Tracking the Dragon

In 1979, he became the first American social scientist invited to do research in post-revolutionary rural China. He was also the first to be asked to leave when he angered the Communist government. He is the president of the Population Research Institute and author of award-winning books about China. He spoke recently with Register features correspondent Tim Drake.

Drake: Tell me about yourself. Where did you grow up?

I was born in California in 1948 and grew up in the San Joaquin Valley near Fresno. In 1968, after two years of college, I joined the Navy and “saw the world,” at least the East Asian part of it. During a couple of tours of duty in Japan I developed a fascination for the Orient and a desire to make its study my life's work. I went to Hong Kong in 1976 to study Chinese for a year, and then entered the doctoral program in anthropology at Stanford University.

For those unfamiliar with your work, explain how it was that you first went to China in 1979.

When China and the United States normalized diplomatic relations I was selected by the American side to be the first social scientist to study rural China since the Chinese Communist Party took power in 1949. I arrived in March of 1979 unprepared for what I would find: massive disaffection with the Chinese communist party, primitive health, welfare and educational programs, and massive dissatisfaction with the recently announced population control policy.

I understand that you were asked to leave and later denied your Ph.D. because of your work in China. Can you explain?

During the course of my initial fieldwork in China, I came to the conclusion that the Communist revolution had failed the Chinese people. This failure took many forms, including the one-child policy and massive human rights violations. When I criticized the Chinese government for its failings, however, it declared that I was “attacking” China, accused me of “engaging in espionage,” asked me to leave and subsequently barred me from returning. These were ridiculous charges, but some at Stanford took them seriously. The university and I parted company.

You originally had no faith. Can you explain how you came to embrace the Catholic faith?

I grew up in an irreligious household. My parents had no faith, at least that they expressed to me. We never went to church as a family, or prayed together, even before meals. Christmas and Easter were secular holidays for us. My father had been raised Catholic by his mother (my grandfather was a non-practicing Protestant), but at age 12 had declared that he would never again darken the door of a church, and he never did.

It was my stark encounter with evil in China that brought me to a realization that God must exist, otherwise the universe was mad. After a long journey, I entered the Catholic Church in 1991.

In your recent book you describe China as a hegemon. Could you describe the Chinese understanding of this term?

China has always been the largest, most populous, most powerful country in the world in the eyes of the Chinese people. So the last 100 years of weakness of foreign encroachment — of China's invasion by Japan, for example, in the years leading up to World War II — was a great blow to Chinese national unity and Chinese pride.

A hegemon is a single axis of power. You can have more than one superpower, as we did during the years of the Cold War, but you can only have one hegemon. For most of China's long history, China has been the hegemon.

The Chinese elite are determined to recover China's traditional place in the world, that is to say, its center. That is what the very name of the country means. Zhonghua, which is how you say China in Chinese, means the “Middle Kingdom.”

However, the Chinese elite have another way to refer to their country which is even more revealing. They call it Tian-Xia, which means “All Under Heaven.”

Every week the news tells of another human rights abuse or arrest in China which seems to be ignored by the United States. What action can or should America take in response to such abuses?

I believe that China has the worst human rights record in the world. I say that not only because of the size of China's population, but also because of the severity of the abuses.

In Iran, for example, Christian converts from Islam may be punished, but minorities are generally left alone. In China, you name a human right and the government of China is abusing it — freedom of the press, freedom of association, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of conscience, freedom to practice one's faith — these are all forbidden to the Chinese people. China persecutes not only Christians, but minorities such as the Uigers in the West, Mongols and Manchus in the North, and Tibetans in the South. While some countries violate some human rights, China has the distinction of violating all human rights regularly.

In response, we must first reject the notion of Beijing's leaders that China is a world unto itself when it comes to human rights.

Li Tieying, a leading Politburo member, has said that human rights are relative and that each country and ethnicity has the right to determine its own system for protecting human rights. China, therefore, rejects the very notion that there are absolute standards of behavior that governments have to abide by and that human beings possess certain inalienable human rights. They believe that people possess only those rights that the government allows them to have. So, the first thing we have to do is to insist that the Chinese government abide by the same human rights standards that the other 150 countries in the world abide by.

Secondly, we need to call attention to human rights abuses in China.

This is a very effective way of improving the situation in China because Chinese leaders are very concerned about face and losing face. If you publicly embarrass Chinese leaders you are likely to see improvements.

The third thing we should do is, at every opportunity we should make China pay a price for violating the rights of its people.

We have to keep up positive moral pressure on China by taking specific actions to punish those government agencies or Chinese companies that violate the rights of its people. For example, there is child labor in China. Eleven-, 12-, and 13-year-old children in southern China are employed in sweatshops and forced to make Christmas ornaments and toys for export.

We should enforce the international labor covenants in China and forbid the import of these items.

Likewise, we should forbid the import of goods made by prisoners inside of China's Laogai, or gulag.

This is a violation of U.S. law and it should be enforced.

Doesn't the United States' normalization of permanent trade relations demonstrate what you describe in your book as Wewei — a belief that China will change only if we don't try to change it?

The passage of permanent trade relations without human rights amendments was a disappointment for me. The linkage between trade and human rights had been a very productive one over the past 10 years.

The threat of economic sanctions had forced China to take some positive steps each year, such as the release of high profile dissidents in order to win the renewal of trade relations for another year. Absent this pressure, we will have to be more creative in how we can encourage Beijing in the direction of respecting human rights.

We are going to have to more finely tune our sanctions against specific Chinese products and companies that violate human rights in production or their labor management policies.

The U.S. policy of engagement exists to try to make China more like us, but in reality aren't we becoming more like them?

It would certainly seem so. China is now exporting the culture of death to us in the form of a poison pill called RU-486.

Twenty years ago China embarked on a one-child policy at the urging of the Carter administration and population-control, anti-people organizations such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the United Nations.

So, instead of China becoming more like us, we are becoming more like them. The United States, like China, has the most permissive abortion laws in the world — permitting abortion up to the point of childbirth. That's not something we should be proud of. Not only are they killing their own children, but ours as well. They're more than happy to eliminate part of the next generation of Americans.