting state power (CL, Art. 105) can carry up to a life sentence and if the person colluded with foreigners in the subversion, arguably what the whistleblowers did here, then the law requires that the punishment be severe (CL, Art. 106). But, unlike state secrets, subverting state power is not subject to the death penalty. In pressing Lewis further on what she thought the whistleblowers would be charged with and what type of sentence they would get, Lewis was clear: “This is less of a legal question and more of a political one.” To Lewis, it will come down to what is best for President Xi Jinping: is it better to make an example of the whistleblowers, or are the whistle blowers high enough officials that publicly identifying who they are could be an embarrassment to the Chinese government, and thus their prosecution may never be public. Under Article 183 of China’s Criminal Procedure Law, state secrets trials are closed to the public.
“The one thing that is certain,” Lewis told me “is, if the whistleblowers are caught, they will experience long-term detention and suffering.” And their families. “You’re not just putting yourself at risk, but also your loved ones,” Lewis said. “Whoever this person is, I am grateful for the risks taken to bring the documents to light.”
Protest in Brussels Calling on the EU to Speak Up Against the Internment of Uighurs
These whistleblowers must have known the high costs associated with leaking the documents. But still they determined that it was worth it; that the world must know precisely what is happening in the Xinjiang prison camps; that Uighurs are unnecessarily suffering at the hands of the Chinese government; and that it must be stopped. But since the release of the China Cables on Sunday, only the United Kingdom and Germany have demanded that China provide unfettered access to United Nations human rights observers. But where is everyone else? Where is the United Nations’ response? Will Antonio Guterres, the current Secretary General who has stayed mum for the last two years about China’s treatment of Uighurs, finally condemn China’s actions? And while the United States issued a strong statement, it could do more. The Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act is just sitting in the House; the State Department has yet to call call for the UN to be given unfettered access to Xinjiang; and Treasury makes no mention of Maginsky Act sanctions against some of the high-level officials named in the Xinjiang papers. And what about Australia, Japan, Canada, or any of the Arab nations? Finally, where is the International Olympic Committee? Do we really want Beijing’s 2022 Olympics to be a replay of Nazi Germany’s 1936 Games?
I can only hope that in the next few days I can add more countries to this post as ones that spoke out. But more than anything, I hope that these countries and organizations unite to take action to stop the crimes against humanity currently occurring in Xinjiang. Individuals in China have put their lives on the line. It’s time the rest of the world follow suit and have the courage to act.
Uighur protester outside of China with a mask with the flag of East Turkestan and a Chinese flag covering her mouth
Last week, the Washington Post published my op-ed where I argued that what is being perpetrated against Uighur and other Turkic Muslim women – rapes, forced sterilization, forced abortion – are all crimes against humanity. Since publishing that piece, many have asked why I decided to describe these acts as crimes against humanity? Why am I not calling it genocide? Or at least cultural genocide?
In the past few months, many have stated that the Chinese government’s actions in Xinjiang are akin to cultural genocide. The government’s widespread razing of mosques; its destruction of Muslim burial grounds; its prohibition against certain religious baby names; its mass internment of 1.5 million Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims for no crime other than being Muslim; all of these reflect a Chinese government intent on destroying the Uighur culture and “Sinicize” them, making it cultural genocide. But cultural genocide is not a crime under international law and thus, brings with it no legal duty for the world to stop it nor any punishment for the perpetrators. In fact, the drafters of the Genocide Convention intentionally rejected the concept. Instead, genocide under the Convention is limited to the biological or physical destruction of the group coupled with an intent to destroy. When I spoke with Deborah Mayersen, a lecturer at the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defense Force Academy and an expert in the field of genocide studies, she was clear that she didn’t think that the situation in Xinjiang was genocide. “I do think there are warning signs, but at the moment [China] is not heading toward genocide” she told me. “There would need to be some sort of disruption – an economic disruption perhaps that can be blamed on the Uighurs – for [China] to be on the trajectory toward genocide.”
“But we do have a fairly clear case of crimes against humanity” Mayersen emphasized. Unlike genocide, crimes against humanity is not governed by a specific treaty. Instead, it has developed through international customary law, with its use at Nuremberg, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda among other instances. Crimes against humanity include acts that attack the very soul of a people and its culture: murder, extermination, torture, arbitrary detention, forcible transfer of a population, rape, sexual violence, forced sterilizations, apartheid. It might sounds a lot like genocide, but unlike genocide, these crimes do not require an intent to biologically destroy, an element we don’t yet have in Xinjiang. Instead, acts that constitute crimes against humanity merely need to be part of a widespread or systemic attack directed at a group, with the perpetrator’s knowledge that his or her acts are part of this larger attack.
Because crimes against humanity is a legally recognized doctrine, it “brings with it the responsibility to protect” Mayersen told me, citing to a 2005 U.N. Resolution, signed by all 193 UN member states. Under that Resolution, the international community is required to take quick and decisive action to protect the targeted group.
Protest in Brussels Calling on the EU to Speak Up Against the Internment of Uighurs
The unlawful internment of 1.5 million Uighurs and the removal of Uighur children from their families alone constitute crimes against humanity. And rape and forced sterilization have been considered crimes against humanity for decades. Sexual violence against women was a basis for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Tribunal (ICT) for the Former Yugoslavia and of the ICT for Rwanda. In 2013, the U.N. Human Rights Council, in its inquiry report on North Korea and after conducting a number of victim interviews, found sufficient evidence for a charge of crimes against humanity for the rape, forced abortions and sexual violence perpetrated against women.
Because there is more than sufficient evidence that what is happening in Xinjiang is crimes against humanity, activists, journalists and others must refer to it as such. Only then is the world required to act. To call it anything less gives the world a free pass and permits the Chinese government to continue to engage in its destruction of the Uighur people and their culture.
Mihrigul Tursun (L), testifying at the CECC hearing
Sitting in a hearing room in Congress, in a gray plaid hijab, her dark blond hair poking out, Mihrigul Tursun begins to cry. She is there to share the plight of her fellow Uighurs in Xinjiang. Her translator reads aloud Tursun’s prepared statement about her three separate detentions by the Chinese government in Xinjiang’s internment camps. As the translator recounts Tursun’s first detention — upon her release, she learned that one of her 4-month-old triplets had died — Tursun struggles to hold back tears. Click here to read the entire op-ed
October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong declares the founding of the PRC
This October 1 marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (“PRC”) and to all our friends in China, China Law & Policy wishes you a happy birthday!
On Tuesday Chinese flags will be everywhere, flying outside of most homes across the Mainland. And make no mistake, flying these flags come from a place of pride for most Chinese. Seventy years ago, Mao Zedong, standing atop the gate at Tiananmen in Beijing, didn’t just declare the founding of the People’s Republic of China. He also declared the end to China’s “century of humiliation.” Starting with the 1842 Treaty of Nanking between the British and the decaying Qing dynasty, China was forced to sign a series of unequal treaties – treaties that gave up their land and sovereignty to foreign powers and that opened them to the ravages of the opium trade all to the economic benefit of these foreign powers. In 1931, Japan did physically what the Western countries were essentially doing on paper: invade China, taking full control of the northeastern provinces in Manchuria and setting up a puppet government that solely served the Japanese. This invasion would mark Japan’s start of a murderous march through the rest of China, eventually extending its control down to Hong Kong and brutally ruling China for more than a decade.
