INTERVIEW: 'Even in dark times, we must remain full of hope'

Former 1989 student leader Zhou Fengsuo talks about his vision for the future of the Chinese democracy movement.
By Mia Ping-chieh Chen for RFA Mandarin
2023.02.04
INTERVIEW: 'Even in dark times, we must remain full of hope' Zhou Fengsuo recently became executive director of Human Rights in China, a New York-based group.
Credit: AFP file photo

Zhou Fengsuo, a former student leader during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, recently took over as executive director of the New York-based group Human Rights in China. He says he will be looking to forge a movement for change in China alongside overseas Chinese and young people, who he believes will carry on the momentum begun by the "white paper" protests in November. He spoke to RFA Mandarin about his new role:

RFA: Could you give us some background on Human Rights in China?

Zhou Fengsuo: Human Rights in China is one of the longest-running overseas human rights organizations. I am ready and willing to accept the challenge of carrying forward this torch that was lit in 1989 ... into the future, whether it be [campaigning for] the Tiananmen Mothers who are seeking justice for the victims of the June 4, 1989, massacre, or funding or campaigning for Chinese prisoners of conscience, which the younger generation will take over.

Right now, the most important tasks are international campaigns, for example those targeting the United Nations or other international organizations, and this will be one of the key points of focus for Human Rights in China.

This group has a very good reputation in the English-speaking world, yet we can do more in this regard to ensure the ... international community gains a better understanding of China's human rights situation, so more people can actively support freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law for China.

RFA: What role have overseas communities played in the Chinese democracy movement in recent years?

Zhou Fengsuo: With the white paper movement, we once more saw the importance of overseas students. There were large-scale protests overseas after Peng Lifa protested at the Sitong [traffic] flyover [in Beijing on Oct. 13, 2022], with people shouting similar slogans like "Xi Jinping, step down!"; these also found their way back to China. Many of those who were detained in China during the protests had returned from studying overseas.

ENG_CHN_INTERVIEWZhouFengsuo_01302023.2.jpg
Han Yutao, a Chinese student at Bellevue College in Washington state, expressed support for the “Bridge Man” protester in Oct. 2022. Credit: Han Yutao

While it seemed that the [Communist Party's supporters] Little Pinks had the upper hand before the pandemic, there are also many seeds of hope for overseas students, and they are the forces that will change China in the future.

It is the aim of Human Rights in China to serve [overseas Chinese], so they can truly enjoy freedom and democracy [here in the United States], and so that they can become the driving force behind China's future democratization.

RFA: The FBI has arrested a large number of overseas Chinese for spying for the Chinese government recently. How do you plan to prevent the harassment of overseas students by agents of the Chinese state in the United States?

Zhou Fengsuo: The most important thing is to provide them with an environment in which they know that they have protection and rights here; that those who love freedom and democracy needn't live in fear in the United States. This will be a key focus of our work in future, to set up a service center through which any overseas Chinese, overseas students can contact us if they have any concerns. We will also be taking the initiative in future to call on schools to take steps to safeguard students at risk, and to protect free-thinking people.

RFA: Some say that overseas rights organizations are out of touch with the reality of living in China. How do you plan to help people there?

Zhou Fengsuo: Experience has taught us that overseas campaigning is very important, whether it's just building consensus, boosting social influence, or improving the lives of prisoners of conscience. Human Rights in China in recent years has had insufficient connections in China, and that is something I will be actively developing. I will do my best to serve those who are on the front line in China, to come up with ideas, and to let them choose the kinds of risks they take, choose their own path. We can provide help to them in various ways. I believe that, now matter how dark the current times may seem, there will always be people who have enough courage and faith in the Chinese democratic movement to keep going and to find new ways [to resist]. Even in dark times, we must remain full of hope.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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