On Christmas Eve the Chinese government released Xu Wenli, the founder of the country’s tiny Democratic Party, into American exile. Xu has spent sixteen of the last twenty-one years behind bars. The most interesting comments on this event came from John Kamm, who for years has had no equal for occasionally persuading the Chinese government to free its political “enemies”.
Kamm disclosed that the decision to free Xu had been made at “the highest level,” during President Jiang Zemin’s recent visit to President Bush at his Texas ranch. He added that Xu was the first prisoner to be released who had been convicted for “endangering state security” and that his release showed that China is determined to improve its relationship with the United States.
These statements reveal Mr. Kamm’s insider’s knowledge, but beneath them, I suggest, lies his irony. Mr. Xu, who had been sentenced as a “counterrevolutionary” to twelve years in prison in 1982 for his activities at Beijing’s Democracy Wall, was sentenced again to thirteen years in 1998 for endangering state security. Endangering state security was a mere substitute for counterrevolution in the revised criminal code of 1997, apparently to reduce international criticism. Under the new code well over 3,000 Chinese have been convicted. Xu’s is the only release.
It is also the case that the Xu Wenli deal was struck at the Crawford ranch last October. In exchange, Mr. Bush referred to China as an “ally” in the war against terrorism; this had already been made plain when Washington deemed as “terrorists” a tiny group of Muslims in the Xinjiang region where China has been conducting antireligious operations for decades.
The ironies here are plain indeed. When CNN began its Chinese broadcast of Xu Wenli’s release, the screen was instantly blacked out. This deal was intended for Americans, not as an encouragement for Chinese, despite newly drafted laws purportedly protecting human rights. A second irony is that when Assistant Secretary of State Lorne Craner traveled to China in late December with a list of prisoners Washington wished released, the Xu deal had long been struck; when he journeyed farther to Xinjiang, the family of Rebiya Kadeer, a Uighur activist in prison since 1999 for sending her exiled husband newspaper clippings of news from Xinjiang, her family was rounded up to prevent them from speaking to Mr. Craner. He was left with nothing to say in Xinjiang except that his conversations with officials there had been “cordial” and that he hoped on another occasion they would be more productive. Mr Craner had learned the lesson of his parade of State Department predecessors: Such visits to China are public relations exercises that make China appear more open while the Americans are reduced to empty hopes for the future.
This use of dissidents as bargaining chips began in the Soviet Union and has been well learned in China. Beijing, too, has a bottomless supply of what were once counterrevolutionaries, and are now seditionists: Catholic priests, Protestant pastors, Tibetan monks and nuns, Muslims, industrial workers who have led strikes, anyone who mentions Tiananmen. Hundreds of these enemies are held in the “Ankang,” police-run psychiatric facilities for those diagnosed as “political maniacs,” so defined because when they make their political demands, about religion, say, or Tiananmen, they do not disguise their identities.
Virtually all Xu Wenli’s colleagues in the nascent Democratic Party are behind bars. If a convenient deal to China’s advantage can be struck with the United States, they also will be available for release. This was the case with the most famous dissidents, now in America, Wei Jingsheng and Wang Dan; the American response to Wei and Wang as bait were a welcome for President Jiang at the Clinton White House and Mr. Clinton accepting an invitation to Beijing.
In 1999 an unnamed American official said that while he admired the courage of the Chinese dissidents sentenced to many years in jail for attempting to form a democratic opposition party, he wondered “whether that was a wise course.” That was the group headed by Xu Wenli. Such a remark would never have been made in the years of the Soviet gulag, when challenging the legitimacy of the Stalinist and Brezhnevian state would not have been deemed “unwise.”
But Washington’s reaction to Chinese human rights enormities, except for a few months in 1989 after Tiananmen, has been restrained. In 1979, when Wei Jingsheng was imprisoned for fifteen years for his role at Democracy Wall, the State Department observed only that it was “disturbed and disappointed” at the severity of the sentence. In 1987, when Jimmy Carter was asked about Wei during a visit to Beijing, his reply was “I’m personally not familiar with the case that you described.”
What is plain to Beijing is that the United States only rarely punishes China for its depredations. The only exceptions, which have nothing to do with human rights and are anyway infrequent, are limiting contacts with the Chinese military–now restored–and withdrawals of sales of certain technology when the Chinese are finally cornered in their international sales of weapons of mass destruction. There is always an excuse for reluctance to take firm action: China despises confrontation and will deal only “behind the screen.” Beijing knows the reasons for Washington’s spinelessness. At one time China was willing to be played as a card against the Soviets. It even permitted the CIA to install a listening post in western China to spy on Soviet nuclear tests. Later it was economic matters. Now it is the need to prevent Chinese vetoes on American plans for Iraq. Always there is the American fear of China’s possible collapse into warring factions or regions. China’s leaders never miss a chance to insist that only the Communist Party stands between Chinese order and chaos, and regularly says that the collapse would come for sure if China adopted “bourgeois democracy” or “Western-style liberalism.”
In the meantime, Chinese intellectuals can only watch with horror and amazement as Westerners praise the new leadership for its pragmatism, for being “well-briefed, “for “reaching out to the West.” There are some China watchers who hail a new draft legal code, which, according to the China Daily, just as Xu Wenli was being shipped off to the United States and his release blacked out on Chinese television, “offers clear provisions on how to protect an individual’s privacy. The draft has also expanded the scope of compensation for emotional suffering resulting from the infringement of these rights.”
American policymakers avert their eyes from Chinese realities. At the funeral last year in New York of the octogenarian Wang Ruowang, who for decades had struggled for a more open China and finally died in American exile, the equally famous exile Liu Binyan spoke: “He started his life with high ideals and the vigor of youth; he invested these in the Communist Party, whose leaders soon expelled him, then banished him, then imprisoned him, then banished him, then imprisoned him, then starved and tortured him, then ruined his family, then “forgave” him, readmitted him, re-expelled him, re-imprisoned him and finally forced him into exile…. Why did we do it? When we look at China today, do we see the China that Wang and I hoped for sixty years ago? Were we hoping for a China where corruption, deception, cynicism are rife? Where exploitation, disease, prostitution and gangsterism have their ways? Ruled by a regime that still will not look squarely at the tens of millions of untimely deaths it caused in the Great Leap famine, where rural suicide rate is the highest in the world? Is that where Wang Ruowang thought we would end up when he began his life’s journey?”
Jonathan Mirsky was the China correspondent of The Observer [London] and East Asia Editor of The Times [London]. In 1989 he was named the British editors’ International Journalist of the Year for his reporting from Tiananmen. He lives in London.