In the seventy years since the founding of the People’s Republic, and after multiple setbacks by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (“CCP”) – think the Great Leap Forward, Hundred Flowers Bloom, the Cultural Revolution – China has become a the second largest economy in the world, a global superpower with ability to influence other countries, and more than 850 Chinese people have lifted themselves out of poverty.
As National Day nears, protests in Hong Kong continue
But this year’s celebration finds China at a crossroads, where the government is discovering that its influence – and the model that will celebrate on Tuesday – is not necessarily welcomed in other parts of the world let alone in its own backyard. The Chinese government’s massive human rights violations in Xinjiang – with the unlawful internment of 1.5 million Muslim Uyghurs – has subjected it to fervent criticism from Western governments and Japan. The semi-autonomous region of Hong Kong has been roiled with protests for the last four months, with most Hong Kongers rejecting Beijing’s model and increasing encroachment on their rights. And Taiwan remains a thorn in Beijing’s side, with Beijing trying to further isolate Taiwan from the global community, only to further alienate the Taiwanese people from ever wanting reunification with the Mainland. And even on the Mainland there continues to be demands for reform, even with the Chinese government’s constant assault on human rights lawyers and activists.
Tuesday morning, the CCP will put on a spectacular show – thousands of soldiers marching perfectly in unison; some of Beijing’s newest military toys will be shown off; and the Chinese people will be there, celebrating their spectacular rise. But birthdays are more than just a chance to celebrate how far we have come; they are also a time to contemplate where we want to go. And hopefully, for the Chinese people and for continued peace in this world, the CCP will take the time to think about who it wants to be .
Want to read more about China’s National Day? Here are some new pieces/shows that have come out for National Day that are worth your time.
Today, China Law & Policy concludes its interview series for the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre. Today, we are joined with Andréa Worden. Andréa is a noted China expert, human rights advocate and she will be teaching a course on human rights in China at John Hopkins University this fall. But back in the spring of 1989, she was an English teacher at Hunan Medical University in Changsha, China. And as a result, experienced firsthand the student protests that were happening in Changsha and then the subsequent crackdown.
Andréa has written about her experience, first, as a chapter in a book containing accounts of some of the pro-democracy protests outside of Beijing and then 15 years later, for China Rights Forum. Today, she’s going to talk to us about some of her experiences there.
Listen to the full audio of the interview here (total time 40 minutes):
CL&P: So Andréa, just to start, what started the protests in Beijing, for the Beijing students it was the death of Hu Yaobang back in, I believe, April of 1989 and that kicked off a lot of the pro-democracy protests there. For your students in Changsha, what were their reactions to Hu’s death, or did something else cause them to start protesting?
AW: Well first, Elizabeth, it is great to be with you again in the run up to the anniversary of June 4, and I really appreciate your taking the time to talk with me about this incredibly important event. I wanted to mention that, just first off, something that is not particularly well known is the fact that in more than 340 cities in China during the spring of 1989, there were protests. Likely that number is much higher. That figure comes from the compiler of the Tiananmen Papers.
I recently saw a figure online, unfortunately without a cite, it was the Wiki on the Tiananmen protests that mentioned the number 400 [cities with protests in 1989]. But my own feeling is that it’s probably even more than that becau
The distance between Changsha and Beijing.
se some of my students in Changsha were from fairly small towns in Hunan. When they went home during this period of April and May of 1989, they said even in their very small hometowns, villages even, there were protests. So it was truly nationwide and unfortunately, we probably will never know the full scope of the pro-democracy protests in China.
So right, April 15 was the day that Hu Yaobang passed away. We know that was obviously a critical moment in Beijing, and that’s what launched the student protests in Beijing. Also, in Changsha, many people were very sad when they heard the news. Hu Yaobang actually is from Hunan, so there was this sense of “he’s our native son” who was viewed very much by many people as being sort of a hero and somebody that they really had hope for, as somebody who supported intellectuals, who supported the students, and was very much involved in the economic reforms and some political reform under Deng.
My particular school. . .so Hunan Medical University medical students, they have a reputation for not being particularly political. But there were a few universities on the other side of the river that goes right through Changsha that were known to be very active politically both earlier in 1979 and 1980, and there’s also an election movement during that time period at those colleges. Those colleges include Hunan University, South Central Industrial University, and Hunan Teachers College. Then it was also known as Hunan Normal University. Over on that side of the river, the other side of the river, there were mourning activities or events [for Hu Yaobang], but no major protest as far as I know, yet.
CL&P: When your students in Changsha at the Hunan Medical University, when they started seeing the students in Beijing protest at Tiananmen Square, what were their reactions to it? Did they talk to you about it? Did they feel like they could talk to you about it?
AW: A few of my students that I had become quite close to as good friends, they felt very comfortable I think speaking with me about it. They were excited. They were sort of amazed, and there was really this sense of hope that students could come together on such a massive scale and speak out about the things that they also very much felt. Those things ranged from inflation, which was really a huge problem then at that time. My students felt it personally when the prices at the cafeteria went up, like doubled, and some of them said, “My parents can’t afford this.”
AW: So there was that on a very personal, practical level. But then also corruption was everywhere. That became a big theme of the movement both in Beijing and in Changsha. Corruption, inflation and then certainly freedom, democracy. Regardless of what they might have viewed democracy as being or how they might define it, my clear sense was a lot of this was about personal freedoms, more personal freedom, certainly freedom of speech, freedom of expression.
Protests in Changsha the Spring of 1989; taken by Andréa Worden
CL&P: So in Changsha itself, when did the protests really take off? You mentioned that they were two different areas of universities and you were in the area on the other side of the river with Hunan Medical University. When did your students start participating in the protests or most of the university students at Hunan Medical start participating?
AW: So the students on the other side of the river – the more politically-active side of town – they had organized demonstrations, we could say a smaller-ish demonstration or just a gathering, on April 15th. Just really, truly mourning this leader. And of course, in China mourning a leader that has passed invariably ends up commenting on the current leadership, even implicitly. So that was happening.
The other folks, the more active folks organized demonstrations for April 22nd, April 26th and May 4. I should say also I don’t have complete information. So there may well have been more than this. This is what I have noted and I’ve written in my article that you’ve mentioned.
So at this point still my students were definitely, I think, interested in watching. Some I’m sure went out to maybe peek and take a look, but the students, the Hunan Medical University students were not yet actively involved en masse.
CL&P: Did they ever become involved en masse?
AW: Yes, they did. Yes. Let me tell you a little bit about that. It was this sort of. . . they were watching things very, very carefully. They were able to get information from the VOA and the BBC over. . .
CL&P: Yeah, a shortwave radio.
AW: Yeah, exactly. So Voice of America and the BBC from England, they were able to get that over a shortwave radio. And so what would happen – of course not everybody had a shortwave radio – but the people who did would write out on large poster board or pieces of paper, they would write out news from Beijing. They’d plaster these large pieces of paper of all over the city or actually in main areas, certainly at all universities and at big intersections people were watching, were looking around.
