Leading the way on human rights

By Yang Sen-hong 楊憲宏  / 

Mon, Mar 18, 2013 - Page 8

When examining the topic of personal freedoms in China and how it affects relations between Taiwan and China, the evolution of Taiwan in the 1980s and two famous historical stories — which remind us how things can change when human rights are given the highest place in our hearts — must be discussed first.

China has become a strong economic entity by following in the footsteps of Taiwan and manufacturing what Taiwan used to produce.

However, in terms of religious freedoms and human rights, it is still way behind.

Many people talked about the “Taiwan Experience” as a good example for developing countries to follow.

This should not be limited to the economy, but also the political and judicial systems. Taiwan is a free country now, but this was achieved thanks to the people who fought tirelessly for their freedom in the 1980s.

Taiwan used to be like China. For about 40 years, Taiwan was ruled under Martial Law that was eventually lifted in 1987.

There were persecutions long before the Kaohsiung Incident in 1979, such as the persecutions of political dissidents during the White Terror era.

Less publicized was the labeling of certain branches of Daoism as cults and the imprisonment of religious worshipers.

Except for harvesting organs for transplants, this form of persecution is basically the same as how Falun Gong practitioners are treated in China today.

As a results of the efforts of many freedom fighters, the government could no longer stop the tide of democratization. Martial law was ended and Taiwanese are now able to enjoy both political and religious freedom.

The story of Burmese democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi showed the same change.

She was detained under house arrest in Burma for almost 15 of the 21 years from July 20, 1989 until her release on Nov. 13, 2010, becoming one of the world’s most prominent political prisoners.

During this time, she was prevented from meeting her supporters and international visitors, but was occasionally allowed visits from foreign diplomats, as well as from her personal physician.

The media were also prevented from visiting Aung San Suu Kyi.

On several occasions during her house arrest, she had periods of poor health and was hospitalized.

The Burmese government kept Aung San Suu Kyi imprisoned because it viewed her as someone “likely to undermine the community peace and stability” of the country.

More than 2,000 political prisoners were detained in Myanmar while Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest. They were also accused of “desiring to cause subversion.”

With the detention of Aung San Suu Kyi, the government tied itself up — the country had nowhere to go globally.

After her release, the state certainly set itself free in every angle in the world and it has since been experiencing a miraculous change.

The key accusatory words used by authoritarian rulers in Taiwan and Myanmar were: “inciting,” “sabotage and conspiring to violently overthrow the state,” “undermining community peace and stability,” and “desiring to cause subversion.”

These days, such descriptions appear frequently in political sentences in China.

In the past decade, many Taiwanese have visited China and witnessed how it suppresses free speech.

However, most Taiwanese businesspeople in China have said very little on the issue.

Only when they return to Taiwan can they complain to their friends of the nightmare reminiscent of their experiences during the Martial Law era in Taiwan.

In China, the imprisonment of Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波) was a turning point, especially after he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

China refused world recognition to the writer who had already served four years of an 11-year sentence for “inciting to overthrow the state.”

Taiwanese found it difficult to accept this ridiculous sentence. Most media in Taiwan urged President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) to speak out in defense of Liu, and Ma did.

The legendary escape of dissident Chen Guangcheng (陳光誠) from house arrest last year amazed Taiwanese.

Following repeated visits by concerned Chinese, Chen finally found a way to overcome the residential surveillance system and, through a dramatic process, gained an official passport from China and left for New York through formal channels, although not with the status of political refugee.

While Chen was imprisoned — on charges of disturbing road traffic and damaging public property — Taiwanese paid close attention to the blind, bare-footed lawyer from the Chinese countryside, who was helping rural women threatened by Beijing’s “one child policy.”

This year, the Taiwanese government said that dialogue between Taiwan and China should extend beyond economic and trade issues to encompass human rights, as well the rule of law.

“Taiwan’s ultimate goal is to maintain peace in East Asia and to allow people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait to pursue the values of freedom and democracy,” Ma said on Jan. 23 at a ceremony in Taipei marking this year’s World Freedom Day.

Ma said that since he took office in 2008, dialogue between Taiwan and China has focused on trade and cultural issues, but he expressed hope that the issues of freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law could be taken up in the near future.

The opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) quickly made a statement to welcome the new approach in dealing with China.

However, the statement also challenged Ma.

“Please do not talk all the talk without action,” it said.

The DPP suggested proposing or amending laws to protect the human rights of political prisoners in China.

The legislature passed a motion, entitled “Caring for POC [prisoners of conscience] in China” on Dec. 11 last year, the day after last year’s World Human Rights Day.

The motion was passed without any objection in the Legislative Yuan.

It was proposed by opposition party lawmakers and the Taiwan Association for China Human Rights, a non-governmental organization that promotes the protection of human rights in China and Taiwan. The motion was also supported by the majority ruling party.

The motion also has a long appendix of 4,033 names of political prisoners in China. That list is now an official parliamentary record of Taiwan.

In the future, Taipei must work toward helping Chinese political prisoners to show respect to the decision of the legislature.

The motion on Dec. 11, last year has blazed a trail in the history of the Taiwanese human rights movement.

”In view of the fact that human rights are not only universal values, but also the core value of the founding of our nation, which transcend national boundaries, gender, race, color, religious belief and organization, it is our country’s unshirkable responsibility to promote the development of democracy, freedom and the rule of law in China as well as to protect basic human rights of the people in Taiwan, Hong Kong and China,” it says.

The motion also declares that: “According to the provision of Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, our country should show concern for prisoners of conscience, including democracy activists, human rights activists, Falun Gong practitioners, Tibetans, etc. who are imprisoned in labor camps, prisons, or detention centers by the Chinese government due to their political or religious beliefs, and should enact laws and regulations to rescue and provide assistance to them, so as to comply with the provisions of the Two Conventions and follow the international trend.”

It was the first time in Taiwan that a governmental document applied terminology to specify what kinds of people were taken into consideration in the motion.

“The term prisoner of conscience originated from Amnesty International, which is defined as people who have been jailed because of their political, religious or other conscientiously-held beliefs, ethnic origin, gender, color, language, national or social origin, economic status, birth, sexual orientation or other status, provided that they have neither used nor advocated violence,” it said.

The motion ends with an air of responsibility and a clear goal.

“In order to demonstrate that our country complies with human rights provisions of the Two Conventions and implements the core value of human rights upon which our nation is founded, our government should seriously concern about all of the prisoners of conscience on the list, who are imprisoned and deprived of fundamental human rights, including life, body, property and freedom, and should enact laws to provide necessary rescue and assistance,” it said.

There were 4,033 prisoners of conscience on the list. They were just a statistic until the motion was passed.

The breakdown of the list is as follows: Chinese democracy activists and human rights activists, 151; rights lawyers, 31; Falun Gong practitioners, 1,854; Tibetans and others, 1997.

After Liu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, many hoped that former South African president Nelson Mandela would press the Chinese government to release Liu. However, Mandela did not.

Although Aung San Suu Kyi made a videotape in 2010 about her concern for prisoners of conscience, she has never pushed for Liu’s release.

Hopefully, Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi can play the role of the Red Cross, a beacon of humanity not only for Liu, but also for all those who are kept in the dark, inhuman corners of Chinese political imprisonment.

Yang Sen-hong is a journalist and host at Radio Taiwan International.