In exile: The Dalai Lama fled Tibet after the Chinese clamped down on Buddhists there. Continuing human rights abuses by the Chinese have
many questioning the wisdom of holding the Summer Olympics in Beijing. MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTO
This spring, hundreds of people from
Central New York are traveling to mainland China, getting a great trip
at bargain rates. The trips are organized through the Greater Syracuse
Chamber of Commerce. The tours, according to Chamber staffer Connie
Maute, will give an amazing look into a society that has been as
secretive in the past as it will be powerful in the future.
The itinerary takes guests on a tour of
Beijing that includes Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. The tour
buses go past the area where the Olympic Complex is being built. It is
a 10-day trip jam-packed from morning to night, and includes side trips
to industrial Shanghai and to Suzhow, known as “the Venice of China.”
What it doesn’t include is any
discussion of human rights. Understandably. We can’t expect the Chamber
of Commerce to take on the banner of freedom and human rights in China.
Or can we?
America’s most prominent Chinese human
rights proponent, John Kamm, just happens to be a former president of a
Chamber of Commerce. More on him later.
The local Chamber was surprised that so
many people lined up for the trip. These visits come at a time when
human rights groups are putting the pressure on the Chinese government
to allow more freedom as the Olympic games draw near. They come at the
same time that China is intensifying its grip on Tibet.
These tours have been offered to us at
what many travelers consider a low, low price of $1,699. As anyone who
shops at Wal-Mart will tell you, it’s hard to pass up things Chinese at
bargain rates. The tours are organized through Citslink International,
run by a Californian named Leo Liu who specializes in organizing these
kinds of trips for chambers of commerce all across America.
China is doing this now, suggests Maute,
as “a way to expose the Western world to what has happened with such a
growing economy. They want people to see how China has changed in 20
Maute describes the tour group’s visit
to Tiananmen Square as “Just a tourist experience. No one will talk
about what happened there.” When asked what responsibility a visitor
might have to raise issues of freedom and human rights, she says, “That
never enters into it. I think this is just a cultural experience. If
you got into that you could create some serious situations.”
Tibet, for example? “That has not come up.”
When asked if the visits of so many
under Chamber auspices lends legitimacy to the regime, Maute defers. “
I shouldn’t answer that question.”
Sophie Richardson works for Human Rights
Watch. “We don’t have a complaint about people going there,” she said
last week. Her beef is with world leaders who will be attending the
Olympics but will not do anything that might make Beijing
uncomfortable. That complaint was echoed last week by Rep. Jim Walsh,
who joined with colleagues in the House of Representatives to support a
bill that would prohibit President George Bush from honoring the
Chinese by appearing at their Olympic opening ceremony. If Bush makes
the August pilgrimage, he may well be the first sitting president to
attend an Olympic ceremony abroad.
Symbolic gestures by presidents clearly
carry weight on human rights issues, but what of folks like you and me?
What of those busloads teeming with Central New Yorkers and their
ability to bring home impressions as well as silk and ceramics from
China? The Chinese obviously value the visits. Is there something
visitors can do to affect the freedoms of oppressed Chinese?
“What we would like is for people to be
informed,” says Richardson, who has served as Human Rights Watch’s Asia
Advocacy director for the past two years. She has this to say about
those who visit China: “We would like people to know that what they’re
looking at is not just a triumph of economic development. This is
economic development that has taken place as a result of the denial of
human rights.” Strong words.
Human rights campaigners do not blame
the tourists, just as they do not blame the Olympic athletes for
attending the games. They reserve their wrath for institutions like the
International Olympic Committee (IOC), which Human Rights Watch accused
of operating in a “moral void.” She only asks that the IOC hold Beijing
to promises it made when it was lobbying for the Olympics to be held
there. Monitors want heads of state to think, in Richardson’s words,
“long and hard about whether they want to share the podium” with
Chinese government officials, hard liners who have made it clear that
they would see the presence of Bush at Olympic ceremonies as support
for their regime.
She suggests that people can read Human
Rights Watch’s extensive reports on China, if you can bear the pain (at
www.hrw.org). Their reports touch on the repression in Tibet, arbitrary
arrests and lack of due process, not to mention the use of capital
punishment so extensive it makes Texas seem like the Vatican. The most
bothersome report deals with migrant workers who have been brought in
to build the Olympic facilities. Two million migrant workers have made
their way from the countryside to Beijing to help build the Olympic
infrastructure. These are the stadiums the tour buses drive by, the one
that Bush would sit in as he waves at the opening ceremonies.
It turns out that almost none of these
workers, according to the Chinese government’s own investigation, have
been paid what they were promised. Many of them, the report goes on,
have been paid nothing at all. The government is fully aware of these
abuses, but has done nothing to enforce its own labor laws. That seems
like a point on which good Americans want to exchange their silence for
some expression of concern. Not while they are there—but back here,
once they are home.
Let’s state that another way—a good
chunk of the Olympic Complex has been built using essentially slave
labor. Is that something we should just drive by on the way to the silk
market? Is it really enough for the Chamber, and the unsuspecting
tourists, to retreat behind the notion that “it’s not our role.”
Silence can also lead to “a serious situation.”
Then there is the example of John Kamm,
who was the president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong
and a regional vice president of Occidental Chemical Corporation. After
the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square, Kamm stood at a Chamber banquet
to offer a toast to a Chinese official. After honoring his guest, he
publicly asked the man to release an imprisoned student, whom Kamm knew
was being tortured.
The Chinese official was offended,
Kamm’s business associates were mortified, but within a month the
prisoner was released. Kamm took to carrying lists of prisoners to his
meetings with Chinese officials, and found that, in many cases, he was
able to secure better treatment or outright release for them.
Eventually he left the business world, and now dedicates himself to
human rights work full time. His Dui Hua Foundation (www.duihau.org)
continues to preach corporate responsibility to businesses dealing in
China, and advocate for the rule of law within China.
The efforts led by Kamm, who was in
Beijing and unable to return phone messages, should remind people
everywhere that we can too easily underestimate the power of raising
our voice. We have hundreds of billions of dollars to spend in China.
Let us spend them fearlessly. Now we are sending hundreds of our most
capable citizens to visit there. Let them go there with eyes wide open.
If all goes well, the Chamber of Commerce and Liu will be sending
another 600 people to China in the fall. That makes more than a
thousand who can say they have been there—a potent force for decency
and human rights. Unless silence reigns.
I have to believe that among us there
are more than a few who will want to make a difference. Americans don’t
do well at keeping quiet for long.