After spending a year touring Taiwan and meeting people from all walks of life, Chinese ‘enemy of the state’ Kou Yanding shares her views on change, the power of civil society, and the challenges facing Taiwan as China flexes its muscles. Alison Hsiao reports.
Chinese activist Kou Yanding (寇延丁) identified herself as a “public interest advocate” and did not know she was a dissident until she was arrested by Chinese authorities on charges of “inciting subversion of state power,” the same “crime” that has led to the forced disappearance of Taiwanese citizen Lee Ming-che and the arrest of the late Chinese activist Liu Xiaobo.
After arriving in Taiwan last October as a 2017 Democracy and Human Rights Service Fellow at the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, Kou embarked on a nation-wide tour with assistance from a civil society organization and local groups to exchange thoughts with local Taiwanese and to urge them to know and face up to China.
“Through my interactions with Taiwanese people over the past year, I have discovered that they hold two alternating images of China: either it’s ‘big,’ or it’s ‘bad,’” Kou said during a seminar concluding her tour on Nov. 11. “People either talk about China as a political superpower and a global economic powerhouse, or as a regime that is autocratic and cruel.”
“Lack of understanding of China puts Taiwanese people’s interests at risk,” she said.
‘Enemy of the State’
Kou’s trip to Taiwan began less than two years after she was freed on Feb. 14, 2015, following a 128-day stint in a Chinese jail.
Her detention came as a result of a sweep of arrests targeting Transition Institute, a non-governmental think-tank in Beijing founded in 2007, and the Liren Rural Libraries, also founded in 2007 to promote education in rural areas and shape the rural young into “modern citizens.” In September 2014, the Libraries were shut down and Transition Institute founder Guo Yushan was detained, followed by a wave of detentions of NGO workers, including Kou.
The year 2014 was a sensitive year for Beijing, with Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement and Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution erupting only months apart against, respectively, creeping Chinese influence in Taiwan and Beijing’s refusal to grant universal suffrage in Hong Kong. Kou’s detention resulted from her involvement in the two movements and a wave of arrests in response to the printing of material about the Umbrella Movement by a woman in Beijing.
In her book, How is an Enemy Made? — Chinese Who Have No Right to Remain Silent, Kou details her 128-day ordeal “through which enemies of the state are manufactured.” During her interrogation she was enlightened by her interrogators (one of whom she nicknamed “pig”), who informed her that she was part of a “subversion scheme” centered on a training camp involving activists from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. One of the trainers, a convenient fact highlighted by “pig,” was Chien Hsi-chieh, a non-violent resistance advocate, but more importantly, one of the founding members of the Democratic Progressive Party in Taiwan.
Before her involvement in the alleged plot, Kou’s work had always focused more on public welfare. She founded organizations to support people with disabilities in China which today continue to play an active role in areas that were most affected by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. She focused on grassroots empowerment that even received approval by the Chinese authorities: her Operational Democracy — Bringing Robert’s Rules of Order to the Countryside, was published with permissions in China.
It was not unnatural for a civil society worker in China to eventually look to Hong Kong and Taiwan for precedents and opportunities to share experience. But in 2014, it was more risky than ever to associate with activists from the two places.
Petitions with Chinese characteristics
At every seminar that she held, Kou and the local team that supported her tour in Taiwan screened “Petition” (上訪), a documentary by Chinese director Zhao Liang. The film covers more than a decade and ends in 2008, the year of the Beijing Olympics. In the lead-up to the Games, a petition village — spontaneously built as petitioners stayed in Beijing for years hoping in vain that their cases involving local injustice and gross corruption could be heard by the state’s highest institutions — was torn down.
Almost 10 years have elapsed since the Beijing Olympics, and Chinese President Xi Jinping is said to be cracking down on corruption, one of the main grievances animating the petitioners. Have petitions, a form of appeal to higher ups in government seeking redress that harkens back to feudal China’s “imperial appeal” (gao yu zhuang, 告御狀), had any success in mitigating the longstanding problems with the Chinese system?
“No,” Kou says, emphatically.
“Xi’s anti-graft campaign is selective in that it targets only his opponents,” she said. “The petitions [to Beijing] continue and the most prominent one recently was that by veterans of the People’s Liberation Army.”
Asked if she apprehends returning to China after spending a year in Taiwan revealed the problems plaguing Chinese society, Kou was evasive, but stressed that the Chinese government has “done a successful job drumming up and spreading fear, even in Taiwan.”
“I’ve been very open about what I’ve been doing in Taiwan via my column [on Taiwanese online media Storm Media],” she added, suggesting that there is no need for Chinese law-enforcement authorities to be alarmed by possible “secret activities.”
Kou says she was stunned by how few people in Taiwan know who Lee Ming-che is, and worried that even fewer wish to know more about China aside from its apparent economic prowess.
“I was really depressed after a seminar [held earlier this year] with a group of young students at a college in central Taiwan, during which only two or three hands were raised after I asked them whether they’d heard of Lee,” Kou told her audience on Nov. 11.
In her column, Kou said she was perplexed by commentaries by Taiwanese describing Lee’s arrest as “his own doing” because he had engaged in activities that are forbidden by the Chinese government.
“It’s unbearable to see that [Taiwanese who enjoy freedom] would use [Beijing’s] logic to explain [the consequences of] your actions,” she wrote. “There are also those who choose not to look at China just because they ‘don’t like China,’ which I consider an extremely childish answer not fitting for an adult.”
“All the progress and reform in China started from the people, from peasants, petitioners and public interest advocates, whose demands got debated by scholars, spread by media and eventually recognized by the institutions.”
The last thing she needs is for Taiwanese to refer to history and politics and explain to her, as some friends and scholars have tried to do, why some Taiwanese behave that way, Kou says. “The point is not about convincing me in oral arguments. The question in the end comes down to how Taiwanese are to face up to their gigantic neighbor.”
But, indeed, how? Kou said she is here to ask the question, not to provide an answer. But an answer was nevertheless implied in her talk on how Chinese civil society is actually more vibrant and active than those who obsess about the omnipresence of the communist regime would think.
If one focuses only on the Chinese Communist Party’s size and might, it is natural that he or she would feel powerless, she says. “But from what I’ve seen from ‘among the people,’ people power is strong, as manifested in the aftermath of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, where thousands of civic groups mobilized.”
“All the progress and reform in China started from the people, from peasants, petitioners and public interest advocates, whose demands got debated by scholars, spread by media and eventually recognized by the institutions,” Kou said, firm in her belief that change comes from the bottom and through more substantial civil society-to-civil society exchanges with places with robust civil activities, such as Taiwan.
Top photo: Kou Yanding speaks about China and why Taiwan should care (Photo courtesy of the Youth Synergy Taiwan Foundation).