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Public Discourse: The Problem of Freedom in China

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

China Aid Association

Chen Guangcheng [State
Department photo/
Public Domain]
(Oct. 23, 2013) Public Discourse, a Witherspoon Institute publication, published a remark made by Arthur Waldron, a leading sinologist and University of Pennsylvania international relations professor, following Chen Guangcheng's speech at an event at Princeton University on Oct. 17. Waldron mentioned the historic allegiance Princeton has had to Chinese freedom fighters. The full remark can be read below:

Public Discourse 
Oct. 23, 2013

A growing movement in China seeks to establish freedom through a truly democratic and constitutional government. Cheng Guangcheng’s advocacy is an important step toward curbing the unlimited power of the Communist Party of China.

May I begin by saluting our speaker Chen Guangcheng and thanking him, on behalf of all of us, for his powerful speech.

May I also salute three organizations: the Witherspoon Institute, the Catholic University of America, and the Lantos Foundation—created by the late Democratic congressman and firm champion of human rights Tom Lantos—for providing Mr. Chen the means to continue his work.

I would like also to salute Princeton University in particular for welcoming Mr. Chen to speak to students and faculty. By doing so, the University is providing all its members with the opportunity to hear someone speak who really knows what he is talking about. This is how truly liberal education is provided.

For Princeton, moreover, this reaching out to Chinese in trouble with their government is a well-established tradition. Thus, appalled by the scenes of death that filled television screens during the 1989 massacre in Beijing, a distinguished Princeton alumnus, John B. Elliott, ’51, who died in 1997, contributed one million dollars to found the “Princeton China Initiative.” This gave dozens of Chinese activists then fleeing their country a livelihood and a place from which to keep promoting their democratic ideals. Many became and remain major figures in the struggle, such as student leader Chai Ling and writers Su Xiaokang and Liu Binyan. The good done by Mr. Elliott’s gift, both to China and to the University and its students, is difficult to overstate.

So Mr. Chen is today on ground where many distinguished Chinese champions of freedom and democracy have walked before him. Here he is welcome.

Mr. Chen is perhaps best known for his opposition to forced abortion. This is a gruesome and often violent procedure which has been imposed on innumerable pregnant women across China.

This year, a remarkable novel has appeared, translated into English, about forced abortion and how people seek to escape it. It is called The Dark Road, by the contemporary author, now sixty years old, Ma Jian. It is a harrowing but essential read, and I believe no more than the truth. I commend it to you.

This aspiration for freedom has been definitive of Chinese politics since the turn of the last century, when the Qing dynasty began to create a parliament, and before, even in some of the ancient classics. Indeed, one can say that without a certain degree of freedom of thought and creativity for millennia, the great Chinese civilization would never have come into existence.

The Chinese do not require a strong ruling hand, as some assert. Given the right institutions they are as capable as anyone—the Japanese or the Koreans or the Taiwanese or the Indians, for example—of ruling themselves.

Today’s Chinese word minzhu, meaning “democracy,” is a direct translation of the Greek demokratia, “people rule.” The word was put together from two Chinese characters of the same meanings in Japan in the nineteenth century—what linguists call a calque. It was quickly adopted in China. The cry for democracy was heard over and over again in the various political movements of the last century, a core political desire, though not one ever actualized.

At the end of the Second World War, hope for freedom was strong in China. Many Chinese believed the Communists would deliver it. The country’s future leader, Mao Zedong (1893-1976), found himself in the wartime capital, Chongqing, where the world’s press was concentrated. On September 27, 1945 came the historic moment when he was presented with a series of written questions by the Reuters correspondent, which he answered, definitively, in writing.

The tenth question was, “What is the Chinese Communists’ definition for a free, democratic China?” Mao responded:

A free, democratic China would be a country in which all ranks of governments, including the central government, would be produced by popular, judicious, and anonymous voting, and the country would realize the “of the people, by the people, and for the people” concept of Abraham Lincoln and the “four freedoms” proposed by Franklin Roosevelt.

Many Chinese believed him, but their dreams were not to be. Mao made himself an absolute dictator.

Under Mao there was no freedom: not economic, not political, not intellectual, not religious, not personal. Terror was the rule of the day. One estimate puts the cost of his rule at seventy million Chinese dead.

Mao died on September 9, 1976. Within a month, the army had removed his allies from office and imprisoned them. Although Mao remained as figurehead, things changed—so much so that those of you who are now beginning to study China, but never saw it under Mao, can scarcely imagine what it was like. It has developed economically like Asian neighbors decades ago, but unlike those countries’, China’s growth has not been crowned with constitutionalism.

Of course, China has a constitution: indeed, it has had four since 1949, the current one adopted in 1982. Article 35 of that document states: “Citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.”

But like the old Soviet constitutions, none of these freedoms has ever been enforced. China is ruled by the Communist Party alone, whose power is unlimited.

This year, a movement has begun among Chinese in favor of building a truly constitutional state.

To do that would mean, of course, changing completely the way China is currently ruled.

This movement has alarmed the Party and drawn a strong counterattack.

In August of this year, Party Central issued a memo about “seven perils” confronting the thought of the Chinese people today. According to The New York Times:

These seven perils were enumerated in a memo, referred to as Document No. 9, that bears the unmistakable imprimatur of Xi Jinping, China’s new top leader. The first was “Western constitutional democracy”; others included promoting “universal values” of human rights, Western-inspired notions of media independence and civic participation, ardently pro-market “neo-liberalism,” and “nihilist” criticisms of the party’s traumatic past.

Of course, these “perils” have always confronted Chinese autocrats, not Xi Jinping alone.

The real problem is that many Chinese people long for constitutionalism. Without a large network helping him and invisible to the police, our speaker Mr. Chen would not be with us now.

In closing, let me mention some words of Professor of Law at Peking University He Weifang, who has recently returned from two years’ exile in China’s remote west. Let me read the account from October 5, 2013 of an interview he gave to the South China Morning Post:

“The leaders can't really comprehend how social stability, market economy, and the curbing of corruption is directly linked to the rule of law,” he said. “Without press freedom and judicial independence, these problems cannot be resolved.”

He is one of China’s best known “public intellectuals” whose microblog has more than a million followers. His conclusion is that “The doctrine of communism inevitably leads to slavery, because it takes away people's right to think and to express—and these problems have not been properly resolved.”

Let us hope that what is oddly called “the problem” of freedom and civic rights in China will be “properly resolved.” And let us hope that this evening’s gathering will turn out to have been another small step in that direction.

Arthur Waldron is the Lauder Professor of International Relations in the Department of History at the University of Pennsylvania. His specialties are the history of China and Eurasia, and the history of war and violence. He gave these remarks at Princeton University on October 16, in response to a lecture by Chen Guangcheng.

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