China announced last week that foreign journalists who wanted to travel freely around the country could do so from 1 January, 2007 until the end of the 2008 Olympics, a response to critics who complained of oppressive restrictions in the communist country.
Such moves are to be welcomed but a leading Chinese dissident, living in exile in the US, told a packed audience in Sydney yesterday that China’s strength as a one-party state is a danger to the Pacific and the world. He revealed through two translators some startling information that deserves a wide hearing in Australia (though his visit has received no media coverage.)
Xu Wenli is described as a “godfather of dissent” and a leading light of the Chinese pro-democracy movement. He has spent 16 years in jail for various thought crimes and was forced into exile in 2002. He currently lives in Rhode Island and is a Senior Fellow at Brown University’s Watson Institute of International Studies.
Organised by Sydney PEN, Xu’s audience was predominantly Chinese with only a handful of Westerners. His speech, “The authoritarianism of China makes the Pacific an UnPacific place”, outlined the ways in which timidity has descended over the Chinese people, with relatively few brave souls determined to push for a “multi-party liberal democracy.” While he acknowledged the country’s strong economy and rise in living standards, he believed, thanks to a strong-willed father, that “people must sometimes sacrifice youth for liberty”. This was his explanation for spending so many years in jail.
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He revealed that last year over 85,000 protests occurred throughout China. Some were violent, with police cars being burned or police stations torched. The level of dissatisfaction within the Chinese population was growing, though such reactions are rarely expressed in the Western media.
Former World Bank president James Wolfensohn recently spoke told an audience at the University of NSW that Chinese President Hu Jintao was a fine leader who was steadily taking his country into the 21st century. Xu responded that Hu Jintao was actually an authoritarian leader, poorly educated and prone to violent suppression of dissent. He reminded the audience that his 1989 crackdown on Tibetans in Lhasa was the prelude to the Tiananmen Square massacre.
I asked if the internet might be the tool to finally crack the Chinese government’s iron grip on power. He said that he was encouraged with the number of visitors to his group’s website, the China Democracy Movement – around 850,000 hits per month with most coming from within China – and his belief that, “information will eventually reach the Chinese people”, despite the best efforts of the government to censor “subversive” material.
But Xu saved his strongest comments for Australia’s uranium sales to China and the North Korean nuclear issue. He claimed that China was determined to build nuclear weapons and would use Australia’s resources for this purpose. A Chinese general recently said that China wanted nuclear conflict with the West. Xu clearly believed that the Howard government should think very carefully before selling uranium to the Communist state. “I wish Australian politicians took a longer view on this issue”, he said.
Xu said that he didn’t believe North Korea had recently tested a nuclear weapon, principally because the “rogue state’s” technology was so out-of-date. He did fear, however, that northern China could become a dumping ground for the North’s nuclear waste if development continued.