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“We Had No Idea The Government Would Open Fire”

On the anniversary of Tiananmen, Sophia Vahanvaty and Jeffrey Gedmin interview pro-democracy advocate, scholar, and former political prisoner Jianli Yang on China’s long and bloody road to democracy.

Jianli Yang, Sophia Vahanvaty, Jeffrey Gedmin


Sophia Vahanvaty and Jeffrey Gedmin: You have dedicated your life to advocating for a Chinese transition to democracy. In recent years, the regime has been tightening its grip on power. What things need to happen, internally and externally, to reverse this trend?

Jianli Yang: The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) grip on power is arguably tighter than at any time in history, with human rights violations in China at all-time highs. Even in my darkest moments—first, on the morning of June 4, 1989, when I witnessed tanks crushing students to death on the streets of Beijing; and second, the roughly fifteen months that I spent in solitary confinement (between 2002 and 2003) in a prison in China—I never would have imagined that the CCP’s tyranny would continue unabated well into the 21st century.

We know from historical experience that for change from autocracy to democracy a number of factors come into play. We must concentrate on assisting the development of a viable democratic opposition that garners broad international support.

SV & JG: You co-authored a constitution for a democratic China two decades ago. Is there anything about that document that you would rethink today?

JY: In the early 1990s, in the aftermath of the Tiananmen massacre, as executive director of the Foundation for China in the 21st Century, I helped organize a series of academic seminars on planning for a democratic China. Based on these discussions, we, the attendees (including several scholars from mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan), co-authored a draft constitution that outlined a constitutional democracy for a future Chinese (con)federation. At the time, we were overly optimistic and thought that a new democratic China was imminent and that we were engaged in a race against time.

It was premature for us to formulate a detailed national structure for the post-CCP democratic China that we envisaged, even if history tells us that thinking through possible future choices can lead to better outcomes.

I still strongly support the principles embodied in that draft constitution, but with two reservations.

First, it is more important to have a constitutional democracy movement than to have a constitution. A constitutional democracy movement consists of two parts: First, a clear constitutional goal needs to be established. Then, promotion is needed to persuade various political factions and interest groups to participate in jointly building and implementing these broad constitutional goals. The broad constitutional goals include some general principles, such as implementing a (con)federation system. They do not include minor details, such as the length of term of office for members of parliament. Virtually all the details of the future constitutional system, including general principles, will be realized in a process involving various political forces and factions, interest groups, as well as people from a variety of nationalities and geographic regions. The final (draft) constitution will be the result of compromises made among these groups. Only through broad participation can we—members of the Chinese community—foster the kind of constitutional awareness and legal mentality that are lacking among many Chinese people.

Second, in 2000 I founded the annual InterEthnic InterFaith Leadership Conference series. The series seeks to advance mutual understanding, respect, and cooperation among the diverse ethnic, religious, and regional groups directly involved with China. The annual event also aims to find common ground among the participants to support a united front in advancing democracy and human rights for all. The ethnic, religious, and regional groups represented in the conferences include Han Chinese, Tibetans, Uighurs, Mongolians, Christians, Falun Gong practitioners, Muslims, Buddhists, as well as people from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau. Through in-depth interactions with representatives, I have realized that it is dangerous for me, a member of the dominant ethnic group in China—Han Chinese—to suggest that I, or anyone involved for that matter, should or can speak for the other ethnic, religious, and regional groups with respect to their political destiny.

SV & JG: What are the greatest differences between Chinese and Russian approaches to soft power? How should America compete in public diplomacy with assertive authoritarians?

JY: China and Russia both lack real soft power, but both are making assertive efforts to acquire soft power. Russia, as a declining world power, is trying to use soft power to help to cushion its fall. In contrast, China—as a rising superpower with growing economic and military might, and aggressive expansionist ambitions—frightens its neighbors and poses an existential threat to the rule-based liberal democratic order. China needs soft power in order to realize Xi Jinping’s “dream of rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” to dominate the global community.

China has spent billions of dollars on a charm offensive, including on Confucius Institutes in countries around the world, and aid programs to Africa and Latin America. But for all its efforts, China has thus far earned a limited return on its investment. Distrust in Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party is actually near-ubiquitous. After all, China has misled the world about the pandemic, and continues to oppress Christians and brutalize Muslims. It acts as a bully in the East and South China seas, has conducted illegal island-building campaigns, and is engaged in a massive military build-up. The regime has “absorbed” Hong Kong and is intimidating Taiwan. It carries out Himalayan border sieges, launches cyberattacks, and engages in predatory trade practices and racist “wolf-warrior diplomacy.”

In recent years, China has used money—including outright bribes—to penetrate the international private sector. When it comes to China’s influence, one must follow the money. In a sense, China’s soft power often boils down to money and the corrupt dealings facilitated by that money.

This is not to say that China’s model of governance—typified by authoritarian capitalism; digital totalitarianism; rights-free, fast-growth development; and efficient but highly unjust rule—is without its admirers around the world.

