Chinese government

Photo Credit: Albert Lee | Daily Texan Staff

The future of democracy might rest on the shoulders of courageous student protesters in Hong Kong. Thousands of young men and women on the island have taken to the streets to stall Chinese efforts at rigging local elections. Hong Kong enjoys greater political freedoms than any other part of China, and Beijing now wants to end that. If the Chinese leadership succeeds, this will have a chilling effect far beyond the mainland of Asia. Democratic activists and their government repressors in Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand and even Russia are watching.

The British Empire wrested Hong Kong from the Chinese Emperor in 1842 as a forced indemnity following the First Opium War. The British coerced the Chinese into importing opium, and they seized a key trading post off the southern coast of the mainland. During the next 155 years Hong Kong became a center for British trade, a magnet for wealth and a creative space for free thinkers who merged British and Chinese language and culture. Hong Kong was part of London’s imperial system, but it also emerged as a thriving island of capitalism and democracy. 

The Chinese government regained control over Hong Kong in 1997, as part of a treaty negotiated with Britain to rescind the imperialist imposition from the prior century. Beijing promised to protect the unique culture of Hong Kong, including its free market system and its freedom of speech. Citizens of Hong Kong embraced a future with China, but they expected the right to elect local leaders who would guard their autonomy from the suffocating dominance of the Chinese Communist Party.

Many observers questioned whether this agreement could ever work. How long would Beijing allow an island of freedom to operate within a larger political system that restricted speech and political choice? Would Chinese leaders feel compelled to change Hong Kong, fearful that otherwise it might change the mainland? 

Optimists, myself included, hoped that Hong Kong would become a beachhead for democratic change, spreading throughout China. In 1989, student protests for greater freedom in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and other urban areas brought this hope close to reality. We now know that democracy activists were tantalizingly close to convincing Chinese Communist Party leaders to undertake the kinds of democratic reforms they have never allowed. Frightened by what this would mean for their power, China’s most elite figures chose military repression in place of reform, ordering what became a bloody massacre of students. The crackdown carried to Hong Kong, but Beijing’s leaders were careful not to alienate foreign countries, including the United States, by closing off all democracy on the island. 

In the last few months, China has stepped beyond these limits. Beijing will now require that any candidate for chief executive of Hong Kong have prior approval on the mainland. This restriction of political choice for island residents —  a clear violation of local democratic institutions — is part of a broader campaign to give the Chinese Communist Party a stronger hold over communications, trade and all forms of political opinion. Chinese leader Xi Jinping wants to stamp out any pressure for reforming his autocratic government. He hopes to make Hong Kong’s “special administrative region” into another cowering province under the dominance of the Communist Party. 

This is more than just a political struggle. It is a conflict that will determine the possibilities for democracy throughout Asia, in the shadow of a stronger and wealthier China. The students who are protesting want to be loyal to China and to their hopes for democracy. They are unwilling to give up their freedoms and their choice of leaders. They want to determine their own future, without the uncompromising dominance over professional opportunities and political authority that the Community Party wields on the mainland. 

The United States and Europe have been much too silent about events in Hong Kong. We are watching with sympathy, but doing little else. Our passivity reflects fatigue with failed democratic movements, especially the Arab Spring, and preoccupation with crises in Syria, Iraq, Ukraine and other dangerous parts of the world. The democratic struggle in Hong Kong seems distant from our daily concerns.

The future of democracy in Hong Kong and other parts of Asia will, however, affect our lives more than almost anything else. If the most populous continent gives up on democracy, it is unlikely to survive in other parts of the globe. If the Chinese government succeeds in extending its authoritarian control over the entire region, then the trade and access that Americans take for granted will become much less assured. Most important, the denial of democracy in Hong Kong will be yet another defeat for the free hopes of young entrepreneurs against the repressive actions of old dictators. 

Americans, especially those on college campuses, must speak up in support of the Hong Kong students. We are part of their struggle for a more democratic, just and peaceful world. We can help them by raising our voices, and inspiring others to do the same.  We can help them by showing that we care.

Suri is a professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the Department of History. 

