2003 Andersen Lecture
Robert L. Bernstein and Xu Wenli
The Challenges Of Covering China Today
Mr. Bernstein: Thank you for that wonderful introduction. As Ive grown older, Ive discovered theres no amount of praise I cant absorb. You cant know Jim Ottaway very long without knowing how deeply he feels about his responsibilities regarding the World Press Freedom Committee, and you cant know him very long without falling prey to his deceptive style: quiet, modest, understated and then at the important moment, lunging forward to get you involved in some very worthwhile endeavor where he convinces you that you can help. So it was at lunch one day a few months ago, when Jim heard me saying how much Id like to speak to the press about what I think is happening in China. Im standing here so you can guess the rest of the conversation that followed.
I am truly honored to be here to give the 17th Annual Harold W. Andersen Lecture. Jim gave me the past remarks of James Wolfensohn and Kofi Annan to read, and I have to tell you, I am awed to be occupying the same space as these two fine public figures. Frankly, Im not at all sure that you will agree with the thoughts that are to follow, but let me tell you where I come from. It will be brief because I remember a famous story from my publishing days: Henry Kissinger handed in a 600--page manuscript to his editor. A few weeks later, he got back 300 pages. My God, said Henry, what did you cut out? Only the word I, said the editor. While Im a little bit inhibited about talking about my own life, I recently picked up a quote attributed to baseball great Dizzy Dean, he said, If you done it, it aint braggin. I hope you agree.
Anyway, while not a journalist myself, my two worlds of publishing and human rights are already connected with journalists. At Random House, I published some of the best: David Halberstam, Sy Hirsch, Bob Caro, Bill Safire, Jocobo Timerman, Neil Sheehan and Joe Lelyveld. In my human rights work, Im always trying to figure out how to get press attention for the very human human rights stories: talking to--maybe even badgering the TV news heavyweights, the prime print press and even the film world to keep the names of imprisoned activists in the public eye.
And as Jim has told you, it all started in Moscow in the early 1970s. I came face to face with censorship and the people who made it work. The Soviets had invited me over to discuss their signing the Universal Copyright Convention, which they did on May 27, 1973. They wanted American publishers to publish Soviet books. Frankly, I thought perhaps a cookbook, a garden book, maybe chess. But then, in 1976 I met, and signed Andrei Sakharov to write his autobiography. I was, of course, immediately banned from the Soviet Union and I started publishing Soviet and eastern European dissidents and formed the Fund for Free Expression to keep their names in the public eye. The Fund was the beginning of what is today Human Rights Watch--but thats a longer story for another time.
At Human Rights Watch, we offered help to a group of Chinese who had fled the Tiananmen Square massacre and its aftermath in 1989. They formed Human Rights in China, which they managed to keep alive with very little money, and with offices in New York and Hong Kong. In 1997, they were struggling, and they asked me to co-chair the group with the eminent Chinese physicist, known as the Sakharov of China, Fang Lizhi. Some of you will remember how Fang and his wife were sheltered in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing for 13 months until a deal could be worked out to have them leave the country instead of serving 10 years or more in prison for the peaceful expression of their views. Youll be glad to know that Fang called me from his office a few days ago at the University of Arizona. He tells me that he is finally becoming a real American--hes putting a swimming pool in his backyard. I consider myself, really, to be host chair of the Chinese organization, doing what I can to help what I believe is the best Chinese human rights organization until they can safely go home and do their work.
When Jim Ottaway and I had lunch, he gave me a copy of John Burns contribution to the new book Embedded: The Media at War in Iraq. Burns has covered conflicts all over the world for the last two decades. He believes that in Iraq, the press had been intimidated into silence by Saddam Hussein.
Heres a quote from that book: Editors of great newspapers, and small newspapers, and editors of great television networks should exact from their correspondents the obligation of telling the truth about these places. Its not impossible to tell the truth. I have a conviction about closed societies that theyre actually much easier to report than they seem, because the act of closure is itself revealing. Every lie tells you a truth. If you just leave your eyes and ears open, its extremely revealing.
My experience with Human Rights in China has taught me that in a different way, but with the same result, the international press in Beijing has been managed. I also believe that unless the truth about China and its abuses of its own citizens is exposed, the consequences could be terrible. Tyrants throughout history have understood that information is power, and denying information to its own people, or disseminating propaganda to the rest of the world have been Chinas trademarks for years.
But with the Olympics coming in 2008 and Chinas appetite for being a player on the world stage, I believe this is the moment for the free press to take a giant step forward. In the face of global engagement, including the WTO and the World Health Organization, and with the advent of extraordinary new technology, the Chinese government will find it harder and harder to intimidate the press and control the free flow of information.