Also, there were certainly, there were hints on the evening news. A dialogue with the students in Beijing was coming up. This was also of course televised. [Ed. Note: During the course of the pro-democracy protests in Beijing, the central government held three dialogues with the Tiananmen student leaders – April 29, May 14 and May 18. All three were televised; some live, some on tape-delay]
So there was that and there were also of course at this point too, it’s something called chuanlian [串联], which is the students networking or people networking across cities, across boundaries, across the country to try to mobilize other students as well as workers. This was a term I think that came from the Cultural Revolution. Some of the Changsha student leaders were going up to Beijing and they were bringing back information.
So basically what happened at my school – again, probably one of the last schools to get very involved – was one [dorm] room of male students from my class, they decided to fast, to hunger strike or fast [after] one of the days the students had started their hunger strike in Beijing on May 13, and this really moved people. [Ed. Note: Andréa clarified this timeline in a follow up conversation with CL&P. She recalled this group of her students going on their hunger strike a few days after Beijing students did, on May 17, 1989.]
So they [the small group of Hunan Medical male students] were inspired and moved by the students who were hunger striking in Beijing and they said, “We had to do something. We couldn’t just sit here and go to class and not do anything, right?”
A photo from Andréa taken on May 17, 1989 in Changsha showing some of the hunger strikers in front of the provincial government headquarters
So anyways, on May 17, one group of this one room of these young [male] students put a sign up on their door and they said that they would just fast for one day and they weren’t encouraging anybody else to do anything. This was just something these however many boys, I can’t remember, six, eight, had decided they were going to do as a group. So that also inspired so many people at Hunan Medical University. So when some of the girls in our class found out what the boys were doing, they thought “oh, we can’t [not do anything]. We have to support this too.”
So anyway, it kind of went room by room, or dorm room by dorm room. The girls got involved and the students from other classes heard what was happening. Word travels fast. Basically very soon there was a lot of hubbub and momentum, people were fasting for the day, wanting to show support for the students in Beijing.
I wanted to share this story in part because it shows how important one person – or here seven people – deciding to do one thing, this personal act of protest, how that can just totally truly spark a much larger movement or event or action because it has a sort of amazing ripple effect of just inspiring other people to take action.
So that evening the students, the student union leaders, got onto the loud speaker, and announced on the loud speaker that the Hunan Medical University was going to participate in the city-wide demonstration that was going to be held that night. I don’t think that was just a coincidence. It might have been, but. . . .
CL&P: Right. So at Hunan Medical University, once this started around May 17th, the hunger strikes and then the student union leaders announcing that the university was going to participate, what happened with classes? Did they kind of just stop or did students try to balance classes or was it. . . .
AW: So that’s a really good question and they were like on and off. My recollection of this whole period was not a whole lot was happening in terms of classes. I think there was some coursework happening. I recall my students were feeling very stressed about missing classes. They were very obviously concerned about their grades, but they certainly also wanted to participate so there yeah, some classes were being held on certain days but there were other times when basically it was like every day seemed to be a demonstration; there were class boycotts, there were hunger strikes, there were sit-ins. Also, there started to become worker strikes as well. And some students just went home.
CL&P: In the reaction of the female students, I know in your essay “Despair and Hope: A Changsha Chronicle,” you actually do discuss about how the 1989 protests and the movement that was catching the nation was actually in some ways empowering to female students who engaged in the protests. Can you talk maybe a little bit more about that? And put it in a little bit more of a context?
Changsha shopowners providing free tea to the students to show their support – a photo by Andréa Worden from May, 1989
AW: Changsha came alive during this period of time, so roughly let’s say early May or mid-May through June 4, and it was incredible to witness that. There had been such a feeling of hopelessness beforehand and also this feeling of just total boredom and depression that people felt like they had no [choices]. One student had said, “Oh, I thought I was going to go to college and leaving my parents, and was excited about more freedom,” and he said, “When I got to Hunan Medical University it was like I was in prison.”
They had so many rules and were so tightly controlled and they had to sort of watch every step that they took and just be very, very careful. They just felt truly oppressed or repressed, suppressed. They couldn’t really express their individuality. There was a lot of conformity. You had to say the right the thing, you had to act a certain way, and I think students kind of particularly enjoyed our English, not just mine but my fellow English teachers, our classes because we were sort of like, “Okay, you can come to English class and you can say whatever you want.”
We encouraged them obviously to say how they felt and write essays about kind of interesting topics. I think they also felt that they could say more in English than they could in their Chinese classes in terms of maybe possibly “sensitive issues.” They were still kind of watching because they had to still be careful, they were watching sort of what they were saying but it was a breath of fresh air, our classes. I think that they didn’t have much of that elsewhere. So that period when the demonstrations had started, when people were sort of writing these wall posters, when they are out and about looking at and watching the demonstrations or just talking among themselves, the students were talking among themselves, what’s happening? What’s happening in Beijing? Where is this going? Or analyzing what was happening on the political level. Clearly there was a split that was coming to the fore between Li Peng and the hardliners, and Zhao Ziyang. People were very busy talking about that, analyzing this, where was it going to go? What was happening? They were talking about also the dynamics among the schools in Changsha. So it was just this heady time. Basically everyone I think, many people felt they had now the space and the freedom to speak out, including women.
So that was fantastic to see both because they looked so alive, they looked so engaged and happy and sort of free, really free. Anyway, both the men and the women, so the female and the male students, but I think it was interesting because the male students would kind of be quite surprised and sometimes I was too when they would see one of their female classmates who had been perhaps quite maybe fairly demure, shy, didn’t seem to be thinking about much of anything, making speeches on the corner, on the street corner in Changsha about large ideas and large principles of freedom, transparency, accountability, democracy, what do we do about corruption. Just talking, talking, talking.
So in that respect I think everybody felt empowered and that was wonderful. It was inspiring to see and it was also, I think they all inspired each other and I think just people took a particular pleasure at seeing the female students step up into that role.
CL&P: Then so on May 20th, 1989, martial law was declared. What was the reaction in Changsha?
AW: I also should back up a little bit. April 26  was the day The People’s Daily issued this editorial that declared the Beijing protests, what was happening in Tiananmen Square, declared it to be “turmoil.” So dongluan [动乱]. These sort of naïve – they didn’t use the word naïve – but students were being taken advantage of by a small handful of people who were anti-party, who were anti-socialist.
Very hard line, they didn’t acknowledge the students’ patriotism, which was very much front and center in Beijing and also Changsha. People [protesting] were very, very clear that they loved their country; they loved China. They were unhappy about the political system. They were very unhappy about corruption and they were looking for change and more freedoms. So that editorial, just like in Beijing, caused a huge reaction [in Changsha]. Anyways, so more protests, then in terms of May 20, Changsha, the people in Changsha were reacting to what was happening in Beijing.
When martial law was declared – it was the night of May 19th but actually it was supposed to take effect May 20 – people were very upset, very despondent. They felt like okay, this is done. Again it was despair. Our country is going to mobilize the army against us, against the people, against the students and so it was horrible. They felt betrayed.
