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The New LaoGai Museum: The Two Faces of China Policy

I urge visitors to Washington to make a trip to see the Lao Gai Museum in its new quarters, at 1901 18th St. N.W.

Here is a warning: your visit will be emotionally upsetting. It will not be an afternoon of dim sum and jasmine tea. Be prepared to have your gut wrenched and go.

The museum's founder, Harry Wu, is a witness to an ugly dimension of modern Chinese history. He knows what he is talking about. He was incarcerated in the Chinese prison system for more than a decade.

When I had lunch with Harry Wu recently in Washington, I asked him what he had done to be imprisoned. He became upset. He said that Westerners always asked him why. His point was, that there did not have to be a "Why?" as we understand it in the Western judiciary system. There would be a reason, but the reason, in his case, a bad class background owing to his father's occupation, might be something that was a crime in one period and then not a crime in another period.

Arrest was at the discretion of those who make the definitions, the party elite. Forget any concept of the rule of law. The system bends to power.

Wu is perhaps the most famous Chinese dissident, if you don't count Ai Weiwei, the most famous Chinese artist in the world. In the still from his documentary film at the left, Weiwei is giving leadership the finger, an example of his attitude. He likes to mix it up. He is a master of the new media. He is in the global flow. He is a man of the now.

After the Chinese government tried to restrict reporting of the Sichuan earthquake, Weiwei travelled to the site, collected the names of more than 5,300 school children who had died in the tragedy, and turned their discarded schoolbags into a work of art. As the banned Chinese novelist Ma Jian said, "In doing so, he resurrected not only the earthquake but its victims. This struck me as a profoundly humane and courageous work of art."

(Weiwei, as he is called by those who follow him in social media, had made-up charges brought against him. He was arrested and thrown into jail on grounds of tax evasion, bigamy and pornography. He was eventually released from jail and put under house arrest for years.

Only this past summer, 2015, did the state allow him to travel, to attend a show of his work at the Royal Academy of Art in Great Britain. Weiwei's crime was dissent. He used the new social media to criticize China.

Weiwei's jail time, was bad. He was beaten and suffered severe injuries, including a head injury that put him in the hospital. He was subjected to what we in the West would define as torture. Bad as it was, it was mild compared to what Harry Wu suffered.

These two people are famous. Their fame affords some measure of protection. In the Chinese gulag, untold masses suffer horrendously at this writing.)

In his nine novels, the award-winning author Eliot Pattison has described the gulag as it exists in Tibet: The Bureau of Religious Affairs is the agency whose sole mission is to punish the practice of religion in a minority region.

Pattison and I spoke of his popular Detective Shan series recently when I interviewed him in Washington on the same trip.

The protagonist of his novels is a disgraced Beijing detective named Shan. He is Chinese, punished in the prison system, and saved by two lamas who teach him how to meditate. Shan travels Tibet solving murder mysteries. He has a son who is a prisoner in the gulag, a source of manipulation by the powerful in the system.

In this series of novels, Pattison portrays the fate of Tibet under the Chinese: the destruction of the old, the passage of time, the replacement with the new. He vividly contrasts the value systems of Tibetan culture and the culture of the CCP, the communist party. One sees the clash of the morality of the two systems in conflict, the building of society and the building of the soul.

With many Tibetan monks and lamas in jail, the Shan novels are a portrait of what befalls those who practice religion in the gulag. These books bear witness to a catalogue of injustice. The truth is told in fiction.

Pattison told me that his portrait of the Public Security Bureau officers or knobs is based on interviews conducted over a very long period of time in his travels to China and Tibet.

His books are difficult to read with details of beatings, the use of cattle prods, the use of car batteries, the filthy conditions, the unavailability of medical attention, the yeti factories where political dissidence is punished by the use of psychiatric drugs and other practices.

If the books are difficult to read, Pattison says they were difficult to write.He does not discuss his sources as he does not wish to endanger those who bear witness to the gulag. Nor would one ask.

At the LaoGai Museum, what one reads in these novels comes to life in brutal realism. One travels through the exhibits, graphic displays in red, black and white. The displays consist of facts, relentlessly presented, and statistics, the LaoGai Museum's thorough and accurate documentation of the Chinese gulag.

This is the only museum in the United States dedicated to the exposure of the abuses of the Chinese prison system.

(Wu has also funded a research institute, with archives of historic documents and photographs. The institute publishes reports that can be accessed online. To access the reports, google the term LaoGai.)

Why talk about all this now? With the new Pacific trade deal and China's recent accession to internet governance at ICANN, the internet agency, the traditional Chinese narrative of being the wounded state loses its credibility. China cannot get away with making excuses. Its performance must be analyzed and assessed, as it has not been done in decades.

