NED President Carl Gershman’s Remarks at ChinaAids 15th Anniversary Forum

The Struggle for Democracy and the Rule of Law in China

The Library of Congress, January 31, 2017

I want to congratulate ChinaAid, which was founded in 2002 following the announcement of death sentences for five Chinese house church leaders. In response, and under the leadership of Bob Fu, a mission was conceived to Expose, Encourage, and Equip human rights defenders in China. ChinaAid issued its first press release after meeting with Members of Congress and their staffs, launched its first letter-writing campaign, and sent its first team of trained human rights lawyers to defend those being persecuted. In the end, the five death sentences were overturned.

ChinaAid has been active ever since, and in 2014 it exposed religious-freedom and related human-rights abuses by issuing 1,500 press releases in Chinese and more than 200 original news stories in English; encouraged the abused in China by providing support and funding to 20 families of human-rights defenders; and equipped leaders by providing funding for more than 100 Chinese human-rights lawyers in 20 provinces, directly funding legal representation for more than 40 victims of religious and human-rights persecution, and facilitating rule-of-law training for more than 6,000 Chinese religious and community leaders.

And today, in commemorating its 15th anniversary, it is presenting to family members of seven human rights lawyers ChinaAid’s 2016 Courage Award “For Courage in defense of religious freedom and the rule of law.” 

This is an important statement of solidarity in defense of human rights lawyers, hundreds of whom were arrested in July 2015.  Some of them are still in prison, like Xie Yang from Hunan who has given a harrowing account of how he has been tortured; or Li Chunfu, who was kept in secret detention for 500 days, was tortured and drugged, and who was described by his wife as a paranoid, broken man when he was released from prison earlier this month. 

And as we know, just two days after Li’s release, the chief justice of China’s Supreme Court, Zhou Qiang, gave what is now a notorious speech in which he told provincial judges to take a hardline stance and “dare to show the sword” against “erroneous” Western ideals of judicial independence and constitutional democracy.  Professor Jerome Cohen called this speech “the most enormous ideological setback” for the halting progress that has been made over recent decades “toward the creation of a professional, impartial judiciary” in China.

So it’s extremely important that we gather here today to recognize and honor human rights lawyers who are standing up for religious freedom and the rule of law against a regime that is becoming increasingly repressive.

I want to note that two of the lawyers you are recognizing today, Li Baiguang and Li Heping (who is the brother of Li Chunfu) received the NED’s Democracy Award in the US Congress in 2008.

And I want to especially recognize Gao Zhisheng, who is famous for his defense of human rights activists and religious minorities; who has been disbarred, harassed, imprisoned, and tortured many times; who has been thrice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize; and who has been called “China’s conscience.”  He has also written a major book entitled Unwavering Convictions that ChinaAid has published in cooperation with the American Bar Association.  This important book not only details Gao’s torture during five years of imprisonment, but also sets forth the reasons he anticipates the downfall of the Chinese Communist Party. 

Some may dismiss his prediction as the wishful thinking of a persecuted dissident.  In fact, however, it is consistent with a growing trend among China scholars, one of whom, David Shambaugh, wrote an article in the WSJ called “China’s Coming Crack-up,” which he later developed into a book entitled China’s Future

Shambaugh gave five reasons for thinking that the Chinese regime suffers from systemic and ultimately fatal weaknesses: 1) The wealthiest Chinese citizens are parking their money abroad and are thinking of leaving; 2) there is increasing repression that Shambaugh considered to be a sign of weakness, not strength; 3) the regime was ideologically bankrupt; 4) It could not deal with the massive problem of corruption that is rooted in the authoritarian system; and 5) the reform process had reached an impasse, meaning that if the regime couldn’t adapt and modernize, it would fail.

There are other important China watchers who share this view, among them Minxin Pei who has written that “The Communist Party’s post-Tiananmen survival strategy is exhausted, and its new strategy” – which essentially consists of growing repression and virulent nationalism – “is likely accelerating the party’s demise.”  And Andrew Nathan, who in the past has written about China’s “authoritarian resilience,” now says that the Chinese regime “behaves as if it faces an existential threat.” 

Shambaugh recently told The New York Times that the party “must learn how to share power in order to maintain its power.  Political hegemony is a certain recipe for relative economic stagnation, increasingly acute social stresses and accelerated political decline of the regime and system.”  But there are no signs that the party is prepared to share power.  On the contrary, Xi Jinping has overseen the harshest crackdown on dissent since the Tiananmen massacre.  He has abolished the practice of “collective leadership,” which was adopted in 1982 to prevent a return to the totalitarian terror of Mao’s unchecked dictatorship, and he has concentrated power into his own to a degree unseen since the time of Mao.

He now presents himself to the international community as what The Economist last week called “the new Davos man” who will steer the global economy.  But in reality he is an insecure leader who presides over a system that has lost its performance legitimacy because of the economic slowdown and the leadership’s inability to reform, and who fears that trying to restore legitimacy through democracy and free elections will precipitate the collapse of Communist Party rule, exactly what Gao Zhisheng predicts is going to happen.

Gao’s view is echoed by Xu Zhiyong, another imprisoned dissident and founder of the New Citizen Movement, who warns in his new book To Build a Free China that by obstructing peaceful change, the regime in Beijing will ignite “the fuse of revolution.”  The gap between rich and poor, he writes, is so large, the conflict between the people and the government is so sharp, and the bureaucracy is so “cruel and arrogant,” that revolution can “erupt in the blink of an eye.”

But what will the future bring if there is such an uprising?  This is the focus of the last part of Gao’s book, where he writes about the prospect for a transitional democratic constitutional government” to replace the party dictatorship.  Here he revives the vision of Charter 08, whose principal author, the Nobel Peace Laureate Liu Xiaobo, is also in prison.

The great danger is that by trying to crush voices for peaceful change like Gao Zhisheng and Liu Xiaobo and the lawyers defending religious liberty and the rule of law, the current regime is paving the way for a darker future of authoritarian nationalism.  This is a great danger not only for China but for the entire world.

Gao’s daughter Grace Geng has said that her father is “willing to sacrifice everything for China’s betterment,” and that he fully expects that China will “stand up” and “become a positive force for human civilization.”

May his vision be a light unto the world, because we all have a very profound stake in its full and peaceful realization.