When Erping Zhang, Executive Director of the Association for Asian Research in New York, became a Chinese exile, he decided to devote his life to raising awareness of human rights violations in his mother country. Here he reveals to ASW his views on Communism, censorship and why, despite his grievances with the current regime, he still believes there’s a happy future for China.
Q. Tell us about why you were exiled from China.
Erping Zhang: I came to the USA on a student visa and remained here as a result of the massacre of pro-democracy students on Tiananmen Square in 1989. Virtually all the overseas Chinese students backed the pro-democracy student movement in China one way or another at that time and would face eminent risk on returning to China; thus President Bush issued an executive order to have these students stay in the US.
Since then I have been particularly mindful of human rights conditions in China and have spoken out publicly on a range of rights issues, including the rights of peaceful Falun Gong meditators, the victims of SARS and Internet control in China. For this, Beijing has put me on a blacklist; so since 1999, I have not been able to return to China. My family members there are also monitored and often visited by police and I cannot even phone them today.
Q. What would happen to you if you went back to China now?
EZ: Being on Beijing’s blacklist, I am unable to enter China now. Dr Jianli Yang and Dr Charles Li, both my alma mater from Harvard, were arrested while visiting China and given three years on account of their human rights efforts in the US. It is uncertain what would happen to me if I do manage to enter China, although a friend joked that if I return to Beijing now I will be likely locked up in a tiny cell with four tall walls before I even get to see the Great Wall. I frequently receive harassment phone calls including death threats. I hope that one day I will be able to return to China, free and without fear.
Q. How did you come to be a spokesperson for the Falun Gong?
EZ: This happened back in 1999 when Beijing reversed its seven-year endorsement of Falun Gong and began its campaign of persecution against this group. Many overseas Chinese began to organize themselves to defend the human rights of this meditation group, as we did back in 1989 in support of the pro-democracy students. Because I was one of the few Chinese students who majored in English (most Chinese students are overseas to study science and technology), I was asked by some students to serve as a volunteer spokesperson for Falun Gong (without pay of course) and help out with the press. I agreed to this and have since spent much of my spare time helping the cause over the years. For those who are unaware of this mind-body work, Falun Gong is a meditation rooted in ancient Chinese culture. Its principles are based on ‘Truth, Compassion, and Tolerance’ and it has five sets of graceful exercises. Persons who practice regularly find it brings them better health, reduced stress, inner peace and deepened morals. The practice began in China in 1992 and quickly spread by word-of- mouth throughout China and then beyond. Today, Falun Gong is practiced by tens of million people in more than 70 countries. For more info, please visit: www.falundafa.org
Q. What is your understanding/knowledge of the Chinese government’s treatment of Falun Gong practitioners?
EZ: The Chinese government initially touted the Falun Gong meditation for its health benefits and moral elements after its introduction in 1992. The government issued numerous proclamations and awards to the founder, Mr Li Hongzhi. An official from the China Sports Commission was quoted in the US news and world report as saying, “Falun Gong and other types of qi gong can save each person 1,000 yuan in annual medical fees. If 100 million people are practicing it, that’s 100 billion yuan saved per year in medical fees. Premier Zhu Rongji is very happy about that. The country could use the money right now.” However, then-Chinese Communist leader, Jiang Zemin, feared that the 100 million people from different walks of life who practiced Falun Gong would pose a political threat to the Communist Party because they outnumbered the membership of the Chinese Communist Party. He ordered the practice ‘eradicated,’ although the Washington Post later reported that this was done without the unanimous support of the standing committee of the Politburo.
Since the campaign of persecution was launched in July 1999, hundreds of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners have been sent to labor camps, jail or mental institutions. According to Manfred Nowak, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel and degrading punishment, two thirds of those tortured in Chinese labor camps are Falun Gong practitioners. Millions of families are affected as those who refused to sign a denouncement paper would face losing jobs, homes, education and health benefits. According to rights groups, at least 3095 Falun Gong practitioners have died of torture in police custody. Recently, reports have been filed that organ harvesting is occurring from live Falun Gong practitioners held in Chinese labor camps. Mr David Kilgour, former Canadian Secretary of State for Asia Pacific, and Mr David Matas, a renowned rights lawyer, have conducted a series of investigations into the matter and have issued a report confirming that this inhumane practice is indeed occurring. Though the Associated Press reported that Chinese medical officials agreed with the World Medical Association on October 6, 2007, in Copenhagen, that they would not transplant organs from prisoners or others in custody, except into members of their immediate families, we still need to verify that such horrifying practice has stopped in reality.
