A journey of discovery: American commentator experiences human rights in China

Einar Tangen

Einar Tangen (2nd L) talks with candidates running for positions on the Shazhou villagers committee in Hubei Province, September 26, 2021.

Photo credit: Xinhua | Xu Yongzheng

Beijing

This fall, I was invited by Xinhua News Agency’s New China Research and China Chat Show to travel to some places, many of which I had been before, to observe and comment on people's views on democracy, freedom and human rights.

Over the course of the trip, I witnessed how China's economic success, in producing a massive middle class, is changing the perceptions and interactions of the people with the government and vice versa.

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It became a journey of discovery on how China is moving from a subsistence economy to a choice economy and the effect that is having on its society. What was most surprising, though, was the positive and essential role of local governments in taking on roles normally filled by NGOs in developed countries.

Background

The Communist Party of China was founded 100 years ago. Under Chairman Mao Zedong, the Party reclaimed its lands from colonial occupiers and unified itself as a people. Under Deng Xiaoping, China started on the road to opening up and reform, resulting in unparalleled economic progress.

Now, under Xi Jinping, China is embarking on the next phase of its rejuvenation, becoming a modern, balanced, sustainable, socialist nation.

According to a 13-year Harvard University study, over 95 per cent of the people who matter, the Chinese people themselves, credit the Party for providing competent governance. To put this in perspective, only 25 per cent of Americans believe their government is competent and helping them.

With 1.4 billion people, China is a vibrant mosaic of people and activity that has had two constants over the last 100 years, change and the Party.

Einar Tangen (R) examines a tea plantation

Einar Tangen (R) examines a tea plantation with Xinhua journalist Miao Xiaojuan (L) and American economist David Blair while filming the documentary in Anji County, Zhejiang Province, August 27, 2021.

Photo credit: Xinhua | Xu Yongzheng

The offer

Having read the reports about China, I was interested in actually seeing the reality. That is why, when I was offered an opportunity to be a commentator on a documentary on what democracy, freedom and human rights mean in China today, I gladly accepted.

Democracy, freedom and human rights are topical for me because as a political and economic affairs commentator on numerous international TV and radio stations, I experience the daily anti-China narratives on everything from politics, economics and trade, to Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Tibet, Taiwan and the South China Sea. Given much of the developed world's press has made up their minds, it made sense to me to see what people in China thought about their government, and their lives, in terms of their aspirations, rights, responsibilities and the law.

Traveling through areas, some of which were new and others that I had visited six to 12 years prior, there was a sense of profound environmental and social change.

Environmentally, the lush green landscapes and prosperous villages I saw were a far cry from the industrial dustbowls and old, cheaply constructed homes that surrounded them, which I had seen in the past.

Socially, there were two major changes I noted. First, the attitudes and aspirations of the people we interviewed were the same as the middle-class attitudes and aspirations of those in the developed world: making money to pay for their children's university educations, vacations, cars, houses, savings, access to good medical care, how to take care of their elders. Second, was the level and scope of local and national governments, in promoting social development.

Having travelled in China extensively over the last 20 years, including writing two books on Chinese cities and how they work, it was incredible to see the pace of change over a relatively short period of time and how it has changed people's thinking and expectations.

But, what was most impressive, and probably counterintuitive to those who have not been to China recently, was the active part the local governments were taking in promoting the transition from a society of necessity, to one of choice.

Einar Tangen (2nd L) chats with the family members

Einar Tangen (2nd L) chats with the family members of the newborn at their home on the outskirts of Yining City, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, September 20, 2021. 

Photo credit: Xinhua | Xu Yongzheng

The trips

When the interview we were supposed to have at a maternity ward with a mother and her new-born fell apart as she had given birth the day before we arrived, we persisted until the medical staff found a new mother who agreed not only to be interviewed but have us visit her home.

The proud parents had two sons but longed for a daughter. Both were only intermittently employed and lived with the husband's family. They had paid 320 RMB (50 US dollars) for the entire delivery process at a newly opened hospital. The smile on the proud grandfather's face and the looks of his shy but inquisitive grandsons as they greeted the newest addition to the family, a granddaughter, is something that will remain inscribed in my mind.

It also debunked the false narratives about an area and people in fear, where mothers are forced to have abortions, where daughters are unwanted and where people are locked up, tortured and killed in "concentration camps".

We went twice to their home, once in the evening and once more during the day, to record the family's joy when the "gift," which is what they named her in Uygur, came home for the first time.

There were other activities in the towns and cities of Xinjiang, but they all spoke to the same thing, it was about Chinese people going about their daily lives, working, playing and pursuing their middle-class dreams.

The 20 hours I spent traveling through Kashgar, which is 80 per cent Uygur, revealed a normal community where children played in the lanes, the corn was dried on the roads, and people went about their lives, not consumed by fear, but with a desire to improve their families' futures. A depiction, which is not just the story of Kashgar and Xinjiang, but all of China.

While I have not given up on rebutting the nonsensical narratives created to villainize China, as part of a geopolitical rivalry to contain its success, I know that there is little I, or anyone else, could say that would change some minds. My hope is that after Covid-19 recedes, others will take a trip to Xinjiang, not to support their prejudices, but to see the truth.

There were many other interviews and experiences that stood out, such as talking to the Imam of Kashgar's largest mosque, whose father, the previous Imam, was brutally butchered by three terrorists just outside the north gate of his mosque in 2014. Interviews with a man, and then a woman, who, through their respective families, went to the vocational education and training centres to learn Chinese, new skills and tolerance.