BEIJING — The blind Chinese dissident who boldly fled house arrest and placed himself under the wing of U.S. diplomats balked Wednesday at a deal delicately worked out between the two countries to let him live freely in China, saying he now fears for his family’s safety unless they are all spirited abroad.

After six days holed up in the U.S. Embassy, as senior officials in Beijing and Washington tussled over his fate, Chen Guangcheng left the compound’s protective confines Wednesday for a nearby hospital for treatment of a leg injury suffered in his escape. A shaken Chen told The Associated Press from his hospital room that Chinese authorities had warned he would lose his opportunity to be reunited with his family if he stayed longer in the embassy.

U.S. officials verified that account. But they adamantly denied his contention that one American diplomat had warned him of a threat from the Chinese that his wife would be beaten to death if he did not get out of the embassy.

“I think we’d like to rest in a place outside of China,” Chen told the AP, appealing again for help from Washington. “Help my family and me leave safely.”

Only hours earlier, U.S. officials said they had extracted from the Chinese government a promise that Chen would join his family and be allowed to start a new life in a university town in China, safe from the rural authorities who had abusively held him in prison and house arrest for nearly seven years.

That announcement had been timed to clear up the matter before strategic and economic meetings start Thursday between Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and their Chinese counterparts — and to show the U.S. standing firm in its defense of human rights in China while engaging on
other issues.

Clinton spoke to Chen on the phone when he left the embassy and, in a statement, welcomed the resettlement agreement as one that “reflected his choices and our values.”

But the murky circumstances of Chen’s departure from the embassy, and his sudden appeal to leave China after declaring he wanted to stay, again threatened to overshadow talks that were to focus on the global economic crisis and hotspots such as North Korea, Iran, Syria and Sudan.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry signaled its unhappiness with the entire affair, demanding that the U.S. apologize for giving Chen sanctuary at the embassy.

“What the U.S. side has done has interfered in the domestic affairs of China, and the Chinese side will never accept it,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said in a statement.

Chen, 40, became an international human rights figure and inspiration to many ordinary Chinese after running afoul of local government officials for exposing forced abortions carried out as part of China’s one-child policy. He served four years in prison on what supporters said were fabricated charges, then was kept under house arrest with his wife, daughter and mother, with the adults often being roughed by officials and his daughter searched and harassed.

Blinded by childhood fever but intimately familiar with the terrain of his village, Chen slipped from his guarded farmhouse in eastern China’s Shandong province at night on April 22. He made his way through fields and forest, along roads and across a narrow river to meet the first of several supporters who helped bring him to Beijing and the embassy — his guards unaware for three days that he was gone.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner disputed Chen’s claim that he was left alone by the Americans at the hospital.

“There were U.S. officials in the building,” the spokesman told reporters. “I believe some of his medical team was in fact with him at the hospital.” He said U.S. officials would continue visiting Chen while he was there.

Chen's supporters in the U.S. called on Clinton to meet him directly, and one of them, Republican Rep. Christopher Smith of New Jersey, said it appeared the resettlement agreement “seems to have been done under significant duress.”

“If ever there was a test of the U.S. commitment to human rights, it should have been at that moment, potentially sending him back to a very real threat,” he said.

But no one appeared to know precisely what to make of Chen's change of heart. He had welcomed a deal that let him stay in China and work for change, telling his lawyer Li Jinsong on the way to the hospital, “I’m free, I’ve received clear assurances,” according to Li.

Toner said three U.S. officials heard Chen tell Clinton in broken English on the phone that he wanted to kiss her in gratitude. Chen told the AP that he actually told Clinton, “I want to see you now.”

Nor is it clear how the U.S. could be party to an agreement on Chen's safety inside China when it has no power to enforce the conditions of his life there.

Ai Xiaoming, a documentary filmmaker and activist, said the Chinese government fails to ensure people’s rights, so the best solution would be for Chen and his family to go to America.

“In the first place, Chen Guangcheng should not have to ask a foreign country to protect his rights,” Ai said. “His rights should be protected by his own country, through the constitution. But it is obvious that this cannot be done.”

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said no U.S. official said anything to Chen about physical or legal threats to his wife and children. Nor did the Chinese relay any such threats to American diplomats, she said. She did confirm that if he did not leave the embassy the Chinese intended to return his family to their home province of Shandong, where they had been detained and beaten by local officials, and that they would lose any chance of being reunited.

