'Truth spoken without moderation reverses itself'
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Tuesday, May 3, 2016
Interview with Bharat Bhushan: Open up or break up, dissident Yang Jianli tells China
Chinese dissident leader
Yang Jianli, the moving force behind the Interfaith Conference of China's
ethnic and religious minorities in Dharamsala recently, is not unduly disturbed
by the cancellation of visas of some dissident leaders by India. He pointed out that
despite the cancellation of four visas due to China's protest, 69 participants,
including at least eight Chinese activists and Uyghur American Association's
president Ilshat Hsan, had attended the conference.
of the visas of Dolkun Isa, Lu Jinghua and Ray Wong is a matter of regret. But
the Indian media has overlooked one vital fact: that the conference itself was
held, and that India allowed it to be held for the first time on its soil says
a lot about the government's position," he said. He cautioned against
coming to quick conclusions about India being "weak" in reacting to
Yang is president of
Initiatives for China, a US-based organisation dedicated to working for a
peaceful transition to democracy in China. He has a doctorate from Harvard University,
and is co-author of a democratic Constitution for China. He went back to China
after completing his Ph.D to organise the labour movement for non-violent
change. He was arrested and jailed for five years on charges of
"spying" . He was released after UN intervention, and has since
launched Initiatives for China. Catch caught up with
him while he was en route from Dharamsla to the US. Excerpts from the hour-long
chat with Yang Jianli:
What was the aim of
the Interfaith Conference you organised in Dharamsala?
This conference was
first held in 2000, and is intended to expand a dialogue we have had with the
Tibetans for a decade, to include others - the Uyghurs, the Mongolians,
Christians, the followers of Falun Gong and the people of Taiwan, Hong Kong and
Macau. They share a common
desire for complete freedom from the yoke of China's communist regime. We have
held this conference mostly in the US and twice in Taiwan. Now, we want to take
it around the globe - especially to countries that are strategically important
for China. We think that our conference can influence policy making towards
China, and the views of civil society in these countries about China.
India is strategically
very important for China, and we wanted to honour the Dali Lama in his place of
work. Also, we are a non-violent movement and India is the home of Mahatma
Gandhi. In fact, in 2000, our first Interfaith Conference was held on Gandhi's
birthday, 2 October.
What is common
among the various persecuted ethnic and religious minorities of China? The
Uyghur movement is ethnic and religious but violent; the Tibetan movement is
ethnic and religious but non-violent; the Mongolians are an ethnic minority,
while the Christians and Falun Gong practitioners are religious minorities; and
the demands of the people of Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau are not religious. How
can faith/religion bring them together?
I think we are united
by the principles of tolerance and understanding as well as our common desire
to achieve freedom from China's communist regime. You said that the Uyghurs are
violent. But those Uyghurs we work with are non-violent. Dolkun Isa, to whom
India denied a visa, is a non-violent human rights activist. I have worked with
him for two decades; he is not a terrorist as China describes him.
The Dalai Lama has
claimed that the two autonomous regions of Xinjiang and Tibet have been
subjected to a "cultural genocide" by Beijing. Is the process that
the Dalai Lama described so graphically continuing?
The cultural genocide
is continuing. The languages of the minorities, for example, are greatly
endangered. The pressures on language are not only cultural but also economic.
Some Tibetans, for example, are giving up their language so they can get better
jobs. A situation has been created in which languages and religions have been
pushed to the verge of destruction. The land, environment,
natural resources and culture of the Tibetans, for example, is being destroyed
in the name of development. What is Tibetan identity without them?
What is your
perspective on the future of Tibet?
I think, first of all,
we need to preserve Tibetan identity - primarily their culture and language.
Only then can their geographical identity be preserved and the right to
self-determination exercised. I don't believe in the
use of force to achieve any political goal. The Tibetans can decide on any
arrangement they like democratically - the Dalai Lama's Middle Path or whatever
How do you see
Tibet in the post-Dalai Lama scenario?
