A Responsible Social Movement to Promote China’s Transition
—— My Declaration on the Open Letter on Human Rights
Xiao Shu (笑蜀)
On February 26, a group of intellectuals and members of the middle class issued an open letter calling on the National People’s Congress to move quickly to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Who exactly initiated this call? What was their objective? I hereby state the following before I return to the mainland from Hong Kong.
It was me who initiated this call. This is something I have never sought to conceal. I personally sent out all of the mass e-mails soliciting signatures to the open letter. I understood that a proportion of those e-mails would likely be intercepted. But what did that really matter? First of all, considering the immense capabilities of the national machine, how could I possibly hope to play cat and mouse with that machine? Secondly, the signers to the call for ICCPR ratification acted rationally and lawfully — everything was open and aboveboard. What need was there to disguise anyone’s identity? I anticipated from the beginning that they would be eagle-eyed. And so, not long ago, when some of the signers informed me that they had been “invited to tea” and that the authorities said they knew I was responsible for the entire thing, this came as no surprise whatsoever.
Let me explain the whole process of how the call developed.
The inspiration for the human rights letter arose from my trip to Taiwan in the spring last year. Friends in Taiwan who accompanied me can attest to the fact that I was most keenly interested in visiting the landmarks of Taiwan’s own human rights legacy. For example, the Memorial to the February 28th Incident (228纪念馆), the Jingmei Prison [and human rights park] and the Green Island Prison [formerly for political prisoners]. The development and transformation of the human rights situation in Taiwan made a deep impression on me. My time in Taiwan solidified my belief the basic human rights are something we most urgently lack in China, and that this is the most fatal of the problems China now faces.
I began preparation for a signature campaign upon my return from Taiwan. My decision was to call upon the National People’s Congress to quickly ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to promote the implementation of this treaty in China as a first step. The draft of the appeal was ready ahead of the Spring Festival. Its core idea was the establishment of human rights in our country, directly modeled on the experience of Taiwan. The plan was originally to release the appeal on February 28, on the eve of the National People’s Congress. However, I learned on the 26th that Chinese media had already received a ban from the Central Propaganda Department against any coverage of [international] human rights treaties. I worked quickly that day to assemble signatures in view of the fact that the authorities seemed to be moving quickly — domestic media channels had already been choked off, and I knew it was possible all space might disappear if the call was not released quickly.
The enthusiasm of intellectuals and members of the middle class speaks for itself. Despite the fact that are no open domestic channels for communication, and I could only use e-mail to gather signatures, the list of signatories released by February 28 (the eighth list) included the real names of more than one-thousand brothers and sisters. These signers represented a broad spectrum, from senior to the grassroots, from the liberal right as well as from the left. But one defining aspect of the call was that it gathered a great number of people of more mainstream backgrounds. It could even be said to be the largest coming together of members of the middle class [over rights issues] since 2008. On March 15, I established a blog site for the appeal [to ratify the ICCPR], and the appeal then entered a period of normalization. After that, my own role was no longer paramount. On March 26, I issued a farewell letter to volunteers tasked with handling the ICCPR ratification blog, announcing that from that point on I would withdraw from the daily work of organizing signatures and would simply be a signer. I would return to my writing career in that capacity.
And so what had perhaps been for me the most stimulating period of spiritual rail jumping (精神出轨) I had ever experienced came to a close. As a student of history and someone who has been around the block, I have seen the many sides and colors of politics. I have long felt politics in China have not evolved to a point where they are suited to the involvement of people like me, to men of letters. In any case, politics is not my line of work. Ultimately, I can only wield my pen to make my way in the world. My principle has always been to participate but not to become submerged.
The call to ratify the human rights treaty emerged from my belief in basic human rights. But even more so, it came from my thoughts about the path to transition [for our country].
My ideas about the road to transition [for China] can be summed up in a single phrase. We could call it “pressure theory” (倒逼论). I don’t think it is conceivable, first of all, that our rulers with revolutionize themselves through a top-down process of reform. The vested interests [working against reform] are too formidable. They also have an attitude of arrogance. What interest do they have in a transition if it is not a matter of no alternative, if it remains a matter of choice? People often point to Chiang Ching-kuo (蒋经国) as an example of a ruler consciously pushing change. Chiang Ching-kuo is an isolated example, however, one that could not be duplicated in mainland China. The interest structures in place in Taiwan [during Chiang Ching-kuo’s] time were not complex, and a single Chiang Ching-kuo was sufficient [to force change]. The interest structures in China today are more complex that anything we have ever seen before. If we had a thousand Chiang Ching-kuo’s, this still would not be sufficient — they would still be powerless to change anything.
