Wednesday, June 4, 2014

"Human Rights and Dignity": Lessons From Tiananmen Square, 25 Years Later

The same week I graduated from high school, the Tiananmen Square massacre was unfolding on TV. Part of me wondered what kind of a world I was stepping out into, when young people half a world away were being beaten and killed in hopes of winning some basic freedoms from an oppressive Communist government.

But at the same time, I felt a sense of hope when I saw the iconic image of Tank Man -- the still unknown brave soul who stood in front of a line of tanks and refused to let them pass. That image, to me, has remained one of the most powerful of my lifetime, as it symbolizes the eternal struggles that everyday people encounter to remain free in the face of bigger, stronger powers that threaten to beat them down.

No one knows how many people died in Beijing in June of 1989. Estimates range from hundreds to thousands. We don't know because the Chinese government has always been tight-lipped about the event. And the government wants to make sure no one else speaks of it, either. A quarter-century later, discussion of Tiananmen Square is not allowed in China, as the Communist Party does all it can to make the Chinese people forget that the event ever happened. As The Telegraph reports:
On the Internet, blogs or social media posts about "Tiananmen Square" and "June 4" are quickly censored – as are all the various sleights of hand that the Chinese might use to indicate the forbidden date.
For example, 6-4, 64, 63+1, and 65-1 are all blocked. So too are "May 35th" and "April 65th". Even the Roman numerals for 6 and 4 (VIIV) are banned, as are mixing numbers and letters such as "8q b 4" for "89.6.4".
In the past, censors have removed posts containing the words "tomorrow" and "today" on the eve and day of the anniversary, as well "in memory of", pictures of candles, and even "sensitive word".
The names of the leaders at the time, especially of Zhao Ziyang, who was purged as general secretary of the Communist party for supporting the students, are all wiped.
Those who continue to speak out -- both about the 1989 event and the ongoing abuses of the government -- are harassed, detained, placed under house arrest, jailed on trumped-up charges, ejected from the places they live, or simply "disappeared." Families of dissidents undergo the same treatment.

As the AP's Christopher Bodeen reports, the government blends this type of harassment with cosmetic reforms that they hope will mollify the public. People can practice the religion of their choice, so long as the state approves of the religious practice -- and the fact that many churches have recently been demolished shows just how closely the churches are being monitored and how much "freedom" worshippers truly have. Labor unions can form, but they remain under strict government control, and labor activists are routinely targeted with intimidation. Non-governmental organizations can form and hold lectures and meetings, but they're prohibited from taking on political causes.

And if any large-scale protests do begin to take shape, Beijing is quick to crack down before they escalate into a Tiananmen-sized showing.

In short, people's lives are scrutinized and micromanaged. Known activists have had their passports rescinded to restrict their travel, preventing them from spreading their messages -- and if they still manage to slip away, the police track them down and return them home. Trying to spread those messages online is virtually impossible, as the government employs people to monitor the Web and censor anything politically provocative.  

China's economic reforms are well known, and they, too, have come about in part as an attempt to distract the people from demanding political freedoms. But as Human Rights Watch reports, the reforms have led to rampant corruption and a widening gap between rich and poor.

So while China has changed in some ways since 1989, one thing that has not changed is that its people are still not free.

On this day -- a day people died for democracy, and a day China wants the world to forget -- I would therefore encourage all of us to think about the system we uphold when we buy a product stamped "Made in China." If you're not in the habit of looking at those stamps and labels, take some time to do so the next time you're out shopping. You'll be astounded at how many of the things we consume were made by people who essentially have no political rights.

Think, too, about why this is happening. From 2001 to 2012, the United States lost 2.8 million manufacturing jobs to China. The average Chinese laborer works a 12-hour day and, as of 2012, earned $1.36 an hour. It's all about the bottom line. U.S. corporations have offshored their labor, putting Americans out of work, so they can exploit a massive labor pool that has virtually no political power to ask for anything better. That's why, as Steve Jobs once infamously said, "those jobs aren't coming back." And that's also why China's economic reforms will not bring about political reforms, as some observers contend. The corporations that moved their manufacturing jobs to China don't want a politically free workforce that could demand greater pay, benefits, and working conditions. That would work against their interests.

