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Open up or break up, dissident Yang Jianli tells China

Bharat Bhushan | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:49 IST

Chinese dissident leader Yang Jianli, the moving force behind the Interfaith Conference of China's ethnic and religious minorities in Dharamsala recently, is not unduly disturbed by the cancellation of visas of some dissident leaders by India.

He pointed out that despite the cancellation of four visas due to China's protest, 69 participants, including at least eight Chinese activists and Uyghur American Association's president Ilshat Hsan, had attended the conference.

"The cancellation of the visas of Dolkun Isa, Lu Jinghua and Ray Wong is a matter of regret. But the Indian media has overlooked one vital fact: that the conference itself was held, and that India allowed it to be held for the first time on its soil says a lot about the government's position," he said. He cautioned against coming to quick conclusions about India being "weak" in reacting to China's protest.

Yang is president of Initiatives for China, a US-based organisation dedicated to working for a peaceful transition to democracy in China. He has a doctorate from Harvard University, and is co-author of a democratic Constitution for China. He went back to China after completing his Ph.D to organise the labour movement for non-violent change. He was arrested and jailed for five years on charges of "spying" . He was released after UN intervention, and has since launched Initiatives for China.

Catch caught up with him while he was en route from Dharamsla to the US. Excerpts from the hour-long chat with Yang Jianli:

What was the aim of the Interfaith Conference you organised in Dharamsala?

This conference was first held in 2000, and is intended to expand a dialogue we have had with the Tibetans for a decade, to include others - the Uyghurs, the Mongolians, Christians, the followers of Falun Gong and the people of Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau.

They share a common desire for complete freedom from the yoke of China's communist regime. We have held this conference mostly in the US and twice in Taiwan. Now, we want to take it around the globe - especially to countries that are strategically important for China. We think that our conference can influence policy making towards China, and the views of civil society in these countries about China.

India is strategically very important for China, and we wanted to honour the Dalai Lama in his place of work. Also, we are a non-violent movement and India is the home of Mahatma Gandhi. In fact, in 2000, our first Interfaith Conference was held on Gandhi's birthday, 2 October.

What is common among the various persecuted ethnic and religious minorities of China? The Uyghur movement is ethnic and religious but violent; the Tibetan movement is ethnic and religious but non-violent; the Mongolians are an ethnic minority, while the Christians and Falun Gong practitioners are religious minorities; and the demands of the people of Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau are not religious. How can faith/religion bring them together?

I think we are united by the principles of tolerance and understanding as well as our common desire to achieve freedom from China's communist regime. You said that the Uyghurs are violent. But those Uyghurs we work with are non-violent. Dolkun Isa, to whom India denied a visa, is a non-violent human rights activist. I have worked with him for two decades; he is not a terrorist as China describes him.

The Dalai Lama has claimed that the two autonomous regions of Xinjiang and Tibet have been subjected to a "cultural genocide" by Beijing. Is the process that the Dalai Lama described so graphically continuing?

The cultural genocide is continuing. The languages of the minorities, for example, are greatly endangered. The pressures on language are not only cultural but also economic. Some Tibetans, for example, are giving up their language so they can get better jobs. A situation has been created in which languages and religions have been pushed to the verge of destruction.

The land, environment, natural resources and culture of the Tibetans, for example, is being destroyed in the name of development. What is Tibetan identity without them?

Linda Davidson/The Washington Post via Getty Images
China is destroying land, resources, culture of the Tibetans in the name of development: Yang Jianli

What is your perspective on the future of Tibet?

I think, first of all, we need to preserve Tibetan identity - primarily their culture and language. Only then can their geographical identity be preserved and the right to self-determination exercised.

I don't believe in the use of force to achieve any political goal. The Tibetans can decide on any arrangement they like democratically - the Dalai Lama's Middle Path or whatever else.

How do you see Tibet in the post-Dalai Lama scenario?

While I think that a post-Dalai Lama era is still far away, there must not be any spiritual or cultural vacuum after the Dalai Lama. Otherwise, China will plan their own reincarnation of the Dalai Lama and a great division will be created among the Tibetan people.

