Dr. Yang Jianli, Chinese dissident, former political prisoner, Tiananmen Square massacre survivor and President of Citizen Power Initiatives for China, speaks at the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy.

Interviewed by Hilary Miller.

Please introduce yourself, your organization, and your human rights work.

My name is Yang Jianli, and I am a human rights scholar and activist. I am a survivor of the Tiananmen massacre, and a former political prisoner of China. I run Citizen Power Initiatives for China, an NGO based in Washington D.C. that advances human rights and democracy in China. We are committed to empowering citizens of China to engage in rights-defending activities and advance the peaceful transition to democracy. And, we also act as a spokesperson for the democracy movement inside China. 

Our flagship project is an interfaith, interethnic leadership conference. I founded this conference in 2000 with the idea of bringing all of the ethnic, religious, and regional groups directly involved with China. By ethnic groups I mean the majority Han, Tibetians, Uyghurs, and Mongolians. Religious groups include Christians, Muslims, Buhddists, and Falun Gong practitioners. Also, regional groups involve people from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau. So, the conference was the first time in history that all of these groups came together voluntarily, without any political coercion, to promote mutual understanding and reduce the hatred among and between them and also to come up with concerted actions to fight for their common future. This year, we are going to have the 15th annual meeting, but this one will be virtual, for the obvious reason. 

We also have an online publication, Yibao, which started in 2001 and is widely-read by Chinese readers both inside and outside of China. 

We are researching China’s surveillance system and securitization of religion. Another research topic is looking into exactly what happened in the first two months of the coronavirus outbreak in China by focusing on each and every branch of the governmental system so that we find out who is principally responsible for allowing the controllable outbreak to become a global pandemic. 

Could you give our readers an overview of China’s authoritarian censorship and surveillance in the context of the coronavirus outbreak? 

First, it is important to know that the situation in China was bad before the onset of the virus, especially after President Xi Jinping took power in 2002. He cracked down on civil society and the space for free speech. And, within the party, the officials were told to be absolutely loyal to Xi and never question his policies, crippling their ability to govern. So, there’s no incentive either in government or in society to blow the whistle on anything that is wrong. This creates the perfect storm for a pandemic. 

So, when the coronavirus broke out, no one in the government would dare suggest against Xi Jinping’s will that he must act immediately and urgently. This public health crisis actually exposed the bankruptcy of this governing system under Xi Jinping’s leadership. The people all reacted strongly to the government’s response to the outbreak. The symbolic death of Dr. Li Wenliang, the courageous whistleblower, unleashed the people’s anger towards the government. And, the desire for free speech was unprecedentedly high and, in the beginning of the outbreak, people hoped that maybe the government would learn a lesson from this episode. At first, the government tried to calm people’s emotions by promising to conduct an investigation into the silencing of Dr. Li Wenliang. Yet, at the same time, they intensified control and censorship of information and continued to round up citizen journalists who dared to document and report the true situation in the epicenter of Wuhan, or other places in China. Now, we are seeing that the government’s policy of censoring Dr. Li Wenliang and other whistleblowers is accelerating months after the initial outbreak. So, the pandemic has only given the government incentive to further tighten its grip on the whole society and repress whoever dares to offer different narratives than those sanctioned by the government. 

Could you elaborate on what you and Initiatives for China have been doing to speak out against censorship and surveillance in China? How have you brought the issue to light through your human rights work?

First, we remain in touch with the people on the ground in China to get accurate and truthful information about what is going on. At the same time, we are providing that information to the people back in China through direct communication, social media platforms, our publication, and our participation in various TV shows. Otherwise, people in China would not be aware of what is going on. Second, in order to educate the international community about what is happening in China and its mishandling of the coronavirus, we have been publishing articles. 

So, our process is to first find out the truth and document cases. Then, we write about and publish our findings as a way to advocate to the international community to come together to hold the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) accountable for this global pandemic and its economic consequences. All of the information we have found points to the fact that Xi Jinping, the Chinese dictator, is principally responsible for allowing this outbreak to become a global pandemic, plunging the entire world into total catastrophe. 

Eventually, we will come up with a comprehensive research report. In the meantime, we will keep writing and publishing to let the international community know what the CPP has done. And, we are not only concerned with this outbreak but are also looking beyond into other very important issues. For example, everybody is talking about global supply chains. Since the crisis hit, every country, including the U.S., acts as if it is at the mercy of the CCP for goods like personal protective equipment. This is a lesson for the international community to realize the danger of relying too heavily on relationships with a country like China, especially when this type of crisis takes place. 

Another important issue relates to China and globalization. If China is the largest, strongest dictatorship that is bringing harm to the world and poses a threat to the interests of the international community, especially democracies, then how do we talk about China in the globalization conversation? In my view, democracies should be the leaders that forge a different type of globalization. 

How exactly should democracies confront China? What do you think they should do?

Democracies should understand the nature of the CCP and the threat it poses to everyone. They should come together to confront China collectively, not separately, as what has been done in the past. Because China is very good at “divide and conquer” I have been advocating for collective action by democracies. 

One concrete action democracies can take is rethinking the trade relationship with China, or rethinking whether we should rely on China for things used on a daily basis for supplies. If we continue that kind of relationship, then we will find ourselves being at the mercy of China and having to compromise our principles when it comes to security, the democratic way of life, and other universal values. 

A second action is confronting China collectively, like I mentioned before, because China is not going away. I advocate for democracies coming together on human rights issues. For example, last year, when we commemorated the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I advocated for a “Human Rights NATO.” A Human Rights NATO would work when democracies come together to form a treaty-based international organization like NATO and confront China, or Russia, or any other world dictators on human rights issues. This organizational body would put human rights at the center of its international dealings with China. And, when one small country in the alliance is targeted by China or other dictators, all of the others would come to its defense in diplomatic and economic terms. 

In the context of the Coronavirus pandemic, how do you think democracies should respond to China’s outsized influence in the WHO and other U.N. agencies? What course of action should they take?

I think democracies should learn a lesson from China’s aggression in all international organizations. They have been very aggressive in taking important leadership positions in global organizations and contribute a lot of money. I’m surprised that democracies allow China to exert so much influence in these forums. Democracies must be more alert to how much China is contributing financially to groups like WHO. 

Also, China has been taking advantage of the division of democracies. We know that there’s a lot of quarrels and disputes, whether it be America versus Europe, or others. This really brings harm to democracies with regards to our standing up against China, which is why I advocate for democracies to come together and decide whether we will accept China as a model for other dictators and China gradually becoming a leader in global governance. 

Finally, to combat China on the global stage, democracies must develop a foreign policy that puts human rights at the center. Human rights should be held as principles in shaping their relationship with China. They need to affirm that promoting freedom and democracy for the Chinese people is in our national interest as well as theirs and ensure that their foreign policy is consistent with moral principle and pragmatic necessity.  The policy should make sure government policies, programs, and actions are integrated with and strengthen human rights and democratic values in China.

How can human rights activists or civil society actors help with your cause? What are ways they can join in the fight against China’s authoritarian governance, censorship, and surveillance?

The civil society and human rights community is working very hard to help people who currently live under various dictatorships. What activists need to first understand is that China is a major supporter of world dictators. This is why China has become the focus of our work and other organizations. Defenders of human rights should pressure democratic governments and work with elected officials and parliaments to come up with the right policy towards China. Another powerful advocacy tool is publications. Disseminating the truth and facts is crucial to letting the world know that the Chinese people desire freedom and democracy.