Ian Johnson continues his New York Review of Books series of interviews with Chinese writers and thinkers by visiting activist Huang Qi in Chengdu. Huang, a human rights activist who uses his website 64tianwang.com to publicize abuses, was among the first people to have been arrested in China for publishing online when he was detained and charged with subversion in 2000. Since he was released from a second stint in prison, he has continued his activism despite severe kidney problems he acquired in detention. Huang offers an optimistic view of human rights in China under the new Xi Jinping administration:
What would you like to see happen?
I think it has to start with protecting ordinary people’s rights to petition and oppose corruption without being arrested. If that can happen then it’s really a significant improvement. You can oppose the Communist Party, but someone will rule the country—and even if they call themselves the “Democracy Party,” without a change in structures it’ll be the same. So it’s only if people take control of their lives and monitor officials that there will be an improvement.
If all we do is call out “down with the Communist Party” or whatever slogan you want, it isn’t as good as actually doing something. In mainland China, those shouting slogans are dozens of times more numerous than those actually doing things. This is a reason why in China we’ve been talking about human rights for so many years but haven’t achieved that much.
So what’s really changing? Why are you optimistic?
In my 2000 indictment, they said it was a crime for me to have started “China’s first human rights website.” But now human rights is at least officially enshrined in the constitution. So you can see that what we want isn’t illegal anymore—the government talks all the time about human rights so the discourse has changed. It is significant because now they can’t arrest you for doing what we did in the late 1990s. There are still a lot of these cases but since Xi Jinping has come to power there’s been a big change. It’s heading in a more positive direction.
You think so? When did it start?
Probably just before Xi took over [in November] the change was noticeable. In the past, at least 99 percent of people who were petitioning the government were detained and sent to some sort of facility. But now those who are detained are maybe just 10 percent. Since the Eighteenth Party Congress, China has emphasized protecting the rights of ordinary people and fighting corruption. So if you look at it from an overall perspective the situation is improving.