This past January, Jiao Guobiao was one of many of China’s citizens who embraced Christianity. His baptism took place at a small unregistered Protestant house church in Beijing. Primarily, it was an important spiritual event for Mr Jiao and his family.
But it may also be seen in a broader context. Firstly, Jiao is professor of journalism at Beijing University. In March 2004 he achieved world wide notice when he launched a 7,500 word broadside against the Central Propaganda Department of the Chinese Communist Party. The department controls censorship of Chinese media.
Professor Jiao accused the Propaganda Department of stifling press freedom and political reform in China. Predictably, his internet article was swiftly erased from Chinese websites. In 2005, he was removed from lecturing at Beijing University, and spent some time in the US before returning to China.
Secondly, the house church Jiao has joined has other prominent writers and lawyers as members. One is Gao Zhisheng, whose Sheng Zhi Law firm has handled a number of high-profile human rights cases, involving labour activists, rural rights campaigners, and the detention of Falun Gong practitioners. In November last year, his law firm was ordered to suspend its operations for 12 months.
Unsurprisingly, this church is under scrutiny by the authorities. Known as the Beijing Ark Church, it was raided twice during January by the Public Security Bureau.
In February, I had an opportunity to meet two members of the Chinese Writers’ Union, PEN, Yu Jie and Wang Yi, who were visiting Australia on a brief lecture tour. During a two-hour interview, the connection with the Beijing Ark Church emerged, almost in passing. Yu Jie is a founder of the church, and his faith strengthens his advocacy of human rights and democracy in China.
With its high profile membership, the Beijing Ark Church appears to be somewhat unusual. And in any case, the struggle for human rights in China is by no means confined to Christians. But the example is interesting.
Yu Jie is 32 and already an internationally known writer and commentator. His books sell well in Taiwan, Hong Kong and mainland China. He is a critic of the Chinese Communist Party, and an advocate of political reform of China’s political system.
For both men, overseas travel to give talks critical of the Chinese authorities carries risks. On a previous occasion, Yu was interrogated for 12 hours on his return. More than 60 intellectuals have been jailed for similar actions. Both believe that they are helped by their strong international reputations, which deters the Chinese authorities from taking harsh action against them. But they consider themselves hostages, and their ability to travel could be withdrawn at any time.
Mr Yu is critical of Western countries for deliberately overlooking the human rights problem faced by the Chinese people. He says China is still ruled by a one-party clique which uses terror against their own people, such as crushing peasants campaigning for land rights. He is also critical of France and Germany who recently considered lifting restrictions on European arms sales to China. Yu says: “China does not need European armaments. China needs better education and medical systems. It is only the CCP that needs armaments, in order to threaten Taiwan and to terrorise their own people.
“Many Western leaders and business people believe that since China’s economy has opened up, democracy will naturally follow. There is no evidence of that. It could be said that large scale Western investment has actually helped strengthen the CCP.”
Yu singled out the large American retail chain Walmart. Some of the products it sells he claims are made by prisoners in lao-gai labour camps. Another serious human rights issue is the availability of organ transplants to Westerners, using organs from executed prisoners.
Wang Yi, also 32, is a university lecturer and a senior member of Chinese PEN. He says that the CCP has deprived peasants of land rights, and denied compensation for land seized. China’s citizens do not have the right of freedom of association, and cannot join a trade union, other than the government-run phoney union.
And while Western investment assists the CCP to stay in power, members of the ruling party gain personally, with the children of many of the top leadership heading up large corporations.
Mr Wang made an interesting comment about North Korea, and the five-power talks over North Korea’s threatened nuclear weapons. China is the convenor of the talks, and the main supplier to North Korea of oil and food aid. Many commentators believe Beijing is attempting to coax the North into an agreement. Wang thinks that Beijing is really using its links with North Korea as a bargaining chip with Western countries.
One positive move within Chinese society is the slow development of human rights under China’s existing laws as lawyers and journalists act courageously, to “push the envelope” in response to unjust situations highlighted by the protests of ordinary people. Wang sees the incremental establishment of rights as the best prospect for reform. He sees a precedent in the work of human rights activists in Taiwan, as it moved from autocracy to democracy.
Both dissidents said that the censorship situation was getting worse, as the Central Propaganda Department sacked outspoken writers, or closed papers. Two Western internet companies, Google and Yahoo!, have complied with restrictions imposed by the regime.
Meanwhile the growing number of protests, and the tightening of security in major cities means that a violent upsurge because of the lack of political reform cannot be ruled out.
They expect that the book Mao: The Unknown Story, by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday will have a major impact. While the regime pays only lip service to Marxism and Mao Zedong, its legitimacy stems directly from Mao. There has been no denunciation of Mao, as Stalin was denounced in the Soviet Union. A Chinese translation of part of the book is already available on the Internet, and a print version is being published in Hong Kong.
Both dissidents said that Christians, Protestant and Catholic, collectively number around 70 million. They are still subject to persecution and harassment in various parts of the country.
Both men radiated a remarkable attitude of intellectual rigour, courage, and above all, hope, perhaps best conveyed by some words written by Yu Jie in 2004. “as a writer full of passion for freedom, and a Christian with faith in God, I firmly believe that China is not a region abandoned by God, and that the Chinese people deserve a lifestyle better than servitude.”
Gerald Mercer is a Melbourne freelance journalist.