May 29

Political dissent in China – glass half full, or completely empty?

Written by Buxi on Thursday, May 29th, 2008 at 6:48 pm
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This article from the IHT inspires me to write about a topic that’s been on my mind in recent months. The article is about the well-known Tibetan-Chinese writer Woeser. The title of the article alone gives you a pretty good idea of what its going to say: “Tibetan writer alleges harassment by Chinese police…” Woeser lives in Beijing, and is the daughter of a Han Chinese People’s Liberation Army general and a Tibetan woman. She also happens to be wife of Wang Lixiong (discussed previously). She has written extensively about Tibetan issues for years, both in print and on her blog.

A more detailed feature on Woeser comes to us from the Washington Post, which has also kindly provided a platform for other Chinese voices: Wang Qianyuan, Yang Jianli. I don’t think it takes too much brain-power to guess the criteria by which the Washington Post selects its Chinese guest editorialists. Of course, I think it’s fair to say these three voices represent probably millions of Chinese voices, so I certainly understand the Western media’s right to feature their stories. My only question is… when will they give print real estate to Chinese voice that can speak for the other hundreds of millions of Chinese that disagree with them fervently?

All of this adds up to one question about the status of political dissidents in China: is the glass half-full, or is the glass completely empty?

Let’s start with the facts about Woeser as we know them:

  • for years, she (and her husband) has written extensively about the Beijing government’s failures in Tibet,
  • she has written extensively about the history of suffering in Tibet, essentially translating everything from Phayul and the Tibet government-in-exile into Chinese,
  • her blog has, since March 14th, been the primary gathering place for all rumors about Tibetan “riots” or “suppression” (depending on your perspective): photos of those allegedly killed by armed suppression, claims that XX monks/nuns have just been killed and arrested are posted on an almost daily basis;
  • you can easily follow the chain of rumors from anonymous comments posted at Woeser’s blog -> Radio Free Asia -> Phayul -> Woeser’s blog in numerous cases,
  • she rarely posts her own essays on the blog; she instead selectively posts articles that “make her point” for her. Regardless, she has made it clear where her sympathies lie: squarely on the side of the “hundreds of Tibetans killed” by the Chinese military, and squarely on the side of independence for Tibet,
  • she has yet to mention the non-Tibetans killed in Lhasa,
  • she has reposted every press release from the Dalai Lama and the Tibet government-in-exile over these sensitive months,
  • she has never been aware from her computer for more than a few days,
  • according to the IHT article (same as above), she has been “questioned” by the police on one occasion,
  • according to this article, she has had her ID card and the contents of her purse photographed,
  • according to this article, she was kept from leaving her home for 4 days (of the riots themselves),
  • she’s been interviewed numerous times by the Western media over the past 2 months, including this new article today.

From this basic set of facts, as well as those from similar stories (like that of Hu Jia), the Western media has generated a glass completely empty interpretation of the state of dissidents in China. (I would have said glass half empty, but that’s really not a fair description of the tone of Western coverage.) Woeser is “in danger of arrest” (aren’t we all?), she’s been “harassed by police”, she’s being “monitored”. Hu Jia was sentenced to prison for publishing a letter “urging a focus on human rights as the Summer Olympics approach”, according to the Washington Post. The conclusion, therefore, is simple: China has made no progress on human rights since 2001 (or 1989, or 1949… or 220 BC for that matter).

And now, my “glass is half full” interpretation. Clearly, the public space for political opinions is still controlled in China. I am sure Woeser’s blog is blocked within China (although that doesn’t keep many mainland Han and Tibetan Chinese from accessing it through proxies), and I’m sure no media source in China would cover her story with a 10-ft pole. And during sensitive periods, the police will monitor her closely to make sure she doesn’t conduct any sort of illegal public protest.

But she is not under arrest; she has not been charged with subverting state power. She still resides comfortably in her home, and is able to maintain regular contact with her leads in Tibet, Dharamasala, and Washington DC. Wang Lixiong continues to travel freely in/out of the country; he was in Europe during the March 14th riots. Their bank account hasn’t been frozen; they continue to work doing something, and get paid from someone. She has spoken with the foreign media repeatedly, and has not been arrested. There’s no indication that Western reporters or visitors are kept from meeting her anywhere in Beijing, including her apartment.

The glass is certainly not full, but it’s certainly a lot more full than it was 5, 10, or 20 years ago… and much more full than the Western media gives it credit for.

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26 Responses to “Political dissent in China – glass half full, or completely empty?”