CL&P: So just. . . and when martial law was declared, how did you feel? Were you scared?
AW: So I sort of felt similarly to my students. I had noted in my article, there was this feeling of “how could our government be so cruel?” So it was this alternation between feeling hopeful and feeling disempowered and just feeling despair. I felt, I couldn’t believe it. I was also just felt absolutely. . . .I also felt depressed and just thinking “oh, this is not going to end well,” but I wasn’t actually scared in Changsha.
As it became clear pretty quickly that troops were not going to proceed into the sort of inner city of Beijing or to Tiananmen, they were sort of stuck on the outside of suburbs, and that there was so
Army troops in Beijing when martial law was declared. The students were able to push them back without incident
much popular support. That then, once the students in Beijing went back out on the streets after May 20th, or maybe that was even the night of May 20th. Anyway, they went back after this [martial law] was declared because they saw that the people were essentially on their side and so when that happened there was this other wave of . . . . [Ed. Note: When martial law was declared, the Chinese government had organized the Beijing division of the army to stop the protests. However the student, workers and citizen protesters stopped the troops from entering the city and, with no shots fired, pushed the troops back.]
CL&P: Wave of hope.
AW: . . . hope. It’s like okay, there is a possible hopeful outcome for all of this.
CL&P: Then did the students in Changsha continue to protest when they saw the Beijing students?
AW: They did, yes. They absolutely did. Right, so that news from Beijing, about essentially the people of the city stopping the advancement of the troops, definitely gave the people of Changsha and the students in Changsha sort of a renewed sense of hope, yes. They continued to protest in various ways.
CL&P: Then the night of June 3rd into the morning of June 4th is the massacre at Tiananmen Square. So the massacre [also] in and around Tiananmen Square that occurred the night of June 3rd into the morning of June 4th, how did you learn about it?
AW: So I learned about. . . I learned about it from my students actually. So they had gotten up earlier than me on Sunday morning. That was a Sunday morning, June 4. And a handful of them came running over to our, excuse me, to the Yale-China house where the teachers were and were yelling to us from outside and just to say what had happened and they again had heard from. . . not only I guess at this point VOA but also the government was starting to spin this.
Actually one other thing I wanted to say that was also actually incredibly hopeful there was a three week period in May where the newspapers, the journalists probably throughout China, were actually reporting the real news, which was incredible, including in Changsha. So the Changsha Evening News – it’s just something I would read – they were reporting what was happening in Beijing, actual real news because there was sort of this opening.
CL&P: Ostensibly the newspaper would still be government-controlled. . . .
CL&P: . . . but they were still writing the truth.
AW: Right, because they were protesting. The journalists, journalists were protesting on Tiananmen Square. Yes. They’d gotten involved. And also Shanghai there were large journalist protests, so that’s a whole other piece of the story that’s fascinating.
But anyway, so the morning of June 4, people were just incredibly upset, everybody. Some people were showing it more vividly. They were manifesting their emotions in sort of a more visible way than others, but we were just. . . . I remember just personally being floored, amazed, sort of incredibly depressed and also really felt for my students; they were very upset about the news.
We also just kind of couldn’t believe it. It’s unbelievable, right? The People’s Liberation Army opening fire on unarmed protestors. Peaceful protesters. So that is a vivid memory of learning about that from my students that morning.
Then after that, so June 4 later in the day and June 5, probably even into June 6th there were – yes, definitely into June 6 – there were definitely, there were protests against the military suppression.
CL&P: In Changsha?
AW: In Changsha. They were protesting. Also again, this is another part of the untold story. There are many, many untold stories of the spring of sort of April 15 to June 6, 7, 1989 and this is one of them. There were many, many, many cities throughout China where residents, workers, students were protesting against the violence in Beijing.
Photo taken by Andréa on June 5, 1989 – sign in Changsha that says “People of Changsha take action/rise up to support Beijing!”
CL&P: So after the Tiananmen Massacre on June 4th, other cities, including Changsha continued to protest even though they knew full well that there was a possibility their army could open fire on them.
AW: Yes. Right, so we know Louisa Lim has done a very nice job in her book, The People’s Republic of Amnesia, telling what she could find out about the Chengdu story. Still, she’s like, “There’s much we don’t know.” But she does a great job laying out what she’s been able to discover. I think also from other things that I’ve read it’s clear that the mobilization at that time of the military – June 3, 4 – that that very likely was a call across the country to all major cities. Because basically in Changsha, people kept saying there’s a rumor that troops are right outside the city. [Ed. Note: In our interview with Frank Upham about his experience in Wuhan during this time period, he too recollects the “rumor” that there were troops outside of Wuhan, ready to suppress the post-June 4 protests.]
And they’re going to come in at any time. And if you read other accounts in the book that you mentioned, The Pro-Democracy Protest in China: Reports from the Provinces, I see many of the other reports from the provinces, same thing. People were hearing that the troops were right outside the city ready to sort of. . . ready to come into the city and suppress protests as necessary. So there was basically a nationwide mobilization.
So people were kind of scared about that. That’s one moment where I was definitely feeling a bit scared because there was clearly an anti-Western turn, particular anti-American turn at this point. Not among the students or friends or faculty, but just overall politically. The CCP, the party secretary at the school and in Changsha, it was like this is an American. . . .Americans are behind this. Fang Lizhi taking refuge in the [US] Embassy with his wife. So this was all unfortunate because we then, the American teachers, were very concerned that we were going to become targets.
What was interesting about that time was that these protests also, sort of in a way became a bit more radical in they basically were causing – it was workers, it was students, it was residents. Many people were involved in blocking the train tracks so no trains could move. So the whole railroad operation was at a standstill.
Also, blocking major intersections. So they would corral buses and trucks. It was really, it was anarchy but it was peaceful anarchy in a way. These were actions that the Changsha populace supported.
There was debris in the streets. I remember the ride out to the airport. [Ed. Note: Andréa left Changsha on June 11, 1989]. The driver was trying to figure out how to get around all these roadblocks. We just saw there was a lot of sort of debris in the streets. So anyway, yeah, I’m not sure if I answered your question, but yeah, so they went on for a couple days but there was also a sense of who’s really in control? Also, again this fascinating feeling of this is so incredibly unusual.
With constant surveillence, don’t expect a Tiananmen protest anytime soon
CL&P: So your experience in the spring of 1989 in Changsha, what impact did it have on you?
AW: It was an incredible moment, incredible time. It was very dramatic. So our exit [on June 11, 1989], our leaving, we left very abruptly. It was really sort of an evacuation. Yale-China Association essentially said, “There will be a plane and you are getting on it and you are coming back.” Our parents were of course like, “Get out of there.” As we were leaving, many people said, “we don’t know what’s going to happen and you have to tell the world what happened here in Changsha.” Because people knew that they wouldn’t then be able to write about it or talk about it or even develop their photographs.
I was thinking about this recently. When I was out watching the protests and sort of taking photographs and documenting, just noting down some of the wall posters, some of the slogans, everyone had a camera, or some people had cameras and were taking photos. Where are all those photos? After June 4 people could not get that film developed. So where did all that go? There’s all this sense of this missing history and I think also people realizing they were not going to be able to tell their story. [Ed. Note: On May 31, 2019, Jian Liu, a student protestor in Beijing in 1989, developed some of his rolls of film from that time.]
I think they were very proud that they came out to support Beijing, to support the students and the workers. So the Changsha workers also got very involved in all of this, which of course made everybody in the government, Party folks, the most nervous. They felt really proud because this was such an empowering moment for them and they were like “we did something here. We didn’t succeed in the end. We want the world to know. We want people to know.” So I did feel this sense of like wow, returning to the US, I had this new sense of feeling very appreciative of the freedoms we have here and the rights that we have here. And that the absence of these rights and freedoms were just so apparent immediately once it was clear that the hardliners [Li Peng, etc.] had won this battle. That people wouldn’t be able to talk about this, and that. . .again, they had to toe the party line. My students had told me that they had two weeks of mandatory political education in the fall of I think it was, yeah, fall or maybe the summer, later in the summer.
Some of them said it was horrible. Some of them totally bought the party line. So anyway, so I felt very much like I wanted to do something to help support the democracy movement in China because it wasn’t going away. These feelings were. . . and these desires, these wants, were felt widely in China and I wanted to do what I could with the freedoms that I have to support their efforts. So when I got back I was starting a PhD program in Chinese History at Stanford, but I was quite involved in Human Rights in China [HRiC], it was just starting to get going – the organization Human Rights In China – doing what I could to help. Also to try to tell the story I helped put the book together, Children of the Dragon, for Human Rights in China. So, I have been involved on and off in various ways over the years in this cause. It’s basically taken on different forms and shapes over the years.
CL&P: What do you think ultimately is the legacy of the Tiananmen Massacre?
AW: So probably there are a few different answers to that. I think it’s an important question. One aspect of the legacy, or one legacy. . .there is very much, what did the Chinese Communist Party learn from this? Deng Xiaoping early on said that this is all – it’s in the Tiananmen Papers and it’s in Zhao Ziyang’s “secret journal,” The Prisoner of the State – the transcription of his audio tapes – that Deng felt that they had been too lax with ideological work.
So early on, in ’87, maybe end of ’86, there had been student protests then followed by the anti-bourgeois liberalization campaign and the anti-spiritual pollution campaign. It’s right when I arrived in China. I was a little bit nervous about that. But the people, they were like, “Oh, don’t worry about it.” I was in Tianjin. I spent the first six months in Tianjin and the teachers and the folks that I interacted with in Tianjin were like, “Oh, don’t worry.”
I’d see signs up everywhere about anti-this, anti-that. Essentially anti-western kind of everything. They [the people] would just say, “No, you’re so welcome here. Don’t worry. Don’t pay attention to any of that. We’re not paying attention to it.” So basically Deng was like “this [Tiananmen] is because of lax ideological work.” So we see now 30 years later, Xi Jinping, you cannot say that he’s lax.
CL&P: Yeah. He’s anything but.
Current Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) – is he just a little Mao?
AW: He’s anything but. Right. Over the years, since 1989, there have been moments that were a bit more open. But the overall trend has been “not lax.” And control of information of course, censorship as the internet grew, of course media censorship – so not lax.
So there’s that aspect of essentially political education and indoctrination, ideological education. We see that now tenfold, a hundred fold in Xinjiang with what’s happening with the Uighurs. They’re in concentration camps, probably 1.5 million all told and very much of this is about political education, forced education among other things. So forced ideological kind of education. So one aspect is this, that we have to sort of control information, control thought.
But there’s also just the physical, this physicality, if you will, of the protest. Now it’s physically impossible with all of the surveillance cameras and everything. They want to prevent you from even having the thought of protesting. That’s what a lot of the ideological education is about. And also of course everything is watched and surveilled. So you can’t even mobilize people, like five people. . . . it’s very difficult to mobilize even five or 10 people to do anything. So, it’s extremely hard to imagine a scenario where people are back on Tiananmen Square.
Also, of course another lesson was we need to train people’s armed police, armed forces. We need to be able to also have trained police, quasi-military forces, whatever, to deal with anything that might happen. Like essentially riot police, if you will. So they’ve got that whole aspect of things totally also nailed down.
Obviously we do see these sort of spontaneous or very small efforts here and there, but they’re immediately shutdown. So I think no more Tiananmens is of course a big legacy, and no little Tiananmens in terms of the protest. Then also of course in terms of the legacy, this is such a sensitive issue for the Communist Party, this whole period, particularly the massacre and the incredible spin they put. The story they’ve told that they continue now 30 years later to detain people who might mention June 4 or write something trying to commemorate June 4. One recent example is the folks, the four people in Chengdu I believe with the June 4 liquor labels. [Ed. Note: In 2016, a few people in Chengdu created a liquor label for a few bottles of Chinese rice wine – called “bai jiu” – a sound similar to the word for 1989 – “ba jiu” – with pictures of a man stopping a line of tanks. These men were arrested for subverting state power and were recently sentenced.]
CL&P: Yes. Yes.
The baijiu bottle that resulted in arrests and sentences for four indivduals
AW: I think it was even like one bottle. Then it was like three-year or four-year sentences for that.
So, it’s that level of insecurity, of absolute intolerance toward any sort of expression around June 4 and commemorating the dead, those who were killed. Some have also called to re-designate those protests as patriotic and as not turmoil, something that is going to continue to be something that people will continue to call for. But the CCP, I can’t imagine them really doing that. It would seriously have to be major political reform for that to happen. But one day I’m hopeful, one day that that will indeed happen. [Ed. Note: Rights Lawyer Teng Biao echoed a similar sentiment in his interview: that the Tiananmen protests will not be remembered on mainland China unless there is significant political reform. For him, that is democracy in China.]
And that particularly I wanted to also just mention the group The Tiananmen Mothers. [These are] family members who lost loved ones in Beijing June 3 and 4 in 1989 and who have just been an amazing force to try to uncover – because the Chinese government isn’t and is trying to suppress this information – trying to uncover the names and identities and sort of details about who was killed that night. They’re still at it. They’re calling for an investigation, for compensation and for an apology. Anyway, it’s important to also honor their efforts and their loss.
CL&P: Yeah. Well, I want to thank you and also echo your sentiments that there’s still a lot of brave Chinese that are still trying to commemorate what happened on June 4th and the bravery of their fellow citizens. But I want to also thank you for also writing down your stories and remembering for the Chinese people who can’t right now develop their photos of what happened during that time period and commemorate it in the way they can. So thank you again, Andréa for sharing and do you have any last words?
Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo (with megaphone) protesting at Tiananmen, spring 1989. He would latter be sentenced to 11 years for participating in 2008’s Charter ’08 and would ultimately die will serving his term.
AW: Yes. Thank you so much. Although it’s a grim topic, if you will, I appreciate the opportunity to sort of share this with you. I do actually want to end on another note of hope, which is that another legacy of Tiananmen is also those people who continue to fight for democracy and human rights in China. For example, Charter ’08 and the Charter ’08 Movement, Liu Xiaobo and many others, many of the human rights lawyers, there is a direct line from 1989 through Charter ’08 to today.
