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Pei Minxin on Reactions to the Nobel Peace Prize

January 26, 2011

A noted China scholar discusses the Chinese official reactions to the Nobel Peace Prize for Liu Xiaobo and the unstoppable domestic forces pushing for a more transparent and accountable government.

Human Rights in China (HRIC): You’re an astute observer and commentator on Chinese politics, but you’ve said that your work does not focus on human rights. Many of the issues that you’re concerned with, however, do overlap with human rights. Can you talk about the issues in Chinese politics that have a direct bearing on human rights?

Pei Minxin (PMX): Human rights can be defined very broadly, and the things I follow do have to do with human rights. For example, I’m very interested in the issue of corruption. On the surface, corruption appears related to the greed of some officials in the Chinese Communist Party or in the Chinese government. But if you look deeper into cases of corruption, you often find instances of abuse of power that lead to the violation of the rights of ordinary citizens. A simple example is the eviction of urban residents from their houses. In many instances of forcible evictions, you find that local officials have taken bribes from developers, and have hired thugs—mafia-type individuals—to perform the evictions. So that’s why I think the things I’m interested in are in some ways connected with the issue of citizen rights—human rights—in China.

HRIC: On the issue of corruption—you gave very graphic and troubling statistics in an article you published in 2007.1 Have you followed up on those statistics, and do you have a sense of whether they are getting better, worse, or staying about the same?

PMX: I wrote an article in 2007, and the statistics in that article were educated guesses. Studying corruption in a technical sense is very, very difficult, because you are essentially trying to measure something that is hidden. People who are corrupt do not want you to know. So we did the research based on the data that came out of China and other work done by specialists on this issue around the world. Unfortunately, I have not followed up on the statistics—it is very hard to say whether corruption is getting better or worse. One thing we do know is that it is a huge problem. So we are not confident enough to make definitive claims regarding the corruption trend lines in the last few years. But if I had to bet whether corruption today is worse than in the 1980s, I would definitely say that it is much worse now. But whether it is worse today than in 2001 or 2002—that is a more challenging question.

HRIC: You speak to a wide range of audiences, including those in the business and financial sectors who would be particularly interested in the corruption problem and the impact on their activities or investments in China. Can you share some reactions from these sectors of the international community to your analysis of the corruption problem?

PMX: I once met a very senior executive from Micro­soft, and, amazingly, he said that he does not think that corruption is a serious problem in China! I was astounded. I thought, “What is he talking about? The rampant pirating of Microsoft software is officially tolerated, if not sanctioned. If that’s not corruption, I don’t know what corruption is!” I think that, tragically, many senior executives in Western companies do not have a sense that corruption is such a problem in China, or that corruption directly affects how they do business. In some ways they are more protected than Chinese businessmen, but they are not immune. You look at this very recent example—Rio Tinto, the gigantic Australian-British mining firm—its key employees in China were arrested, and one of them was sentenced to more than ten years in prison for accepting bribes in return for giving some Chinese steel companies more allocations of iron ore—which is often in short supply. And the way the Rio Tinto case came out was like Captain Renault in the movie Casablanca, saying, “I’m shocked—I’m shocked that gambling is going on in here!” I think executives of multinational firms, foreign businesspeople, and foreign companies doing business in China or doing business with China, largely need to be more aware of the problem. They actually need to pay more attention and fight this kind of scourge, because it not only hurts their business, but that kind of practice will also lead to all kinds of consequences that will damage their brand and will not protect the rights of their workers in China.

HRIC: That is a good example of the overlap between human rights and the systemic concerns that you have focused on, such as corruption. The reactions of many international, Western businesses to the problem of corruption—in not addressing the problem, denying that there is corruption, or saying that “It doesn’t re­ally affect us”—are similar to the reactions to human rights issues. Many would say, “Human rights are not really a problem for our operations.” I think there’s a similar denial because an acknowledgement that the problem exists would require a response.

