Activist Dai Qing: How China limits change, and stores discontent

August 31, 2012

By KEIKO YOSHIOKA/ Correspondent

A territorial dispute with Japan underpinned public protests in China this summer, but other recent unrest has targeted authorities there with testy demands for reform in public and environmental policy.

In late July, a protest over factory drainage in Qidong, Jiangsu province, degenerated into a riot. Police retaliated by beating protesters and reporters.

Prominent writer, journalist and activist Dai Qing, 71, has spent many years covering environmental issues and China's democracy movement. In an interview with The Asahi Shimbun, she spoke about the recent spread of demonstrations and the often violent turn some have taken.

Excerpts of the interview follow:

* * *

Question: What is your view of the anti-Japanese protests over the past two weekends?

Dai: Anti-Japanese demonstrations can easily become irrational due to resentment (of Japan's history). However, although my father was killed by the Japanese military police, I have for long tried to appreciate how democracy has spread in Japan since the end of World War II. The situation might be different if Chinese education covered things like this.

Q: What about the protests against the construction of metal and chemical plants?

A: China's economic development has sacrificed the two weakest sectors, which are unable to raise their voices in protest: poor people and the environment.

People from rural areas have left their children there and gone to work in urban areas for cheap wages without complaint. Rampant development has led to illnesses caused by pollution, as well as a serious water shortage problem in many areas.

People can no longer afford to remain silent about environmental problems that could affect their lives.

In principle, demonstrations are not allowed in China. However, it is easier for authorities to approve protests over Japan and environmental issues than those demanding democracy, human rights and freedom. One reason is that it is more difficult for protesters to direct their anger at the authorities.

However, reports of extravagant wining and dining, apparent free trips for government officials in the guise of inspection tours, and the use of official vehicles for private use, all risk sparking an eruption in the wrath accumulated deep in people's hearts when large numbers of people gather.

Q: In Qidong, about 10,000 people gathered in opposition to the construction of a waste-water drainage pipeline for an Oji Paper plant (a Japanese company). Why did the demonstrators gather at the local government building rather than at the plant?

A: I believe that was the right choice for two reasons.

It is the government that appraises and judges if environmental standards are being met. There have been instances of lax appraisal by officials who received bribes from companies and of public hearings that were made effectively meaningless. For those reasons, the people do not trust the government.

The other reason is that it did not turn into an anti-Japanese demonstration. Issues cannot be resolved by impassioned nationalism.

Q: But why did violence erupt in Qidong?

A: The 1999 demonstration to protest the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia was entirely safe because it was a "government-made protest" in which university officials transported the students by bus. While I cannot condone rioting, can such government-made protests be considered good?

The demonstrations now, whether they be over Japan or the environment, are not made by the government. People have begun to think that unless they cause a ruckus, the government will not listen to them. That is because there is no forum for people to express their opinions.

The policy decision-making process is not transparent and there is no freedom of the press. There is also no voting, which after all is an efficient "weapon" with which to express public opinion.

Going beyond just environmental issues, if people want to express their opinions their only options are to turn over cars and push their way into government offices. In some ways, it is similar to the final days of the Qing dynasty (China's last imperial dynasty, overthrown in the 1911 Xinhai revolution).

Q: If there is an atmosphere of distrust of the government, what should foreign companies in China do? Even if they meet environmental standards set by the Chinese government, that means nothing to those who distrust the government. Officials at Oji Paper said the plant operated to official standards.

A: That is why I want people in foreign nations to remain engaged so that China can become a transparent society in which the rule of law applies.

The Chinese government is currently supporting law enforcement bodies whose budgets greatly exceed spending on education and healthcare. The tremendous force of that structure is used to suppress any riots that occur.

However, the only way to avoid violence is to create a mechanism to listen to public opinion during the policy-making process.

As China's economy grows, the economies of advanced nations have stagnated. As a result, even the United States, which used to handle bilateral relations from a standpoint of protecting its own values, has now focused its emphasis on the bottom line. It tries to maintain good relations with the Chinese government for the sake of business. This is regrettable.

Corporate activities will not be protected if companies only deepen relations and hope that the Chinese government will suppress the people by force, as has been done until now. In fact, such companies could end up facing a backlash from the people.

To protect corporate profits, they will need to understand public opinion, for example whether a project being pushed by the government really has public support.

Q: When you were a reporter for the Guangming Daily in 1989, you published a book titled "Yangtze! Yangtze!" It looked at the arguments for and against constructing the Three Gorges Dam. After the Tiananmen Square incident you were imprisoned for 10 months, and subsequently lived for a time in the United States. Do you still face problems in publishing your works in China?

