By Rebecca Benest
On April 21, Carroll Bogert joined me to discuss the present and future of human rights in China. She currently oversees all external relations for Human Rights Watch and previously worked in China, Southeast Asia and Moscow with Newsweek magazine for over a decade.
Q: How has your previous work in international journalism affected the way you approach your work at the Human Rights Watch, making human rights abuses globally known?
A: We’re not journalists, but we’re information gatherers and distributors; our researchers go into the field and ask people questions: “What happened? Who is responsible? Tell me your story.” In some ways, it’s similar to journalism in that sense, but rather than just gathering a story we think of it more as evidence; this is evidence of a crime. So whereas a journalist might do just enough to get a story, we’ll do dozens or even hundreds of interviews to really collect incontrovertible evidence that something has happened, a crime has occurred. We’re also often on the news; we’re in Ukraine, we’re in the Central African Republic. You name it, the crisis of the day, there’s someone from the Human Rights Watch there. But we’re also working in places where the news media aren’t. In addition, we do more than just information gathering and distributing; we’re trying to change policy. We’re not just trying to witness, observe and write about human rights violations, we try to actually make it stop. That’s a part of the picture left out of journalism. The beginning, however, of going into the field with an open mind to find out what happened, that’s what journalists do; we just do it more in-depth. We really cover the story.
Q: Socioeconomic growth in China has led to what some consider a loosening of the Chinese government’s oppression of human rights. Do you agree with this idea or do you think the public eye on China has only led them to alternative but equally effective forms of human rights oppression?
A: In comparisons to decades past, there is much greater personal freedom in China today. You have the freedom to choose your own job, to choose whom you marry; personal consumer choice is not even comparable. Recently, however, we see a downturn in human rights; things are worse right now than they were even a year ago. There’s a definite concerted crackdown on non-governmental organizations in China, activists and environmental protestors. The current president of China, Xi Jinping, wants to push through some economic reforms that he knows are going to be difficult, and in my opinion, as the trade-off for that, he has to give the hardliners something. If he’s going to free up certain parts of the economy, he’s going to have to give his opponents something and it appears that what he’s giving is essentially freedom of assembly–freedom of the people to organize. There’s an incredible amount of activism in China today and it’s being very harshly cracked down on.
Q: Being that you were in China during the Tiananmen Square protests, how do you think your experiences during that time influenced the way you see China now or the way you see its future?
A: Being in the middle of a crowd of one million people who are demonstrating for freedom and democracy is something that I hope all human beings can experience. Tiananmen was not like anything else I’ve ever experienced. It’s rare to be among one million people anyway, but to be among one million people there for a political purpose is an incredible feeling. Many were there for other reasons, but it was definitely a democracy movement. I wouldn’t say that people everywhere want all of the same things, there are cultural differences, but people really do want the freedom to decide things for themselves, the freedom to participate politically and to determine their own destiny. They want basic human rights, and that was made clear to me at Tiananmen Square.
Q: In response to many accusations of human rights violations, China has often referred to their “different definition of human rights,” which they say is shaped in relation to their national culture and history. How do you feel this definition has shaped the way the government treats its people?
A: China actually has signed many of the major human rights treaties; not all of them, but I think it’s important to get away from cultural definitions of human rights. That’s why we try to look only at law. What legal obligations has a government assumed to protect human rights? What treaties has it signed, what laws does it have on its own books? There are plenty of laws protecting human rights in China; the fact is that the government is not respecting its own laws. China has said they want to end labor and detention camps; okay, so let’s do it. It’s not a question of if human rights are just foreign to China, but these are legal obligations that the Chinese government has assumed and it must abide by them. That needs to be the conversation.
Q: There has been tension between China and Taiwan over political sovereignty of the Taiwanese state. Meanwhile, in the last two decades Taiwan has made significant improvements in terms of human rights and the move toward democracy. Could you explain how you think the tension with China has affected the political scene in Taiwan? Do you think that complete independence of Taiwan would result in more drastic improvements in human rights?
A: I have to say that we don’t work on Taiwan, so I’m not really familiar enough with the current situation. Yes, Taiwan does have a better human rights record than China, but that’s not to say it’s perfect. We actually do have some concerns on factories run by Taiwanese businessmen abroad where labor rights may be violated; I think Taiwan gets away with a better reputation because it’s not part of mainland China, but its record is actually deserving of scrutiny. Having said that, I think Hong Kong is more of a critical focal point right now because a lot of the freedoms that were promised at the time of the handover from British sovereignty to Chinese sovereignty in 1977 are being curtailed right now. I think it’s really important that the promises made to that territory are kept, and that international attention should be focused on what’s happening in Hong Kong. In the past it has been an island of more protected speech and because it is a part of China, to be able to protect freedoms there will have a very good effect on the rest of China.
Q: Lastly, having worked extensively in China and Moscow with Newsweek—and I’m sure in several other countries since then—do you think there is an international pattern to human rights and its abuses, or do you feel each situation is different?
A: I think governments are tempted to abuse power; that’s in the very nature of power. It is the nature of power that people who hold it are tempted to abuse it. In a sense, that’s what power is, although there are, of course, people who wield power responsibly. We feel that every society, everyone in power requires a watchdog: someone who’s keeping an eye on how they’re wielding their power. So there’s a similarity in that sense; that’s human nature, as it were, but otherwise every case is very much it’s own. The specifics matter. The people, the personalities, the contexts make every case special.
Photos by the International Affairs Group