In Beijing, Blinken should appeal for the freedom of ‘blank page’ protesters
As Antony Blinken prepares to embark on his first trip to China as Secretary of State, activists around the world are urging him to place human rights at the top of his agenda. For Blinken to do so would certainly be in keeping with America’s tradition of championing freedom and democracy — a tradition that has so benefited me. As a former political prisoner of China, who owes his freedom to the support of many American men and women, I hope and believe that U.S. support will help free prisoners of conscience in my home country.
Particularly worrisome is the fate of the young Chinese men and women who have been “disappeared” or detained for leading recent peaceful demonstrations that have become known as the “Blank Page Movement.” The protests began with people by expressing their frustration over the Chinese Communist Party’s draconian “Zero-COVID” policy and quickly evolved into a movement demanding broader freedoms.
I am hopeful that Blinken, in his meetings with senior Chinese officials — perhaps even including China’s leader, Xi Jinping — will unequivocally demand the release of the hundreds of young men and women who have been detained. Freedom is, first and foremost, important for their personal lives. Moreover, they represent the best of today’s China and its brewing changes. Fighting for their freedom is both moral and strategic.
In recent years, Xi has largely transitioned his politics from dictatorship to one of gamesmanship. Last year, he started out by making a political gambit revolving around two numbers — zero and 5.5 — placing bets on zero COVID and economic growth of 5.5 percent.He tied these goals to his purported “wisdom, greatness and correctness,” to the legitimacy of his continuing rule, and even to the superiority of China’s system of “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”
He lost badly on both counts. Although he rose from ruler to de facto emperor at the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th Congress in October, the ensuing Blank Page Movement has tarnished his image and narrative by underscoring his staggering policy failures — leading, in turn, to growing demand to instate a new leader and revamp China’s failing political system. Although there is no independent polling in China, under Xi’s rule the global public opinion of China has fallen precipitously. Anecdotally, the fear and respect that Xi once commanded domestically is dissipating as well.
Xi is not accustomed to losing. He will surely try to retrieve any lost ground by accomplishing two feats:
First, he will “go all out” to boost China’s economy. He is trying to rebuild his image as a “great and wise leader” who knows best. But to stabilize China’s economy, he must first stabilize China’s international relations — starting by thawing China’s icy relations with the U.S.
Second, he will try to stoke fear in his CCP comrades and the Chinese masses. He can hardly survive in a political ecosystem where citizens no longer fear him, nor the CCP regime. To reinstate political terror, he is bound to punish the leaders of the Blank Page Movement — although he did reverse his zero-COVID policy, as the movement demanded.
The Blank Page Movement is the first nationwide expression of discontent and political demands in China since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. It provides ample evidence that the Chinese people are dissatisfied with Xi and CCP rule and have not given up their quest for freedom and democracy. The protest against the zero-Covid policy was an opportunity for people to take to the streets spontaneously, thus creating a spirit similar to Tiananmen. It has provided the Chinese people with the courage to say openly what they have been suppressing in their hearts for years.
If fear of Xi and the regime remains at a low level, we should consider the Blank Page Movement as a precursor to future protests that could be triggered by one cause or another. There is a telling example from Chinese history — the protests of 1987 returned in far greater force with the Tiananmen protests in the spring of 1989. If this were the case again, China’s civil society would have a chance to revive, a viable democratic opposition could arise, and rifts might occur within the CCP leadership. But if Xi successfully reinstates political terror, the prospects will be just the opposite. That makes this a “make-or-break” moment for the Chinese people.
A strong appeal by Blinken to free the young people detained will be extremely important. Compared to any time in recent years, American pressure can exert more influence now that Xi’s position has been weakened and he needs to reach a rapprochement with the U.S. to regain his lost political ground at home. But it is neither moral nor strategic for the U.S. to allow a rapprochement with China without thwarting Xi from instilling terror in the hearts of the Chinese people.
Jianli Yang, a former Tiananmen Square protester and political prisoner of China, is the founder and president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China and author of “For Us, the Living: A Journey to Shine the Light on Truth.”
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