China has ostensibly closed its forced-labor camps, where work conditions were naturally horrible -- but that still doesn't mean laborers' lots are improving. Speaking of Steve Jobs -- who told his biographer that he loved China's business practices and hated U.S. regulations and labor rights -- we can't forget about Foxconn, the infamous iPhone factory where conditions were so deplorable that workers were committing suicide. The only "reforms" the workers got? Nets outside the factory windows, preventing any further workers from jumping to their deaths.

Getty Images, via
If you still have any doubts about what things are like in China, ask someone who suffered for his part in the Tiananmen protests. Liao Yiwu wrote a poem titled "Massacre" in reaction to the violence he saw at Tiananmen Square, and for doing so he spent four years in prison, subjected to humiliating and painful punishments. He escaped from China after his release and wrote about his experiences in a memoir, For a Song and a Hundred Songs. A recent article in Buddhist magazine Tricycle says that Liao describes how inmates "would be forced to pick a 'dish' from the [prison's] 'menu,' which included such delicacies as 'Stewed Ox Nose: The enforcer rams two fingers up the inmate's nose until it bleeds,' among 108 dishes."

In 2011, Liao recounted some of his prison experiences to Spiegel:
"The (prisoners appointed as guards) examined the clothing they'd torn from my body. ... I clutched both my empty fists at my sides, then moved instinctively to pull up the pants that weren't there, when their leader ordered me to stick out my bottom -- and, with the utmost care, inserted a bamboo stick into my anus. ... The exhibition lasted about seven minutes, but it was longer than an entire lifetime."
... The guards beat him with electric batons, one time delivering 100 blows in a single interrogation, another time for 20 minutes without pause. They cuffed his hands behind his back, once for 23 days straight.
All this was for writing a poem.

In the Spiegel article, Liao also has some words for those in the West who try to soft-pedal the ongoing political climate in China:
Anyone who talks that way is afraid of jeopardizing trade with China, he said, but such people bring "bad thoughts into the world." If trade is more important than human rights and dignity, "then the end of the world has arrived." And no one should deceive themselves about the Communist Party, he said. "It has a golden body and two faces. It shows the Chinese people its fierce face, and the West its pleasant one."
We don't hear about these things in the Western media, and not just because China shows us a "pleasant face." We are beholden to China. China holds the largest share of our debt, at well over a trillion dollars. And the corporate reliance on China's cheap labor pool speaks for itself. When you strike deals with the devil, you lose the ability to call the devil out. This is what we've done to ourselves, in the name of reckless government spending and naked corporate greed.

So today, in recognition of the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown, I'm flying my Tibetan flag as a symbol of the ongoing struggle for freedom in China. Why the Tibetan flag? Because it's illegal to possess the Tibetan flag in China. Those who attempt to fly one are often imprisoned, and sometimes beaten to the point of permanent injury. It's also illegal to possess a picture of the Dalai Lama, who has been exiled from his native Tibet for most of his life.

Tibet has suffered greatly at the hands of the Chinese, ever since China invaded the country in 1949. Today, you won't find Tibet on a world map. The country is now considered part of China, and China has gone to great lengths to undermine Tibetans' distinct way of life. Thousands of monasteries have been destroyed, the numbers of people who can become clergy is strictly regulated, and all religious practices must be state-approved. China also appears to be encouraging the migration of Chinese to Tibet, in what is most certainly an attempt to dilute Tibetan culture. Political prisoners abound, including the 11th Panchen Lama, who was kidnapped at age 6, shortly after the Dalai Lama recognized the boy as the heir to the title, and has not been seen since. And the landscape is being drained of its natural resources. To top it all off, just last year, all Tibetans were ordered to fly the Chinese flag over their homes. When some Tibetans resisted, some 18,000 Chinese troops poured in to enforce the edict. Two people were sentenced to 10 years in prison for refusing to comply with the order.