A: My interest in the Three Gorges Dam stemmed from my belief as a reporter that it was wrong to push forward without debate a state project that was attracting global attention, even as efforts were being made to suppress those opposed to the project.

The late 1980s had the greatest freedom of the press and thought of the past 60 years. It was lost in the Tiananmen Square incident and even now has not been recovered.

If politicians try to relax restrictions even slightly, they are criticized as "rightists" and become open to attack from opponents. For that reason, a situation has continued in which there is no thinking, no saying and no doing.

There are two states of China right now.

The China as understood through government media, such as China Central Television, is the happiest nation in the world. The China understood through the Internet is gloomy.

Even without direct instructions, the government-affiliated media employs self-censorship when managers pick up on the thoughts of their superiors. However, there is criticism and debate on the Internet. Younger opinion leaders are now emerging.

My work, too, is being read on the Internet. Without the Internet, I would have lost my life as a writer a long time ago.

Q: But isn't the government also trying to control the Internet?

A: It is human instinct to want to know something and to make human connections. No matter how much the government tries to monitor the Internet, it will likely be unable to prevent users side-stepping those controls.

We will not return to the days of Mao Tse-tung, who urged people to become "screws that cannot rust" in order to move the huge machinery that is the state.

Q: Liu Xiaobo, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 for writing the "Charter 08" manifesto, is in prison for inciting subversion to overthrow the state and government. Why are the standards for punishment so imprecise?

A: (The authorities) probably feel they lost face through the awarding of the Nobel Prize. While I was not one of those who sponsored the manifesto, I did sign the document because its contents were so fundamental in its reference to freedom, equality and human rights. While some young people were badly beaten by the police (for signing the document), nothing like that happened to me. It is different for every individual.

Still, I am an important subject for monitoring. I had to report that you would be visiting me. However, I was not told not to meet you and there were no police standing at the gate, were there? I will not change the contents of what I say or write.

But gatherings are never permitted.

One time, my friends were planning to hold a surprise party for my 70th birthday. The police asked me what purpose the gathering would have. Since it was to have been a surprise party, I had no idea. The police first denied permission for a gathering of 300 people and then said no to 80 people. In the end, the party could not be held.

Q: You have also played a role in developing new nongovernmental organizations. Why is it that none of the more than 100 environmental NGOs are at the center of the demonstrations?

A: While the government will not approve any organization that demands human rights or freedom of publishing, it does approve those dealing with the environment. That is why there has been an increase in environmental NGOs. However, key members of those NGOs are being watched in case they switch their attentions to other causes and that is why they cannot organize demonstrations.

Q: Your biological father was acquainted with Chou En-lai, the former premier, and your later adopted father was Ye Jianying, one of the leading figures in the early days of the Chinese Communist Party who also served as a marshal in the People's Liberation Army. Has that background had any effect on how you can speak and act?

A: I do not believe there is any connection.

(The authorities) may be puzzled by what I am doing since they likely feel I could have manipulated the name of my relatives for profit.

During the Tiananmen Square incident, I decided to leave the Communist Party the moment I heard tanks had crushed students to death.

However, that was the party for which my parents sacrificed their lives and realistically there is no alternative right now.

Because of this, I just want the party to govern gradually better than before. While I had a number of opportunities to apply for emigration, I decided to do my best while remaining in China.

It is truly a waste of money to monitor such a patriot as me.

Q: What will change China?

A: I do not like to shout grand slogans such as "democratization." It is more important to move ahead, even if by only a millimeter at a time.

Considering the current power of the state for suppression, a violent revolution is unrealistic. A military coup will only produce another centralized state.

The foundation for comprehensive reform will only appear when each individual becomes a community member with the wish to participate in politics.

As a writer, I want to contribute by researching modern history, transmitting the truth and doing what I actually can.

By KEIKO YOSHIOKA/ Correspondent
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Dai Qing: "There are young people who raise their voices, not as subjects but as citizens. I am very happy with that." (Tamako Sado)

Dai Qing: "There are young people who raise their voices, not as subjects but as citizens. I am very happy with that." (Tamako Sado)

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  • Dai Qing: "There are young people who raise their voices, not as subjects but as citizens. I am very happy with that." (Tamako Sado)
  • Dai Qing (Photo by Tamako Sado)
  • Dai Qing (Photo by Tamako Sado)

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