Back to your question. China and Russia are constantly learning from each other when it comes to authoritarian tactics. The CCP’s aggressive rollout of Covid-19 disinformation campaigns, for instance, demonstrates that Chinese leaders have begun to adopt long-standing Kremlin methods. Rather than merely promoting and amplifying positive narratives about the Communist Party, Beijing’s campaigns now additionally seek to sow confusion, discord, and doubt about democracy itself. Both regimes in Beijing and Moscow lead the anti-liberal democracy camp.

SV & JG: Tell us more about today’s Chinese Communist Party. Why do so many choose to stay? Is the attraction ideology?

JY: The CCP today is a ruling group free from ideological constraints, no matter how much it has hitherto ostensibly advocated communist ideology and demanded that party members not forget their original intentions. For example, the party has adapted and adopted capitalism when necessary. Witnessing the situation in the Soviet Union after Mikhail Gorbachev’s democratic reforms, however, China’s rulers have refused to follow his political path.

After the Tiananmen massacre, the CCP took steps to enhance the legitimacy of its rule. It boasted a high rate of economic development. It pushed patriotism and renewed interest in Chinese traditions and culture. The CCP claimed to represent order against instability and turmoil.

Some young people join the CCP, perhaps as I once did, in order to change the party from within in the direction of political openness. The vast majority are pragmatically motivated, though; pragmatism is the dominant mentality in China, from state to society. People feel a need to get along.

SV & JG: Tell us more about your involvement in the Tiananmen Square demonstrations. Can you think back to 1989, your assessment of the situation? What you saw as unfolding?

JY: I was a Ph.D. student in mathematics at UC Berkeley when the Tiananmen student movement broke out in April 1989. At first, I organized supporting activities from the United States. I went back to Beijing to join my fellow students there in the middle of May. The student campaign triggered broad involvement from all walks of life throughout China.

They resisted provocations to violence. They conducted what was probably the largest hunger strike in history, which aroused mass participation and increased the split of the party leadership. I had high hopes that China would move one significant step forward toward political liberalization.

We had no idea the government would open fire. I witnessed the massacre and narrowly escaped it. I returned to the United States on June 7, 1989. I was lucky because I had a passport and U.S. student visa and could escape China before the authorities reasserted its control.

SV & JG: How did your experience being imprisoned affect your perspective? Did it cause you to rethink in any way tactics for pro-democracy activists?

JY: I was detained for five years (2002–05). Much of that time I spent in solitary confinement. My mental condition deteriorated; there was the isolation, interrogations, psychological and physical torture. I resorted to composing poems in my head and committing them to memory as a means of maintaining my sanity. Nearing a breakdown, I reached to my innermost resources of imagination, of belief. “Am I wrong?” I asked myself at times, with a tinge of regret. But I repeated a thought experiment: imagining myself taking a copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, choosing a Chinese street, asking someone in a language they understand whether they wanted the rights listed there. Would anybody say no? Of course not. Nobody wants to be a slave.

SV & JG: Around the world, we’re seeing brazen authoritarian action—a recent case being the forced landing of a plane carrying a human rights journalist in Belarus. Are human rights activists feeling chilling effects? What can the United States be doing to counteract these trends?

JY: Good guys must bond together. We need a human rights-economic sort of NATO. We need a broad international community with institutional cohesion and clout. All this requires leadership and none of this can happen without the United States.

SV & JG: America has been struggling on a number of fronts. When American democracy struggles, does the United States lose credibility with pro-democracy advocates in China or elsewhere?

JY: One can hardly forget the U.S.-China meeting held in Alaska in March. Yang Jiechi, a Chinese diplomat specializing in American affairs, shocked the United States and the entire world with his sixteen-minute rambling remarks, disrespectfully ignoring the two-minute time allotment.

The more I think about it, the more thankful I feel toward Yang Jiechi for what he said. I have now come to the firm realization that Yang actually did a great service to America. Of course, this is certainly not what he or his boss, President Xi, intended.

What Yang said in his remarks to Americans can be summarized in two points: First, he argued that America’s democracy is “no longer shining.” Second, he asserted that the United States is no longer in a position to act “high and mighty.”

This is precisely the message that Americans need to hear.

Although American democracy—and American soft power—has not lost all its traction, we must nevertheless admit that confidence in American democracy of people around the world, including in my home country, has been shaken in recent years.

Fierce partisan politics and polarization; the Trump presidency and the personality cult of Trump; cancel culture and the gradual erosion of freedom of speech; a bloated and inefficient government blundering the U.S. response to the pandemic. With all these things, people ask: The American great experiment, the melting pot, is all this coming to an end?

A student of mine back in China recently told me that Trump and the poor performance of American democracy has made Xi Jinping great again.

If the United States is to project its soft power, it must lead by example. The most important thing Americans can do is to make American democracy great again—call it “MADGA.”

Jianli Yang is president and founder of Citizen Power Initiatives for China.

Sophia Vahanvaty is a freshman at Stanford University and an administrative and research assistant at American Purpose.

Jeffrey Gedmin is co-founder and editor-in-chief of American Purpose.


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