Toothless Tigers in the Subway: An Animal Rights Campaign in China

Amid the usual frenetic pulsing throngs of passing subway patrons, Beijing denizens and tourists rushing from the sliding doors of subway cars to be the first ones up the escalator to make their connections or meetings, I examined my reflection in a glass partition waiting for the train to pass. After the train rushed away, I took notice of a conservationist advertisement across the tracks, a not too common sight in China I must say. Admittedly, I was so unaccustomed to conscientious or activist inspiring discourse in such politically sanctioned public space that it took me several trips before I actually took notice of the nature of this advertisement: A proscription against animal cruelty. The public service announcements were designed by IFAW, the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

IMG_5171The text reads, “Imagine an elephant without its teeth (ivory), a tiger without its bones, a bear without its gall bladder… A human without its humanity?”
The text in red reads, “To purchase (购买) = to slaughter (杀戮)”

IMG_5173Here the message is repeated. From left to right the Chinese characters for elephant, tiger, bear, and person are each written with a missing stroke; a splash of blood in its place. The sentence in green at the bottom reads,
“Purchasing is tantamount to slaughter, when it comes to products from wild animals just say “NO” !

IFAW lists fighting wildlife trafficking among its core activities. It explains on its website that it protects animals from illegal wildlife trade through: (1) Strengthening international agreements; (2) Training wildlife law enforcement officers; (3) Ending the illegal trade in tiger parts and elephant ivory; (4) Investigating Internet wildlife trafficking; (5) Educating consumers to reject products made from wildlife; (6) IFAW and INTERPOL, working together to fight wildlife crime. The illegal trade in tiger parts, elephant ivory, and bear bile is of particular concern in China, where certain folk remedies and traditional Chinese medicine nostrums still claim such products have curative properties.

In December of 2012 Malaysian authorities seized around 1,500 elephant tusks, between 20 and 24 tonnes, weighing the same as the previous year’s entire haul of illegally traded ivory, according to the Guardian. The two containers were seized by port authorities near Kuala Lumpur. The shipment had come from Togo, on the West coast of Africa, and was bound for China. The same Guardian article quotes Will Travers, the chief executive of the Born Free Foundation, a British based animal rights organization,

I thought that when the international ivory trade ban was agreed in 1989, we would see a permanent reversal of fortunes for this beleaguered species. How wrong I was – the respite was temporary. Experts estimate that between 20,000 and 30,000 elephants are being illegally killed each year to fuel demand, largely driven by China. No part of Africa is now safe. Across the continent, for the first time, the number of carcasses recorded as a result of poaching exceeds the number reportedly dying from natural causes.

Elephant Ivory is preeminent among the world’s sources of ivory, which includes walrus, rhinoceros, and narwhal. Elephant ivory is most prized for its unique texture and because it is softer it is more malleable. In a 2012 piece for The Atlantic Rebecca J. Rosen explains, quoting a New York Times article, “as much of 70 percent of the illegal ivory heads to China, where a pound can fetch as much as $1,000. “The demand for ivory has surged to the point that the tusks of a single adult elephant can be worth more than 10 times the average annual income in many African countries…” This rise in demand has emboldened poachers who are enchanted by the corresponding rise in price. With Ivory, unlike other animal products, the principle drive for the Chinese market may be more aesthetic than medicinal. The demand is responsible for a startling increase in global ivory trade and a corresponding destabilization of human security in the Democratic Republic of Congo, among other countries, where ivory is among diamonds and other precious material fueling conflict.

IFAW explains that part of the problem in China may be explained by linguistics. In Chinese ivory is expressed by 象牙, which most literally just means elephant tooth. In previous IFAW polls 70% of the 1067 Chinese people included in the survey did not know that ivory came from dead animals, being mislead by the linguistic implications that ivory, like human teeth, can fall out naturally or be removed without killing. This discovery led IFAW to initiate the ‘Mom I’ve got teeth’ campaign in 2010, says Grace Ge Gabriel, the Asia Regional Director. She explained, “The ads explain that ivory products come from dead elephants and encourage consumers to reject elephant ivory.” Since the campaign started running, IFAW is positive that the rate of ivory consumption in China has decreased. IFAW explains that 88% of those who have seen the campaign have fully processed its message and that within the demographics most likely to purchase ivory there has been a rate decrease from 54% to 26%. Elephants are not the only animals targeted for protection by the IFAW campaign.

Tigers in Crisis, an NGO focused on the protection of tigers and their habitats in China and Russia, notes that for over a thousand years Chinese folk medicine has included tiger parts. The continued belief in the curative properties of tigers is placing the threatened species at considerably increased risk. It is estimated that there are only 3,500 tigers still living in the wild. From their elevated position in mythology and legend tigers are believed to have extraordinary power and when certain parts of the tiger are consumed by humans that power is transferred. Tigers in Crisis explains that all parts of the tiger from bones, eyes, whiskers and teeth are used to treat ailments from malaria to bad skin. Many superstitions have been inscribed in tomes of folk remedies explaining that the “active ingredients in tiger bone; calcium and protein, which help promote healing, have anti-inflammatory properties.” According to the article, the following parts of the tiger are believed to have certain corresponding medicinal properties:

Tiger claws: used as a sedative for insomnia
Teeth: used to treat fever
Fat: used to treat leprosy and rheumatism
Nose leather: used to treat superficial wounds such as bites
Tiger bone: used as an anti-inflammatory drug to treat rheumatism and arthritis, general weakness, headaches, stiffness or paralysis in lower back and legs and dysentery
Eyeballs: used to treat epilepsy and malaria
Tail: used to treat skin diseases
Bile: used to treat convulsions in children associated with meningitis
Whiskers: used to treat toothaches
Brain: used to treat laziness and pimples
Penis: used in love potions such as tiger soup, as an aphrodisiac
Dung or feces: used to treat boils, hemorrhoids and cure alcoholism

Dried tiger bones are often boiled or soaked in alcohol to produce tonics and medicinal wines. Medicinal wines are popular in China, as is home made alcohols that often include cobras or scorpions but legally none of the commercially sold products are allowed to include the animal products of endangered species. That is, however, until recently.

A Chinese company has managed to circumvent stringent laws against the international trafficking of endangered species and their animal products, reports a watchdog organization. The spirits company has managed to sell its wine domestically for between 616 and 4740 RMB (about 100 to 767.40 USD) per bottle. The price depends on how long the tiger bones were soaked in the alcohol. The government has somehow decreed that because the tigers used in the production of the ‘tonic’ wines are both domestic and captive-bred international proscriptions do not apply. Although there are only about 3,500 tigers alive in the wild, China boasts almost 5,000 tigers in captivity, the largest number in the world. Although this tiger bone tonic wine does not seem to be widely available, the fact that it is sanctioned by the government at all is quite alarming. It is alarming that the government would condone such treatment of a captive-bred endangered species and further alarming that it condones this treatment for multiple endangered species.

“Some Westerners say this is cruel – but I think the bears are making a contribution to mankind,” says a grinning bear bile farmer to a BBC reporter. Like tiger bones and elephant ivory or other animal products, bear parts, particularly bile and dried gall bladders, have been used for hundreds of years in Chinese folk medicine. While bear bile was traditionally collected from wild bears, rapid urbanization and population increase in the 1970s and 1980s has driven the industry to establishing larger and larger complexes for captive-bred collection.

The process is excruciating for the captive bears. The animals are kept in severely restrictive cages that allow for easy access to their abdomen but completely restrict their ability to stand up or even move at all sometimes. Some bears have been kept in such confinement for upwards of 10 years, being milked for their bile twice a day. This confined state naturally causes severe psychological trauma and physical deformation. The extraction of bile usually happens twice a day and takes place through a tube that has been implanted in the bear’s abdomen. Since the holes never close, in addition to the already excruciating pain of extraction, infections and diseases are common.

The severity of this practice is highlighted in the following anecdote from a bear bile farm in Northwest China. A mother bear, hearing her cub howling in terror as the workers were about to make the incision for the tube that would likely milk bile from the poor cub twice a day for the next 5-10 years, managed to break free from her cage and charge to her cub. When she realized she couldn’t free her child from its confines the mother bear reached in and strangled the cub whereby she promptly ran head first into a wall killing herself. Such bizarre acts are testament to the extreme brutality of the process in China, where it is part of a surprisingly large business. Powdered Bear bile can sell for around 20 USD per gram and The Humane Society of the United States says that a bear gallbladder can sell for more than $3,000 in Asia. ‘A Controversial Cure,’ A characteristically informative and moving documentary by film maker Jonah Kessel offers a glimpse into the industry.