You have referred to both “human rights” and “citizen rights” in different contexts. Can you share with us, based on your extensive observations on the ground as well, whether you’re seeing any shifts in how the general public—laobaixing (老百姓)—as well as officials, are naming and approaching problems where mass rights, the rights of large groups of Chinese citizens, are violated, such as in forcible evictions? Are these problems seen now as rights problems, or are people still staying away from the term “rights” because it is perceived as sensitive, and referring to them as just “land” problems?

PMX: At the moment, most of these problems in Chinese society—evictions, unsafe food, pollution, discrimination against individuals on the basis of certain illnesses, and discrimination against individuals on the basis of where they’re from—are gradually being elevated to the level of rights issues, and that’s a very encouraging development. There’s a lot of discussion and debate—which I have not followed closely—about ending the use of physical examinations to disqualify applicants for jobs or university slots on the basis of some preexisting health condition. For a long time this kind of screening was taken for granted as the government’s prerogative! Now people are suing the government for denying them jobs or university ad­missions on the basis of preexisting health conditions.

Another issue is the right to know—this is a very encouraging development. We’re not talking about the Chinese government promising open government, but scholars and ordinary citizens demanding, for example, to know how their tax money is being spent. I think a group of scholars even developed an index of budget transparency for China’s provinces, and that kind of movement from below is a very positive development.

So what has been the reaction of the Chinese government? It varies, I think. At the top level you tend to see more rhetorical support, but not necessarily substantive action. At the local level, some local governments tend to respond with suppression of more information, with more abusive responses, attempts to just shut people up, or, even worse, to lock people up. But in some areas they actually release more information. In Guangdong Province, I believe they now have more information on how the budget is being spent. So that’s one area where I think the right to know is an important trend to watch.

HRIC: Can you talk about the Chinese official reactions to the Nobel Peace Prize for Liu Xiaobo?

PMX: I think the official reaction to the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to Liu Xiaobo shows that the Chinese government is in denial—I don’t know how to translate “in denial” into Chinese. Giving Liu Xiaobo the Prize essentially says that human rights violations in China are not a domestic issue, that human rights violations cannot be protected by claims of sovereignty. Also, how the Chinese authorities tried to pre­vent Liu Xiaobo from being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and then, after the Prize was announced, how they tried to minimize the significance of it, are both very, very worrisome, because these actions show that for all China’s economic contact with the world and cultural exchange, for all the visits by these officials to the outside world, they still do not get it. Or, perhaps, even if they get it, they still do something that simply makes very little sense. Another aspect that worries me about the official reaction is that it’s clearly a mistake, but how can such a mistake in policy continue? I used to believe that Chinese leaders have the ability to correct their mistakes, but on this issue that does not appear to be the case.

HRIC: Can you elaborate on what you see as the policy mistake?

PMX: I think the mistake is, after the Prize was announced, they began this campaign of trying to discredit the Prize, and they used heavy-handed tactics to threaten the European diplomats about attending the awards ceremony. And the mistake includes what they did to Liu Xiaobo’s supporters in China—house arrest, surveillance, communications blockade—and placing Liu Xiaobo’s wife, Liu Xia, under house arrest. All of these things guarantee that China will be portrayed in a very negative light. So they are compounding one mistake, which was to lock Liu Xiaobo up on some trumped-up charges for 11 years, with another, that is, trying to intimidate the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, and then a series of additional mistakes afterwards. So these repeated mistakes raise doubts about the policy-making process and the key judgments of Chinese leaders.

HRIC: Can you say something about the different reactions that you’ve observed inside China, among the people?

PMX: I was inside China when the Prize was announced, and the reaction from the intelligentsia was ecstatic. Within minutes, everybody, people who are interested in the cause of human rights and democracy in China, their cell phones were ringing, and messages were flowing in. I was with a friend who got this message and the title was, “It’s time to shed tears of joy.” But I have to say that the majority of ordinary people in China do not know. The government has done a very effective job in blocking the news. But those who know understand how significant the award is. You know, I must say the Chinese government actually understands the significance of the award. That explains why it has taken such extreme, excessive measures in countering the impact of the award.

HRIC: What are the forces that present themselves as drivers for reform or greater transparency?