  1. Nimrod Says:

    I wonder if these reporters ever consider the internal logical consistency of what they are describing. In one sentence, they may describe a certain dissident as shut from information flowing in and out, and in the next sentence they may describe said dissident not only talking to them openly but also obtaining important and timely information inside and outside of China that apparently nobody else is aware of.

    In the same vein, somebody like Lobsang Sangay may describe Tibet as a place where Dalai Lama’s message as being shut out (both in explaining that Dalai Lama could not have been involved, and in explaining the glaring non-peacefulness of Tibetan rioters), but then would quote the supposed incident where every Tibetan in China burned fur garments because Dalai Lama said they should.

    So which way is it? Can dissidents obtain and deliver reliable information or are they muzzled and blinded? And which way is it about the Dalai Lama ? Does his message and his exile organization have reach inside China or not?

  2. DJ Says:


    Great post! I couldn’t agree more.

  3. Otto Kerner Says:

    Yes, I have to agree. The Woeser story never quite made sense to me. I agree that this implies the situation is better than the Western media lets on. Still, it’s odd that she is (correct me if I’m wrong) pretty much sui generis. I still have the sense that there’s something happening here that I’m not picking up on.

    Woeser herself always struck as have a bit of an exaggerated tone, giving me the sense that she was not completely reliable.

  4. yo Says:

    Wow, that is interesting. In my personal experience, a general perception of China by Americans is that if you criticize the government, you go to jail or worse.(An aside, when people have this perception, I find it interesting that they don’t qualify the word “criticize” which is extremely vague.)

    This just goes to show you that China is not black or white.

  5. snow Says:

    Woeser has a secured place in China Digital Times for her updated news on Tibet in English translation since 3.10, four days before the riots took place.
    her latest update was 5.21. It seems she’d be there forever updating news from Tibet based on second hand material and no one in the position to question the authenticity of her source. some of her comments are simply speculating.

  6. Beijing Loafer Says:

    Great post. The glass is definitely a lot fuller than 10 or 20 years ago. But for people affected by its half-emptiness, it’s empty as hell. (Consider Hu Jia)

    Still, we shouldn’t be blindsided by any single-minded interpretations.

  7. Ma Bole Says:

    It’s true that much has changed (for the better) in China during the last 30 years or so. It’s also true that most westerners – journalists included – are insufferably ignorant boneheads when it comes to understanding these changes. That said, the news has not all been good – unfortunately, it is a fact that much has changed for the worse during the last 5 or 6 years as the CCP has become increasingly worried about preventing unrest. It is good to know that people like Woeser and Wang Lixiong continue to do their thing with only minimal interference from the folks at the PSB. However, I doubt that this provides much consolation to people like Hu Jia (the fellow who wrote a letter suggesting that China has failed to make good on its promise to the IOC to improve its human rights situation and now sits in prison for “inciting subversion of state power”) who were not quite so lucky. Until China has an independent judiciary, some form of genuine representative democracy, and a constitution that guarantees freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly, it will continue to be a second-rate power and the target of much criticism.

  8. Buxi Says:


    I don’t think Woeser is at all one of a kind. There are numerous Han Chinese dissidents who post online from inside China with far more subversive stuff than Hu Jia’s supposed “letter to the IOC”, and are not arrested.

    Anyone remember the Stainless Steel Rat? (不锈钢老鼠) Here’s her Wikipedia entry in English. This is someone who was actually arrested and sentenced to prison in 2003 for “Internet postings”. (Actually, many believe she crossed the line by starting to arrange offline meetings, and “jokingly” organized a political arty.)

    So, after her release, what happened? Did she get scared and quiet down? Did she go into exile? Hardly. She’s still one of the primary contributors to “Free China Forums” (自由中国论坛), and as far as I know, still lives in Beijing. It’s a forum website (hosted overseas) that opposes the Communist government in very harsh terms. Just last week I was looking at one of their polls: “Who do you want as president, Hu Jintao or the Dalai Lama?” Other leading dissidents in exile, like Wang Dan, are also regular contributors.

    She’s just one of many. For those who don’t know, boxun.com is a clearinghouse website for essays from dissidents. (Sort of the anti-blog4china, I guess.) And if you look at those who write for it, the majority are in China itself.

    Coming back to the Hu Jia story… again, I don’t know what he was arrested for and convicted of, but I am absolutely positive it’s not because he “wrote a letter to the IOC calling on China to improve its human rights situation”. Logically, it must have been something different or more extreme from anything else we see on “Free China Forums”… and that says quite a bit.