Groups like Human Rights in China dedicate themselves and their resources to getting information into China: how does Beijing treat its own citizens; what does the world say about those issues; what kinds of protection does international law offer to those who would peacefully express their views; what international treaties and agreements has China signed, for which the authorities can be held accountable? It has become almost a cliché to talk about the fact that China is changing rapidly, and therefore doesnt require the kind of pressure that we needed with the Soviet Union. But to the thousands who are locked up right now in prisons and mental institutions for their beliefs, this is cold comfort indeed.
I believe the press has under-reported a number of serious issues, and Ill mention some of them in a moment. But first, let me make one auxiliary point. Today, NGOs, and human rights organizations, in particular, are doing a lot of the investigative reporting that is going on in the world. They can and do spend extended periods of time in one place, researching human rights issues and the tyrants who perpetrate them. The best of them, like Human Rights in China and Human Rights Watch, have extremely high standards of proof before they go public with their information, and their findings have stood up against the most aggressive challenges from those they hold accountable. They have proven themselves over and over to be rock solid sources for journalists and policymakers around the world. Reporting on human rights issues and NGO findings have increased over the last 15 years, which is a testament to their reliability, but I urge journalists, who enjoy press freedom, to use these reports even more as very reliable sources.
Back to China--I have heard from many China hands that you have to be careful in Beijing or the government will close you down. I think that undoubtedly was and probably remains true. Journalists, most of whom work in one or two person bureaus, have to develop effective reporting methods despite high surveillance, concern for the safety of their sources, reluctance on the part of many Chinese to speak to the press, and an interest in not getting thrown out of the country. Its not an easy task.
But I also believe instinctively that with the results of the way the government handled the SARS scare and continues in many places to conceal the worsening HIV epidemic, Chinas citizens are beginning to understand that censorship is a real danger to them. In response to citizen outrage over recent health crises, Beijing was forced to respond more openly.
All of us, who love newspapers and dont own or edit one, think we know stories that should get press attention. My choices are those, which I believe could change our whole view of China. I believe the last big totalitarian government is brutalizing its own people. It limits and distorts information, keeping them ignorant on many critical subjects, and gives harsh prison terms to those who publish information they would rather have suppressed.
Liu Qing is President of Human Rights in China and is, for now, in exile in New York. He both gets news out of China, in particular about individual cases of those in trouble, and is in charge of the editorial comment of a vast amount of news and information reaching into China over the Internet today. Liu himself is a story. He served 12 years in prison for releasing to reporters part of the trial of Wei Jingsheng, for many years Chinas best-known political prisoner. For four years Liu was tortured in a uniquely cruel way. He was made to sit on a stool for 12 to 14 hours a day before a blank wall, with two guards behind him to make sure he stayed awake. If he sneezed or coughed or yawned, they beat him. So hes no stranger to the consequences of defying Chinese authorities.
Today Liu Qing collects information every day on individual cases of abuse inside China. He has a network of contacts, and relies on the Internet to increase his reach. The number of Internet users in China has more than doubled in the last three years, and now reaches more than 60 million people. Lius office in the Empire State Building looks out on the Statue of Liberty. One day, I said I liked the view that he had now better than the blank walls, and he shot back immediately, Yes, but I should be looking out on Tiananmen Square.
And we are not just discussing the past. Xu Wenli, who you will hear shortly, has been out of prison only since December 23, 2002, a little less than a year. He served 16 years, four of them in solitary confinement in a four by five foot cell, for writing down his thoughts on the need for a more open China. News of these types of convictions and harsh sentences reach Human Rights in China every week. The press and the public need to be reminded that there are many others still in prison for the peaceful expression of their views. Xu Wenli was the last of those whose name was known worldwide. Not that that really helps very much. The Chinese government simply uses better known prisoners as bargaining chips in exchange for something they want. Human Rights in China has provided information on 69 of well over 2,000 cases now documented, who are currently in prison for their ideas or beliefs in this quarterly magazine that you have here on your seats. Im calling on you today, in whatever capacity you can, to make these prisoners better known to the world. If you want information, it can be provided.
Heres another story that I think should make people angry. Ding Zilin was a well known university professor, as was her husband. Their 17 year old son was shot dead on the streets of Beijing, in Tiananmen in 1989. Ever since, she has been demanding an investigation of what happened to her boy, and accountability for whoever was responsible for his death. For this, she and her husband have been fired from their jobs, and have been under virtual house arrest for over 12 years. She formed the Tiananmen Mothers campaign, now numbering over 100 parents whose children were killed. Efforts to assist her from abroad have been thwarted. Even funds sent to ease her financial situation have been confiscated by the government when the Bank of China illegally informed the authorities that Human Rights in China had sent some money to one of their accounts. A lawsuit in that matter is slowly wending its way through the courts in New York.