By some reports there are several dozen companies in China with upwards of 10,000 bears in captivity, while others report the number as high as 20,000. One company alone, China’s largest producer of bear bile, Guizhentang Pharmaceuticals, based in Fujian Province, boasts over 500 endangered moon bears. The company wants to go public on the Chinese stock exchange and double its number of captive-bred bears.

A New York Times report by Andrew Jacobs and Jonah Kessel explains the reaction to Guizhentang Pharmaceuticals’ I.P.O. by China’s nascent animal rights movement, “Protesters in bear suits picketed drugstores, hackers briefly brought down Guizhentang’s Web site and more than 70 Chinese celebrities, including the basketball star Yao Ming and the pop diva Han Hong, circulated a petition calling on the stock exchange to reject the I.P.O.” The animal rights movement in China is small compared to its American or European comrades but it has been increasing and winning successes through direct actions and social media campaigns. The New York Times piece quotes Deborah Cao on the burgeoning animal rights movement, “It’s a bottom-up, grass-roots movement, one that is contributing to an emerging civil society increasingly aware of individual rights and obligations, be it to humans or animals.”

The IFAW subway campaign is part of this multimedia public awareness project for greater animal rights in China. And, if we accept Deborah Cao’s analysis, that such a campaign is part of empowering the emerging civil society to be more rights aware, whether for animal or human rights, then these creative billboards are a more significant artifact in public space than they may first appear to be.

The US and China on International Human Rights Instruments

China and the United States met on 30 and 31 July in the capital of Yunnan Province, Kunming, affectionately known as the city of eternal Spring, to hold the 18th US – China Human Rights Dialogue. The US press statement noted, ‘The Human Rights Dialogue provides an important opportunity to elaborate on our concerns about China’s human rights record and to encourage progress, building on engagement on this topic throughout the year.” According to Voice of America, “The U.S. State Department says the U.S. side will bring up the rule of law, freedom of religion, freedom of expression, labor rights, and the rights of ethnic minorities in China…The Chinese foreign ministry says the talks will include ‘candid and in-depth exchanges on the basis of equality and mutual respect in order to promote human rights development in both countries.’” Human Rights Watch has warned, “The US government should press the Chinese government to adopt concrete and clear benchmarks, and evaluate the progress in subsequent dialogues. Without these benchmarks, the human rights dialogue risks serving as a perfunctory diplomatic exercise, rather than a genuinely useful advocacy tool.”

The other day, coincidentally enough in a Yunnan restaurant, a friend made a comment about the United States’ status of ratification compared to China on several key international human rights instruments. International human rights instruments are key documents in international law and the promotion and protection of human rights. They are divided into two categories, declarations (which are not always legally binding) and conventions (which are legally binding under international law. In light of the present US – China human rights dialogue I felt it was relevant to highlight a few of those conventions and explore a little behind exactly how the US and China compare in terms of their respect and implementation of international human rights norms.

International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)

United States Status: Signed 5 October 1977; NEVER RATIFIED

China Status: Signed 27 October 1997; Ratified 27 March 2001

Others Countries Failing to Ratify: Belize, Comoros, Cuba, Palau, Sao Tome and Principe, South Africa

According to Global Policy Forum “The US maintains that economic, social and cultural rights are “aspirational,” not inalienable or enforceable.” The Chinese government issued the following statement upon ratification of the treaty, “The application of Article 8.1 (a) of the Covenant to the People’s Republic of China shall be consistent with the relevant provisions of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, Trade Union Law of the People’s Republic of China and  Labor Law of the People’s Republic of China.” And what is Article 8.1 (a) that China is so concerned with?  “The right of everyone to form trade unions and join the trade union of his choice…” An odd reservation for a purportedly Communist nation to be concerned that the right to form unions may stand in conflict with the constitution. This is understood because it would threaten the supremacy of the All China Federation of Trade Unions, a national entity not known for siding with labor when party or elite interests are involved. More can be read about the AFCTU here.

So, what are some of the economic, social and cultural rights that the US feels are merely “aspirational,” rather than inalienable? Article 7 (a)(i) begins, “The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to the enjoyment of just and favourable conditions of work which ensure, in particular: (a) Remuneration which provides all workers, as a minimum, with: (i) Fair wages and equal remuneration for work of equal value without distinction of any kind, in particular women being guaranteed conditions of work not inferior to those enjoyed by men, with equal pay for equal work…” Article 8.1 (d), “The right to strike, provided that it is exercised in conformity with the laws of the particular country.” Article 9 states, “The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to social security, including social insurance.” Article 12.1 notes, “The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.”

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)

United States Status: 5 October 1977; 8 June 1992

China Status: Signed 5 October 1998; NEVER RATIFIED

Others Countries Failing to Ratify: Comoros, Cuba, Nauru, Palau, Sao Tome and Principe, St. Lucia, 

When ratifying the Covenant the United States made a number of statements clarifying its expectations and responsibilities under the treaty. Here are a few of the statements the United States felt necessary to clarify regarding its implementation of the treaty. “(2) That the United States reserves the right, subject to its Constitutional constraints, to impose capital punishment on any person (other than a pregnant woman) duly convicted under existing or future laws permitting the imposition of capital punishment, including such punishment for crimes committed by persons below eighteen years of age… (5) That the policy and practice of the United States are generally in compliance with and supportive of the Covenant’s provisions regarding treatment of juveniles in the criminal justice system.  Nevertheless, the United States reserves the right, in exceptional circumstances, to treat juveniles as adults, notwithstanding paragraphs 2 (b) and 3 of article 10 and paragraph 4 of article 14. The United States further reserves to these provisions with respect to States with respect to individuals who volunteer for military service prior to age 18.” The United States would also be in contravention of Article 6.5, which states, “Sentence of death shall not be imposed for crimes committed by persons below eighteen years of age and shall not be carried out on pregnant women.” We will return to the US position on the rights of children momentarily.

As for China, despite having signed the covenant in 1998 the National People’s Congress (China’s legislative body) has continued to stall the ratification process and many believe it is the conservatives at the center of power who command this resistance. A number of analysts have assumed that China may have only signed the covenant in the late 90s to precipitate its entry into the WTO. Despite the more than a decade long standoff between reformers and hardliners, both from within the party and from the weiquan (rights defense) community, almost every year a revived push for ratification is issued. With the convening of the 2013 National People’s Congress in March, the first headed by new Chinese President Xi Jinping, a group of around 100 intellectuals, activists, and former party members issued an open letter demanding the ratification and implementation of the ICCPR. The BBC reports, “We solemnly and openly propose the following as citizens of China,” the letter begins, “that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) be ratified, in order to further promote and establish the principles of human rights and constitutionalism in China.” The list of names on the open letter includes well known human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang (浦志强), investigative reporter Wang Keqin (王克勤), and human rights lawyer and scholar Xu Zhiyong (许志永), who was placed under house arrest in April and formally arrested in July. Until the Chinese Communist Party decides it is in their interest to broaden the scope of political rights the ballet between civil society and conservative factions within the PRC will continue.

What are some of the rights that are so threatening to the CCP, rights that the United States claims to uphold and implement, aside from a few qualifying statements? Article 3 states, “Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes: (a) To ensure that any person whose rights or freedoms as herein recognized are violated shall have an effective remedy, notwithstanding that the violation has been committed by persons acting in an official capacity…” This would require the drastic overhaul of China’s criminal justice system, which is not known for the independence of lawyers and judges, a particular problem with the vast majority of local rights violations are committed by local officials acting with impunity. Article 8.3(a) reads, “No one shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labour.” China still operates the notorious Reeducation Through Labour system, sentencing to which is an administrative penalty decided by the police without needing a trial and can amount to upwards of four years. Perhaps of equal concern to the United States, in light of its recent War on Terror, and China is Article 9, which reads in whole,

(1) Everyone has the right to liberty and security of person. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention. No one shall be deprived of his liberty except on such grounds and in accordance with such procedure as are established by law. (2) Anyone who is arrested shall be informed, at the time of arrest, of the reasons for his arrest and shall be promptly informed of any charges against him. (3) Anyone arrested or detained on a criminal charge shall be brought promptly before a judge or other officer authorized by law to exercise judicial power and shall be entitled to trial within a reasonable time or to release. It shall not be the general rule that persons awaiting trial shall be detained in custody, but release may be subject to guarantees to appear for trial, at any other stage of the judicial proceedings, and, should occasion arise, for execution of the judgement. (4) Anyone who is deprived of his liberty by arrest or detention shall be entitled to take proceedings before a court, in order that that court may decide without delay on the lawfulness of his detention and order his release if the detention is not lawful.