I saw the love between the man and his wife who had recovered their relationship after he entered a training centre at his wife's urging and after a number of domestic issues and unreasonable demands that she quit her job, wear a burka and stay at home.

Then there was the woman, who was pushed by her family to get help at the training centre after her father passed away. She had been convinced by someone that unless she stopped working and embraced the Wahhabist version of Sharia (Islamic law), her father would go to hell. She had been a kindergarten teacher, and at the training centre, her talent as a performer was recognized and she is now the star of the daily show that welcomes tourists to the ancient city of Kashgar. Since leaving the education centre she has married. In talking to her, one could not help noticing that it was as if she was talking about a different person when she told the story of her past.

But, as this is supposed to be an article, not a book, I will not have space to talk about each interview and place we experienced in detail. Let it suffice to say, I saw nothing remotely resembling the disinformation spread about Xinjiang.

Immense amounts of planning and resources went into the effort, including special economic incentives to entice industries to locate in Xinjiang. It also is directly in line with the government's determination that no person in China shall be left behind, that poverty can be solved and that it is their job to make sure of this.

The effort in Xinjiang was not a Band-Aid approach, but like the eradication of poverty, increases in social services, rapid economic development, fighting Covid-19, it was a solution aimed at the root of the problem, and one which is working, as years of peace have demonstrated.

But, the trip was not just about Xinjiang, and while I did not attend the Tibetan leg of the trip, I heard the stories. What was noticeable was at each part of the trip there were interviews of ordinary people, business owners and local government leaders.

We watched elections, attended labour negotiations, saw how governments were creating new, more efficient solutions for the people they served, sat in on a legislative feedback session, watched communities planning a local festival and learned how a small district community had gotten the entire city of Shanghai to adopt seven bins for recycling.

We interviewed locals and foreigners who participated in these activities. Almost all the foreigners indicated that they were initially surprised that they had been invited and the extent to which their opinions on proposed laws and civic matters were considered.

In terms of the people we talked to, about 50 per cent were random people we stopped and asked questions of. How are things going for you? Is the local government doing a good job? Do you know who the government leaders are? Based on their answers, we would ask follow-up questions.

What became clear was that people's minds were not on politics but the realities of their lives, economic opportunity, access to medical care and their families. It was noticeable that in every interview of the Chinese citizens, there was a quiet pride in their country and government.

Wherever we went, the local governments seemed determined to address issues, not as a reaction to outside criticisms, but as what they saw as their work.

We watched local election preparations and then watched as people cast their secret ballots for the people they wanted to represent them. We talked to five candidates who were competing for four positions on the village board.

No one made any election promises or attacked the other candidates, each just talked about what they had done and their desire to serve. We then walked around the village and asked random people if they knew the candidates, to which they all answered "yes."

We asked why these people had been elected, to which they replied, "People know who they are, and we believe they have the desire and ability to help the village." I noted there were not any election posters or yard signs. When I asked, the answer I got was, people don't do that, and it wouldn't do any good because if people did not know the people running and their characters, they would not vote for them.

Einar Tangen (2nd R) interviews locals in Shazhou,

Einar Tangen (2nd R) interviews local villagers in Shazhou, Hubei Province, September 26, 2021.

Photo credit: Xinhua | Xu Yongzheng

Conclusion

One question I pondered as we travelled was, what is the basic function of government and its relationship to the people? Modern China has done well using different ideals and governance, much to the surprise and consternation of the U.S. and other liberal democratic capitalist nations.

Today, many feel China's success is an existential threat to the assumed supremacy of their systems, but China is not ideological, it has not started any wars, it has not tried to push its values and systems on other countries. Instead, it has focused on answering the needs of its citizens, and protecting itself from the forces which seem intent on "containing" it.

In the numerous discussions I have had on this subject, the bottom line generally boils down to someone insisting that a one-party system is anathema to freedom and human rights because it prevents the will of the people from changing the government.

My retort is if the ability to change governments is a solution, then there would not be any problems in any modern-day democracy. I would offer that the issue is not about changing bad governments, it is about creating better more responsive governance, and that appears to be what the Party is doing, earning it the right to govern by demonstrating proficiency in solving the issues as they arise.

The world has witnessed this time and again, the economic rise of China from virtually nothing, the handling of the global financial crisis, Covid-19 and most importantly, in earning the trust of its people through operational legitimacy.

In terms of freedom and human rights: there can be no freedom if you can't be safe and secure in your home, work, schools or on the street without fear for your life, or the need to carry protection. The first duty of a government is to provide safety to its citizens.

Ironically many in developed democracies scoff at countries that cannot pass the initial test while they have failed it themselves. There can be no individual human rights, if you do not have a place to shelter, food to eat, water to drink.

There can be no collective human rights, if there are no systems for water, sewers, power, enactment of laws, protection of persons and property, dispute resolution, communications, transportation, schools, health care, work, economic and social mobility, which allows those with the skills and diligence to rise.

There can be no improvement, unless the vast majority of people believe in, and are committed to, the means and methods of how freedoms, individual and collective human rights are protected and promulgated as the dynamics of the world change.

My journey covered only a fraction of China, but what I saw indicates that China's success will continue. As long as the Party is willing to reflect and change, as change is needed, plan and implement, it will retain the confidence of its people and their need for freedom, and individual and collective human rights.

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