And heres a subject that the press has not covered, despite reliable information that is available. Outside of every major Chinese city is a virtual slave camp. They are called Custody and Repatriation Camps. There are some 800 of them. There are two to three million Chinese citizens in these camps, as we speak. Can you imagine a story like this going unreported, if a camp like these existed outside a major Western city? People are put there for not having residence permits, and they are worked hard from early morning until nighttime. China, as you all know, has a residency permit system designed to control the size of the 12 major cities. It is estimated that 100 to 150 million people regularly violate this system in their search for work. Up to twenty percent of the detainees in the camps are children under 16. They dont have clean water, so many are sick. As the Chinese government claims they are putting them up at government expense, relatives have to pay to get them out. In addition to rounding up those who do not carry the proper papers, the camps are used periodically to clean up the city of everything from intellectuals, dissidents and the homeless.
Ive personally taken Human Rights in Chinas report on these camps to top editors from Time to the New York Times, with no result. Many reporters say they cant do the story because they cant get into the camps. But now is exactly the time to insist on access. They are being renamed, and, according to recent information, the police are no longer permitted to simply round people up and put them into these camps. One report we have heard claims that they are more like shelters today than detention camps. The press should insist on access now, if the authorities truly have nothing to hide.
Heres another outrage. According to Chinas expert Andrew Nathan, Luo Gan, now a member of the nine-person Polit-Bureau Standing Committee, which is the Supreme Ruling Body in China, is in charge of security affairs, which also was a part of his previous job. Under Luo, there has been a chilling increase in the number of executions and killings by the police. People have been instruction that political dissidents of all stripes should be totally eliminated. He has called for vigilance against a variety of political enemies, including dissidents at home and abroad, critics of Beijings bid to house the 2008 Olympics, overseas supporters of Chinese worker demonstrations, officially unauthorized religious groups, and critics of the governments position on the 1989 Tiananmen incident. Most stunning of all: An internal Chinese report on [Chinese leader ] Luo expressed satisfaction that some 60,000 people died in China between 1998 and 2001 as the result of executions and the killing of alleged criminals. That averages out to 15,000 people a year, who die in China without access to real due process.
But these days the Chinese may have no choice about opening up more. Early this year the Olympic Committee went to Beijing as part of the selection process for the 2008 Summer Games. The streets were swept clean of the homeless, unemployed migrants and beggars before they arrived, and the Custody and Repatriation Camp numbers grew. Dissidents were placed under house arrest to ensure that no protest would take place. The Olympic Committee knew well that these things were taking place because Human Rights in China, among others, told them so. In addition, a lot of construction for sports facilities will force people out of their homes. The press should cover whether there is alternative housing provided, and compensation for the loss of a dwelling. The press should ensure that all of those working on the construction projects are being paid for their labor.
The Olympic Committee has a badly bruised image. Proving themselves to be responsible citizens of the world would go a long way toward improving it.
The Olympic Committee needs to make it clear to the Chinese government that it will not tolerate human rights abuses committed in the name of the 2008 Games. The press can and should hold their feet to the fire on this. All of us must do what we can to ensure that American athletes will not march in Tiananmen Square while Ding Ziling, Liu Qing and Xu Wenli cannot.
With China in the WTO and wanting to look good for the Olympics, this is the moment when news organizations can and must push the envelope. The Chinese government is very active in guaranteeing that Human Rights in China is denied observer status in the U.N. They have also seen to it that Human Rights in China is denied a chance officially to participate at the meeting starting December 10th in Geneva of the World Summit on the Information Society. They have that kind of power within the U.N. But they do not and must not be allowed to cow the free press of the world into not covering stories that should be covered these days.
Its really very simple. Human Rights in China is a Chinese truth-telling organization. As long as Human Rights in China is in the Empire State Building and Liu Qing is not looking at Tiananmen Square, you can be absolutely sure the Chinese government is not interested in the truth. Could any litmus test be simpler? Thank you.
(Xu Wenli spoke in Chinese, and his remarks were interpreted by his daughter, Xu Jin.)
Xu Wenli: Im very honored to be here today to speak to you because you are very important to freedom of the press and freedom of expression. Its like before we had to get on a ship from Europe to arrive in America, now were just flying. Without all your works, the Forum would not hear anything in freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Mr. Ottaway had mentioned that you may want to take a look at the April 5th Forum which is a very early stage of handwritten newsletters. I hope you wont laugh at me of my silly newsletters. And I hope you will take a look after the lecture. Ill have my daughter read my remarks and then I can answer some questions.
