The Chinese government often tolerates, and even encourages, abuses of power and extrajudicial punishments by law enforcement officials. These are the underlying evils that sustain a regime that values its own preservation above all else, including human rights and the rule of law.
But how is this possible in a world where outsiders feel free to criticize China’s human rights record? Why does the Chinese government respond to some forms of protest, while stonily ignoring others? The answer can be found in the way the Chinese leaders, at all levels, think about their authority, their reputations and their power.
Consider the case of Chen Guangcheng, a human rights advocate who has been under house arrest with his family in Shandong Province. Recently, the public received news that his 6-year-old daughter would be allowed to leave the house to attend school, a concession that seemed to signal more lenient treatment.
But then, on Oct. 23, a group of Internet activists who had set out to visit him were brutally attacked by a local mob. Witnesses who described the attack on the Internet said it appeared to have been well planned — a sign that Mr. Chen’s ordeal was not yet over.
Why won’t the authorities simply let Mr. Chen and his family go? The most critical reason is mianzi, or “face,” as it is usually translated in English.
The authorities know that what they have been doing is unjust and illegal. But they saw the gathering of activists as an affront, and responded harshly because the government could not afford to lose face — which would undermine its power in the public’s eyes.
Petty cruelties and crackdowns are everyday occurrences in today’s China. Officials, especially low-level ones, have never cultivated respect for the rule of law, due process or habeas corpus.
If they were held accountable for strictly following the law in all cases, most would probably lose their jobs, bringing the state apparatus at the local level to a halt and endangering the system of government control. That is why, even though the powerful know what lesser officials do, they usually turn a blind eye — as long as they can cover up the misdeeds and the public doesn’t become outraged.
When public outrage does ensue, another mechanism of control — intervention by senior officials — sometimes occurs. That happened in September 2010 after a man set himself on fire to protest a building demolition in Jiangxi Province. High-level leaders fired a party boss and mayor for negligence.
But the case of Mr. Chen evidently didn’t qualify for such intervention, because another rule of power in China came into play: Never seem to bend to the demands of foreign powers. In such cases, it is the central government that digs in its heels, and the louder the outcry grows, the worse the situation becomes. In the government’s eyes, there is a stark difference between a homegrown problem like the one in Jiangxi and a case like Mr. Chen’s, in which the government perceives foreign meddling.
Congress has passed an amendment expressing support for Mr. Chen, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton recently criticized his house arrest in a speech. China saw these developments as an intolerable slap in the face.
Beijing does not indiscriminately reject all such “interference”; China and the United States conduct a dialogue on human rights through diplomatic channels. But Chinese leaders believe such dialogue belongs behind closed doors.
The Chinese are saying to Americans, if you grant me face, I can be reasonable; if solving the problem will help me, I’ll consider it. But don’t expect me to make concessions under pressure.
Such concessions would call into question the regime’s legitimacy. And once the issue is survival, the government is in effect cornered, leaving it no choice but to resort to drastic measures from which nothing — sense, humanity or law — can dissuade it.
The problem turns into one of “sovereignty,” which in the Chinese government’s vocabulary means the absolute, non-negotiable right to rule over a billion subjects. When sovereignty is in play, there is no longer a right or wrong side of an issue, just winning or losing.
A similar logic was involved 22 years ago at Tiananmen Square. The protesters there asked for nothing more than dialogue, but the government stubbornly refused because it didn’t want to set a precedent. To Chinese leaders, “governing” means absolute control. Allowing the people to become a rival to the government might bring down the system.
The same is true in Mr. Chen’s case, but with an important difference: in 1989, the government refused to set a precedent of yielding to popular demand at home. Today it refuses to set a precedent of yielding to American pressure.
China and the United States have been discussing human rights issues for so many years that it is baffling that American leaders remain so clueless about the Chinese government’s mind-set. Previous high-profile cases were resolved behind the scenes. Mr. Chen’s case should have been approached this way, too — not through public pressure.
I welcome American politicians’ concerns about China’s human rights situation. But I have one request: please be a bit more considerate, a bit more flexible, and a bit more tactful about our leaders’ mind-set. That way, you — and we — might have more success.
By Chen Min, a former editorial writer for Southern Weekend newspaper and a former managing editor of China Reform magazine. This essay was translated by David Liu from the Chinese.