Article 14.7, the double jeopardy article, reads, “No one shall be liable to be tried or punished again for an offence for which he has already been finally convicted or acquitted in accordance with the law and penal procedure of each country.” The most famous victim of this in recent times in journalist and activist Qi Chonghuai. And then there is Article 17.1, “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his honour and reputation.” We need only look at the spate of arbitrary arrests and house arrests made against activists in China to understand the government’s hesitance to be bound to such articles. Article 25 reads, a clear no no in a non democratic authoritarian regime, but what about the implications of new voter laws in North Carolina

Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without any of the distinctions mentioned in article 2 and without unreasonable restrictions: (a) To take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives; (b) To vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors; (c) To have access, on general terms of equality, to public service in his country.

Then there’s Article 27, ” In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their own religion, or to use their own language,” which China would have a hard time meeting the minimum standards in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, the Tibetan Autonomous Region, or elsewhere. One might question the degree to which the United States upholds its obligations under this requirement as well. There are many other relevant articles in the ICCPR; these have been presented as an overview.

The International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (both entered into force in 1976 after sufficient state parties ratified them), along with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted in 1948) form the informally named International Bill of Human Rights.

Below are a number of additional conventions and treaties that comprise the overall human rights system. As with the two key treaties above, let us examine how China and the United States compare.

Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)

United States Status: Signed 16 February 1995; NEVER RATIFIED

China Status: Signed 29 August 1990; Ratified 2 March 1992

Others Countries Failing to Ratify: Somalia, South Sudan

How is it that the United States is the only country in the world, beside Somalia and South Sudan that has failed to ratify the convention? Global Policy Forum explains the United States’ position as a factor of, “Conservatives who favor the death penalty for minors strongly oppose the treaty.” As noted above in the ICCPR, international law strictly forbids the death penalty for minors. However, the 2005 Supreme Court case of Roper v. Simmons overturned the long standing practice among 25 US states and ruled that it was unconstitutional to impose capital punishment on minors. That the purportedly lingering mentality among hardliners that a minor offender should receive the death penalty is shocking. But, if not for the death penalty, what are some of the reasons behind the United States’ continued failure to ratify the Convention on the Rights of Children?

The United States had been active in the drafting of the convention; the Reagan administration (1981-1989) proposed the original language that is now used in seven of the 54 articles. Madeleine Albright signed the convention on February 16, 1995, representing the US as its ambassador to the United Nations. However, it was either never submitted to congress or congress rejected ratification during the three subsequent presidential administrations. While President Clinton signed the treaty he never submitted it to congress and Obama has indicated that he will submit it to congress, where it must receive 2/3 support before the president can ratify the treaty, but the Obama administration has made no mention of a timeline. A number of conservative groups in the United States have reportedly expressed their reservations claiming either that elements within the convention would contradict the US Constitution, a startling revelation, or that the United States already upholds and protects the standards enumerated within the convention and that therefore its passage would be redundant, a poor excuse. Organizations such as the Heritage Foundation challenge that ratification of the convention would amount to a loss of sovereignty, any amount thereof is inexcusable, they argue. Additional opposition comes from the perspective of parental rights, whose adherents believe that the ratification of the convention would subvert their rights to home school, to hold reservations about the content of public education (in the case of creationism versus evolution for example), or the rights of parents to discipline their children. Many of these and other concerns however are actually ungrounded as the convention does not technically threaten such issues.

Additional concern may come from an analysis of US labor laws. Agricultural labor laws for minors are horribly antiquated in the United States, argues labor rights organizations. According to a 2010 Human Rights Watch report, “Child farmworkers as young as 12 years old often work for hire for 10 or more hours a day, five to seven days a week… Some start working part-time at age 6 or 7. Children, like many adult farmworkers, typically earn far less than minimum wage, and their pay is often further cut because employers underreport hours and force them to spend their own money on tools, gloves, and drinking water that their employers should provide by law.” This appears to contravene, if at least in spirit, Article 32.1 of the convention, which reads, “States Parties recognize the right of the child to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child’s education, or to be harmful to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development.” Article 32.2 (a) continues that the state parties shall in particular, “(a) Provide for a minimum age or minimum ages for admission to employment; (b) Provide for appropriate regulation of the hours and conditions of employment; (c) Provide for appropriate penalties or other sanctions to ensure the effective enforcement of the present article.” The resistance to ratification is not voiced in relation to the need to address an exploitative child labor industry but in the more ‘American value’ discourse of personal rights and sovereignty. This appears to indicate a further explanation for the failure of the United States to ratify the convention.

Many of the reservations common to the opposition are simply, I would argue, the vocalized animus held toward the United Nations system in general by a group of conservative members of the US population and congress. In any case, as has already been highlighted, the ratifying country can make qualifying statements or reservations at the time of ratification. Such specific complaints and perceptions against the convention are more accurately explained as uninformed and the masking of intransigence.

China, upon ratification issued the following reservation, “The People’s Republic of China shall fulfil its obligations provided by article 6 of the Convention under the prerequisite that the Convention accords with the provisions of article 25 concerning family planning of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China and in conformity with the provisions of article 2 of the Law of Minor Children of the People’s Republic of China.” Article 6 of the convention reads, “1. States Parties recognize that every child has the inherent right to life. 2. States Parties shall ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child.” Article 25 of the Chinese Constitution states that, “The state promotes family planning so that population growth may fit the plans for economic and social development.” This is not to say that China’s only blotch on the rights of Children is its draconian One Child Policy, which is certainly a sizable blotch, but it is a strong indicator of the degree to which a State, even once it has ratified a convention, may act in contravention. A more timely example is provided by a recent report published by Human Rights Watch, which claims, “Children with disabilities face significant hurdles in accessing education in China, and a substantial number of them receive no education at all.” This would contravene Article 1 of the convention, which reads, “States Parties shall respect and ensure the rights set forth in the present Convention to each child within their jurisdiction without discrimination of any kind, irrespective of the child’s or his or her parent’s or legal guardian’s race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national, ethnic or social origin, property, disability, birth or other status.” This would also be tested when applied to the access or denial of education among Uyghur, Tibetan, or Mongolian children, or the children of known human rights defenders, who are often persecuted along with their parents and denied education.

A note on disabilities, China has both signed (30 March 2007) and ratified (1 August 2008 ) the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The United States has signed (30 July 2009) but, along with 37 other UN member states, failed to ratify the convention. The United States Senate voted whether to ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities on 4 December 2012 but failed to get enough votes, The Huffington Post reports. To achieve the two thirds majority support to ratify the bill the roll call needed 66 yes votes but received only 61; 38 voted against ratification.

Convention on Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)

United States Status: Signed 17 July 1980; NEVER RATIFIED

China Status: Signed 17 July 1980; 4 November 1980

Others Countries Failing to Ratify: Holy See, Iran, Palau, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Tonga

President Jimmy Carter signed the convention in 1980 but the United States has failed to ratify the convention. Three presidential administrations have attempted to bring the convention before Congress for ratification but have been defeated. The late Jesse Helms, republican senator from North Carolina and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was a long time opponent of US ratification on both CEDAW and CRC. Several powerful conservative organizations, many with claimed religious underpinnings, continue to lobby against ratification of international human rights treaties. Concerned Women for America (CWA), whose stated goal is to bring biblical principles into all levels of public policy, stated of the convention, “This so-called ‘women’s rights’ treaty was crafted by extreme feminists in the 1970s. More accurately, it is anti-woman and contradicts our Constitution.” CWA lists among its principle complaints against CEDAW the fact that it would, “negate family law and undermine traditional family values by redefining the family; force the U.S. to pay men and women the same for “work of equal value” thus going against our free-market system; ensure access to abortion services and contraception; allow same-sex marriage; and undermine the sovereignty of the U.S.” Associate Professor of Government at Dartmouth College, Lisa Baldez, an expert on the US and CEDAW writes in an op-ed for CNN that critics of CEDAW, “say it doesn’t reflect American values enough. Here’s what they are missing: The treaty takes American values of equality and women’s rights and makes them global norms.” She continues,

Opponents have a point when they note that ratifying this document has not prevented some countries from being the most egregious violators of women’s rights. When the most powerful country in the world does not support women’s rights, it gives permission for other countries to dismiss their commitment to improving the status of women. With the United States behind it, CEDAW would have even more clout than it does.

It would appear that religious principles, social conservatism, and enforced gender inequality are the principle drivers behind US congress continued failure to ratify the convention. That China has ratified the convention is no sign of its robust implementation.