Without freedom of speech and freedom of the press, there is no chance of establishing a democratic society. This is the most rudimentary of political common sense. The Chinese Communist Party is very aware of this point. From 1921-1949 when they were struggling against the Peoples National Party to establish political authority in China, they emphasized this point numerous times. Then after the Chinese Communist Party obtained political power in Mainland China, although the word democracy hung at the corners of their mouths and they even wrote freedom of speech into the constitution, they will definitely not put freedom of the press into practice because they know very well that in order for freedom of speech to be effective for the public, it needs freedom of the press to be its vehicle.
Amidst the 50 or so years of the Chinese Communist Party control of Mainland China, in one hand they grasped a rifle, and in the other a writing brush. In these two domains, they will absolutely not allow the encroachment of any other political influence. As a result, up to this day, the Chinese Communist Party hasnt implemented a democratic societys nationalization of the army. Nor have they implemented a democratic societys freedom of the press. The partys years of deliberations over ways of publishing the news have not even made a public appearance. This is because they know very well that only with freedom of the press can a society truly establish freedom of speech; only with freedom of the press can a society establish a democratic system that respects the basis of public opinion.
In this type of political environment, my friends and I have been seeking to break through the autocracy of the one-party rule, to establish liberty and democracy, and a nation that values human rights. Naturally, it would be impossible not to start our political activities without first striving for the freedom of the press. The well-known Democracy Wall of Mainland China is exactly the type of movement that started under this kind of political backdrop.
In 1976 after three Chinese top leaders, Mao Zedong, Zhou Enali, and Zhu De all passed away, China came to an intersection. A few hoping to lead Chinese society towards a democratic system, spontaneously got together at the end of 1978 under the Democracy Wall movement to start a new generation of publications run by the people.
The history of modern Chinese news tell us that modern Chinese journalism begins with privately run publications. Although during the period of Peoples National Party freedom of press was suppressed, privately run publications always existed. Under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party, it was after 1957 that publications of the people were finally thoroughly destroyed. Thus we established the Xidan Democracy Wall publications of the people. Naturally, we were seen as a thorn in the Chinese Communist Partys side. At the time, Den Xiaoping actually took advantage of these privately run publications to seize political power from Hua Guogfeng. So the publications, for a period of time, enjoyed existence. The April 5th Forum I directed from 1978-1980 existed for over a year and produced 17 publications. The Forum had readers from Mainland China including several provinces of Xi Zang (Tibet). Readers from overseas were for the most part diplomats or students studying abroad. Except for Africa, there were readers in every continent.
Now looking at materials from the April 5th Forum, everyone can see that they are completely handmade. The cutting of printing blocks, the ink pressing and stapling were all done by hand. During the process of editing and publishing it, we received continuous threats and harassment from the police. This escalated when in 1981 the Chinese Communist Party sentenced me to 15 years imprisonment for publishing counterrevolutionary propaganda and organizing a counterrevolutionary group. When I was released on parole from 1993-1998, I established the Virtual Democracy Wall and the Democratic Party. After this, the Chinese Communist government sentenced me to another 13 years in prison.
At present, the Chinese Communist government under the rule of two political centers of Jiang Zemin and the Hu Jin Tao and Wen Jia Bao clique, not only will not allow freedom of the press, but has also seriously suppressed and oppressed writers who have published articles on the Internet criticizing the Chinese Communist government. This aspect has become further intensified. They have arrested and heavily sentenced Liu Di, He Depu, Du Daobin, Yang Zili, Xu We and others, all of whom are clear proof of this continuing trend.
Liu Di is only a 23 year old female student in Beijing, who published an article on the Internet criticizing the Chinese Communist Party before their Sixteenth Congress. On November 7th of last year, she was arrested and has been imprisoned for a year. She was released two days ago because of the Chinese Premiers upcoming visit to the U.S. On November 6th of this year the Chinese Communist Party heavily sentenced He Depu, because he was a member of the Chinese Democratic Party and published several articles on the Internet, including one titled A letter to President Bush.
Before this, four noble men, Yang Zili, Xu Wei and others, each were severely sentenced to 8-10 years imprisonment. Du Daobin, an author on the Internet, was recently apprehended. This triggered the joint protest of over a thousand intellectuals from Mainland China and overseas. The scale of this sort of protest is something very rare in recent history. This proves that the Chinese people are slowly waking up.
I hope that those of you sitting here, American and foreign diplomats and public servants, workers for the world press, initiate great concern for and criticism of this matter; to rescue these people who have been oppressed by the Chinese Communist government for merely exercising their freedom of speech and advocating for freedom of the press.
Thank you all.