China activist yearns for democracy, not isles

Amid crackdown at home, exile advocates for reform from Japan

by Mari Yamamoto

Kyodo

Amid the acrimonious Senkakus rift, calls in China for moderation are being drowned out by the invective Japanese and Chinese hardliners are trading.

Human rights activist Han Guang, one of the few Chinese moderates on the Senkaku Islands issue, said the dispute is the last thing he hoped to see when China is on the verge of a once-in-a-decade leadership change.

“The more the territorial row escalates, the more hard-line China becomes, strengthening dictatorial elements in the Chinese government,” he said.

Han, 54, who has also worked since the 1990s to help Chinese former “comfort women” — females who were forced into sexual slavery to serve the Imperial Japanese Army during the war — is a strong advocate for democracy in China.

He returned to Japan in 2008, where he had lived as a graduate student, to advocate for China’s democratization from abroad after finding it impossible to openly engage in political activism at home.

Han published the book “Bomei” (“Exile”) last year and released the documentary film “Outside the Great Wall” to increase understanding among the global community of persistent human rights abuses in China despite its meteoritic economic rise.

But his efforts have attracted scant attention in Japan, and despite making frequent public speeches, the events rarely draw more than a few dozen people.

Han noted that while a vibrant human rights drive has been launched in the West to help Chinese dissidents such as artist Ai Weiwei and Nobel Peace Prize laureate and rights activist Liu Xiaobo, “Japanese people seem to be the least interested in this issue among the world’s major industrialized countries, although some rightist elements in Japan exploit it for China-bashing purposes.”

On the Japan-controlled Senkaku islets, called Diaoyu and claimed for decades by Beijing, Han said, “ordinary Chinese are irate because they (repeatedly) see images of atrocities (Japan’s army) committed during the war on television and the Internet.”

“They still feel wronged because the enormous amount of money Japan paid China as economic aid instead of reparations for the war never reached individual Chinese victims.”

He also believes many Chinese protesters used the recent anti-Japan rallies to vent their anger over all manner of economic and social grievances that have little to do with Japan’s nationalization of the Senkakus, since they have no recourse to raise these issues.

“Such protestors are no heroes. True heroes are people like those who risked their lives by standing in the way of tanks during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests,” Han said.

Nonetheless, he urged the Japanese public to show compassion for Chinese people living under an autocratic government, and is confident bilateral relations will improve if China becomes a democracy.

“Fear of a reign of terror is embedded in (Chinese people’s) DNA because countless dissidents have been executed in China for thousands of years,” Han said. “Chinese cannot confide their innermost feelings even to their compatriots, so how can they talk frankly with Japanese?

“Repression of free speech in China makes it impossible to forge candid relations between the two peoples. If China is democratized and its leaders govern in a way that reflects the desires of ordinary Chinese, it will become possible to build closer bilateral ties.

“To enable this, it is vital for (Tokyo and Beijing) not to engage in any sovereignty row that, both in Japan and China, plays into the hands of Chinese hardliners seeking to exploit the bad blood between the two countries to consolidate their hold on power, cracking down on internal dissent and resorting to a military buildup.”

More defense-related spending simply deprives the poor in both Japan and China of precious funds, he said.

Meanwhile, Han lamented the bilateral relationship’s fragile state, which means it remains vulnerable to the slightest provocation by either side.

“I personally think it is better to leave the Senkakus in their natural state, unspoiled by any development work. If both countries renounce ownership of the isles, the gesture would serve as a testament to their goodwill” toward one another, he said.

According to Han, one of the few recent bright spots was a petition drive launched in China in October calling for reconciliation between the two countries, and which resulted in more than 450 Chinese intellectuals signing a joint statement online deploring the anti-Japanese rioting that erupted in September.

While indicating Japan’s nationalization of three of the Senkaku islets reflects its lack of contrition over war crimes its forces committed in China, the petitioners admitted many Japanese have apologized for their wartime actions, and have also worked to establish peaceful relations and assist China’s economic development.

The petitioners asserted that Japan and China should shelve the territorial dispute for the time being and avoid exacerbating the ruckus by fanning latent nationalistic sentiment. But since many of the most prominent petitioners are blacklisted by Beijing, their opinions will matter little in China, Han conceded.

Han is continuing to push China’s democratization and despite fearing reprisals from Chinese authorities, he is determined to continue visiting his homeland once or twice a year to support the aging comfort women.

However, his dream of a democratic China remains distant, given the resounding silence of Chinese dissidents after Beijing’s crackdown last year on efforts to prompt a “Jasmine Revolution” akin the uprising that saw democracy introduced in Tunisia.