On April 18, 2002, Yang Jianli, a U.S.-based Chinese activist who openly calls for democracy in China, went to China for a short visit after 13 years in exile. A week later, after visiting some cities rocked by protests of unemployed workers, he disappeared. He was secretly arrested by the Chinese government and has been jailed incommunicado for more than a year. Recently the Chinese government announced that it is charging Yang with illegally entering China and espionage, charges which carry sentences ranging from ten years’ imprisonment up to the death penalty.
Yang’s ordeal is, sadly, not an anomaly. In June 2002, Wang Bingzhang, a longtime democracy advocate exiled from China, was kidnapped in Vietnam and illegally brought to China. The Chinese government first denied it had kidnapped Wang, and then claimed it “rescued” him. Wang, like Yang, was illegally arrested and detained incommunicado. In February 2003, the Chinese government charged Wang with terrorism and espionage, and sentenced him to life in prison.
Kidnapping people and secretly locking them up is more like an act of terrorism than a government’s legitimate enforcement of the law. What the Chinese government did to Yang and Wang is in total violation of recognized human rights, and is unlawful according to internationally accepted standards. The U.N., which has been extremely restrained in criticizing the Chinese government, issued a report saying that “[Yang’s] arrest and detention is arbitrary” and “cannot be justified on any legal basis.” Such acts even violate the laws of the Chinese government itself.
Two years ago, I was secretly arrested in China by some people who claimed to be the agents of China’s State Security Ministry, on the basis of fabricated charges of “endangering state security.” They refused, however, to show any identification or to tell me their names. I was kept incommunicado and deprived of any legal aid, such as legal books or lawyers. They even took my English dictionary away because I might have used the words in it to defend myself.
This is how the Chinese government enforces its so-called “law.” To civilized people, it is horrifying. But to a government that lacks checks and balances, it is just a routine operation. Tao Siju, a former head of China’s Ministry of Public Security, once boasted publicly that the Chinese police collaborated with criminal gangs in Hong Kong and Macau.
Yang will be tried soon. Anyone with a basic knowledge of China’s legal system knows what the trial will look like. It will be conducted in secrecy by prosecutors and judges appointed by the same officials who gave the order to arrest Yang. Yang’s defense lawyers, whose licenses are also granted by these same officials, will be ignored by the judge at best, and will have their licenses revoked at worst. The result of such a show trial is a forgone conclusion: Yang will be found guilty of all the charges. In his battle for freedom, Yang is facing a mammoth organization that not only makes the law but interprets and uses the law all at its own will, subject to no checks on its power. The only hope for Yang is pressure from the outside world–from us.
The current Chinese leaders desperately want China to become a full-fledged member of the international community. If this ambition has any positive effect on the improvement of human rights in China, it is that the Chinese leaders are forced to listen to what the international community is saying. When I was detained in China, the international community was outraged, and demanded that the Chinese government release me. Without such pressure, I would not have been freed. For this I am grateful to all the people who helped make my release possible–many of whom I did not know.
Outside of China, silence cannot be an option; it’s a near-guarantee that the regime will become even more repressive, and the cause of freedom will lose even more ground if there’s no international pressure. Thus what seems to be a smart move individually (let others criticize the regime while you enjoy good relations with it) will collectively make everyone worse off. On the other hand, if all of us speak out, then the pressure will be greater. As long as the Chinese government still relies on foreign investment and foreign markets, it must listen to the international community. Collectively, we can pressure the government to become more civil and less oppressive.
Others may have reservations about supporting Yang because they think that he may have violated the Chinese law. Some showed similar concerns when asked to support Wang. But whether Yang or Wang violated the Chinese law is not the central issue. The central issue, rather, is whether the Chinese government observes universally recognized human rights and provides transparent, fair, and impartial trials. When the government acts like a gang of bandits, its “laws” become tools to persecute anyone the government does not like. If we believe in universal human rights and the right of all citizens to be free from government’s abuse of power, we must demand that the Chinese government stop such persecutions.
Many of us have been trying to push for China’s legal reform for decades. But the progress is very slow. This slowness may discourage us from protesting in cases like Yang’s and Wang’s, for our effort may not make much difference in a huge country like China. But my personal experience proves otherwise. For Yang and Wang, and for their loved ones, your support will make a difference.
–Shaomin Li teaches international business at Old Dominion University. His current research focuses on the business environment in countries undergoing rapid political and economic transitions.