  9. Buxi Says:

    Ma Bole,

    Until China has an independent judiciary, some form of genuine representative democracy, and a constitution that guarantees freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly, it will continue to be a second-rate power and the target of much criticism.

    See, this is what I’d call at least a glass-half-empty (rather than glass-completely-empty) interpretation. I agree with you on the facts (Hu Jia aside), even if I don’t agree on the conclusion. At least we can talk.

    As far as being a second-rate power… it occurs to me that India, Mexico, and Brazil all have freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly, as well as an independent judiciary and representative democracy.

    Doesn’t seem to have done them too much good, does it? I don’t mean to suggest these aren’t good things. My point is that to be a first-rate power, we need both economic, social, and political development.

  10. Phil Says:

    I never really understand this argument. “China is better than it was. The Western media don’t give us credit.”
    1) The argument is completely untrue. The western media report on China basically accurately, if selectively. They don’t report massacres happening in T Square every day. This means clearly China is better than that famous year.
    2) The media don’t have to relate everything to 20 years ago. When reporting on the economy, a newspaper might say, “Economy in a terrible state.” It doesn’t then go on to say, “but of course, we’re richer than we were 20 years ago.” Why not? Because it’s not news. That ain’t the way newspapers work.
    3) Have you really thought about what you want? You seem to want the Western media to make these comparisons, but can you imagine what the reports would look like?
    “Political bloggers imprisoned – but at least they’re not being shot! Three bloggers were locked up in China this month for criticising the new rice policy and exposing corruption. As they went to jail, one said, ‘Well, at least this isn’t the 1970s. People were routinely tortured back then. That’s very unlikely to happen now.'”
    I mean, honestly? That’s what you’re implying you want. A comparison with the bad old days of the 1989 crackdown or the Cultural Revolution. Do you really want that muck raked up?

    Of course not. What you actually want is for the Western media to be like China Daily, all sunshine and buttercups all the time. To which I say wake up and smell the coffee, because it ain’t gonna happen. You have China Daily for that. Serious newspapers are going to get on with reporting serious news. You should learn to live with it, and maybe even give a little respect to the great institution that the free press is.

  11. Nimrod Says:


    I think you ought to look at how international news is reported in serious news. I wouldn’t even consider the likes of cable news “news”, more like entertainment.

    People do not have a baseline idea about foreign countries (unlike about their own country), so they go by those things that do get reported, and in proportion to the frequency with which they are reported. In this sense, selective reporting *is* biased reporting and generates false impressions.

    I don’t even think the “free press” is doing its reporting on China maliciously for the most part. It’s a combination of what people deem to be “newsworthy” about China (negative news), the lack of Chinese language abilities and knowledge about the actual goings-on there, and deeply ingrained personal biases, so that even when they do report on neutral or positive news, they add some negative tagline or caveat as if to “balance things out” or to seem “credible”. Sure, they may not mention Tiananmen Square every time they talk about China, but they do so when they talk about anything that happens to take place at Tiananmen or even just in Beijing. If they could spend the ink to give that kind of background, then I don’t think it’s too much to ask that they give some background on the bigger picture view when they talk about civil liberties in China.

  12. bill t Says:

    What Phil said. You act like the Western media gives daily reports on Mao rallies. Most of the time they are reporting on the massive changes that are taking place in China.

    There actually are bad things happening in China sometimes. When those stories are reported, you seem to want the Western media to add “but at least it is much better now than during the Cultural Revolution!” That is absurd. The western media are not the People’s Daily. Most news they report – about anything – is “negative.” You kind of sound like right-wing nutjobs in the US who complain about the “negative” coverage of the war in Iraq. They use the same exact arguments: it is all “bias” — the media “anti-American” — they don’t report the “real progress” on the ground. Sound familiar?

  13. Nimrod Says:

    bill t,

    I dispute your characterization that most reporting on China is on its massive changes. I just did a search on Google News with “China” — you can, too — and excluding earthquake news, 95% of reported news about China seem to be daily financial dispatches. The latter is a mainstay of course.

    After that? Well, “China’s cyber-militia behind US blackouts?” reads one headline. “France seeks explanation from China over alleged travel boycott”, reads another. “China warns people against Olympics scams”, reads a third. “US probes whether laptop copied on China trip”, that’s the fourth. “Chinese national pleads guilty to aiding spy” says a fifth. “What China wants from the Russians” says a sixth. I think you get the drift…

  14. Buxi Says:

    I mean, honestly? That’s what you’re implying you want. A comparison with the bad old days of the 1989 crackdown or the Cultural Revolution. Do you really want that muck raked up?

