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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Monday, June 25, 2001

How to help the Chinese become free

By David Polhemus
Advertiser Editorial Writer

It seemed the perfect occasion to set the record straight on this newspaper's stand on China's abhorrent human rights record, but as happens so often, the facts began to get in the way of a good editorial.

"Chinese authorities have launched a campaign against one of the most significant centers of Buddhist teaching in China," read a Washington Post dispatch attributed to witnesses, "knocking down housing for monks and nuns and forcing several thousand Buddhist followers to leave the center."

It seemed a perfect occasion to tee off on China's often terrible treatment of its own citizens, in part to show that while this newspaper favors engagement with China rather than isolation and antagonism, it hardly means that we somehow condone its human rights abuses.

But the story went on to outline how this spontaneous Buddhist encampment had housed as many as 10,000 followers, who built mud and wooden cabins in a remote area.

Police have set up checkpoints on the road to the encampment; the ultimate goal, the Post's sources said, is to cut the population down to between 1,200 and 1,400 monks. While the authorities no doubt have been heavy-handed, there have been no reports of resistance or arrests.

And that raised this question:

If 10,000 sectarian squatters were to build a small city without the benefit of building and sanitation codes in the United States, and to refuse official orders to move, what might result?

The drastic fate of the Branch Davidians in Waco, Tex., is unlikely to be repeated. But truly, American experience has little precedent for managing a situation on such a scale.

And indeed, while China is bent on stamping out the Falun Gong movement and has closed churches that are not registered with the government, the fact is that China today has more freedom, including religious freedom, than it ever had before.

This is largely due to the behavior demanded of a country that is trying earnestly to join the World Trade Organization and host the 2008 Olympics.

It is no longer a theory, in other words, that economic growth and global integration will bring greater freedom to China. It's happening, albeit unevenly and fitfully.

Of course, there's a long way to go. But it's important to understand why the last mile won't be easy. The Chinese are at least as afraid of social chaos as they are of repression. They have a floating population of upward of 100 million, mainly peasants who have left their land; of tens of millions of recently laid-off state workers; of perhaps 300 million underemployed; of millions of dissatisfied Muslims, Tibetans and other minorities. All of these cohorts are frustrated enough to have produced riots and demonstrations.

All that's been missing is a Lech Walesa to tie them together — as has occurred many times in Chinese history, which is replete with murderous rebellions led by religious sects — the White Lotus, the Boxer and the Taiping rebellions, not to mention the pseudo-religious Great Cultural Proletarian Revolution, each of which ravaged and paralyzed China for as much as a decade.

Thus, while repressive measures are widely recognized as power-preservation measures taken by the entrenched leadership, they nevertheless have a measure of support because of popular fear that unrest, if it gets out of hand, can reverse for everyone the great social, economic and political progress of the last 12 years.

True, it is similar concern for stability that gave Hitler and Mussolini sway. So, as China tries to relax social control without producing debilitating turmoil, simplistic criticism from the United States isn't helpful.

It also is widely seen in China as blatantly hypocritical. And not just China. Consider an Associated Press story from Brussels, Belgium, on the same day as the Post story on the Buddhism crackdown, in which officials of Europe's biggest human rights organization denounced the United States almost in the same breath and as loudly as it derided China.

The lightning rod was capital punishment: No nation can join the European Union without first abolishing the death penalty.

During a highly charged opening session of the first World Congress against the Death Penalty, Chris Patten, the EU's top foreign policy official, condemned China's "Strike Hard" campaign, which has already sent hundreds to be executed after being paraded at public rallies. The campaign, while generally popular in China because of its partial focus on hated corruption, has raised fears of a rush to judgment with shaky evidence and forced confessions.

But equally damning was Walter Schwimmer, secretary-general of the Council of Europe, who cast aside his prepared notes to attack U.S. policy:

"Do you know how many people in the United States are on death row?" he demanded. "No less than 3,700. Would anyone really believe that the death penalty is a tool to fight crime? If that would be true, the United States would be a country without crime and without violence," he stormed.

Of course, the United States is far ahead of China in every conceivable measure of human rights. Nevertheless, capital punishment as practiced in both China and the United States is seen in most modern industrialized countries as a backward and gross violation of human rights.

Put gently, Americans might want to work a little harder on walking the talk, while pointing fingers a bit less. It's humbling to talk to sophisticated Chinese who, fully understanding the American model, want something better.

At the same time, however, there is no getting around the fact that China's leadership today still includes brutal and crude thugs. One of the tools these men use to hold power, however, is xenophobic nationalism. For the West to antagonize and to isolate China is to play into their hands and give these monsters a new lease on life.

Increasing openness to the outside world and a revolution of rising expectations are already raging beyond the government's control. The greatest danger for America is to appear to stand in the way.

Advertiser editorial writer David Polhemus recently returned from Asia as a Jefferson Fellow from the East-West Center.