After reading the column by Josh Chafetz (“An American scholar in Beijing: a tale of detainment,” 3/26), one gets the distinct impression that Chinese citizens and scholars living in the United States and foreign visitors fear (or should fear) indefinite detention and political persecution whenever they go to China.
I don’t know about foreign visitors, but I am not aware of any friends, colleagues or students I know at Yale or elsewhere, whether now U.S. citizens or remaining Chinese citizens, who have such fear.
There are quite a few professors at Yale, myself included, who grew up in China. We make very frequent trips there, including one of the founding members of Human Rights in China, an organization that certainly has not endeared itself to the Chinese government. I certainly have no such fear. Furthermore, none of my colleagues appears to be the type (no offense intended) who would take the risk of indefinite detention by making repeated trips to help improve the quality of research in universities and other institutions in China.
There are also many Chinese students at Yale and elsewhere in United States. Ironically, whenever they return to China for a short visit, they do worry about whether they will be able to return but not because of indefinite detention by China’s security agents. Rather, they worry about having their re-entry visa arbitrarily denied by the U.S. embassy in Beijing.
Chinese students are actually discriminated against by the U.S. government. While most foreigners holding F-1 student visas are allowed multiple entries (meaning they can easily re-enter the United States as long as they remain students), students from China have to apply for a new F-1 visa at the U.S. embassy every time they leave the country.
I imagine Chafetz has the best of intentions. But as an independent thinker, one should not make a summary judgment of the situation in a country like China based on a few isolated cases. The most troubling statement in Chafetz’ column is that “[We] must not allow China’s economic liberalization to blind us to its political regression.”
This line– unfortunately not supported by any facts — is taken almost straight from the mainstream U.S. media and U.S. government, implying that political persecution and human rights abuses are worsening in China. A simple question: to which period of Chinese history is Chafetz comparing?
For those of us who grew up in China in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, liberalization of Chinese society on the political front is as profound as that on the economic front. Villagers directly elect mayors or chiefs at the local level throughout China via secret balloting, often monitored and assessed by foreign observers — former U.S. president Jimmy Carter and the Carter Center in Atlanta to name a couple.
Many of those elected officials are not communist party members. Citizens in China can now sue government agencies (including the police) for wrongdoings and collect compensation, and many have won in the still-developing Chinese court system. On the streets of China, one can hear citizens criticizing the government and its leaders openly, if the visitor understands the local dialect.
China still has a very long way to go on both the political and economic fronts, which is exemplified by the simple fact that organized opposition to the Communist Party rule is not allowed and that some opposition leaders have been imprisoned or exiled. But compared to any period of Chinese history, to suggest a worsening of political repression or human rights abuse in China is utter nonsense.
The three people cited by Chafetz (Song Yongyi, Hua Di and Gao Zhan) were not likely detained because of their political beliefs. For example, it is not difficult to understand the case of Hua Di, who was involved in China’s top secret missile programs, if one has been paying any attention to what U.S. government has done to Dr. Wen Ho Lee in this country. With regard to Gao Zhan’s son, a U.S. citizen, there are ample cases in which the U.S. government failed to inform the respective embassies when foreign citizens were arrested in this country.
Similarly, introducing psychiatric analysis into China’s criminal justice system is not a step backward but rather forward. As in the United States, there are criminals in China who are driven by mental illness and belong in hospitals, not prisons. Preventing its abuse should be the goal of judging such practice, not hurling unsubstantiated accusations using Cold War mentality (Chinese society today is far different from that of the Soviet era).
But before making an assessment of the current situation in China or prescribing a course of action, it is important that judgments are based on facts and the person doing so, at the very least, has some knowledge of China’s history, both present and past. Failing to do so, unfortunately, will only lend credibility to the argument by the Chinese government that the fiercest critics of China are those who know China the least.
China is a huge country in transition; striking a proper balance between the rights of individuals and the well being of the vast majority is what over a billion Chinese are struggling with on its way to a prosperous and democratic society.
Weimin Zhong is a professor in the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology.