Forced to Defend Our Rights

Bao Tong, former aide to an ousted top Chinese official, weighs in on protests in the Middle East.
by Bao Tong
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Bao Tong, political dissident and aide to former Chinese premier Zhao Ziyang, Sept. 14, 2009.
Bao Tong, political dissident and aide to former Chinese premier Zhao Ziyang, Sept. 14, 2009.

Recently some major events have been happening in the Middle East, causing great concern internationally. It's a shame the Chinese government won't let people on the mainland know about them, as if the entire Arab world simply didn't exist. This isn't normal. It's unfair to the Arab world and to the Chinese people. If people want to be ostriches, then that's their personal choice, but shutting off information isn't acceptable. They are effectively stripping 1.3 billion people of their right to information. This is outrageous.

There are a number of groups in China, large and small, which specialize in trampling on the rights of others. Because of them, those who have had their rights violated are unable to live and work in peace. The right of ordinary people to information is frequently taken from them. Their personal rights, their right to free speech, to property, to vote, to assemble and demonstrate are all frequently taken from them. This isn't acceptable. The Constitution doesn't allow it. The people don't allow it. China will never develop into a citizen-centered society if it permits this. We won't achieve it, and neither will our children or grandchildren. This is the crux of the problem.

In the face of such powerful, well-organized, and experienced violators of our rights, we citizens are forced to defend them. The most salient feature of civil rights campaigns is that they are defensive and the result of the force of circumstance. This may look like a disadvantage, but actually, this is precisely why the righteousness and legitimacy of the civil rights defenders will prevail.

The defense of one's rights is very different from waging war. In war, one must gain the advantage by striking first, whereas in the defense of one's rights, one can only be forced into action. (In war, you can tell lies. For example Stalin, Mao Zedong and Kim Il Sung, according to newly released files from the Soviet era, communicated secretly with each other and plotted together before launching war [on the Korean peninsula]. Although the 50-year limit to confidentiality of state secrets has expired, China has refused all along to declassify secrets from that era and has never said publicly that the diplomatic cables between Mao, Stalin, and Kim were "fake." Rather, it has repeatedly imitated the cry of someone shouting "stop, thief!" and insisted that it was forced to take actions to protect national interests; the rights violation outfits would have a much harder time claiming that they were "forced to trample on people's rights," however.)

In war, you have to be on the alert and aggressive. In civil rights work, you have to depend on a sense of justice and the law. Why? Because the violators of our rights have a clear advantage when it comes to the use of force, and those who seek to defend their rights must inevitably fall before it. However, civil rights campaigners have on their side the formless and mighty forces of reason and the law, which will likely turn the indubitably weaker victims of rights violations into the victors in the end.

The truth and reason we are arguing for on such strong grounds is the same truth that is in every human heart. It is the justice that everyone will support. These are the universal values of a civilized society. No one who does not subscribe to these values can be a fully paid-up member of the international community. China's specialist firms of rights violators love to spout long and empty speeches that are devoid of meaning. They don't want to recognize universal values.

So, while we continue to argue for what is right, the citizens of China in particular need to use the law—and the Constitution, as well as the UN human rights covenants which China has signed—as the basis for their struggle. Our Chinese Constitution has its weak points, but it does recognize that "all power belongs to the people." This is very good. This is the basis on which we protect our rights. All the people of all classes, all political parties, all government departments, and nongovernmental organizations must operate within the Constitution. If they don't, they deprive themselves of their legitimacy.

The groups that infringe the rights of others back each other up. We, as civil rights defenders, must also back each other up. Perhaps in places where there are no professional rights violators, everyone can just sweep away the snow from their own front door, but that won't work in China. Some people say that collaboration is "illegal." This view might come from our leaders, but it has no basis in law. The violators' conspiracy to trample the Constitution is illegal. It is no crime if we unite to protect the rights of the people and protect the Constitution.

The building of a democracy isn't beyond our reach. But it won't be easy. It will need a cool-headed and rational approach, and it can't be abandoned halfway. We must be prepared for a long struggle. We will need to exert an enduring pressure on the violations perpetrated by those specialist groups, if we want them to understand what is meant by the rule of law. We rights defenders will need to proceed by means of peaceful negotiation, debate, compromise, and cooperation, testing and honing our skills as we practice and master the principles of a citizen-based society.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie.





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