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Tiananmen Square crackdown
CommentInsight & Opinion

After June 4, China is still fumbling towards respect for rights of all

Jerome A. Cohen says despite the changes made to China's human rights legislation after June 4, progress has been slow and the plight of those advocating for democracy little improved

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 June, 2014, 3:25am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 June, 2014, 3:25am

We are entitled, 25 years later, to ask about the enduring legacy of June 4. Its immediate impact on China's legal system and civil and political rights was, of course, disastrous. For several years, savage repression decimated a system that, only a decade earlier, had begun its post-Cultural Revolution reconstruction.

The mid-1990s, however, spurred by Deng Xiaoping's 1992 "southern tour" and the Communist Party's effort to attract foreign direct investment, marked a return to the cautious but persistent legal progress of the 1980s. This, despite "strike hard" campaigns and other setbacks, seemed to promise greater protection of human rights, not only in theory but also in practice.

The past 20 years have witnessed a continuation of China's legislative progress. But what has not continued, despite attractive constitutional amendments and generally progressive procedural and substantive laws, is the promise of gradually realising the freedoms of expression, association, assembly, demonstration and religion enshrined in China's constitution. Nor, in practice, has the police-prosecutorial-judicial system over which the Communist Party presides protected the criminal justice and litigation rights of those unfortunate enough to become involved in "sensitive" cases, broadly defined.

Democratic activists and the human rights and public interest lawyers who dare to represent them have been subject to especially disgraceful abuse.

Indeed, in recent years, despite China's impressive economic development, the situation for civil and political rights has significantly deteriorated, and prospects for the immediate future appear grim. The long-time criminal detentions of the distinguished human rights advocate Gao Yu , the able public interest lawyer Pu Zhiqiang and many others are a sobering reminder of reality.

Was this situation avoidable? It is a far cry from the China that my wife, Joan Lebold Cohen, and I experienced when, after a number of visits beginning 1972, we were finally allowed to live in Beijing at the start of 1979. Those were the heady days of Democracy Wall, an exciting period for all, whether Chinese or foreigners, social scientists or visual artists. Speech was really free, and "sit-ins" took place in front of city hall. The Central Academy of Fine Arts invited my wife to give lectures on contemporary American art before hundreds of artists and students who gasped at their first glimpses of slides of Western abstract paintings, in an atmosphere that was electric with questions and comments.

We knew it couldn't last, and it didn't, but this brief transition did introduce a decade of limited progress in many fields. Yet the democratic ferment generated by the 1980s proved hard to contain, as demonstrated by the fall of the reformer, party general secretary Hu Yaobang , in the 1986-87 campaign against "bourgeois liberals", and by the events leading up to the June 4 massacre after Hu's death two years later.

One question that has long plagued me is whether those crackdowns might never have occurred if vast popular protests could have been avoided. After the fall of Hu, I remember surprising some friends, and even myself, when, on Ted Koppel's Nightline, I said that, while it was heartwarming to see thousands of students in the streets shouting "freedom", one nevertheless had to ask whether that was indeed a good thing if the result was not more freedom but less.

Although the mid-1990s moderated the vicious oppression that followed June 4, it did not end the revival of Maoist ideology that had contributed to criminal injustice in the aftermath of the slaughter. In early 1992, I was exposed to a vivid application of Mao's theory of contradictions. The Voice of America broadcast excerpts of a talk on the impact of June 4 on the legal system that I had just delivered to the Beijing Foreign Correspondents' Club. Although premier Li Peng reportedly liked my endorsement of China's desire to enter the World Trade Organisation, my theme that the courts had become an instrument for suppressing people angered him.

Thus, two days later, as I was preparing to leave the Jianguo Hotel to visit several provincial law schools on behalf of the Ford Foundation, no fewer than five Beijing law school deans, who earlier in the week had been courting me to recommend continuing Ford support for their schools, were lying in wait for me in the lobby. There they sternly "registered a solemn protest" concerning my remarks about the courts. How, they asked, could I, a friend of China, make such an outrageous observation?

I told them I had based my remarks on the repeated published instructions of Supreme People's Court president Ren Jianxin, who was also head of the party's Central Political-Legal Committee. He admonished judges to mercilessly suppress counter-revolutionaries. "Oh," they replied, "counter-revolutionaries are not among 'the people'"! Amazingly, many Chinese legal officials, particularly police, cling to this mode of "analysis" to this day.

The lesson of the past 25 years for our purposes seems to be that economic and social progress, enactment of better legislation, improvements in legal institutions, and reformist official policy statements do not guarantee either the enjoyment of civil and political rights or the protection of political and religious activists and their lawyers against the arbitrary exercise of state and party power.

