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Chinese Dissident Describes Change

By Vipul Bhushan
Night Editor

Chinese dissident leader Shen Tong spoke about the evolving political revolution in his homeland at a Tuesday evening Lecture Series Committee talk in 26-100. Currently a second year graduate student in political sociology at Boston University, Tong chairs the board of the Democracy in China Fund, which all his honoraria go to.

Tong was one of the first pro-democracy activists to escape China after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. After fleeing China four years ago, he attended Brandeis University. In September 1992 Tong made a much-publicized return to China, where he was arrested hours before he was to give a news conference. He related the events leading up to the Tiananmen Square massacre and offered analysis of the massacre and its aftermath.

After Mao Tse-tung's death in the 1970s and Deng Xiaoping's subsequent rise to power, China changed dramatically, Tong said. Deng instituted internal reforms and opened China to the outside world, he said.

In the 1980s, China experienced impressive economic growth. Living standards improved, and the country looked "glamorous" to the outside world, Tong said. This economic boom was "the main force" behind major societal change, he said, and previously banned literature became available.

But Tong added that "without fundamental change on the political side, there was no way economic development and gradual societal change could continue."

With loosened restrictions, pro-democracy movements emerged. In early 1989, there was no government response to weeks of pro-democracy demonstrations and hunger strikes. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev visited China in May 1989, and it was by this coincidence that the world media's attention first became focused on demonstrations in Beijing.

Martial law was imposed soon after Gorbachev left, and troops moved into Tiananmen Square two weeks later. "The government's response delegitimized the central government in the minds of the [Chinese] people," said Tong.

"Repression [by the government] is nothing new," Tong said. Though some government officials may have sympathized with pro-democracy movements before 1989, prison factories and torture and forced labor policies existed then and still exist today, Tong said.

American policy criticized

Tong criticized American policy toward China, noting that then-President Bush granted "most favored nation" trading status to China on June 2, 1989, without any conditions attached. The implied signal, he said, was that the US would "do business as usual."

One day later Chinese troops entered Beijing to suppress the peaceful demonstrations. He attributed the American attitude in part to Cold War politics in which the United States attempted to use China as a buffer against the USSR. He expressed hope that President Clinton would require that trade with China be contingent on human rights improvements. Tong also expressed concern that Clinton's campaign rhetoric would not transform into concrete policies.

Tong also criticized the media's ignorance of the situation in China at the time. Tong said that only the coincidental timing of Gorbachev's visit catapulted the Chinese demonstrations and government atrocities to the world stage. He cited the naming of Deng as Time magazine's "Man of the Year" twice as a sign of the media's ignorance of China's state of affairs.

Tong expressed hope for the future, saying "China is going to change -- China is changing -- and the change will come from within." Many of the "old guard" is dying off, he said. He emphasized that "external factors" can and should "play a positive role" in promoting reform in China.

Tong answers questions

After the talk, Tong was asked whether countries should do business with China. He replied that if countries attach conditions to trade, and follow guidelines like the Miller principles, which are analogous to the Sullivan principles formulated to guide dealings with South Africa, business would be acceptable.

Tong fielded a question about Chinese occupied Tibet, which he said was a politically sensitive situation about which there was little agreement among his colleagues. Self-determination is an ideal, he said, but may be difficult to apply because Tibetans are now a minority in their own land as a result of recent Chinese immigration policies.