So a lot of the activism is happening outside of China now, but there still are activists in China doing what they can in the very limited space that they have to essentially fight for human rights, for rule of law, and political freedom.
CL&P: Yes. Thank you for reminding us of that.
AW: Okay, thanks, Elizabeth.
CL&P: Thank you.
*********************************************************************************************************************** This ends China Law & Policy’s interview series, #Tiananmen30 – Eyewitnesses to History. If you missed our interview with Frank Upham who was in Wuhan in May and June 1989, please click here. If you missed our interview with human rights lawyer Teng Biao, who recounted the indoctrination he received after Tiananmen and then his awakening to the truth, click here.
Never forget the murder, but more importantly, never forget the hope
By now, most people have heard of One Belt, One Road (“OBOR”) – the Chinese government’s program to build up the infrastructure in developing countries across Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa. OBOR has largely been seen as a brick-and-mortar type of operation – building railroads, ports, pipelines. But in 2017, President Xi Jinping announced a new initiative within the government’s OBOR – promotion of a digital silk road.
And on Monday night, the China Institute hosted a discussion of that ambitious new program featuring Winston Ma, Managing Director and Chief Investment Officer of China Silkroad Investment Corporation, and moderated by Clay Shirky, a professor at New York University Arthur L. Carter Center of Journalism. But, while the event was advertised as to be a lively, thought-provoking one that would confront pressing issues such as whether China’s digital silk road will lead to China’s domination of global internet standards and whether China’s technology will actually help emerging economies, Ma and Shirky’s conversation ended up being shallow and, as one audience member stated, blindly “techno-optimistic.”
Camal on the Digital Silk Road
For sure, the event did highlight some of developments that the rest of the world should wake up and take notice of. Going from building physical infrastructure in the developing world to cyber infrastructure unmaksks the Chinese government’s grand ambition to open those markets to its companies and become a global superpower. And in some ways, as a country that developed simultaneously with the internet, China is uniquely situated to do that. As Shirky pointed out, China was more of a blank slate to develop, and continuously modernize, its internet infrastructure. The United States on the other hand, is saddled with the infrastructure of earlier telecommunications. Ma noted that this structural freedom enabled 800 million people to access the internet largely through mobile devices. In fact, China has by-passed the use of credit cards – moving from a cash-based economy to a mobile payment one. Cash is often not an accepted form of currency, even by street vendors. Instead, the only way to pay in many places is with the swipe of your phone. What happens to those 600 million people without phones – and thus access to this economy – was not addressed.
But Ma further noted that it is this type of technology – and way of thinking – that China is also seeking to export to emerging economies. The Taobao Villages – where farmers in rural areas can open an online “shop” and sell their produce or local crafts – is a model that could be replicated in other emerging economies. But is this good for the farmers in these other countries – to be dependent on exporting their craft goods to richer individuals? Is it even good for the Chinese farmers? Instead of demanding that their government do more for them – such as provide quality education, health care, and social benefits that are on par with east coast cities – they must settle for peddling their goods in a virtual mall. Unfortunately, these questions were not answered.
Surveillance in Xinjiang
Instead, both Shirky and Ma were unshaken in their commitment to the good that the internet and mobile devices can bring to all societies. Even when an audience member asked a pointed question about the use of this technology in surveilling and unlawfully detaining a million Muslims Uighurs in Xinjiang province, Ma evaded answering the question, instead re-focusing on antitrust issues. Shirky fared no better; he neither pressed Ma on the question nor rescued Ma from it by addressing it himself.
Ma was right to note that the global, technology infrastructure is the future and largely that future is still unwritten. That is why – as Shirky noted – it is dangerous for the United States to be backing out of so many global treaties and alliances when, as Ma stated, the world is on the cusp of writing “new norms for a new game.” Not only will the United States’ retreat from the global stage mean that U.S. businesses will be at a disadvantage for decades to come, but China will be the one writing those norms. And given how easily Ma ignored the question on surveillance and mass detention in Xinjiang and how quickly Shirky acquiesced, the question is, is this a good thing?
This coming Tuesday, the United Nations’ Human Rights Council will conduct China’s third periodic review. Given the increasing authoritarianism of the Xi Jinping regime, many countries and NGO’s have filed critical submissions to the UN and have listed questions that the Human Rights Council should ask the Chinese delegation in regards to the country’s current human rights violations. Expect the Chinese government’s illegal internment of millions of Uighurs in Xinjiang Autonomous Region to be a central issue.
Today, Caitlin Hickey, Joey Lee, Reece Pelley and Elisabeth Wickeri, advocates from Fordham Law School’s Leitner Center for International Law and Justice offer their insightful assessment of China’s major human rights violation: the continued – and increased – use of non-judicial, and at times illegal, arbitrary detention of people the Chinese government just doesn’t like. While arbitrary detention will certainly arise in the context of the Xinjiang internment camps, the authors, in their guest blog post below, remind us that it is a far more prevalent practice, impacting other vulnerable populations, and that the U.N. should not forget to question the Chinese delegation about the government’s treatment of these vulnerable populations.
Left Behind on the Road Towards “Human Rights with Chinese Characteristics”: China’s Universal Periodic Review and the Arbitrary Detention of Stigmatized Communities
Caitlin Hickey, Joey Lee, Reece Pelley, Elisabeth Wickeri*
As China prepares to present its human rights record before the full membership of the United Nations (UN) this Tuesday, we hear the beginnings of a familiar story. Leading up to its third appearance at the Universal Periodic Review (“UPR”)—a UN Human Rights Council mechanism through which each of the UN’s 193 Member States undergoes a human rights evaluation based on recommendations offered by fellow Member States—the Chinese government’s opening UPR statement invokes specialized national conditions, the unique needs of its people and its constant lodestar: “always following the road of developing human rights with Chinese characteristics.” “This is a road that takes the people as the center,” China explains, and “the road of human rights development always takes the well-being and interests of the people as the starting point and end result.”
But haven’t we been down this road before? Advocates for some of China’s most stigmatized communities certainly think so. These advocates have highlighted that these communities are far from the “center” and their “well-being and interests” are rarely considered. Since the UPR process began for all UN Member States in 2008—and arguably in most of China’s UN human rights interactions—certain vulnerable populations have been rendered effectively invisible. Of course, China’s most recent UPR statement proclaims that “it upholds the principle of the people’s primacy” while “promoting the comprehensive development and common prosperity of the people as a whole.” But who exactly is included in China’s definition of “the people”? And who gets left behind on China’s chosen “road” to human rights accountability?
A crackdown on some of China’s sex workers. Photo courtesy of Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
One group to pay particular attention to is China’s sex workers. Communities of sex workers and people who use drugs inhabit every corner of the world. In China, they are men and women, young and old, of all ethnicities, and of all sexual orientations and gender identities, living in rural and urban areas in every province, city, and village of the country. And they are among the most vulnerable in Chinese society as result of profound social stigma. In China, these communities face all manner of discrimination, including enormous barriers blocking equal access to health and employment, as well as violent physical and emotional abuse—not only from state law enforcement actors, but often from within their own families. These are precisely the kinds of marginalized populations who need their government to intervene and protect their fundamental rights, and yet they are often among the first to be left behind on China’s “road” toward “human rights with Chinese characteristics.”