While I think that a
post-Dalai Lama era is still far away, there must not be any spiritual or
cultural vacuum after the Dalai Lama. Otherwise, China will plan their own
reincarnation of the Dalai Lama and a great division will be created among the
Anticipating this, the
Dalai Lama has already devolved his temporal powers to democratically elected
leaders. So, he has already created a political authority which the Tibetan
people will trust. Please understand that the 14th Dalai Lama is an extremely
rare commodity. There will not be another like him. I, therefore, have more
confidence in the democratic system that he is creating than in whoever will be
the next Dalai Lama.
How credible and
viable is the Uyghur leadership which is demanding an independent East
Their cause is more
difficult than the Tibetans' because they do not have a unifying leader like
the Dalai Lama. For other ethnic groups, this kind of leadership is
unimaginable. However, they must pursue their goals through non-violent means.
Violence will get them nowhere, not only because of the military might of the
Chinese state but also because of the way the world views terrorism today.
Would the Central
Asian neighbours of China want a Uyghur-led Xinjiang to break away as an
independent state? After all, the ethnicities in these countries cut across
That is a very complex
geographical and political issue. We do not pretend that we have a solution (to
the Uyghur issue). But we must arrive at some general principles. So, no matter
what, nobody should have the authority to impose a solution on the Uyghurs.
Everything should be decided through democratic means by a Uyghur majority.
How successful will
Beijing's efforts to hold China's fractious borderlands be? Do you think China
will remain a highly centralised, unitary state, or might it develop into a
more multicultural, or even a pluralistic society?
I think pluralism is
inevitable. China, I believe, will one way or the other, become a loosely
connected state structure. Democracy will dissolve this very centralised
unitary structure of power that exists. I am not saying that these groups will
separate from China, but that they will only be loosely connected to the
If China does not
become multicultural and pluralistic, do you think the ethnic and religious
movements, which are either non-violent or at a low threshold of terrorism,
might actually morph into something more dangerous?
Yes, there is a
potential of that. Impatient young people may opt for that when they see
themselves running out of effective non-violent options. I, however, advocate
the non-violent path, aware as I am of the military might of the Chinese state.
The Chinese government would want these movements to become extremist because
it is easier to deal with extremism. You can justify the government's high
handedness. Moderate movements based on non-violence are much more complex and,
therefore, difficult to deal with. They require a dialogue. So violence only
benefits the Chinese government.
Could China break up
like the Soviet Union, splintering in a way that its leaders obsessively warn
Loosening up of the state is inevitable but break-up is possible.
international community want a stable China since an unstable China cannot be
the engine of economic growth for the rest of the world?
I think when it comes
to their foreign policy, many countries look at China only in terms of their
own short-term interests. A break-up of China will reverberate across the
entire region. Fearing instability and chaos, many countries will not want that
to happen. But such inconveniences are actually in their long-term interests,
and of the world.
People in China may
have many grievances but there seems to be little evidence of a popular democratic
movement on the ground.
We have a lot of
protests within China, as well as intellectuals and dissidents who argue
against the government's line. But in terms of a viable democratic Opposition,
we are not there yet though we are working on it.
There are people in
China who are scared that agitating for democracy in an organised way might
lead to bloodshed, so much so that they have thrown up their hands. What would
you say to them?
I understand their
fear. We do have a 100-year-old bitter history of such violence. The Chinese
government also tends to frighten people into thinking like this. But China
will transition peacefully. The Chinese people are very good at
self-organisation when they are given the space - see what they have done on
the world wide web whenever they have got the opportunity in the economic or
cultural sphere and when there is no centralised power directing them.
I think the Chinese
will transition peacefully to democracy.
You started out as
a member of the Communist Party, a rising star you were. What led to your
disappointment with the party?
When I was small, I witnessed the Cultural
Revolution and saw the brutality of the Communist Party. When I was a little
older, I joined the party on Hu Yaobang's call to young people. However, I
found that the party changed us instead of us changing the party. My everyday
party job was to keep a watch on my colleagues. I did not like that. Later, I
witnessed the Tiananmen Square massacre and that was the final straw.