The West is uninformed about the Chinese prison system. The system is responsible for hideous human rights practices: torture, forced labor, psychiatric torture, execution without trial and a profitable if appalling trade in goods made by prison labor and organs harvested from executed criminals.

This catalogue of transgressions sounds like something out of a Stephen King horror novel, but it is for real.

Big American corporations doing deals with China have chosen to de-couple China's human rights performance in favor of what has been termed "constructive engagement." American elites in business, the media and academia have agreed with this approach. It is decades old, but is it working?

The crackdown on dissent in China is worse than it has been in decades, with the mid-summer arrest of three hundred human rights lawyers, adding to those who have been arrested for the practice of religion and minority repression in Tibet and Xinjiang.

More than a hundred Tibetan monks have immolated themselves in protest. As Pattison points out in his latest novel, a monk risks a lower rebirth by this action, because suicide is forbidden to Buddhists. They call it "taking four", meaning four legs, an animal rebirth, not two, a human rebirth. With a precious human body, one can seek enlightenment. Not so in the realm of the beasts.

The Olympics are coming again and so will the protests. That is why it is good to talk about this now.

The case histories of prisoners of conscience are detailed in the recently published "Annual Report of the U. S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China, 2015."

(The CECC maintains a website containing the text of the report and the database on the arrests at http://www.cecc.gov/)

The Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio is one of the chairmen of the commission. Perhaps because of his career-long opposition to the communist regime in Cuba, Rubio is willing to call out the Chinese on their crimes.

In a recent press release on his personal website, Rubio takes Obama to task for not doing more for the citizens of Hong Kong when they went into the streets to stage the Umbrella Revolution. (See end of blog for link.)

America's China experts, in buying the narrative of the century of humiliation, called for a policy of constructive engagement with China. I was among them. I was against the position of California Democratic congresswoman Nancy Pelosi.

Two decades ago, during the Clinton administration, when the issue of China's entry into the World Trade Organization was being debated, Pelosi wanted China's entry to be linked to its performance on human rights. She lost the argument. She was roundly shouted down by prevailing opinion among China experts, many of whom have since changed their minds.

The implosion of the USSR has been much-studied among the Chinese leadership. What the Chinese fear most is chaos. They have deliberately chosen the path of the so-called "Harmonious Society", meaning economic reform and political control.

The fifth generation of Chinese leadership, headed by President Xi Jinping, has moved to the left, to consolidate Party rule, rather than to liberalize the Chinese political system. The leadership has rejected the Western model for an undeveloped country to become a developed country. This is the Chinese model: economic growth and political repression.

This is perhaps the greatest issues in dealing with the rise of China, can this model succeed? The jury is still out on this one, as future blogs from this author will attest.

Can the so-called Singapore model of social stability and economic growth be applied to a country as large as China? Are the Chinese deluding themselves that they can suppress all freedom of expression in return for the promise of the good life of materialism?

For those in the American foreign policy establishment who hoped for China's metamorphosis into a liberal democratic multi-party state created by the expansion of economic activity and the growth of a middle class, the consolidation of party rule is the opposite outcome of what was predicted.

The promise of prosperity and the deliverance of the good life is the bedrock upon which the Communist Party rule rests. But it also rests upon the repression of dissent, including news media and social media and the internet. One must ask the question, for how long?

The Chinese economic miracle has faltered, the growth rate dropped, the currency devaluation rocked the markets of the world. The internal migration from the countryside to the cities has put pressure on the urban centers. The environment is a global disgrace.

The rise of China has two faces. As Evan Osnos detailed in "The Age of Ambition", the age of unbridled capitalism, the dog-eat-dog phase of getting ahead and amassing fortunes by any means has resulted in a malaise, a spiritual void that is the result of the death of the old Chinese culture and the general disillusionment with the ideology that underlies one party rule.

Underneath all the glitter, the new skylines of cities with new skyscrapers, the massive investment in such elements of modernization as high speed rails, highways and bridges, there is a Grand Canyon of something akin to alienation, malaise, a vacuum.

Think back to the 2008 Olympics. There were protests. People were beaten in the streets, arrested and tortured, and killed. There was an uprising in Tibet, the bloodiest in the minority regions since 1959, when Mao was still alive and the Party moved to a policy of assimilation of Tibet.

Then the Olympics opened. Steven Spielberg refused to attend, perhaps because of his heritage, sensitive to ethnic persecution and religious persecution. Then President George W. Bush attended.

The Opening Ceremonies were dazzling, gorgeous, stunning. That is what the Chinese do. What they have done for millennia.

Call it Conquest by Civilization, as the China scholar, Harvard's Ross Terrill has done in his important work, "The New Chinese Empire: And What It Means for the United States."