I do not believe, at the same time, in the traditional model of bottom-up revolution. I especially do not believe in the regime-centered theory (政权中心论) that provides the theoretical foundation for traditional revolutions. The greatest absurdity of those who subscribe to regime-centered theories [of revolution] is that while they live in an era in which civil society has become globalized, their heads remain stuck in the pre-civil society era of Leninism. The regime perspective has blinded them to the social perspective. Their perspective centers on notions of power, not on ideas about rights. They fail to see the broader trends of social development and rights development, and they don’t believe that the development of society and the development of rights are the ultimate drivers of change. Without the intermediating forces of social development and rights development, and the major forces they conceal, transition comes to be understood simplistically as a battle of opposing forces, of black and white, a game of life and death.
The regime-centered perspective denies the diversity of possible paths to transition. The only applicable standard becomes regime change, and ideas about transition cannot break free of a Cold War mentality, of ideas about the struggle against the enemy. This perspective effectively brings one down to the level, to the same moral plane or the same political jungle, as those in power. It is ultimately a self-defeating battle.
To find productive solutions we must have a new way of thinking. This means, first of all, moving beyond the narrow and limited perspective of regime-centered thinking. I’m not saying that the question of political power is not important, just that it is not the only consideration. It is within society that newly emerging forces are concentrated, and it is in society that we can best place our hopes. The traditional idea of top-down reform is bankrupt, as it the traditional bottom-up notion of revolution. But new possibilities for transition, and opportunities for breakthrough, are offered us by the middle ground of social development. These could offer our best hopes for transition in China.
This means our whole perspective on transition needs to undergo a transition. We must move from a regime-centered perspective to a socially centered perspective. A change in regime may be the natural outcome of a transitional process, but this is something that cannot be determined by subjective will. Society is our home court; the prerogative in social development and rights development is ours. It is entirely within our power to seek the causes within ourselves and not outside of ourselves, to take on the mission of social development and rights development. We cannot know when a change in regime will come, but what we do know is that before that day comes there are many things we can do. Social development and rights development require a great deal of preparation and accumulation.
What most urgently needs to be accomplished, in my view, is a social movement. I said earlier that I advocated pressure. Pressure on whom? Pressure on the system of course. So how do we apply that pressure? Prayers won’t amount to pressure. Desperate anger and self-rejection won’t amount to pressure. Only a social movement can result in pressure [on the system]. Only an active, enterprising, rational and responsible social movement can exert pressure. It would be difficult to change China through a direct process of regime change, but we certainly can change China through the pressure exerted by a social movement.
This kind of social movement is like a process of taming the beast. Transition, in fact, is an extended process of taming the beast. The weaker a society is, the more barbarous political power becomes. The stronger a society is, the more regulated political power becomes. This has always proven to be the case. If the beast is left untamed and continues to harm people, the trainer cannot escape responsibility, and there is no sense in simply blaming the beast – after all, inflicting harm is the nature of the beast. By the same logic, if a political regime continues to act in a tyrannous manner, a society cannot absolve itself, and we can conclude with certainty that social pressure is insufficient.
For these reasons I have long advocated the building of a civil society [in China]. My glass of civil society is filled to the brim with social movements. Early on I promoted the surrounding gaze (围观) — [or broad public attention to breaking social issues] — as a means of changing China. The surrounding gaze is a proto form of social movement. Later I advocated organized rights defense, which is a mature form of social movement. But both forms in any case require a subject, both require source material. If the subject of the surrounding gaze is only this or that incident, if it surrounds only certain particularized interests, organized rights defense demands transcending the particularized interests of a given incident and not being subject to its limitations. It requires elevation to the sphere of universal rights and the public interest. Namely, the subject and material that needed for organized rights defense should be defined on the level of basic rights. They should be carried out around basic rights, and they should drive the development of basic rights along. This means ultimately using rights to check power, pressuring change to the system.
It was along these lines of thought that I came to the call for the ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The principal goal of this human rights appeal as I envision it is to provide source material and point the direction for a new era of social movements and organized rights defense. I have done this not in the capacity of a political figure, but in the capacity of a critic. I have always believed that the role of a social critic is not merely to respond to this or that issue or incident, but to set the tone and agenda for the times.