Those who have openly demonstrated for a free Tibet have suffered brutal torture. A group of Buddhist nuns was taken from a demonstration, and once in prison, the nuns were stripped naked, beaten with nightsticks, subjected to dog bites, and anally and vaginally raped with electric cattle prods. Reports of similarly monstrous behavior against Falun Gong practitioners, political prisoners, and other prisoners of conscience have been reported over the years.

One of the Tibetan nuns was told by her torturer, "You will not get freedom, you will not get independence, not even in your dreams." To date, that remains true. China still rules over Tibet.

Therefore, what Tibetans are not allowed to do, I will do in their honor -- fly their nation's flag.

I also look at today as a reminder that we must always be on guard to defend our own freedoms. That I can fly a Tibetan flag and talk about Tiananmen Square on my blog is evidence that Americans still enjoy greater freedoms than many others around the world, but that doesn't mean those freedoms are forever safe, or that we should take them for granted. We now have a law on the books that allows for the indefinite detention of American citizens without charge or trial. Our government has determined that it can assassinate American citizens without due process -- and has done so. A massive surveillance system tracks our lives far beyond any reasonable limits. Whistleblowers are being prosecuted at an unprecedented rate. Freedom of the press is under assault. So are peaceful protests. We have the largest prison population of any nation on Earth, and people are ending up in those prisons -- many for petty crimes that wouldn't merit a sentence in other nations -- at the hands of overzealous police forces that have become more militarized and aggressive in their enforcement actions.     

If we want to hang on to the freedoms that our Founding Fathers guaranteed for us, we have to guard them and fight for them. If we don't want our nation to become more like China, we can't sit passively back and expect that it won't happen.

Because what happened here in 1989 ...

Is not all that different from what happened here in 2012.

May that serve as a cautionary reminder to us all.

Monday, June 2, 2014

When Life Becomes Trivial

I have very strongly held views on matters of life and death, as do most of us. Some of my views I make known explicitly here, especially when it comes to the violence of war. But I tend to err on the side of life in just about every ethical situation.

It's probably for that reason that I felt myself having a highly visceral reaction to the video making the rounds on social media of the woman who filmed her abortion procedure.

I don't like to promote people looking for their 15 minutes of fame, so I won't mention her by name or link to the video. Nor do I want to drag out the usual talking points surrounding abortion, because we've all heard them a thousand times, and no one's mind is going to be changed by hearing them for the 1,001st time.

But what struck me was the woman's cavalier attitude to the whole thing. Before the procedure, she smiles into the camera and proclaims, "I'm going to have an abortion tomorrow morning!" In a Cosmopolitan article, she said she called her supervisor and said, "Excuse me, I am going to need to schedule one abortion, please" -- as flippantly as if she was ordering a burger and fries at the drive-through. She smiled and hummed to herself during the procedure, as if she was doing nothing more than getting a manicure. And sometime afterward, she faces the camera, still trying to be upbeat but honestly looking as if she's struggling to still put a happy face on the event, and proclaiming how she's in awe of the fact that her body can make a baby.

Yeah, except that you ended that baby's life. There's that.

But the clincher? When she says, "I knew what I was gonna do was right, because it was right for me, and no one else."

The selfishness and narcissism wrapped up in that sentence are deeply emblematic of where I think we're heading as a culture. There are few things we do in life that don't affect other people, and this woman's decision was undeniably a decision for two people, not just herself. Yet she proclaims, "It was right for me, and no one else." Certainly not for the life that was growing inside her, obviously.

In one sense, I feel sorry for this young lady. She's obviously been conditioned to think of terminating a pregnancy as little more than a slightly invasive medical procedure that carries no ethical weight, as if it's no different from having a wart removed. I imagine that if you worked in an abortion clinic, you'd have to find a way to rationalize what happens there, lest the reality eat away at you. And it's not as if an abortion clinic is going to actively try to talk anyone out of the procedure. That would be bad for business.

Look, I know lots of women end up in these clinics out of desperation, and I'm not making light of that. But then that's one of the problems I have with the cheery flippancy of this woman's video. It trivializes what is surely a gut-wrenching decision for many women who choose to terminate their pregnancies.