    Actually, I’d settle for a comparison with the bad old days of 2003. (See above mention of Stainless Steel Rat.)

  15. bill t Says:


    Why exactly should “financial” news be excluded? Most of the news in the western media related to China is economic in nature. Also, not sure why earthquake news should be excluded. But even with your arbitrary exclusions, the search I did on Google News for China yielded:

    1. Actress Stone Contrite Over China Comments
    2. Torrential China rain death toll hits 57: media (ABC Online)
    3. Banned by Beijing: Plastic Bags WSJ
    4. Cluster bomb ban deal signed in Dublin Euronews.net

    It seems like you were cherry-picking.

    You can dig up as many “negative” stories as you want because I already said most news about anything is “negative.” That is the nature of the media in most countries — except perhaps North Korea, Cuba, and China. Your expectations are out of whack if you expect the media to trumpet China’s glories in every other article.

  16. DJ Says:

    bill t,

    The really ironic thing is: if you click on the number 1 item in your list, it will take you to a NY Times article that actually reports Sharon Stone refuses to apologize and claims that the one released by Dior wasn’t her words.

  17. Nimrod Says:

    bill t,

    I wrote back to you, not Buxi. I know Asians all look like and all but …

    I recognize that reporting has been fairly good on the Sichuan earthquake but let’s be clear: that’s not why I excluded it. I did so because we’re talking about general reporting on China, not some outlier like this once in a lifetime disaster.

    The second observation is that most news on an average day are these financial tickers like this stock went up today, that company was bought, ephemeral bulletins like that. There is a difference between these and “economic” news, which is not what I referred to. I hope you can see that.

    Finally the remaining articles I found I honestly did not cherry-pick. I just ran down the list, in date order, the ones that were actually Western news on China (that means it has to be Western originated not wire copy of Xinhua, it has to be news, and it has to be about China). Sharon Stone might have been left out because it was earthquake related, so that’s a technical glitch, and I sincerely apologize. Torrential rain came from Xinhua, not ABC. Plastic bags was not WSJ, but some editor’s blog hosted by WSJ, but let’s just count that as news, but Cluster bombs is not actually China news. So what have you found, really?

  18. snow Says:


    Here is a link offering a focused report on the case of Hun jia.
    Both the articles and comments on that forum give an impression that there’s something more involved other than Hu’s words of open criticism that caused his trouble(foreign money from foreign NGO perhaps).

    I always hold a high respect for people like Hu Jia. By and large it’s a good thing for any government to have people making critical noises, domestically and internationally. yet I do wonder if Hu’s cause could succeed without being involved with foreign NGOs which are undoubtedly a mixed crowd with mixed agendas (open or hidden). As much as I condemn the heavy-handed suppression of dissent voices in China, the government seemed to have acted out of a reasonable fear for what behind the color revolution in Ukraine, for instance, would one day be a reality to deal with in China. Perhasp this was why other dissidents who had more radical views published have not been arrested. See this link: http://v.youku.com/v_show/id_cc00XMjA2MDk5MDg=.html

  19. bill t Says:


    I know Asians all look like and all but

    Yeah, and I know all people named “bill” are white racists and all but…

    As I said (and you ignored), most news is “negative” in any case. And the western media does generally have an animus against the Chinese government. Just like the European press has an animus against the American government. But the fact remains that most reporting on China in the western press relates to the changes taking place in China, which was my original claim against Buxi’s comment.

    So what have you found, really?

    Mainly that whenever people read stories that puts something they support in a negative light they cry “bias.” The function of the media is not to report what you want to hear.

  20. Buxi Says:

    bill t,

    Mainly that whenever people read stories that puts something they support in a negative light they cry “bias.” The function of the media is not to report what you want to hear.

    You’re barking up the wrong tree with this entire debate. You seem to be under the impression that the purpose of this discussion is to “expose” Western media bias; I have indeed talked about such biases in the past, and I will again in the future.

    But that’s not the point of this discussion. Look closely at the subject line; any mention of the media? The common perception in the West period is that political dissent in China is a glass completely empty, as earlier posters on this thread confirmed. This perception is certainly partly informed by Western news coverage, but I’m just here to make our more informed voice heard, not bitch and whine about the Western media.

    My point is simple: Chinese public space for political dissent has improved substantially over the last 3, 5, 10, and 15 years. I want to keep this discussion focused on that, not the flaws of the Western media machine.