Beijing’s effort to ‘eradicate’ Falun Gong has reached beyond its borders, as overseas Falun Gong practitioners and their supporters, many of non-Chinese origins, are also being intimidated and harassed by the Chinese government. They frequently receive electronic viruses via email and cannot secure a visa to visit China.
Q. You said in an ASW thread that you have rescued people from labor camps. How did you do this?
EZ: The biggest weakness and fear of the Chinese Communist dictatorship is public exposure of its crimes against humanity – this is why there is censorship in Communist China. Over the years we have been publicizing, through overseas press and major public occasions, a long list of those Falun Gong practitioners, outspoken intellectuals, as well as human rights activists who are imprisoned, harassed or tortured. Such public exposure and shaming of the regime for its rights abuses has helped a number of innocent people gain release from labor camps, jail or mental institutions. For security reasons I cannot name them here as some of them are still living in China now.
Q. How do you feel about Beijing hosting the 2008 Olympics?
EZ: Being a Chinese national, I am obviously happy that China has an opportunity to host this extraordinary human event, but I also would not wish to see the Games being used as a political tool by the Communist regime to build its legitimacy. I have published an article, “Improving Human Rights in a Neo-Communist State” (http://hrichina.org/pdf), in CHINA RIGHTS FORUM magazine, hoping that the international community will not pass up this 2008 Olympics opportunity to address human rights issues. I wrote that:
“Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic Games, famously stated, ‘The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.’ Beijing, however, makes no pretense of a fair fight in its reported decision to ban 43 types of individuals and groups from taking part in the 2008 Olympics, including ‘hostile’ foreign media, members of underground churches, Falun Gong practitioners, pro-democracy activists, and other ‘undesirables’… Beijing’s support for the genocidal dictatorship of Sudan and Burma have led prominent figures, such as American actress Mia Farrow, to call for a boycott of the Beijing Games, just as some countries boycotted the 1936 Olympics in Berlin under Hitler. The International community should use the Olympics as an opportunity to impress upon China the need to demonstrate that it is worthy of this international honor by better acknowledging and fulfilling the international human rights norms and conventions to which it is party.”
History will not only remember what we do today, but also what we haven’t when we could.
Q. Clearly censorship is a fundamental issue in China and one that you openly speak out against. What part do you think the rest of the world can play in helping to remove restrictions on freedom of speech in China?
EZ: I have been speaking about censorship issues in China for years. In fact, I wrote about SARS and censorship for my graduation thesis at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and testified on the matter at a conference at the European Parliament and the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission at the US Senate. Beijing has appropriated $800 million dollars between 2000 and 2002 and additional $1 billion later to build up this ‘Golden Shield’ firewall system. Over 50,000 cyber cops are now monitoring and regulating the online information traffic with at least 700 control centers built throughout China. There are only three gateways currently between the Chinese Internet and world cyberspace, effectively turning the Chinese Internet into an intranet, through which all overseas communications are filtered and controlled. Mr Guo Liang of the China Academy of Social Sciences noted, “Mao Zedong said that to have power you need two things: the gun and the pen ... The Communist Party has the gun, but the Internet is now the pen. If they lose control of it, something will happen to challenge their authority.” Censorship will not only allow the Communist Party to feed the public with filtered and sometimes misinformation, but it will also enable the Communist Party to brainwash and control the public mind.
Sadly, over 300 foreign IT companies such as Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Cisco, Nortel, etc., have voluntarily signed the so-called ‘Self-Disciplinary Pledge’ to conduct self-censorship and help build this firewall system over business opportunities. Worse still, Yahoo has voluntarily provided personal emails of Mr Shi Tao to Beijing security authorities; as a result Mr Shi Tao is now serving a ten-year jail sentence for one of his emails that contained an ‘illegal’ political message. Many writers in China are sent to jail because of such ‘Internet crime’ – isn’t that horrifying?
In fact, we have members of ASW in China who are now censored and muzzled by Beijing cyber cops for their outspoken views on rights issues as they cannot post anything on ASW from China. I received one email from an ASWer in China who complained about being visited and warned by the Chinese secret police not to step “out of the line.”