PMX: I think certainly you have people from below: journalists and netizens, some of whom actually form a very effective informal coalition to push for more transparency. You have scholars as well. And within the government there are a few officials that want to do something that’s different. So you have these disparate forces in various parts of Chinese society pushing for more transparency, pushing for more accountable government. That’s a trend that no government in China can stop.

HRIC: You say that these are forces that the government cannot stop; however, it seems that the government can censor information flow on the Internet, or even shut it down temporarily in a whole region as it did in Xinjiang. And we’ve seen Wen Jiabao talking about the need for political reform in late summer this year, and now it appears he has been silenced. In terms of forces that can’t be stopped, are you talking about over the long-term?

PMX: The government’s censorship is a very powerful machine. You have to recognize that this is a government that has invested an unbelievable amount of energy, money, and manpower in the censorship machine. But this censorship machine also has limits. One of its biggest limits is that it always reacts, and it cannot preempt discussions. It cannot completely stifle discussions of important public policy issues or rights issues at the initial stage of an incident. In the case of Premier Wen Jiabao’s CNN interview,2 which was one of the instances in which he talked about the need for political reform, it was not disseminated in­side China. That’s not actually a very important is­sue. Let’s look at a series of important public events in China in the past five years: the Sanlu tainted milk powder incident; the Sichuan earthquakes; the series of forcible evictions that led to the death of ordinary citizens and the dismissal of local officials; some very high profile riots in Weng’an County in Guizhou,3 and others. Even though in the end the government managed to shut down Internet discussion, the damage had already been done to the credibility and image of the government, and the signal had been sent out that ordinary citizens have to resist such abuses of power. If they resist, they may force the government to redress their wrongs. They can make local officials accountable.

So, I think you have to be a little more positive even on the issue of censorship. This machine is not perfect. The machine is not completely effective. The analogy I use is a Chinese phrase: dishuishichuan (滴水石穿), which means, if you have a drop of water every day, you can go through a rock. So the erosion of the system’s legitimacy and image is being accomplished on a daily basis in small doses, not in one dramatic blow.

HRIC: It’s so wonderful to hear your optimism.

PMX: I have to be optimistic.

HRIC: So what are the different roles that the international community can play to push this drop of water process? Should it come in with a bucket?

PMX: Well, the international community should, first of all, keep up hope. That is, China’s brand of the capitalist authoritarian model is not going to be a sustainable model. The fact that none of the most successful countries in the world today—I’m talking about advanced, industrialized, highly-modernized, civilized countries in the world—is a capitalist authoritarian system tells us a lot. That is, if history has not produced such a model outside Singapore, it’s probably not going to produce one—one that the Chinese leadership is trying to create—in ten years, fifteen years, or ever. So I think that keeping up hope is very important. And second is, maintain respectful but firm pressure on the issue of human rights. I think the British Prime Minister David Cameron’s approach when he was in China struck the right balance.4 He said something like, “I’m not coming here to lecture, but let me explain to you what our principles are, and what our understanding of human progress is: that is, economic and political progress will have to go hand-in-hand.” So that kind of respectful but principled engagement and criticism are necessary.

HRIC: Thank you so much for speaking to us.

Editor’s Notes

1. Minxin Pei, “Corruption Threatens China’s Future,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Policy Brief, no. 55 (October 2007), http://carnegieendowment.org/files/pb55_pei_china_corruption_final.pdf. ^

2. “Fareed Zakaria GPS,” CNN, October 3, 2010, http://edition.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/1010/03/fzgps.01.html. ^

3. The incident concerned an alleged police cover-up and failure to properly investigate the rape and murder of a fifteen-year-old girl in Weng’an County, Guizhou Province, in June 2008. The allegations sparked massive riots involving thousands of people protesting outside police headquarters. See Chris Buckley, “Girl’s Death Sparks Rioting in China,” Reuters, June 28, 2008, http://uk.reuters.com/article/latestCrisis/idUK­PEK27256220080628. ^

4. See David Cameron, “PM’s speech at Beida University, China” (speech, Beida University, Beijing, China, November 10, 2010), http://www.number10.gov.uk/news/speeches-and-tran­scripts/2010/11/pms-speech-at-beida-university-china-56820. ^

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