Just before the Beijing Olympics in 2008, a group of young Chinese activists was evacuated to the United States for safety reasons. Chinese officials were harassing and detaining people they thought might embarrass them during the Olympics. Three of the activists flew to Philadelphia that summer and slept on mattresses on my dining room floor.
Ironically, they brought Olympic souvenir chopsticks as gifts. “We’re not against the Olympics; they are a great thing for China,” one of them said very seriously. “We’re against the oppression by the government.”
One of my guests in particular was especially excited about visiting America. Chang Kun, an AIDS activist and online organizer, was thrilled to see Philadelphia, try American food, meet American girls and exchange ideas with other activists.
Chang has a giant online following. He writes with exclamation points and pure outrage. His visit to the United States made a deep impression; he was moved by what he described as an atmosphere of freedom, tolerance and cultural exchange. When he returned home to Anhui province in eastern China, he established the AIBO Youth Center, a small community organization with a free library and free Internet access, a place where young people could learn about the wider world.
Recently, during a conference at the youth center, in front of scores of activists, thugs broke into the room where Chang was speaking, knocked him from the podium and beat him severely. Police did nothing to stop the assault, which left him hospitalized. He is slowly recovering.
I wish I could say I was surprised. But after working with Chinese activists for nine years, I recognize the government’s treatment of Chang Kun as routine. In fact, China deploys human rights abuses on a massive scale — beatings, torture and imprisonment of activists and critics, broad censorship of the news, and the increasingly effective blocking of independent channels of communication. These are not mistakes or areas for improvement; they are the fundamentals of the government’s power. Negotiating for small concessions on rights cannot change this equation.
In 2009 and 2010, in response to an uprising by Muslims facing harsh discrimination, the government cut off Internet access to the vast Xinjiang region for 10 months. Now it is slowly strangling the Internet for everyone in China, blocking access to Web sites it can’t control and intensifying online surveillance.
The human cost of this repression is steep. In recent months, Chinese security forces have detained scores of activists, reportedly tortured to death three Falun Gong members, publicly arrested the architect-activist Ai Weiwei (who, ironically, designed the Olympic Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing), detained hundreds of Christian worshippers (while they prayed) and even broke up their Easter Sunday service.
The State Department, which is holding an annual human rights dialogue with China this week, recently released a report that describes “black jails” throughout China where activists, their families and others who oppose the government are punished. Many detainees are beaten and tortured.
Chinese leaders have been in power so long that we may forget that no one elected them. Their regime is no more legitimate than those of Libya or Yemen. If elections were held tomorrow, the leaders might all be swept away. But there are no elections on the horizon. For decades, the U.S. government has aided the regime by supporting China’s economic aspirations, including permanent normalized trade relations, which have allowed it to reap huge profits — enriching the Central Committee and the unelected elite.
Many observers believe that China is becoming an economic powerhouse that has no intention of becoming a democracy. In 20 years, China may be emboldened even further to violently repress its own people.
Given this record, at what point do we stop seeing China as a flawed but dynamic nation on the road to democracy and start seeing the Chinese government as a violent, destabilizing, and autocratic regime on the order of, say, Iran?
Where do we, the American people, draw the line?
We have to stop deluding ourselves. China is governed by a violently repressive regime. And the United States, through its economic policies, is helping it stay that way.
The writer is executive director of the AIDS Policy Project and has organized campaigns for the release of detained health rights activists in China.