After Liu Xianobo’s Nobel Prize: The Situation of Human Rights in China with Ti-Ana Wang, Dechen Pemba, Yang Jianli, Paulina Neuding, Bahtiyar Omer

A panel including Chinese-Canadian dissident whose father, Wang Bingzhang, is a prisoner of conscience in China, Ti-Anna Wang; leading Chinese dissident and pro-democracy activist, Yang Jianli; Uyghur rights activist and Chairman of the ‘Norway Uyghur Committee,’ Bahtiyar Omer; Tibetan dissident and founder of ‘High Peaks Pure Earth,’ a website that publishes English translations of Tibetan poems, songs, and other writings by Tibetans inside Tibet, Dechen Pemba; and Swedish journalist who writes for Svenska Dagbladet as moderator, Paula Neuding, address the 3rd Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.


Full remarks


Moderator, Paulina Neuding: Thank you, Ti-Anna, for sharing your story. My first question is directed to Yang Jianli. After your friend was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year, how has that affected the struggle for human rights and democracy in China? 

Yang Jianli: Of course, the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo is a great inspiration to many human rights activists and democracy activists. This represents the international recognition of [the] Chinese democracy movement, their struggle, their sacrifices in the past 30 years. And of course the Chinese government has become more nervous, paranoid of losing their power. So ever since the announcement was made, they have tightened up control over the supporters and the family members of Liu Xiaobo.

As I said earlier today, Liu Xiaobo has not been heard from ever since. Liu Xiao, just about 10 or 12 days after the announcement was made, we have lost contact with [him]. [He] has not been heard from. 

But we conducted a thorough study on the impact of the Nobel Peace Prize on the Chinese people and activists, and we found that the impact is very great. According to the visit to the website, censored for the words “Liu Xiaobo” and “Nobel Peace Prize,” we found that Chinese people pay more attention to this event than any other event except the Sichuan earthquake that took place in May of 2008. So Chinese people really want to know what’s going on, and this award actually helped spread the news, the information. As a result, more people are more forthcoming for information, for the ideas of human rights. And it also helped spread Charter 08, which Liu Xiaobo helped draft. So I think, over [the] long run, this is a very positive event and will have a ripple effect in the future.

Moderator: Thank you. We have heard testimonies from all around the globe about how authoritarian regimes are acting increasingly nervous because of the revolutions in North Africa and the protests in the Middle East. Have you experienced something similar in China? Do you sense a sort of jitteriness or nervousness from the regime when it comes to [the] human rights struggle? Ti-Anna?

Ti-Anna Wang: I think Yang might be the more appropriate person to comment on this.

Yang Jianli: So I want to talk more about it. It all began from Oslo. Before [the] Oslo Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, the violinist Lin Chen, who also lives in Boston, called me and planned for dinner. During the dinner, he told me he will play a very popular [piece of] music in China, that is “Jasmine Flower.” And the music resonated with many participants at the ceremony. At that moment, many of us actually cried, with tears running down our faces. Ever since then, “Jasmine Flower,” the three words 茉莉花”, has become a sensitive word and blocked by the Chinese government on the internet.

Within a month, a democratic revolution took place in Tunisia, and the Jasmine flower is the national flower of Tunisia. Then everybody [came] to name the democratic revolution in Tunisia and Egypt the “Jasmine Revolution,” and the Chinese people got inspired by the Democratic changes in North Africa, and it became their own version of a Jasmine revolution. 

So they called for a revolution on the internet on the 20th of February in 13 cities in China. Many people just took to [the] streets. But the Chinese government got even more nervous; they sent more police than the [number of] workers in some cities. I think this is a groundbreaking activity because ever since the Tiananmen Square massacre, the people don’t think it is possible to take to the street to protest. 

And at the same time, the Chinese government developed a very, very massive, big-scale, so-called stability preserving system. Now this year’s budget, the Chinese government admitted, has just surpassed the military budget. That means the Chinese have come to take the people as an enemy more seriously than any foreigners [who] can pose a threat to China. 

Still, I think this shows [that] China’s political, economic, and social condition has come almost to the critical point; that if there is a flashpoint, [an] important event, the Chinese people can take to the street anytime. The big protests will press the Chinese government to change, because no way!

Of course, we all know the Chinese government is still powerful, still strong enough to put anybody in prison, to make anybody disappear if they are determined to do so. But I think, sooner or later, nobody can prevent the Jasmine Revolution from happening in China. Thank you. 

Moderator: Thank you. I’m afraid we’re running out of time. …[Yang Jianli apologizes for the length of his answer]… My last question is that those of us who work within the civil society in Western democracies, what can we do? What works? What doesn’t work? Just a short answer. 

Dechen Pemba: Well, I think that conferences such as these and wherever there’s a focus on human rights, it’s always our responsibility, our duty to remind governments, to remind big organizations, that there are many many problems that are not going to go away and need to be addressed. So for example, the very specific cases that I mentioned, the political prisoners, there are always lots of campaigning and lobbying efforts that can be done. 

There are also many ongoing campaigns that can be supported. For example, Tibet. Lhasa is one of the few places in the world where there are no foreign correspondents stationed, for example. It’s one place in the world where there are no representatives of foreign countries, for example. All of these things can be changed: There can be a foreign correspondent stationed there; there can be representatives, consulates stationed there. We need to monitor the situation more and more, in order to know exactly what kind of things we can do. And in order to do that, we need to really be hearing from the voices of people on the ground. 

Bahtiyar Omer: I think in Eastern Turkistan, in the problem of human rights, there are a lot of things we can do. Many of them you have mentioned already. Now, why don’t you say something? [Speaking to Ti-Anna]

Ti-Anna Wang: In the cases of political prisoners, in particular, we often hear American diplomats addressing the issue at large, but I think one thing that’s very, very helpful is when they target their addresses by mentioning specific names. By saying something very broad, like human rights that have to be addressed in China, it doesn’t really measure the outcomes of that. But if they ask for the release of specific prisoners, like my father, or like countless other ones, then we can have a sort of gauge of what’s effective and what’s not. 

Moderator: All right. Do we have time for questions from the audience? One or two short questions? No one? Alright, well thank you for sharing your stories with us today, and thank you very much. 

Speakers and Participants

Yang Jianli

Chinese dissident, former political prisoner, Tiananmen Square massacre survivor and President of Initiatives for China

Dechen Pemba

Tibetan dissident and founder of website ‘High Peaks Pure Earth’


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