The Ego and the Id would be another way of describing China's two faces. The bright face and the dark face. The Lamborghini and the Gulag. The bright lights of the big cities are there for the world to see. The topics the leadership does not permit to be spoken, it censors from the state-controlled news media, from social media and the internet. The dissent is repressed and it sits, as the poet William Butler Yeats would have described it, "in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart."

So when President Xi came to call on the U. S. as he did some weeks back, and when the elite corporate officials on both sides of the Pacific gathered in Seattle to greet him, while experts on China wrote for the mainstream media still touting the mantra of constructive engagement as they have for decades, I went to the dark side.

I visited the new LaoGai Museum, the museum of the Chinese gulag, the vast system of Chinese prisons, the system for the suppression of dissent that keeps the party in power: torture, execution, the lack of a rule of law, and the trade in the manufacture of forced labor products and organs for transplants find their home, as well as the psychiatric institutions that are part of the system of quelling dissent. Th gulag is where the opposition to the system is flushed and disappears.

Two generations ago, the Russian dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn published "The Gulag Archipelago" and exposed the prison system of the USSR. The world was shocked. Some say it was the beginning of the end of the old Soviet Union.

Wu's exposure of the Chinese gulag should be equally shocking to the American public, who are, for the most part, unaware of it because they are not paying attention, because the Chinese face of communism is perhaps, less scrutable than, for example, the Russian or the Cuban faces.

Harry Wu speaks as an expert, a witness to the evil of the system. He was a prisoner of the system for seventeen years and he knows it intimately.

Although for decades, American elites gave China a pass on its transgressions, it would behoove those of us who advocate bringing China into the world system of institutions, insist that China play by the rules.

This means an end to the permission that the West has give the Chinese for invoking the narrative of humiliation. The Chinese have invoked this litany successfully for decades. The narrative goes something like this, We were humiliated at the hands of the West--as though Chinese history began in the nineteenth century with the onset of the Opium Wars.

This narrative of victimization cannot and should not be an excuse for bad faith in the international system. If China wants to be a player in the system, it plays by the rules. The pattern has been to change or ignore the rules using the humiliation excuse.

This guilt-provoking narrative reminds me of the gang wars in the American musical, "West Side Story," where the leader of the Jets says, just before a grand musical number breaks out and fills the screen, "I'm depraved on accounta I'm deprived."

This does not mean that the West is preaching from on high, as though it had no failings. As the Irish novelist James Joyce said in his early work, "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," "History is a nightmare up from which I am trying to awake."

For an emerging power such as the PRC, pushing at the sore spot of Western guilt is no longer sufficient to excuse Chinese behavior that is outside the international standards.

No one says it was a good thing for the Western powers to force the unequal treaties on China but then, history is not nice. All great powers have had their share of less than stellar performances, the Chinese among them. The later Qing Dynasty, the last of the dynastic system that ruled China for millennia, turned inward and rejected the West, preferring instead the Chinese model and Chinese culture and institutions. The dynastic system fell in 1904.

The Taiping Rebellion was one of the greatest cataclysms in Chinese history, described in Jonathan Spence's work, "The Search for Modern China." The West had nothing to do with it. The response of the Qing, the Manchu dynasty ruling China, had everything to do with it, and with China's centuries-long response to modernity, meaning the science and technology of the West.

China turned inward and rejected the West, certainly not for the last time. Mao Zedong did the same thing, until the coming of Deng Xiaoping. (In our time, the Chinese have discovered a way to come to terms with Western science and technology: they engage in cyber-espionage, meaning, they steal it.

(See my previous blog below on the Mandiant Report for details of PLA hackers stealing commercial and trade secrets, a further example of China's not playing by the rules.)

Any China watcher can see that something new is happening in Chinese society. Each year there are tens of thousands of protests against corruption that take place all over the country. There is national outrage. The dilemma for the leadership is how to contain it. This phenomenon is a contradiction within the Chinese system.

One cannot deny the success of the system so far in lifting millions out of poverty.
To stay in power, the new generation of leaders must maintain economic success. Economic development, in the age of robber barons, in the absence of checks and balances, produces corruption.

Corruption produces protest. It is a dialectic created by the leadership. This illustrates the flaw in the system inherited from the Soviets and adapted to Chinese conditions. What recourse does the system provide for the pressure that is building?
Where is the mechanism for flexibility? For adaptation? For the passage of time? The Chinese leadership have been pondering these questions for decades. Power has its own dynamic, self-preservation.

Solzhenitsyn was right when he defined the Soviet prison system as a sewer. Sooner or later the time will come to clean out the sewers.

Rubio Umbrella Revolution link:


For an Ai Weiwei documentary "Big Brother is Watching Me":


For the trailer to the Royal Academy of Arts exhibit of Ai Weiwei's art:

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