I also acknowledge that I can't control the choices other people make. I would just hope that if women find themselves in a difficult situation such as this, they'd approach a life-or-death decision with a little more reflection and solemnity.

Equally upsetting about this woman's story is that she works as an abortion counselor yet admits she did not use contraception before her pregnancy. Contraception is so cheap, and so readily available, that there's virtually no need to resort to abortion as a form of birth control. The irresponsibility of someone who knew better is astounding, and certainly not something to hold up as an example to follow. Our actions have consequences.

I think what bothers me most about this story is that it undermines an unsettling truth about our modern world: Life is disposable. It's obvious in the way we emotionally insulate ourselves from thinking about the pain and suffering of the women and children who get in the way of the drone bombs we drop on sovereign nations. ("Collateral damage." "The kid probably would have grown up to be a terrorist anyway.") It's obvious in the way we think taking the life of a convicted killer somehow evens the score. It's obvious in the way we don't bat an eye when we bite into a steak or a chicken leg.

Nor do we have much reverence for life. If we did, we wouldn't abuse and neglect our children and elderly. We wouldn't think violence is the answer to every solution. We wouldn't be choking our own planet to death with our destructive actions toward the environment.

And we deal with it all by turning a blind eye. We don't want to see the scorched, disfigured, lifeless bodies of children killed by our bombs. We don't want to see animals screaming and struggling for their lives as their bodies are prepared to be dismembered for the sake of our appetites. We don't want to think about a fetus being torn from the womb and then discarded as if its suffering meant nothing.

We dehumanize the things we want to distance ourselves from. That's why abortion advocates talk about "choice" and speak in broad terms of "clumps of cells" and lack of viability. But what we're ultimately talking about is the termination of a life. Paul McCartney once said that if slaughterhouses had glass walls, we'd all be vegetarians. Similarly, if people saw what actually happened during an abortion procedure -- and, notably, this woman's abortion video shows only her reaction from the waist up -- I think many of us would change our views on just what this "choice" really entails. The pictures are out there online, readily available. I'm not going to show them to you or link to them. If you want to find them, you can. But you have to be ready to confront the consequences of this particular kind of "choice."

As the humanitarian Albert Schwietzer once said, "Think occasionally of the suffering of which you spare yourself the sight."

Understand that I don't come at this from a right-wing Christian point of view. When it comes to matters of peace and social justice, I'm as aligned with the political left as anyone you'll ever see. Yet the abortion issue is for me the big disconnect on the left, and one of the biggest reasons I'll probably never consider myself part of the "liberal" camp. It's always struck me as odd that on things like war and the death penalty, the left takes the side of life and peace. And the left also usually takes a strong stand on behalf of those who are defenseless, voiceless, and powerless. Yet when it comes to abortion, the rhetoric immediately shifts to "choice," and any discussion of life and advocacy for the unborn is denounced as the ravings of right-wing religious fanatics at best, and an expression of hatred of women at worst.

I don't get it, and I never will.

I understand that the woman's (alleged) purpose in making this video was to show women that abortion doesn't have to be scary. But I think most women who resort to abortion aren't there hoping they can smile and hum through the procedure. They're there because they feel they have no other options. They may have no resources, no support network to fall back on. I don't really think putting a happy face on the whole thing is particularly helpful no matter what side of the debate you take. What we need are things that support women so they can avoid having to end up in a clinic in the first place, and alternatives so they don't think it's their only option. Better maternity leave policies, more flexible work schedules, the promotion of adoption, better education about sexuality and contraception -- all these things can help. Women deserve better than this, and their children deserve a chance at life.

But banning abortion won't make it go away, and that's something the political right doesn't seem to understand. What we need is to foster a culture in which women get the support they need, in which fewer pregnancies are unwanted, and in which other options are available and attractive. Under those conditions, abortion might become practically obsolete, regardless of its legal status. 

Trivializing abortion as if it's no big deal, as this woman's video does, isn't helpful. We need a culture that upholds and respects life, not one that constantly finds answers in death.