“At every opportunity, he expressed his desire to stay in China, reunify with his family, continue his education and work for reform in his country,” Nuland said. “All our diplomacy was directed at putting him in the best possible position to achieve his objectives.”

Jerome Cohen, a New York University law professor who is advising Chen at the State Department’s request, said there was never any explicit discussion of a threat against Chen’s wife.

“There was no indication in four or five hours of talks that he knew of any threat to her life,” cohen said.

Senior U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the intense negotiations that led to Chen leaving the embassy, said the U.S. helped Chen get into the embassy because he injured his leg escaping from his village. In the embassy, Chen did not request safe passage out of China or asylum in the U.S., the officials said.

U.S. officials said the deal called for Chen to settle outside his home province of Shandong and have several university options to choose from. They also said the Chinese government had promised to treat Chen “like any other student in China” and to investigate allegations of abuse against him and his family by local authorities.

Clinton said the U.S. would monitor China's assurances. “Making these commitments a reality is the next crucial task,” she said.

Printed on Thursday, May 3, 2012 as: Chinese dissident afraid, now wants to leave country

A recent Bloomberg article sheds light on a unique relationship that has been developing between U.S. universities and the Chinese government. Hanban, a Beijing-based organization with close ties to the Chinese government, has spent more than $500 million since 2004 to create 350 Confucius Institutes around the world, including 75 in the United States. Through these Confucius Institutes, China hopes to promote and broaden its image across college campuses with the establishment of Hanban-sponsored language and cultural programs.

On the surface, these Confucius Institutes seem to be promoting a general goodwill between China and the U.S. However, this is not the case as Hanban’s financial contributions come with strings attached: Universities are forbidden to discuss sensitive topics such as Tibet.

The Confucius Institutes’ promotion of Chinese language and culture is admirable, but they are undermining their initial goal of cultural promotion with these restrictions. By saying that they’ll provide this money as long as nobody talks about Tibet, these institutes make it seem as though the Chinese language programs are a way to discourage political opposition. These conditions seriously damage the ideal of academic freedom and act as a soft form of propaganda.

Academic freedom is the belief that scholars should have the freedom to teach any ideas or facts without reprisal. The ultimate goal of higher education is to teach students how to think, not what to think. The best way to achieve this is to strip students naked and challenge all of their preconceptions until they can reach a conclusion on their own. By explicitly prohibiting a student’s exposure to a certain topic, universities wall off the potential for progress.

True diversity on a university campus includes the free flow of different ideas along with tolerance for race, gender or religion. Students need to be exposed to open dialogues so that all viewpoints, even controversial ones, are heard. Where professors lose the ability to talk about sensitive topics, there is a problem. If students are unable to learn about the issues concerning Tibet and Taiwan or China’s human rights record, then they will never be solved and will forever remain “sensitive” issues.

Restriction of academic freedom is tied to the larger problem of the corporatization of higher education. The prohibition of topics mentioned above based on financial considerations highlights a disturbing trend that challenges the integrity of higher education.

Corporations have become increasingly visible and influential on college campuses. Trustees and regents are increasingly the executives of large companies. Universities have also been contracting out more and more of their services, from dining areas run by fast food chains to university book stores run by Barnes & Noble.

The corporatization of higher education has meant that decisions regarding academic issues such as curriculum and research are determined by financial considerations rather than academic merits. In a time of scaled-back government funding, universities have become more and more reliant on corporate funding. The influx of corporate money means that corporations, rather than universities themselves, are determining the direction of certain programs. For example, by providing funding for a specific endowment or chair, a corporation determines which topics are important and which ones are not. This development shows that higher education is heading toward becoming the breeding grounds for corporate interests and practices.

In a worst case scenario, higher education will become fully commercialized and instruction will become a commodity. By attaching conditions to the funding of university programs, organizations such as Hanban can essentially dictate their academic direction to fit their own ideologies or interests. This creates a great conflict of interest, as the goal of academic institutions is to promote knowledge and learning.

Institutions of higher education must re-examine their missions and decide whether they want to continue down the path of no return.

Shi is an electrical and computer engineering junior.