China issued a reservation at the time of ratifying the convention that excludes it from recognizing the jurisdiction of an international body to investigate or mediate disputes relevant to the convention. China has proven itself as stubborn to recognize the jurisdiction of complaint mechanisms for international treaties as the United States but many women’s organizations and other human rights groups have reported serious shortcomings in China’s implementation of sexual and gender based rights and the rights of women. Many have accused the All China Women’s Federation of brutally enforcing china’s draconian one child policy, at the clear detriment of the rights of women. Furthermore, the linguistic and cultural signification of women will remain with characters like 嫁 jia (to marry / to marry off a daughter / blame etc), a combination of the characters 女 nv (woman) and 家 jia (home), it is a linguistic component of selective infanticide of female children believing them to be inferior because they will eventually leave for the family and village of the husband. China is the only country in the world with a higher suicide rate for women than for men reports the World Health Organization. The number of high level female politicians or the diminutive and misogynistic discourse used to talk about women representatives to the National People’s Congress further provides clarity on the actual social situation. Women have a far way to go before the ratification of the convention in China provides anything close to Mao’s famous adage that ‘Women hold up half the sky.’

Convention Against Torture (CAT)

United States Status: Signed 18 April 88; Ratified 21 October 1994

China Status: Signed 12 December 1986; Ratified 4 October 1988

Others Countries Failing to Ratify: Bahamas, Comoros, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, India, Palau, Sao Tome and Principe, Sudan

Despite having both ratified the CAT China and the United States have been the documented perpetrators of acts of torture, both domestically and (more so in the case of the United States) in outside countries. The United Nations Committee Against Torture and the office of the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment is tasked with monitoring and reporting on reports and complaints of torture around the world. The current Special Rapporteur on Torture is Argentinian jurist Juan Méndez. Previous Special Rapporteur (2004-2010) Manfred Nowak noted in 2008, regarding China, “that the definition of torture and the criminalization of torture in Chinese law still do not satisfy the requirements of articles 1 and 4 of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT). He also reiterates his concerns about Re-education-through-labour (RTL) camps and urges the Government to abolish the doctrine of RTL.” China’s record of torturing political prisoners is well documented by many independent human rights organizations as well as governments. Manfred Nowak also requested visitation with Bradley Manning to investigate accusations of torture. Although I recall Nowak having made a statement that the conditions of Manning’s confinement amounted to torture, I cannot find the link at this time. Juan Méndez has requested several unrestricted visits with Bradley Manning but the Obama administration has consistently denied this visitation. The litany of accusations against both governments concerning torture is of course extensive. One need only remember Abu Ghraib.

Upon ratifying CAT the Chinese reservation stated that, “The Chinese Government does not recognize the competence of the Committee against Torture as provided for in article 20 of the Convention.” The United States issued a lengthy series of reservations, available here. A number of these reservation demonstrate the United States and China’s stated objective to claim legitimacy in its promotion of domestic human rights through the symbolic act of ratification but strips the convention of its jurisdiction to investigate either country in response to claims of abuse by civil society or independent third parties. This is further supported by the fact that while both countries have ratified CAT, neither country has signed the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OCAT), which establishes a subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture (SPT) with the

[U]nrestricted access to all places of detention, their installations and facilities and to all relevant information. The SPT visits police stations, prisons (military and civilian), detention centres (e.g. pre-trial detention centres, immigration detention centres, juvenile justice establishments, etc.), mental health and social care institutions and any other places where people are or may be deprived of their liberty.

The SPT must also be granted access to have private interviews with the persons deprived of their liberty, without witnesses, and to any other person who in the SPT’s view may supply relevant information including Government officials, NPMs, representatives of national human rights institutions, non-governmental organizations, custodial staff, lawyers, doctors, etc. People who provide information to the SPT shall not be subject to sanctions or reprisals for having provided information to the SPT.

Both China and the United States prove with this resistance that narrow and politically motivated notions of sovereignty are more expedient than the actual protection against or prosecution of acts of torture. This political will is damning to the morality of either country and particularly more so to the United States which claims to be promoter and enforcer of human rights standards but this is a tired line of argument. Hiding behind a curtain of protecting sovereign interests is a transparent ploy to shield agents of the state from prosecution for acts explicitly condemned under the convention, to which both countries are bound by international law. This is the same misplaced nationalism and arrogance to an international system that explains the position of the United States and China on the Rome Statute, which created the International Criminal Court.

Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC)

United States Status: Signed 31 December 2000; UNSIGNED 6 JUNE 2002

China Status: NEVER SIGNED

Others Countries Failing to Ratify: Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bhutan, Brunei, Cuba, El Salvador, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kiribati, Laos, Lebanon, Libya, Malaysia, Mauritania, Federated States of Micronesia, Myanmar, Nepal, Nicaragua, North Korea, Pakistan, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Qatar, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Somalia, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Swaziland, Togo, Tonga, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Tuvalu, Vietnam

First adopted at a conference in Rome on 17 July 1998, the Rome Statute entered into force on 1 July 2002. The primary purpose of the Rome Statute is to enumerate the jurisdiction, structure, and function of the International Criminal Court. Human Rights Watch notes, “The court was created to bring justice to the victims of gross human rights violations,” which are acts of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression. The ICC is given jurisdiction to act in cases of abuse of these four crimes in situations when either the host country is unable or unwilling to investigate or prosecute. A major US opposition point to ratifying the Rome Statute is that it would put the US under the jurisdiction of the ICC and allow the court to investigate and open prosecution of US citizens, potentially for actions committed on US territory. One might be more concerned about why this should even be a concern, if the US is innocent of these four crimes then no concern over sovereignty would matter, as it would never come to a point of being tested. A second line of argument that is often used is that the US already upholds such principles and prosecutes such crimes on its own and therefore its ratification to any such treaty would be redundant; however, this neglects to take into consideration the symbolic gesture of the US position on other countries.

The conservative Heritage Foundation again pops up at the forefront of American opposition to international human rights instruments. The Heritage Foundation website states, “The crimes under the jurisdiction of the ICC are broadly defined and could subject individuals to penalties of up to life imprisonment for actions that never were thought punishable on the international level before.” This is an interesting statement considering the crimes (which again are genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression) are fairly clearly enumerated (here) and to dare to claim that they are crimes that have never been thought punishable on the international level before is just false. The Heritage Foundation continues with the following specific concerns, “(1) The ICC threatens American self-government; (2) The ICC is fundamentally inconsistent with American tradition and law; (3) The ICC violates constitutional principles; (4) The ICC contradicts the founding principles of the American Republic; (5) The ICC threatens America’s ability to defend its interests through military action.” Let me repeat the fifth point, The Heritage Foundation finds fault with the ICC because it would make it possible to prosecute any “individual American, including the President, military and civilian officers and officials, enlisted personal, and even ordinary citizens” who commit acts of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and / or the crime of aggression.

One might be skeptical of an organization that implicitly advocates for the impunity of individuals guilty of such actions on the sole ground that they are members of the same political nation. One could argue that if the United States is concerned with its soldiers being subjected to ‘political or frivolous’ charges of war crimes et al then it should reexamine its track record to understand why it would be primus inter pares among the advanced military forces of the world to face such accusations. To make a significant stand to prove that the United States does not engage in such activities, and demonstrate its total support of the morality of its actions, it would join with the other advanced military countries and advanced democracies and accept the legitimacy and jurisdiction of the Court to investigate and try such heinous crimes.

The majority of opposition to the Rome Statute and the ICC, from both the Heritage Foundation and others, is based on the issue of jurisdiction and sovereignty more than an actual disagreement on the morality of the crimes therein enumerated but by clinging so vehemently and obstinately to nationalistic principles the opposition is open to a number of accusations of supporting double standards and a dangerous selective moral ontology. Furthermore, it sets an international precedent and, through direct diplomatic encouragement, it promulgates these double standards and certification of exclusionary and nationalistic moral codes.

Writing on China and the ICC, Joel Wuthnow a China analyst with CNA and author of Chinese Diplomacy and the UN Security Council writes in an article for the Diplomat,

What is sometimes missing from these discussions is the reality that key states may have principled or practical reasons to oppose ICC intervention. Although this applies to Russia and the United States, China is a particular concern for several reasons: its historical reservations about international interference in states’ internal affairs;  its close economic and political ties with some states targeted by the Council for possible ICC involvement, such as Sudan, Libya under Gaddafi and Syria; the power to veto ICC referrals it holds as a permanent member of the Security Council; and the general tone of assertiveness that has colored China’s foreign policy in the last few years.

While China’s failure to ratify the ICC might have a lot to do with countering such potential problems regarding alliances down the line it is more likely that it is just part of the quite consistent message of non-intervention and the sanctity of sovereignty. It is in line with China’s intransigence to optional protocols, even of treaties it has ratifies, that permit independent investigations or provide for a complaint mechanism for civil society actors to report situations of gross abuse. Both the governments of the United States and China are vehement on these terms.