A close look at China’s UPR statement makes clear how stigmatized communities like these sex workers have been at best forgotten and at worst purposefully excluded from government human rights efforts. This is especially apparent in China’s continued use of various forms of arbitrary detention. Since China’s second UPR cycle in 2013, China has rightly been praised by the international community for taking steps to eliminate one of the most long-lasting and widely condemned systems of arbitrary detention—the Reeducation Through Labor (“RTL”) system; in fact, China consistently showcases its efforts at abolishing RTL in its UPR statements. Yet, in eliminating the RTL system, China unfortunately has not committed itself to eliminating other forms of administrative detention that look and feel remarkably similar to RTL but specifically target stigmatized and marginalized groups. In the UPR report it prepared for Tuesday’s session, China affirms that it “continues to improve the conditions of custody and supervision to ensure that the personal security of detainees and prisoners is not violated.” However, for sex workers and people who use drugs who are held in China’s administrative detention systems, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Drug offenders exercise at a detention center in Shenyang in China’s northeastern Liaoning province. Photo courtesy of China OUT/AFP/Getty Images
The persistent arbitrary detention of sex workers and people who use drugs in China’s Custody and Education (“C&E”) [收容教育] and Compulsory Isolated Treatment (“CIT”) [强制隔离戒毒], administrative detention systems that have flourished even with RTL’s demise, are compelling examples of the invisibility of stigmatized populations in China’s UPR review; in fact nowhere in China’s 2018 UPR statement is there a focus on the rights of these groups. Sex workers and people who use drugs can be detained in C&E centers and under the CIT system respectively without judicial oversight or due process and without recourse to detainee protections otherwise guaranteed under Chinese law, all stemming from regulations that are overly broad in scope with vague definitions subject to politicized application.
Administrative detention under the C&E and CIT systems bear remarkable similarities to the system of RTL that China proudly announced to have abolished in 2013. In all these systems, individuals are exposed to risks of torture and other ill treatment—with documented detainee reports of inadequate healthcare, non-consensual medical testing, forced labor, and physical and mental abuse. Among many other troubling features, C&E centers subject detainees to long hours of forced, uncompensated labor, as well as compulsory and non-consensual physical examinations and medical testing. While in CIT, detainees rarely receive adequate healthcare or treatment and are subjected to forced labor and physical violence perpetrated by supervising employees. Additionally, while being weaned off drugs, CIT detainees are also subject to strenuous physical activity, denied critical medication or pain relief, and rarely offered counseling. Of course, ongoing systems of arbitrary detention are not limited to C&E and CIT. The detention camps in Xinjiang that subject Muslims to political indoctrination and substantial rights abuses bear the hallmarks of arbitrary detention in the context of China’s administrative detention framework. While RTL has been officially abolished, these systems persist, largely because of the invisibility of the populations who are detained within them – sex workers, people who use drug, China’s Muslims. On China’s “road of developing human rights with Chinese characteristics”—“a road that takes the people as the center”—it appears that certain populations just aren’t valued enough to be considered “people.”
Leitner team – (from L to R) – Joey Lee, Caitlin Hickey, Reece Pelley & Elisabeth Wickeri in Geneva last month.
Fortunately, despite this sense of déjà vu embarking on China’s well-worn path of UN human rights engagement, China’s upcoming third UPR offers the possibility for something different. The UPR is a mechanism through which each and every country undergoes a human rights review based on recommendations offered by UN Member States. China’s widely publicized and praised commitment during its second UPR in 2013 to abolish RTL came alongside a number of clear and direct recommendations from several UN Member States to do just that—eliminate RTL detention and commit to reforming China’s administrative detention system. These governments included France, Germany, Sweden, Canada, Belgium, the United Kingdom, and the United States. As the UN Member States gear up for China’s latest UPR on November 6, they must insist that China honor its commitment to “the people”—meaning all people, including stigmatized and vulnerable communities at the margins of Chinese society, including sex workers and people who use drugs in C&E and CIT detention. Perhaps for these groups, China’s third time at the UPR will be the charm, and the international community can bear witness to their lives, which have for so long been invisible in China’s human rights engagement at the UN.
*Joey Lee and Elisabeth Wickeri are lawyers with the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice at Fordham Law School; Caitlin Hickey and Reece Pelley are law student advocates. The Leitner Center works to strengthen rule of law and human rights protections for vulnerable populations worldwide. In particular, in cooperation with in-country partners, the Leitner Center works extensively with civil society organizations to support and empower vulnerable populations in the People’s Republic of China (“China”). Drawing upon the expertise and documentation of China-based partners as the basis for analysis and recommendations, the Leitner Center submitted a Stakeholder Submission in advance of China’s upcoming UPR, and participated in advocacy in the lead-up to its November 6 review.
***Correction – After this post was published, a reader with experience on Chinese visa issues informed China Law & Policy that it isn’t always that a news outlet cannot establish a permanent office because of economic costs or means, but also because the Chinese government will not allow certain news outlets to establish a permanent office, thus preventing those reporters the ability to obtain the J-1 visa. We have corrected the post to reflect this important difference and thank the person who informed us. EML, Sept. 10, 2018***
Buzzfeed’s Former Beijing Bureau Chief, Megha Rajagopalan
Every three years, the Chinese government has effectively expelled a foreign journalist from China. It started with Melissa Chan, an American journalist working for Al Jazeera, in 2012. In 2015, it was Ursula Gauthier, a French journalist for L’Obs. And last month it was Megha Rajagopalan, the Beijing Bureau chief of the online news magazine Buzzfeed.
With each expulsion of a foreign journalist comes speculation as to why. Why did the Chinese authorities fail to renew a visa or cancel a press card. The Chinese government hardly ever explains its reasons, citing that such failure to renew a visa was “in accordance with law.” But no law or regulation is ever cited, let alone a specific provision. As a result, most outside of China view the Chinese government’s decision having more to do with the reporter’s coverage of China than with any violated regulation. With Gauthier, the Chinese government was more explicit about its decision to cancel her press card, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) criticizing Gauthier by name because of her scathing editorial on the Chinese government’s treatment of the Uighurs, a Muslim ethnic minority, in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of China.
Here, there can be little doubt that it was Rajagopalan’s reporting that resulted in her effective expulsion from China. Under the law, MOFA clearly could have renewed Rajagopalan’s short-term journalist visa. For some reason, it chose not to
Rajagopalan’s Reporting on Xinjiang – Why Is the Chinese Government So Sensitive About This?
Like Gauthier, Rajagopalan had done some hard-hitting reporting on the Uighers in Xinjiang, with an October 2017 article exposing the Chinese government’s increased surveillance and its mass detention of Uighurs for no other reason than being Uighur. Reporting from Xinjiang, Rajagopalan’s article was one of the first to uncover the Chinese government’s frightening oppression of Uighurs. It also won her the Human Rights Press Awards’ Best Features Article (English) for that year. In July 2018, Rajagopalan followed up her ground-breaking piece with another explosive article that brought to light the Chinese government’s pressure tactics on Uighurs abroad, including threats to send their Xinjiang-based family to internment camps if they do not spy on other Uighurs.