The world can do much to change China, especially her Internet censorship. If foreign IT companies are not selling the technology and their conscience to Beijing, China’s Internet firewall system wouldn’t have been so sophisticated and strong. Those of us on ASW, especially those foreign business people who live in China, should use every opportunity to raise the matter to their Chinese counterparts – it is also in their best interest to be able to access overseas Internet after all. There is no justification whatsoever to censor websites such as wikipedia or BBC news in China. What sort of people would be afraid of open information, truth, and news anyway?
Q. What is your hope for the future of China?
EZ: I have many hopes for the future of China, all very promising and realistic. I would like to see China rid of the present Communist dictatorship first. I’d like to see China become an open, civil society governed by rule of law where all citizens can exercise their constitutional right to freedom of expression, association and conscience without fear. I’d like to see China revive her traditional cultural traits and share her ancient wisdom and knowledge with the rest of the world as a civilization of peace and humanity. Finally, I’d like to see all Chinese people enter the new age of human history with renewed hope for prosperity, happiness and freedom.
Q. You wrote a thesis on SARS and censorship in China. How detrimental do you think it was that China suppressed information on its SARS outbreak?
EZ: My research shows that Beijing first learned about the seriousness of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in November 2002 when China’s Vice Minister of Health paid a special visit to Guangzhou City to inspect the SARS situation. But due to political consideration for so-called ‘stability of society,’ Beijing decided to cover up the news about this dangerous epidemic. On April 20, 2003, the Beijing authorities officially acknowledged that SARS existed as a serious problem within China, more than one month after the World Health Organization had issued a global travel alert on this epidemic. By then, several hundred Chinese and foreigners had already died as victims of this deadly disease and SARS had already traveled overseas to Hong Kong, Singapore and Canada. Only when the international community was affected was Beijing forced to admit its own cover-up. Foreign trade and visits had also sharply decreased during this period of time. This unfortunate event demonstrates clearly how Beijing continually puts its political considerations above human lives. It also shows that if the rest of the world is truly committed to changing the behavior of this Communist regime, it can and has many means to achieve it. VOA reported on October 6, 2007, that Beijing has recently shut down some popular websites with information on the AIDS epidemic. UNAIDS and other organizations have estimated that by 2010 there could be a generalized epidemic with between ten and twenty million HIV positive Chinese. Hopefully, the world will react quickly this time to pressure Beijing to publicly discuss the danger of AIDS so as to save more potential victims.
Q. Which ASW features do you use most and why?
EZ: Since becoming a member of ASW, I have been thoroughly enjoying all features in ASW, including meeting some of the nicest people. ASW website is user-friendly as one can connect easily with people of similar interests and passion. It also offers members helpful information on topics such as travel, parties, shopping, etc. Now I am meeting fellow ASWers wherever I travel. Meanwhile, it is always an enlightening experience to engage in discussions with fellow ASWers on different issues, serious or casual. ASW has been a community of fellowship indeed.
Q. What makes you happiest?
EZ: There are many things that bring me happy moments. My greatest happiness is finding enlightenment through reading. Besides my full-time job studying Asian issues, I am translating Plato’s Timaeus and Critias into Chinese in my spare time. I enjoy reading classics and listening to opera and classical music, Western or Oriental. I am also a sports fan and a world traveler. I wish that I could play my saxophone better than my tennis, however.
Q. Who do you admire most?
EZ: Socrates, Lao Zi, Buddha, Jesus, Confucius, to name but a few.
Q. What upsets you the most?
EZ: Injustice and human rights violations in China and around the world sadden me the most because human beings should embrace one another in the spirit of truthfulness, compassion and forbearance and not harm each other over self-interest. It is sad to see inhumane political systems, such as Communism, still prevail in this day and age in places like China, North Korea,and Cuba. It concerns me greatly when some people would voluntarily collaborate with such regimes over some short-term interest.
Q. What are you most afraid of?
EZ: I am most afraid of the scenario that Communist China will rise up as the Fourth Reich in the future, as some Sinologists have predicted, given the similar growth pattern of Nazi Germany that China models itself after. But I personally refuse to think that this will happen and remain hopeful that the people of China and the international community will not allow this to occur before it is too late. The Chinese people deserve to live in an open and civil society where they can participate in all state affairs, and only a democratic and transparent China can contribute to peace, prosperity and humanity of the world.
If any ASW members have questions, please feel free to contact me: Erping@post.harvard.edu