The United States and China command a tremendous percentage of the worlds attention. Despite a significant drop off since the declared endless ‘war on terror’ the United States continues to preside over vast troves of symbolic capital and soft power the world over and China skillfully positions itself in alliance with a number of the worlds unsavory regimes (North Korea, Sudan) while extending large sums of purportedly no strings attached aid to developing countries. Both nations are arguably responsible for shaping a great degree of international opinion and norms. Not only their own domestic records on implementing human rights legislation but the way they interact with the international community has an impact on shaping the development of other nation’s domestic policies and their relationships with the international community, namely the Human Rights community. For this reason, what takes place at the US – China Human Rights Dialogue is of incredible importance but in light of the two nations developments regarding the foundational documents of international human rights, we shouldn’t expect too much to come from Kunming.

New Citizen’s Movement

Under House arrest since April 2013, outspoken human rights defender and citizen lawyer Xu Zhiyong was formally detained on 16 July 2013 and arrested on 22 August 2013 under charges of ‘gathering crowds to disrupt public order,’ a patently spurious charge for someone under house arrest. These charges are merely another set in the on-going manipulation of domestic law by the Chinese state, pretending to act with legitimacy by framing its persecution of rights defenders in the garb of national law. It is not the first time Xu Zhiyong has been the victim of government abuse. A detailed chronology of abuses suffered by Xu Zhiyong can be accessed through Human Rights in China. ((Updated: Xu Zhiyong was sentenced to 4 years on charges of ‘gathering a crowd to disturb public order’ article 291 of the Criminal Law on 26 January 2014. He was tried on 22 January 2014)

Xu Zhiyong was placed under house arrest and later arrested in direct response to his activism regarding the New Citizen Movement in China. It is a theoretical framing for citizen rights defense, an active and individual approach to transforming the Chinese state and enhancing the rule of law. His arrest comes just over one year from the posting of the New Citizen Movement manifesto. Below is the letter in translation.

This translation originally appeared on Seeing Red in China on July 11, 2012. It can be seen here.

China needs a new citizens’ movement. This movement is a political movement in which this ancient nation bids utter farewell to authoritarianism and completes the civilized transformation to constitutional governance; it is a social movement to completely destroy the privileges of corruption, the abuse of power, the gap between rich and poor, and to construct a new order of fairness and justice; it is a cultural movement to bid farewell to the culture of autocrats and subjects and instead create a new nationalist spirit; it is the peaceful progressive movement to herald humanity’s process of civilizing.

In the 20th century, China experienced many movements: the Xinhai Revolution, the New Culture Movement, the New Life Movement, etc. In trying to bid farewell to autocracy, they changed the Chinese people’s living habits and spiritual realms. Due to internal and external problems, however, the Republican Era ended quickly. These historical progressive movements were unable to complete fundamental changes in the political system; they were but a flash in the pan. After 1949, China’s totalitarian regime launched a flurry of movements—land reform, the suppression of counter-revolutionaries, the socialist transformation, the anti-rightist movement, and everything from the Great Leap Forward through the Cultural Revolution. These regressive movements against the tides of history were destined to have tragic endings. In the 1980s, the Communist Party of China initiated the “five stresses, four beauties, and three loves” campaign, but a social reform movement initiated by a dictator, tainted by self-interest, cannot bring real change in society.

Today, China still has not been able to leave behind authoritarianism, power monopolies, rampant corruption, the wealth disparity, violent housing demolitions, education imbalance, and the black hole of social security … the root of these weighty social problems is autocracy; the Chinese nation needs a great citizens’ movement that moves with the historic tide, moving from bottom to top, from political and social to cultural, from the awakening of individual citizens to the revitalization of the entire Chinese civilization.

The goal of the New Citizens’ Movement is a free China ruled by democracy and law, a just and happy civil society with “freedom, righteousness, love” as the new national spirit.

The core of the New Citizen’s Movement is the citizen. This is an individual concept as well as a political and social concept. The citizen is not a subjectthe citizen is an independent and free entity, and he or she obeys a rule of law that is commonly agreed upon. He or she does not have to kneel down to any given person. The citizen is not a laymanthe citizen is the master of the country. The ruler’s power must come from election by the entire citizenry, bidding farewell to the barbaric logic of  “ruling by the barrel of a gun.” Citizens are neither docile nor mob-like; they share happiness and bear of responsibilities in the order of justice; and they are upstanding, magnanimous, moderate, and rational.

The “new” in New Citizens’ Movement refers to new historical conditions, new forms of behavior, and a new liberal order. The counterpart of the new citizen is not the citizen, but the subject, of the past. The new historical conditions include technological advancement, market economies, ideological pluralism, and the common democratic trend in human society. The new forms of behavior are the lawful defense of citizens’ rights, citizens’ non-violent non-cooperation, and peaceful democracy movements, all under a new system of ideas and discourse. The new liberal order is the constitutional order of democracy, rule of law, republicanism. The social background of the New Citizens’ Movement is new, the model of behavior is new, the movement’s goal is new, and thus it is called the New Citizens’ Movement.

The big change in Chinese society needs direction and spirit. The New Citizens’ Movement advocates the New Citizen Spirit, which is the direction and spirit of great change.

The New Citizens’ Movement is a political campaign. China inevitably needs to complete the civilized transformation of politics, establish a free China that is completely democratic and ruled by law. The New Citizens’ Movement is a social campaign. The solution to a monopoly over power, rampant corruption, wealth disparity, education imbalance, and similar problems is not merely dependent on a democratic political system, but also must rely on the continual implementation of the social reform movement. The New Citizens’ Movement is a cultural campaign. It completely transforms tyrannical culture, which is corrupt, downfallen, wretched, and hostile; it founds a new nationalist spirit of “freedom, righteousness, and love.”

There must be an end to tyranny, but the New Citizens’ Movement is far from being just a democratic reformation; the New Citizens’ Movement’s discourse is not “overthrow,” but “establish.” It is not one social class taking the place of another social class, but letting righteousness take its place in the Chinese nation. It is not hostility and hate, but universal love. The New Citizens’ Movement pursues facts and justice, but from the aspiration and hard work of not giving up and settling differences. In the process of societal change, there must be new kind of spiritual coalescing of the Chinese people as a whole, from the individual citizen to the entire country.

The New Citizen’s spirit can be summarized as “free, righteous, and loving.”

Freedom implies the sovereignty of belief, thought, expression, life, the pursuit of independence, and the unrestrained, authentic selfhood. People’s freedom is the end goal of society, country, and law. Righteousness: it is the fair justice of this world; it is the ideal status of the country and the society; it is equal opportunity.

The strong will have restriction; the weak will have protection, and every person, to the best of their abilities, will build on their strengths, perform their duties, and do what they want. Righteousness implies democratic rule of law is the cornerstone of the system. It implies individual responsibility, defends and pursues rights, cares for the common good, and respects the boundaries of other people’s rights. Love is the source of humanity’s well-being; it is the highest state of the New Citizen’s mind. A people’s mind must contain love as well as erase hate and hostility entirely, founding a free and well-off civil society.

The New Citizens’ Movement includes the citizens’ rights movement, the citizens’ non-cooperation movement, and the democracy movement. It follows the lead of the New Citizen’s spirit in China’s magnificent movement toward peaceful transformation.

The citizens’ rights movement is the soil of the democracy movement. It includes the social movement for the defense of the rights of individual cases, rights of building demolition [property rights], rights of ex-servicemen, rights of the environment, right of the freedom of belief, and right of opposing the housing registration system, which strives for the rights and interests of the group.

The citizens’ rights movement emphasizes an individual’s or an individual group’s demand for rights. However, China’s internal power monopoly, rampant corruption, wealth gap, black hole of social security, and other serious societal problems have already reached the point of needing a political solution. The citizens’ rights movement, after developing to a certain point, will inevitably enter into a democratic political movement.

The citizens’ non-cooperation movement runs through the entire rights movement and democracy movement, including the negative resistance of authoritarianism and the positive protection of free rights. As compared to the citizens’ non-cooperation movement, the New Citizens’ Movement moreover emphasizes establishment. The establishment of a civil society will do away with tyranny, not only putting an end to tyranny, but also establishing the future of civilized politics and civil society.

In a broader sense, the New Citizens’ Movement also includes a campaign appearing in many recent democratic countries that is centered on the demands for fairness and justice. Background to the morally-upright fourth wave of democratization is new technology changing peoples’ societal structure. China’s New Citizens’ Movement gathers the previous democratic era’s civil rights movements and democratic revolutions as well as the social revolutions of democratic countries.