Xinjiang has long been a sensitive area for the Chinese government, fearing that the Muslim Uighurs could launch a successful separatist movement. As a result, for over a decade, the Chinese government has instituted a national policy to “Go West,” encouraging ethnically Han Chinese to move to Xinjiang to develop this resource-rich area. With the Go West policy, Xinjiang’s population has changed dramatically, with a current Han population of 40%, compared to 6% in 1949. And with the increase in the Han population has come a decrease in the Uighur’s political clout and self-governance since Chinese Communist Party membership usually means giving up religion. Few of the ethnically Muslim Uighurs are atheists and hence, unable to join the Party, and thus unable to effect change in their own region. For example, when, in 2009, the Chinese government decided to destroy much of the the old city of Kashgar, a city that stood for centuries and was perhaps the most Uighur area of all of Xinjiang, the Uighurs were unable to stop it. Needless to say, such loss of power over their own destinies and the attempted destruction of their own cultural identity has not produced a population satisfied with Chinese rule.
Some of the routes on China’s One Belt, One Road
And Xinjiang’s importance to the Chinese government has only increased in recent years as Xinjiang is central to the success of China’s “One Belt, One Road” policy. Launched in 2013, One Belt, One Road is China’s very serious and well-funded attempt to exert economic influence globally. Xinjiang is the key land route to Central Asia and Europe, making it even more crucial that the Chinese government subdues the Uighur population. To do so, in 2015, the Chinese government passed two national laws that had an disparate, negative effect on the Uighurs of Xinjiang: the broadly-worded National Security Law, that equated religious “extremism” with terrorism, and the Counter-Terrorism Law, which gave security forces significant powers to prohibit “extremism.” Xinjiang was the first province to issue local regulations to carry out the precepts of the Counter-Terrorism law, including mandating governmental “aid and education” for those individuals who, while not convicted of any crimes, were induced into participating in terrorism or extremism, seemingly laying the groundwork for the mass detentions currently occurring. (See Xinjiang Implementing Regs of the Counter-Terrorism Law, Art. 38) And Rajagopalan’s article was one of the first to show that Uighurs were in fact being massively surveilled and detained in re-education internment camps without ever being tried – let alone convicted – of any crime. Instead it was the simple practice of their religion that the government viewed as “extremism.”
Since Rajagopalan’s October 2017 article, both by the United States Department of State and the United Nations estimate that close to a million Uighurs have been sent to these internment camps without any trial, all for the purpose of stamping out the Uighur identity. And there appears to be no end in sight with satellite images showing the rapid building of what looks like even more internment camps.
Chinese police officer stands guard outside a mosque in Xinjiang.
As more and more information began to emerge in the international media about the depth of the Chinese government’s whole-scale human rights violations against Uighurs, and as foreign governments and international bodies began to take notice and advocate sanctions against China, Rajagopalan’s visa was almost up and the Chinese government was in the midst of determining whether to renew it. In May 2018, MOFA, the oversight agency of foreign journalists, informed Buzzfeed Rajagopalan’s journalist visa would not be renewed, forcing Rajagopalan to leave China as soon as it expired.
When questioned at an August 23, 2018 press conference, MOFA spokesperson Lu Wei stated that Rajagopalan’s visa issue was handled “in accordance with law and regulation” and, in his remarks, made a distinction, without explaining the significance, between Rajagopalan’s visa – a short-term journalist visa, known as a J-2 visa – and a resident foreign reporter’s visa, known as a J-1 visa.
J-2 visas are issued to journalists who come to China for short-term reporting and there is no permanent office requirement. (Exit-Entry Regulations, Article 6(5).) Traditionally, those are journalists coming to do a one-off story; for example, when a New York Newsday reporter travels to cover the U.S. President’s visit to China, or the Des Moines Register sends a reporter to cover the pork market in China. J-2 visas are limited to six months (Foreign Media Regulations, Article 2) and J-2 journalists do not obtain a Press Card.
MOFA spokesperson Lu Wei
But increasingly, news agencies are seeking to send long-term reporters to China without establishing a permanent office. This is especially true of online outlets like the Huffington Post and Buzzfeed, who, according to a source with knowledge of China’s visa issues, the Chinese government will not permit to set up a permanent offices. or any agency that just doesn’t have the deep pockets of a Wall Street Journal or a New York Times. But because they do not have a permanent office, Thus, their China-based reporters cannot obtain a J-1 visa. Instead, the Chinese government has been providing these reporters with a J-2 visa with the understanding that the visa will be renewed when the initial term is over. According to the New York Times, this was the deal that Buzzfeed worked out with the Chinese government prior to Rajagopalan’s arrival –a six month J-2 visa renewable upon its expiration. But when Rajagopalan’s six months were up, MOFA failed to renew her J-2 visa.
MOFA’s response to the question about the failure to renew Rajagopalan’s visa – that she was not a resident foreign reporter – seems to imply that the law does not permit the renewal of J-2 visas. But this is not true. Article 29 of China’s Exit-Entry Administration Law clearly contemplates the renewal of any short-term visa. Article 29 lays out the procedures by which the holder can apply for an extension and the only limitation being that the renewed visa cannot be for a longer length of time than the original visa.
Al Jazeera journalist, Melissa Chan, back when she could report from China
In fact, MOFA has renewed J-2 visas in similar situations. For two years, Matt Sheehan was the Huffington Post’s China-based reporter, meaning that his J-2, short-term visa must have been renewed every six months. Similarly, Melissa Chan had three J-2 visas, repeatedly renewed until the Chinese government refused to renew her visa for a fourth time.
MOFA had the authority to renew Rajagopalan’s J-2 visa, it just decided not to. And Rajagopalan’s reporting on Xinjiang was the catalyst that has led to the current international attention to Xinjiang, including the United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination’s public rebuke of the Chinese government’s practices in Xinjiang. In July, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) held a powerful hearing condemning China’s human rights violations in Xinjiang and calling for the use of the Magnitsky Act against officials involved with Xinjiang.
Going to market in the police state of Xinjiang
Every day there are more and more articles exposing the internment of millions and the efforts to eliminate the Uighur culture. The international heat is on about the Chinese government’s human rights violations in Xinjiang. And the Chinese government’s failure to renew Rajagopalan’s visa was not just retribution against her. Likely it was intended as a teaching lesson to other journalists – report on this and we might fail to renew your visa too. Fortunately, no one has taken the cue and powerful reporting continues. What will be the test comes this December, when all resident foreign reporters go through the annual rite of renewing their press cards and J-1 visas. On some level, Rajagopalan, with her short-term J-2 visa, was low-hanging fruit. Will the Chinese government conveniently lose paper work of resident foreign journalists, forcing them to leave the country while they wait for their paperwork to be found? Or will press cards be canceled? Or even more terrifyingly, will the Chinese government completely close off all access to Xinjiang?
Make no mistake, Rajagopalan was only the start. Xinjiang – and the Chinese government’s desire to eradicate a strong Uighur identity – is too important for the Chinese government not to ratchet up its game.