  21. Nimrod Says:

    bill t,

    I get what you said and didn’t ignore it. I just processed it silently. See the wrong impression you got from my selective response? Exactly what I mean about news reporting.

    I’m glad you do admit there is an “animus”, but I dispute it is against Chinese government. Well, it may be in the minds of the reporters, but also in their mind is the equivalence of the Chinese government with China, and by extension, with anybody who happens to support China or who — god forbid — support some of the government’s policies. But yes, let’s keep the topic on why there even should exist Chinese who are optimistic about China’s future and who are constantly being labeled as (gasp!) brainwashed regime supporters for that.

  22. jizhe Says:

    What Phil said. If anything the persecution of dissidents is under-reported in China. As a journalist I can tell you that editors simply get fed up with the yet-another-writer-jailed stories. They want something sexy, showing the new China where cardres are now not just drinking XO but making their own and selling it back to the French.
    Is Buxi a pun on Bush because that’s who you sound like. Just as the Bush crowd try smear anyone who dislike Gitmo as anti-American, you try portray anyone who belives in human rights as anti-China.

  23. Nimrod Says:

    jizhe, are you a “journalist” for Epoch Times? If you are not, it’d be great to pick your brain about these under-reported dissidents.

  24. Wahaha Says:


    Your west media has been lying about the situation in Tibet for years, you can see that from the following two facts :

    1) There are about 50,000 Tibetan monks in Tibet and about 2,600,000 Tibetans in Tibet.

    2) All the harsh complains reported by west media were by monks.

    There were 4 million tourists to Tibet last year, no way on earth could West reporters only hear complains from monks in temples but not from tibetans on streets in Lhasa.

    Read the following link ;


    Pay attention, the Tibetan guide came back from India.

  25. Phil Says:

    Very honoured that my response to this blogpost sparked such a response. Thank you very much to Nimrod for those thoughtful responses, to bill t for taking up what would basically be my position, and apologies to Buxi for steering off the conversation in a different direction.

    Buxi, I honestly think you’re being a bit flippant about this problem of locking up writers. So there are writers who were locked up and haven’t left the country. What do you think that proves? That is often the way of things, writers who are critical of the government are also patriotic, and don’t want to leave. Do you think that this Stainless Steel Rat’s missing year in jail doesn’t matter? Should we laugh and move on?

    You seem to be dubious that there really are lots of people locked up for writing, that it is a serious problem. I’m no expert, can only give a couple of pointers. One, check out the name John Kamm. Second, I remember a case a couple of years back of a pharmaceutical company going bust, and one of their employees being arrested and held for a week by local police just because he reposted an essay talking about the bankrupting. Think it was in Hainan, I probably got it through ESWN, you can find it if you dig. I tend to think that this problem of local harassment is probably more serious, in terms of the number of people’s lives it messes up, than political censorship from the centre. This is relevant to the dissident topic, because most dissidents don’t start out as rebels. They don’t get up in the morning and think, “I’m going to oppose the government today!” They just write about the wrongs they see happening around them, until it touches someone with enough power to squash them.

    I don’t know anything about Woeser, I’m a complete bandwagonner, only started reading about Tibet in March. But like Jizhe says, I very much doubt that the average bias in the western papers is towards highlighting the problems of dissidents. At the moment, the big China angle is rivalry with the US, as Nimrod noted. This, if you think about it, is a very flattering angle to be taking about a country with an economy the same size as Britain’s. I don’t think China’s doing too badly in the papers.

  26. Buxi Says:


    If you believe a glass half full perspective equates to being flippant, if you believe a glass not full is the same thing as a glass being empty… then there’s not much to say. That’s your opinion, and you’re entitled to it.

    However, as someone who’s long followed political and social reform in my country, I see this as tremendous progress from where we were in even recent years. The amount that China has opened up in the last 2-5 years is remarkable to me. The glass was close to completely empty 5-8 years ago, and I’m ecstatic that we’ve made such progress over such a short amount of time.

    In other related news, Ding Zilin (of the Tiananmen Mothers) is interviewed and photographed by Western journalists in her apartment, on the eve of June 4th itself. In one such interview… she says:

    “Repression is lifting – slowly, Mrs Ding concedes. Last year she was allowed for the first time to visit the site where her son died to mark the 18th anniversary. The 24-hour security guards shadowing her movements also melted away last year, although her phone is still tapped.”

    She paid her respects at the same spot again this year.

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