The New Citizens’ Movement already has a social basis. Thirty years of Reform and Opening Up has established the economic basis of private property and the market process. It has also brought with it a pluralistic society. The party in power has gone from a totalitarian regime to an authoritarian regime and then to an oligarchic regime; the forces of tyranny have already become weak, and therein the citizens’ movement already has a certain amount of leeway. The Internet, telecommunications, and other new technologies have sped up China’s enlightenment and the formation of citizens’ interpersonal networks. The trend of international democratization is transforming and restraining autocratic violence, and imbuing the political movements in newly democratic countries with the peaceful and rational spirit of world citizens.

Without the New Citizen, there can be neither a new civil society nor a constitutional China; the New Citizens’ Movement emphasizes the New Citizen, from the individual and the small matters on upward; it practices citizen responsibilities and does not obey the despotism of unspoken rules. It is not concurrent with privilege and corruption, believing instead in democratic rule of law, in the pursuit of freedom and fairness, civil movements, and a constitutional China.

The New Citizens’ Movement includes all types of current social movements and political movements: the “Grass Mud Horse” campaign, the displaced residents campaign, the campaign to oppose the household registration stratification, the campaign to remember June Fourth, the freedom of belief campaign, the blogging campaign, the environmental protection campaign, the food and health safety campaign, the campaign to elect deputies to people’s congresses, the microblog-based campaign attacking human trafficking, the campaign to oppose monopolies, the campaign to oppose corruption. These social and political movements are brought together by way of the New Citizens’ Movement.

The New Citizens’ Movement advocates the practice of the New Citizen spirit and societal responsibility in every sector: the New Citizen judge is impartial and evenhanded, loyal to the law and of good conscience. He or she does not pervert the law for the sake of dominance and selfishness. The New Citizen policeman is an impartial implementer of the law, removing the evil and content with the good, never torturing for confession, uncorrupted by dark and evil forces. The New Citizen public prosecutor is loyal to the country’s laws, does not appease corruption, does not pervert the course of justice and does not indulge in crime. The New Citizen deputy to the people’s congress has the courage to carry out the law for the benefit of the public; it is not a voting machine and rubber stamp.

The New Citizen teacher loves his or her students, never passing lies onto them. The New Citizen physician loves patients and does not accept bribes, arbitrarily prescribe medications, or discriminate against patients. The New Citizen lawyer abides by the law, lawfully defends the rights and interests of clients and does not bribe judges. The New Citizen accountant abides by accounting regulations and does not cook the books. The New Citizen editor and reporter seek the truth and do not report lies.

The New Citizen college student diligently studies, cares for the society—does not cheat on tests or plagiarize essays. The New Citizen scholar seeks truth with professionalism—does not flatter or ingratiate, or use another’s ideas as his or her own. The New Citizen artist expresses truth, goodness, and beauty and rejects unspoken rules. The New Citizen sports referee makes calls with impartial independence—does not blow the whistle unfairly. The New Citizen athlete competes fairly—does not throw competitions for profit. The New Citizen entrepreneur faces the market and runs business honestly—does not parlay favor with bigwigs. The New Citizen industrial worker guarantees the quality of products—does not use inferior materials to turn out substandard products or make fake, shoddy products. The New Citizen food manufacturer does not mix in poisonous and harmful materials. And so on.

To push forward the New Citizens’ Movement, the New Citizen can:

Disseminate the New Citizen Spirit: Explain the “freedom, righteousness, and love” of the New Citizen Spirit by way of online posts, street fliers, t-shirt slogans, and any other method of spreading the New Citizen Spirit. The New Citizen Spirit must appear on the Internet, flourish in the streets, and, most of all, take root in the deepest part in our hearts.

Practice New Citizen Responsibility: Promise to practice New Citizen Responsibility, stand fast to New Citizen behavioral standards, reject corruption in one’s life, reject the practice of seeking private gain at the expense of the public, be loyal to good conscience and do not actively do evil, do good service for society, and mutually supervise one another to carry out this promise. The New Citizen Spirit is the spirit of commitment, sacrificing one’s profit to be an example, to maintain good conscience and righteousness, up until righteousness exists all over the Chinese nation.

Use the “Citizen” sign or other identifying methods: Citizens design their own “Citizen” insignias, and strengthen their own Citizen status and self-affirmation by wearing the insignias in everyday life.

Participate in civic life: Hold regular mealtime talks, discuss current political situation, pay close attention to people’s livelihood, care for public service as well as public policy, help the weak, serve society, promulgate fairness and justice. Every place has a group of modern citizens. Everybody needs to group together for society to progress. Unity begins with acquaintance.

Unite to share labor and coordinate work. Repost messages, file lawsuits, photograph everyday injustices, wear t-shirts with slogans, witness everyday events [specifically referring to the phenomenon of standing in a circle around someone causing a scene to witness it], participate or openly refuse to participate in elections, transcribe [things that you see happen], hold gatherings or marches or demonstrations, do performance art, and use other methods in order to jointly promote citizens’ rights movements and citizens’ non-cooperation campaigns—such as assets reporting, openness of information, opposition to corruption, opposition to housing registration stratification, freedom of beliefs, freedom of speech, and the right of election. Practice the New Citizen Spirit in action. Citizens’ power grows in the citizens’ movement.

Last Week in Fujian

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Wonderland: Derelict Amusement


Last week a few friends and I cycled out to Wonderland, an abandoned amusement park on the way to the Badaling Great Wall. Planned by the Thai property developers The Reignwood Group, this Disney World clone usurped farm land from the locals of Chenzhuang Village in Nankou Town, the Changping District of Beijing. Based on original plans this 120 acre doppelgänger of Disney Land, now aptly nicknamed the Creepiest Place on Earth, was never completed. Construction ground to a halt in 1998 when disputes between the Thai company, local officials, and farmers erupted over the value of the land. Attempts to restart the cacophony of construction again failed in 2008, in the building revelry of the Olympic Games. After that the site as grown into a static reminder, a ruined beast, of failed and rapid development in China.

IMG_5588IMG_5590In 2006, when I first visited china, I remember passing this ersatz Disney Land on my way to the overly touristic Badaling Great Wall. And I have passed it several times since, on my way out of Beijing through the Changping or Yanqing districts. The complex is an easy 32 kilometers (20 miles) from downtown Beijing on the Badaling Expressway but we decided to avoid this congested highway and made our way first due north through less serviced country roads and highways that took on a material and spiritual resemblance to a distant moon. At times sand storms roared past us as we cycled. Our circuitous route there and back added up; by the end of the day we clocked in at around 120 kilometers (75 miles). Was the journey worth the sweat and the grime? Wonderland, although it has been photographed and featured in the Atlantic, The Washington Post, and various other places, is still an attraction and an eerie oddity out toward the hills.

IMG_5600IMG_5605IMG_5624IMG_5627In the last few years farmers have returned to the soil that was once marked to house colorful rides and innocent saturnalia. As they have reclaimed the property they are at times brisk with explorers, finding it less a destination of ruinous explorers and photographers perhaps than the source of livelihood. As we wandered around several minders followed us closely and barked commands not to enter certain doors and structures. Despite the isolation, the abandonment, there is a kind of spirit still floating through the walls and earth, a spirit enlivened by the brusque and weathered farmers in black. Although at the time of our visit the planting had yet to resume fully from winter, there was activity buzzing in mall pockets of tillage and I can only envision the changed character of the site once the husks are removed and the land glows with production. We were never chased off by any angry farmers but others have reported such a treatment. Still, in the haze of pollution and the gusts of sand swept down from the Gobi, the ruins produce the feeling of post-apocalyptic agriculture.


As the Fireworks Still Rumble

From the uneven dormitory courtyard of an old fireworks factory where I live, scattered paper remnants of the New Years will cluster for some time, vivid red and almost rufous with the dust. A charcoal frost accumulates bits of sand, the odd discarded cigarette and seed shell. The nighttime’s popping, multicolored war zone of a fête takes short rest breaks amid the drifting shadows of discarded revelry and gunpowder in the following days.


North Across China: Night Buses, a Bowl of Noodles, and a Rotund Sichuanese Migrant

I said a temporary goodbye to Beijing and boarded a night bus for Erlian, the Chinese Mongolian border town renowned for prostitution and gigantoraptor fossils.

As the bus pulled away I was surprised by the English inquiry that greeted my unsteady approach to berth 37. There was a helpful tone to this young girl’s voice and I quickly discovered it was not the common Chinese student wanting to practice pidgin English. She was part of a small group of Chinese American missionaries on their way to the border to extend their visas that they may continue to proselytize and preach. Amicable though they were, we lived in two very different Beijings. Their company on that first leg of the journey was enjoyable, from the Jazz age ‘ohs’ and ‘yeahs’ at meal prayers that they took turns saying to the odd conversation denouncing evolution at a Mongolian dumpling restaurant a few kilometers from the 2005 discovery site of 70 million year old fossils. We parted in Hohhot, the capital of the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region, autonomous in China is a silly word.

