Jerome A. Cohen. China’s Leaders: Learning from Egypt – and Chen Guangcheng? SCMP (South China Morning Post)

February 16, 2011

To the extent they have access to information, thoughtful Chinese, inside and outside the Communist Party and its government, are analyzing the implications for China of recent events in Egypt. What lessons should the country’s increasingly worried, but outwardly successful, ruling elite take away?

Egypt surely vindicated Chairman Mao’s familiar maxim that “a single spark can start a prairie fire”. Based on their record, China’s current leaders are likely to conclude that former President Mubarak’s fall confirms the importance of quickly snuffing out the spark, as they believe Deng Xiaoping and his colleagues should have done when students began to gather in Tiananmen Square weeks before the slaughter of June 4, 1989.

A decade later, Deng’s successor, Jiang Zemin, applied the “lesson of Tiananmen” by cruellysuppressing the Falun Gong immediately after it used new media to assemble 10,000 adherents in front of Communist Party headquarters without the advance knowledge of the secret police. Tibet and Xinjiang are more recent examples of the Party’s use of such measures against minority nationalities.

Even the dominant Han nationality continues to be “harmonized” by the police and their hired thugs. Despite three decades of spectacular national development, there is a rising tide of dissatisfaction among China’s working class citizens. Many feel deprived of the greatest benefits of their country’s economic progress, unfairly burdened by the costs of developmental achievements, angry at government corruption and abuses, and lacking in freedoms to express their feelings and affect policy.  Increasingly, they share the belief of a growing number of intellectuals, professionals and officials, including many Party members, that political and legal reforms are urgently needed to promote these freedoms and social justice. Here we see many similarities to Egypt.

One of the major demands of the crowds in Tahrir Square was to end the frequently-exercised power of the police to arrest anyone at will and often inflict torture. More broadly, the protesters, as New York Times correspondent Michael Slackman noted, sought “freedom, democracy, social justice, rule of law and economic equality”. The gap between rich and poor had become intolerable. People were no longer seduced by appeals to nationalism or pan-Arab ideology but focused on ordinary demands for improving life, and this required political change, change that did not come.

Egyptian experts said that Mubarak’s emphasis on stability “in the end proved the ultimate destabilizer”. As Slackman reported, “Facing a police state that choked off competing ideas and ideologies, preventing free elections and manipulating the state media, the public found the only way to achieve its goals was on the streets.”

If China’s leaders care more about the welfare of their people than maintaining the Party’s unfettered power, they should understand Egypt in a different way —  as confirming the desirability not of rapid repression but of timely reform. This would be in the interest of their own self-preservation as well as social justice and political progress. They could not do better than to heed the admonitions of Chinese human rights activists whom they are viciously suppressing.

They might well start by viewing the hour-long video recently made by the blind “barefoot lawyer”, Chen Guangcheng, whom their persecution has made famous outside China.  It was secretly recorded by Chen and his wife during the ongoing harsh and illegal house arrest that was imposed on them after Chen’s completion of a fifty-one month prison sentence following a sham conviction. The video was released last week on the website of “China Aid“, a Texas-based rights group, just as the Egyptian revolution came to a boil. Chen’s advice, resonating with the Egyptian experience, is that ruthless repression can eventually produce national instability and even dictatorial downfall.

China’s “outdated social system is withering away”, Chen says. The government is terrified and has “a sense of crisis”. It is afraid that people will learn of its misconduct, which is why it goes to such extremes to hide its actions and isolate him and his family from their village and the world.

“If a society is not built on the foundation of fairness and justice, it will not gain long-lasting stability”, he emphasizes. “Violence will only maintain short-term stability.” Chen, who learned law through self-study and practice defending victims of official discrimination, maintains that the government’s sole long-run option is to abide by its own law, including constitutional and international legal standards, respect universal values, protect human rights, and establish democracy and the rule of law.

Chen’s video offers the first opportunity in over five years for the public to hear the views of this man whom TIME Magazine, when he was already in detention, named one of 2006’s “Top 100 People Who Shape Our World”. Chen was subsequently awarded the Magsaysay Emergent Leadership Prize, often called Asia’s Nobel Prize, while imprisoned.

In the video, he recognizes that its posting may have dangerous consequences for him. His captors, who have often tried to intimidate and provoke him by calling him a “traitor”, “counterrevolutionary” and “enemy of the state”, made clear that they were hoping for an excuse to pounce on him again. Because of the video, Chen says, “It’s likely they will handle me the way they treated Gao Zhisheng”, once China’s most famous human rights lawyer but cruelly tortured and now long “disappeared” by China’s security police; “after all, no matter how they beat me, the judicial organs will turn a deaf ear since it will be done on the order of the Party Committee.”

Indeed, several human rights organizations have reported that, shortly after the video’s posting, Chinese police illegally entered Chen’s modest farmhouse, severely beat this blind man and his wife and then refused them medical care. Will China’s leaders seek to justify such mistreatment as necessary to maintain social stability? Surely others who watched Mubarak resign must be questioning how stable any government built on such abuses can be.

This Article was published with slight edits in the South China Morning Post on February 16, 2011 under the title “Sparks Fly.”  It appeared in Chinese in Taiwan’s China Times on February 17, 2011. (繁体中文)( 简体中文

Jerome A. Cohen is professor and co-director of the US-Asia Law Institute at NYU School of Law and adjunct senior fellow for Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. See