HONG KONG—Human rights, once a key issue on the agenda for Western politicians and diplomats in their dealings with China, seem to have lost their luster as an issue on which to engage Beijing, according to Chinese Canadian author Denise Chong.
Western politicians are now too worried about offending China's leaders, according to Chong, author of Egg on Mao, which documents the life of a bus mechanic from rural China who threw paint on the portrait of former Communist Party leader Mao Zedong during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.
Three people were convicted of defacing Mao's portrait. Two were freed after a decade in jail, while a third, Yu Dongyue, was released in early 2006 after he spent nearly 17 years in prison.
Yu apparently served his full sentence because he refused to confess to any crime. Friends and family say that he suffered acutely in prison and that his mental health has been gravely affected.
"I sense ... that the new narrative for China is … China as the global power," Chong said.
"I fear too that that is the new narrative in the West."
She said Western politicians have grown used to thinking about China in terms of economic growth and prosperity, rather than in terms of how it treats its 1.3 billion-strong population.
"We somehow think [human rights] is the old narrative of China," Chong said in a recent interview.
"In the unseemly rush of the West to do business there, [has] human rights lost its profile?" she asked.
But she added: "There never is a more urgent narrative than human rights and democracy in China."
Growth trumps rights
Chong said the decades-long transformation of China’s economy, since former chairman Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms of the 1980s, has made international trading partners less willing to scold Beijing lest they find themselves cut off from China’s profitable markets.
"It would not be an understatement to say an economic miracle has happened in China," Chong said.
She said the same sorts of social tensions are as true today as they were 20 years ago, during the 1989 Tiananmen student-led protests.
"What was desired for human rights 20 years ago is no less important today, even in the face of having fancy new clothing, living in a fancy condo, driving a fancy car—what would be unheard of in Beijing a generation ago, or in any of the cities of China," she said.
While China’s economic growth has slowed in recent years since a boom earlier this decade, the National Bureau of Statistics says the country’s GDP still increased at a rate of 8.7 percent last year, down from a 9.6 percent increase in 2008.
The country’s population has enjoyed a number of economic benefits from this growth, but rising salaries have led to wide income gaps between China’s urban and rural residents, which experts have linked to increased incidents of unrest.
The Chinese government has not reported figures since 2005, when there were said to be about 80,000 significant incidents, but the number is estimated to have since risen to about 130,000 a year, according to informed sources.
Chong said that Beijing has continued to quash the activities of petitioners, civil rights lawyers, and other activists.
"One has to ask oneself has anything really changed in the way of human rights in China," she said.
"And, in fact, has it even been buried deeper in our consciousness as an important issue because of the whole effort by China to woo the West to do business there."
Chong said that in writing her book she sought to help Westerners understand the importance of including the debate on human rights issues in future dealings with China.
But she said her book has so far received a cold reception in mainland China.
"While there have been welcome media approaches to me by those media that are more connected with Hong Kong or Taiwan, there has been a silence among others that are more connected with mainland Chinese," Chong said.
"And to me that is disappointing because, although my book is in English and I’m trying to create empathy for human rights among English-speaking audiences and Western audiences, my real most passionate goal is empathy for the importance of human rights in China," she said.
"If your book is not translated into Chinese, or the word is not spread through the Chinese media, then I’m disappointedly one step removed."
She said that despite her success in China with a previous book that was translated into Chinese but wasn't nearly as politically sensitive, the Chinese media balked after showing an initial interest in her work.
"There was a feeling that there was a risk if they should tackle a book that so clearly shows this defaced portrait of Mao, [and] talks about three dissidents that have angered the regime and that are still democracy advocates in the West," she said.
Original reporting by Jerry Zhao for RFA’s Mandarin service. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Written for the Web by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Luisetta Mudie and Sarah Jackson-Han.