Outside the train station in Hohhot a phalanx of Uyghurs sold snacks, those dried rice, sweet nuts and fruit squares of exceptional mass they weigh out in front of your nose to your surprise at the cost when the presumably small slice you have selected amasses more gravity on the scales than your appetite was hoping. It’s a known scam but one avoidable if you know how to place your order. I didn’t feel like buying but I had time to kill before my train so I started to chat with one of the vendors.

‘Are you Uyghur,’ I asked in Chinese. ‘Shi.’ I am, he said. ‘Yakshimisiz.’ In his language, I said hello. At first he had been quite insistent that I purchase some of his dried and overpriced confectionary but my show of linguistic solidarity changed the course of the conversation. He was curious about this foreigner who knew a few words of the Uyghur language. ‘Where are you from?’ He asked me in Chinese. I told him I was American and he perked up even more. He was excited to her this, excited because he looks up to the United States, he explained, because America is a friend to the Uyghurs. He then brought up the name that the Chinese Government detests, the source of Islamic terrorism and separatism by the propaganda of the Han. ‘Do you know our Ribya?’ He asked in reference to Rebya Kadeer. I replied that I did, presumably he understood this to mean that I had heard of her, that I knew something about the suffering of the Uyghur people. I did not mention that I had met Rebya in Brussels only a few months earlier. It was the feeling of comfort that someone knows about your pain, that someone cares enough to step outside of their own parochial concerns and troubles to take the time to learn about another’s. This is how the world changes. With a somewhat victories sheen on his face he glanced around at his compatriots to see if they had heard. Tonight he will no doubt talk about the American who knows about Rebya Kadeer.

Shortly later I was on train 1717 to Lanzhou, Gansu Province’s capital in the Gobi. The ride was a normal 18 hour ordeal. I arrived in Lanzhou at mid morning the following day with no plan or place to go. I wasn’t sure how I felt about staying in this city famous for the noodles to which it has lent its name so I clung to the train station, toying for a few minutes with my options. Eventually I walked back to inquire about the trip to Turpan, the oasis on the edge of the mighty Taklamakan desert, the site of ancient minarets and mummies, and a step closer to my destination.

All the seats and hard sleepers on the train were sold out. There were soft sleeper tickets available for all the money I had just withdrawn from the ATM or 100 Kuai, about 15 dollars, for a standing only ticket. To hell with it. I bought the standing only ticket, a right to enter the train and nothing else, no space to claim, no right to comfort. The train would leave in several hours and I resolved myself to the next five hours of Lanzhou exploration before the madness of migrant workers with their instant noodles, folding chairs and cigarettes; the train ride from Lanzhou to Turpan takes just over 24 hours, much of that along the ancient Silk Road and the inhospitable Gobi desert.

I had heard about German beer gardens at the top of Baitashan but when I arrived on the bluff below the White Pagoda I discovered that the beer gardens were still closed for winter. It was early April, but with the beating sun, magnified by the thick insulation of pollution and a humidity that rose from the Yellow River that bisects the city, my heavy traveling pack, the hike, it sure felt like summer. I passed several migrant workers, stopping in the shade for a brief chat with one or two. Eventually I ordered a bottle of Snow beer, one of the world’s best selling brands with 61 million hectoliters of annual sales, an example of the sheer size of the Chinese market that an unknown beer to the rest of the world is made one of the best selling by virtue of domestic consumption. With my beer I settled under a tarpaulin to read James Millward’s Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang. After a few hours of charging my phone and getting lost in the past of the Tarim Basin I made my way down the hill and toward the train, with a necessary stop to eat Lanzhou lamian, hand pulled noodles.

I put my bag on the ground up in front by the brass railing. I figured this was a good idea and the best way to wait. It would be another two hours before the starting bell rang and the hordes began their frenetic dash for space on the train. I sat there on the floor amid the migrants and their bindles, with my over-packed backpack and a small red plastic bag containing naan; the only foreigner in the massive waiting hall, I attracted a lot of attention.

There was some confusion and commotion; the train was late. The scheduled time had approached and the scattered clumps of bodies that had been waiting, some supine on large parcels others squatting sipping steaming broth and tea or harshly chain smoking with yellowed finger tips and blackened missing teeth, congregated en masse and crowded their way to press against the rails, row upon row of smelly bodies, mostly dusty men, the occasional woman in a brightly colored veil, all waited, all pressed forward and I was smack dab in the front where I had positioned myself hours earlier. Behind me, in many distinct and gruff accents from the men that travel the entirety of China, complaints and impatience, some made jokes about rushing the conductors but the gate finally opened. The women in multicolored and sometimes sequined hijab and the children with expectant faces were the first to be let through the gate, from among the amorphous throngs of dirty suits and great bulging bags the frail and young were freed from the corral that still held the rest of us. Finally, the time, all the little gates opened, the space trembled for a moment as in a vacuum, and everyone was off dashing. I made a fevered dash with the rest for train car 15. I made it past some 10 cars before my lungs, under the weight of my heavy pack and the humidity refused to process oxygen and I had to slow my pace. Still, even walking the last few cars I found a little space of my own on the train, a little space next to a portly worker from Sichuan. We would become friends in the confined space. We crammed ourselves into a little nook, with a sink that had no water and a window that did not open, across from the toilet; I edged against the corner of the sink. It would get very full very quickly.

The Sichuanese migrant was a veritable encyclopedia. We drifted from American foreign policy and Chinese domestic labor regulations and monetary regulations. We spent a long time going over the unique foods of different regions. He had traveled all over China. When he wanted to really make a point he would slam his right hand down into the palm of his left hand. I noticed he was missing the tip of his right index finger every time he made an exclamation mark with these gesticulations. He would eventually pass out leaning against the corner of the wall for an hour or two. I found myself hoping for nothing but a surreal unconsciousness tinged with delirious dreams that distort space. Propped up, wedged in, obliquely resting, sleeping on their feet. I hung my head and in the canvas behind my eyelids I stared into the faces of my fellow passengers, tearing into their histories we exchanged knowing glances as we each got lost in one another’s tired visage, expecting an answer or sympathetic wink, and all this with my eyes closed, on the verge of something close to a dream.

I dreamed that the train car was full of Hajji, Muslim pilgrims on their way to Mecca, the benches had been swept up on each other, crowded against the window to make room for the isles to expand into a vast room with a single great red Afghan rug below the individual prayer rugs rolled out, unfolding and unfolding, hundreds of hajji praying to Mecca. In the soundscape of my dream the muezzin had become a gestalt, the adhan an amalgamation of Chinese workers from Gansu, Hebei, Sichuan, and Qinghai, their faces melded together into one great gaping maw to utter the adhan in a cacophonous prattle of Mandarin and local dialects.

After a while of some ersatz sleep I was startled back from the land of sand by the loss of blood in my whole right side. My leg was freezing and my hand had no feeling. This pins and needles, a mala sensation like that of spicy hot pot, would linger for a few hours. To pass the time I tried to speak with some of my cellmates. One man from Gansu, on his way to Aqsu, started to complain to me that his boss wanted to send him to Pakistan. But it’s so dangerous there. The money doesn’t matter he was saying. He didn’t want to go. These faces were all bronzed by years of outdoor labor. What I earlier mistook as angry or suspicious glances were nothing but the looks of confusion and curiosity. They wanted to speak to me but some of them head such thick local accents or dialects that I could barely understand them, they could barely understand each other. Admittedly, my Chinese could use a lot of improvement.

There was a whole crew from Hebei going to Korla. One man, simple, glowing, toothless in a Mao suite, we barely exchanged words but forged a friendship over peanuts. We shared a cigarette and tossed shells onto the floor. He had a child’s grin and the eyes of a Buddha. He couldn’t open his iced red tea bottle or close the toilet door so I stepped in to help with these easy tasks. I shared access to his folding stool for a few minutes and we took turns leaning against the same chunk of wall. At one point, in my sleep deprivation, I really mistook him for family or my traveling companion, a full 10 seconds of pure confusion before I realized we barely knew each other. When I finally got off in Turpan I made a point of shaking his hand and saying goodbye. We was continuing another ten hours to Korla.