This is not to say that no legal progress is being made in related areas of human rights. Despite efforts to restrict the influence of the internet and social media, public opinion is being listened to in some respects, and party leaders are slowly allowing legal institutions to respond to demands to vindicate rights in certain fields, including labour, environment, gender discrimination and ordinary civil and criminal cases. Yet there is little evidence that such progress is likely to improve the lot of political and religious activists and their lawyers, at least in the near future.

In order to avoid ending on a despondent note, it is worth mentioning the vastly different experience of Taiwan during the past 25 years. On June 4, 1989, the island, which shared much of the mainland's history and political-legal culture, was just embarking on its extraordinary journey from Chiang Kai-shek's version of harsh Leninist dictatorship to a democratic political system that increasingly features the rule of law and freedoms of expression that are the equal of any country. That achievement deserves our respect, study and support. It also offers mainland human rights advocates a ray of light at the end of today's dark tunnel.

Jerome A. Cohen is professor and co-director of the US-Asia Law Institute at New York University School of Law and adjunct senior fellow for Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. See also www.usasialaw.org. This article is based on a speech delivered by video to a conference at City University of Hong Kong on May 30 marking the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre


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Democracy didn't work in the US where 40% of the people votes and a President can get elected despite losing the popular vote. Democracy in the US isn't any better than in the Third Reich when the "democratic" government is full of blood lust and engage in wars of aggression lasting decades destroying the human rights of countries like Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan. Democracy doesn't work when the government shuts down for months because the GOP and Democrats can't even agree on the budget. Democracy didn't work in Thailand and a lot of places where everything is corrupt and democracy actually created even more corruption when votes are bought and gerrymandering means the principle of one person one vote and every vote have the same weight is a myth. Democracy is a myth and have been hijacked by the rich who have more rights than the poor and can never create an equal society. And finally democracy and monarch are incompatible. In order to have even a tiny semblance of democracy, you must first of all do away with the monarchy and an unelected senate or upper house or house of lords, otherwise it is a fraud.
Max Diethelm
Democracy is the West is a fraud. What you usually have is a duopoly and a corrupt electoral process in which the turnout is usually very low as the political process have been hijacked by the entrenched elites which leaves little room for real democracy.
The only "today's dark tunnel" is the one which you live in, USA.
Your government is not even able to stop kids from murdering each other with guns inside their schools.
That dire situation ( which you call the "rule of law") is the direct result of protecting so-called individual rights under your "freedom and democracy". The system doesn't work, so for God's sake stop trying to force it on every country around the world.......... except where it suits you to keep quiet!
The Chinese constitution is not worth the paper on which it is written, and "rule of law" exists in China in name only, ready to be openly abused by the CCP with aplomb.
Indeed, certain freedoms are permitted in increasing degrees in China by the CCP. However, these only exist where it suits the CCP. And "freedoms" that require CCP permission are not freedoms at all.
There has been much back-sliding since the late 80s, and that pattern shows no signs of abating given the performance of Xi so far. PRC citizens should look forward to more of the same, if not worse, in the next 8-10 years.
As far as Chinese societies go, PRC and Taiwan are moving in opposite directions. It serves as a good case study in the natural evolution of Chinese society. When allowed to develop in increasingly democratic ways, Chinese public sentiment moves in the direction of Taiwan. I can only hope that HKers are taking note, and recognize the importance of preserving the 2-systems for as long as possible.
How About
To your last paragraph- well said. It does appear you don't know how the system works in USA despite your obvious sympathy. As for China, they too welcome constructive criticisms, give it due time.
How About
June 4 was a glitch, and China will deal with this in due time.
June 4 was a demo that went out of control when the people in power in Beijing who thought they knew democracy (the US must be laughing) tried to ram in down the throats of the public that didn't knew better like those demonstrators in HK. When they get democracy, they will be like Thailand and will be at each other throats. This is exactly what the US wants, an ungovernable China like Thailand. The people that wants democracy should realise that in order for it to work you must have two parties or duopoly that can draw the line when it comes to national security but will allow the elected party a minimum ability to rule (increasing difficult now that the duopoly in Washington are behaving more and more like the Thais). Unless China or HK can achieve that, better forget about democracy as a single party state is better than a duopoly. Benevolent dictatorship is the best form of government.
How About
Most certainly, for those who are interested, check out what congressmen and women get up to to get around donation loopholes, here www.cbsnews.com/videos/washingtons-open-secret-emergency-salmon-in-the-sea/, loan-sharking, families on payroll, this is the formal and legitimate way things operate at the Capitol Hill. And we haven't even started on stocks and securities- what they call insider trading for everyone else outside, but it's perfectly legit amongst the "law-makers".
It only costs $27B to buy all congress and senate, and make every new administration a 4-8 year gig, it can be mired in gridlock and deals are cut just to operate America. Likewise the 3-parties system in UK.
The author fails to recognise that constitutional evolvement in all countries develops over generations.
Did you read the Cohen's last paragraph talking about (agh!) Taiwan and the "ray of light at the end of today's dark tunnel?"



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