The social movement I advocate is not directed toward political power though its ultimate objective must involve political power. The goal is to rebuild society through social movements on the one hand, and to gradually transform political power through social movements on the other. I believe China needs a remedial lesson in social movements. I believe it must experience an era of social movements. Social development and rights development demand a process; social movements must drive them forward. This is necessary also because it would offer some latitude to those in power, a way out we might say. This would in fact be a form of concession, because while the sovereignty of the people is absolute and there can ultimately be no concession on this fact over the medium to long term, there is room for temporary compromise. I can say personally, at least, that I have no interest in your power. But I have an additional condition, and that is that you must tolerate social movements. Your political regime must accept pressure from social movements. It must change in response to pressure from social movements — it cannot resist transition and continue to affirm the Five Don’ts [NOTE: The so-called “Five Don’ts” refer to: 1. no multiparty system, 2. no diversity of guiding ideologies, 3. no separation of powers, 4. no federal system, and 5. no privatization in China]. Through a process of mutual mediation, the attitude of hostility must gradually be removed from social movements, they must be desensitized, made neutral, and they must ultimately become institutionalized through democracy and rule of law, whereby social movements can become normalized. Through the platform of social movements, both sides can learn to seek dialogue, learn to interact, learn to compromise and learn to contest one another in good faith.
I am often asked if these ideas of mine are even feasible. Is it even conceivable that the National People’s Congress will ratify the ICCPR?
I’m not so naive, of course, to believe that as soon as I’ve begun the ICCPR call that the authorities are going to ratify the treaty. But do we require certainty we’ll reach our goal with the first move before we see any sense in moving at all? If we cannot reach our goal in a single move, does that mean it is of no avail, or that we can or should do nothing?
Actually, the ICCPR is basically a process of notification. On the one hand it notifies the people of the country that there is a human rights treat that defines the most basic human rights standards internationally, that China’s government in fact signed the treaty long ago, affirming these basic human rights standards.
At the same time, it notifies the government: you have made a promise to the international community and to the people of your own country, and this promise must be realized, that its time [for the government] to pay up on its obligations. If it is not possible to pay up immediately, then at least [the government] must recognize the obligation exists, and cannot act as though it does not. Then we must have an open discussion, an open dialogue, talking with the government about the specific steps and concrete methods [for the government] to live up to its obligations [on human rights].
How can we say that this two-way notification is of no use? If the authorities pay this appeal no mind whatsoever, this only proves how much they are in the wrong, how much they lack credibility. Won’t this two-way notification at least promote the study of the ICCPR and help to disseminate human rights values? Won’t it at least help to educate people about human rights? And isn’t human rights education exactly what Chinese society needs so desperately?
Another doubt I’ve heard is that even if the National People’s Congress ratifies [the ICCPR] this will not necessarily be of any use. After all, isn’t our own Constitution full of pretty promises? But haven’t these been shelved as well? This too I don’t believe. Yes, our Constitution has not been realized, but has anyone thought about the real reason our Constitution hasn’t been realized? It has not been realized for the simple reason that these things were written this way only because the authorities decided so. Essentially, all of those articles of the Constitution that look so nice have been offered like patronage by the authorities — they are not the result of pressure, not the result of negotiation. Patronage is not a contract, and it does not amount to a check on the authorities. However, if we have the strength to pressure the authorities to ratify the ICCPR, this human rights treaty will be a fundamentally different matter from the Constitution. It would be an authentic contract, with binding force on the authorities. If we had the strength to pressure the authorities to ratify the treaty, then of course we would also have the strength to pressure them to live up to their obligations under the treaty — we could not possibly allow them to shelve it and forget it once again. So if they could be pressured to ratify the treaty, this would have real effect.
This idea that we must succeed for something to have effect, that something must have effect to be worth doing and before we are willing to put anything into practice at all — this kind of extreme utilitarian mindset is a natural psychological obstacle to citizen action. Success is a matter of probability, and this probability belongs to providence. Men plan and heaven accomplishes, as they say. This is essentially what I mean. As human beings we can only act as we should and plan as we might. As to whether and how our actions will have consequence, this has to be left up to providence.
This is to say that social movements in China must be elevated to a new level, and this demands an elevation of our values. It requires transcendence, not just of a narrow view focused on regimes and political power, but also of the culture of utility [whereby nothing can be attempted without the promise of success]. We must ask ourselves what it is we believe in. We must act for the protection of our own beliefs, not asking whether our actions will be of any use. Thankfully, more than 1,000 brothers and sisters have already done this, becoming signers of the open call for ratification of the ICCPR. They have already begun their own fights for an undertaking whose future seems gloomy. This itself is hope. It is the hope for a social movement — and it is the hope for China’s future.