Youths played cards and slammed down their last cards with triumphant yelps. Some, those who had purchased hard seat tickets in advance reclined on their torn green pads while others loomed above, leaning, swaying with the train. One woman had slid herself under the seats, presumably to avoid the conductor as she likely had no ticket. My Sichuan bigman pontificated for all who would listen. He had that tone you couldn’t help but trust, his confidence more than made up for any lack of experience or grasp of the text. He didn’t like to work in Sichuan in the summer, too much rain. He preferred the torrid temperatures of Hami, in Xinjiang. He had made the trip a few times already. He was traveling with his tiegemer, iron blood brother, but he did all the talking. I never saw him eat anything on the train. How did he get so fat? Around 6am the conductor brought hot water in a trolly. There was a mad rush, people pushed and some nearly scalded; those clutching their instant noodles tight would eat, others would miss their chance. There was only so much water in this tiny metal water buffalo that was wheeled out a few times throughout the journey.

After some time, around 7am, I saw an empty spot on top of a pile of coal in thick white plastic sacks. I curled up, not quite an IKEA product, and forgot about my empty stomach. I snatched an hour of sleep, folded into myself like another chiseled bag on top of the coal. There were four columns stacked up chest high, but in the center of the four columns of sacks the empty space acted like a chimney for the freezing desert night air that rushed in from the Gobi outside and blasted up. I could only sleep for a short time before I was freezing; the coal shards themselves, sheathed in coarse plastic bags, were surprisingly comfortable.

The exhaustion wore on and the train continued. How do these people do this? My Sichuan friends eventually departed at their stops. Those who got off at Shanshan would free up a seat. I had a place to sit for the last hour before we arrived in Turpan. The seat was sticky but heavenly. Chinese pop music suddenly came blasting from the speakers. I started to think about power and the influence of discourse.

These people were all tired, deprived, struggling to make a living. They were transporting themselves where they thought there was work. They bore no malice. The struggle between subaltern and bourgeois is poorly understood. This was the case of Sartre’s introduction to Albert Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized, both are dehumanized, both are exploited. In this situation it is both the Han migrant and the Uyghur local, or the Kazakh or Yizu, who are exploited, somewhat dehumanized. Their animosity is misdirected, their prejudices and misunderstandings unnecessary. But I am no Vanguard among these people.

I hoped that with close proximity to one another such stereotypes would be shed. One migrant grumbled something at a veiled Uyghur as she passed him in the train, “These stupid minorities can’t speak Mandarin. They don’t listen or understand.” To which a quick witted and strong willed Kazakh women shouted back, “Ah, and you don’t understand their language. Don’t be so cocky.” Another point, I overheard some Han guy remark in disbelief that a minority eats the same foods. I hoped that some sort of exchange would happen when those from the interior are shipped off to the hinterlands, or when they share a confined space for extended hours, but I am sure they will sequester into native place camps once they arrive to work. There will be little discussion or learning among them. Maybe Han from Chengdu or Chongqing will argue with Han from Hohhot about who has better Hot Pot but I doubt that Kazakh, Uyghur, Han, or Hui will manage to break out of the carefully placed roles they have been taught to accept.

Thinking about this I drifted off in my green seat, finally able to sit properly after more than 20 hours; from staring at the passing landscape my mind returned to a concept I was toying with on the night bus from Beijing to Erlian a few days earlier. Power exists in interactions. It cannot exist in a solipsistic sense. It requires an opposite by which to demarcate its borders. While dialogical power is certainly a constructive force and one that owes its origin to the interactions of grossly unequal hierarchical structures it also resides in the everyday reproduction of collective identities. It is true that repertoires of resistance follow an evolutionary path, in that they generally slowly evolve from previous episodes, otherwise they would lack resonance and no one would know how to follow them. Equally this should be the case with grievances. Understanding and processing grievances follows something of an evolutionary or memetic pattern. Therefore, this evolution of grievances is very much a part of the linguistic world, the world of theory, that has a hard time breaking into the world of action. Of course it is more than symbolic violence that drives revolutionaries forward but it is beginning with symbolic violence that violence becomes structural, from mocking a minority woman on a tight train car to institutionalized prejudices. It is this immaterial, systemic violence encoded in the collective consciousness and understood in shared discourses that reifies the grievances that lead to action. What dictates the path of this action is the degree of political and symbolic opportunity space afforded by the regime and society, the influence of space. As I drifted about in these thoughts, the train finally rolled into Turpan. The Turpan depression is the second or third lowest point on Earth.

We pulled into the station and I got off. The train station was lost in time, an Old West feel; this part of Turpan was a frontier town on the edge of the desert. I asked at several lodgings and nowhere would take a foreigner. After several chaodaisuo, the Chinese equivalent of a hostel for migrants and students traveling on the super cheap where a night might cost around 4 dollars, and bingguan, hotels, that rejected me I was getting concerned. I needed some food so I went in for a steaming bowl of lamian and struck up a conversation with the proprietor, a friendly Uyghur man.  I ordered my noodles, moments later we were fast friends. I explained the problem. I could tell, even though they spoke Uyghur, that he was arguing with his wife about offering me to stay with them. No luck, the fine if they were caught harboring foreigners was too high. They suggested heading into the city center. The train station is 50 kilometers from the city.

I meandered, lackadaisically from place to place, in a daze, the lack of sleep over the few previous nights, the distance, the train food, the baggage of swirling thoughts of politics and ethnicity, my brain was having a hard time comprehending the simple situation. I stumbled back into the train station and asked about tickets to Korla one more time. I could buy another standing ticket, forgo sleep one more night, fight for a space at this late distance. Unlike in Lanzhou, where I came in relatively early in the life of the passengers, here I would be a new comer, relegated to the bottom rung, the lowest in a vile hierarchy. Others would have already forged bonds. I would have a hard time but I decided to push on, to forgo comfort and make momentum my deity.

I bought my standing ticket to Korla. It would be another slow train, about 10 hours or so. I bought some naan and water. The secret of good naan I am told is the salt and Xinjiang has the best salt in China. I made my way again through the metal detector, the prying eyes and incredulous looks of the security guard and the other queuing patrons. In the waiting hall I went to the toilet. Inside the floor was standing urine, acrid, the air was viscous with smoke, teary eyes, there was no place to stand or pee, the urinals were clogged and overflowing. The smoke and ammonia were asphyxiating. Soggy mounds of paper crumpled and made mounds on the floor and turned black from the fallen cigarette ash.

I went back into the waiting hall. Every eye was on me. Every face bore into me with interest and distrust. Why was I there. It didn’t sit well in my stomach. Bags overflowed their benches and oozed off of one another. The heaving mass of flesh and textile inspected me with one amalgamation of interest, dark circles under the collective eyes that protruded toward this wayward foreigner. In places where even the Chinese are considered foreigners, it is natural to be curious and concerned when you see yourself as a subject in an occupied place. They would all be competing with me for a place to stand or sleep on the train. The owners of these bags are experienced at fighting for space armed with a standing ticket, I told myself. They have a language they share. I couldn’t shake their glances. I felt the awesome weight of it all, the situation, the prospect ahead; anxiety swelled up. ‘To hell with it,’ I said. ‘I’m not doing this. I’ll let the 30 kuai ticket go to waste. I’m going to Turpan City.’

I stepped back into the darkness. I thought about options. I could also spend the night sitting in the wangba, the internet cafe, wait until around 6am when the bus station would be open. Standing in front of the noodle restaurant with the friendly Uyghur owner, a cab pulled up, 20 kuai, about 3 dollars, to Turpan. ‘Curse the hotel employee that told me that at this hour it would be 100 kuai,’ I muttered. I could easily manage a 20 kuai cab ride out of the dust, out of the darkness. The car filled with two others and we sped along in the pitch of the desert emptiness. The driver was another wonderful soul who, after dropping off the other riders, took me around to three different places. In many parts of China, especially the contentious border regions, most hotels are not allowed to accept foreign guests. My driver stopped at two that refused before we ended up at Turpan Bingguan, where I would pay 50 kuai for a room in the basement with two beds, a shower, and a TV.

I followed the woman from the desk down the stout staircase into my room, smiled and thanked her, closed the door as she left and collapsed onto the bed, wishing I had someone to share the moment with. After a most glorious shower, I was out in the Turpan night market eating the best roast mutton I have ever tasted. Seasoned with the sudden alleviation of days of traveling discomfort, buses and trains with nowhere to sit. Through small periods of deprivation that which is not often a luxury is gilt and sure enough that night I walked around the streets of Turpan for a little while with hhe broadest grin on my face and tasted the sweetest apple before returning and sleeping on a bed.

The next day I took the bus to Korla. All I had to work with were the instructions, “Go to X Restaurant. Tell them you are a friend of mine and ask for Billo. They will take care of you. They will give you something to eat.” That’s how I ended up sleeping on the floor of a Uyghur noodle restaurant in Korla for four nights. The rest of the Korla story and what happened next will have to wait.


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