Anticipating this, the Dalai Lama has already devolved his temporal powers to democratically elected leaders. So, he has already created a political authority which the Tibetan people will trust. Please understand that the 14th Dalai Lama is an extremely rare commodity. There will not be another like him. I, therefore, have more confidence in the democratic system that he is creating than in whoever will be the next Dalai Lama.

How credible and viable is the Uyghur leadership which is demanding an independent East Turkestan?

Their cause is more difficult than the Tibetans' because they do not have a unifying leader like the Dalai Lama. For other ethnic groups, this kind of leadership is unimaginable. However, they must pursue their goals through non-violent means. Violence will get them nowhere, not only because of the military might of the Chinese state but also because of the way the world views terrorism today.

Would the Central Asian neighbours of China want a Uyghur-led Xinjiang to break away as an independent state? After all, the ethnicities in these countries cut across national boundaries.

That is a very complex geographical and political issue. We do not pretend that we have a solution (to the Uyghur issue). But we must arrive at some general principles. So, no matter what, nobody should have the authority to impose a solution on the Uyghurs. Everything should be decided through democratic means by a Uyghur majority.

How successful will Beijing's efforts to hold China's fractious borderlands be? Do you think China will remain a highly centralised, unitary state, or might it develop into a more multicultural, or even a pluralistic society?

I think pluralism is inevitable. China, I believe, will one way or the other, become a loosely connected state structure. Democracy will dissolve this very centralised unitary structure of power that exists. I am not saying that these groups will separate from China, but that they will only be loosely connected to the Centre.

If China does not become multicultural and pluralistic, do you think the ethnic and religious movements, which are either non-violent or at a low threshold of terrorism, might actually morph into something more dangerous?

Yes, there is a potential of that. Impatient young people may opt for that when they see themselves running out of effective non-violent options. I, however, advocate the non-violent path, aware as I am of the military might of the Chinese state. The Chinese government would want these movements to become extremist because it is easier to deal with extremism. You can justify the government's high handedness. Moderate movements based on non-violence are much more complex and, therefore, difficult to deal with. They require a dialogue. So violence only benefits the Chinese government.

Could China break up like the Soviet Union, splintering in a way that its leaders obsessively warn against?

Eventually, perhaps. Loosening up of the state is inevitable but break-up is possible.

Wouldn't the international community want a stable China since an unstable China cannot be the engine of economic growth for the rest of the world?

I think when it comes to their foreign policy, many countries look at China only in terms of their own short-term interests. A break-up of China will reverberate across the entire region. Fearing instability and chaos, many countries will not want that to happen. But such inconveniences are actually in their long-term interests, and of the world.

People in China may have many grievances but there seems to be little evidence of a popular democratic movement on the ground.

We have a lot of protests within China, as well as intellectuals and dissidents who argue against the government's line. But in terms of a viable democratic Opposition, we are not there yet though we are working on it.

There are people in China who are scared that agitating for democracy in an organised way might lead to bloodshed, so much so that they have thrown up their hands. What would you say to them?

I understand their fear. We do have a 100-year-old bitter history of such violence. The Chinese government also tends to frighten people into thinking like this. But China will transition peacefully. The Chinese people are very good at self-organisation when they are given the space - see what they have done on the world wide web whenever they have got the opportunity in the economic or cultural sphere and when there is no centralised power directing them.

I think the Chinese will transition peacefully to democracy.

You started out as a member of the Communist Party, a rising star you were. What led to your disappointment with the party?

Tom Williams/Roll Call/Getty Images
The party made me spy on colleagues. I didn't like that. Tiananmen massacre was the final straw: Yang Jianli

When I was small, I witnessed the Cultural Revolution and saw the brutality of the Communist Party. When I was a little older, I joined the party on Hu Yaobang's call to young people. However, I found that the party changed us instead of us changing the party. My everyday party job was to keep a watch on my colleagues. I did not like that. Later, I witnessed the Tiananmen Square massacre and that was the final straw.

Edited by Mehraj D. Lone

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First published: 4 May 2016, 12:02 IST
Bharat Bhushan @Bharatitis

Editor of Catch News, Bharat has been a hack for 25 years. He has been the founding Editor of Mail Today, Executive Editor of the Hindustan Times, Editor of The Telegraph in Delhi, Editor of the Express News Service, Washington Correspondent of the Indian Express and an Assistant Editor with The Times of India.