Melbourne: - I met with Frank Ruanjie on a Monday afternoon in the centre of Melbourne, at the city-end of Chinatown. We found a quiet spot in a restaurant upstairs where only a few teenagers came to hang out after school, and had a long chat over coffee and hot chocolate. I've known Frank almost since I moved to Melbourne nine months ago; I've seen his face at every Tibetan event, protest or vigil, listened with tears in my eyes to his inspiring speeches and photographed him more times than I can count. My admiration for the man who brought to Australia the Chinese Democratic Party and Tiananmen Times publication, and who has devoted his life to fighting for democracy and human rights in his country has grown by the day. I was excited and grateful for this opportunity to discuss his life and his work with him one-on-one.
A little about Frank Ruanjie and the Democratic Party...
It was in his third year of university studies in Guangdong province that it all began, when Frank and a fellow classmate organised a forum on democracy. At the time it was Hu Yaobang calling the shots in China and amid greater freedom of speech and expression teachers were encouraging students to talk about the future of China. This certainly didn't last long, and before the second part of the forum could take place the Dean of the university had warned the pair against continuing, and they found themselves with a record on file for involvement in political activities.
It was 1989, the year of the notorious Tiananmen Square massacre that has since been scrubbed from the Chinese history books and blocked out by the Great Firewall in cyberspace. His involvement in the movement calling for democracy, which culminated in the slaughter of thousands of Chinese citizens, led authorities to ban him from work for a period of two years. Not to be defeated, he returned to his village and helped his parents sell chickens and farm their land, and when the ban was lifted he returned to work and began dangerously including political content in an internal company publication.
It was in 1998 that Frank joined in the preparation to establish the Chinese Democratic Party, attending meetings and helping in the preparation of people and policies. When the Chinese government began arresting many key people involved in the party they somehow missed him, and the Democratic Party was driven underground. In 2006, with offices in Sydney and Melbourne, Frank was honoured to establish the Australian branch of the party to continue the fight that had been silenced back home in China.
But why do you think the Chinese even want Democracy?
I asked Frank about the issue on many Westerners' minds. You know the type, the ones who insist that the Chinese people want autocracy. The ones who argue with paternalistic superiority that the Chinese are happy being dictated to, and that minorities like the Tibetan and Uighur populations are enjoying development, not exploitation. The ones who go home to their elections and their free speech and criticise their own governments' actions without ever realising the irony. I asked Frank if China's political system was really appropriate for its unique needs as a large and populous nation, and what made him think the people of China wanted democracy.
To those who have any doubts, Frank has a strong message: "Too many people, Chinese and Western people, think this system is suitable because it's such a big country. I don't think many people understand the real political system in China. It's a one-party dictatorship. There's no voting; they took power by violence in 1949. They make a lot of problems. In the last 60 years, in the 1950s the CCP killed a lot of Chinese people". At the orders of Chairman Mao, he says "they killed all the intelligent people who questioned him" and "used young people to crack down on others to let himself be king of the regime". Thirty million people were killed in the Cultural Revolution alone, he adds solemnly.
Frank goes on to ague: "The system's defects prove that it is not fit for China. It's not suitable for human beings in society. You should have freedom of speech, freedom of association- that is the natural way of society. Chinese people are morally worse off. We are seeing things like poisoned milk, poisoned foods, fake goods. They don't have any justice in their minds".
Making an admiring comparison to the Australian political system which features both state and federal areas for legislation, Frank adds that what a country as big as China really needs is ‘local autonomy', wherein each province answers to the central government but also has the ability to elect local leaders and make decisions on legislation concerning it. In true Chinese fashion, he illustrates this with an allegory: "If you have ten sons, and you are the father, you want them all to have their families and manage very well". Simply put, no father wants to smother his children by making all their decisions for them.
So what is wrong with the Chinese Communist Party?
Essentially, the CCP was not elected by the people; they only got into power through violence, so they rely on two things to keep people happy: economic growth, which is often at the expense of the environment ("we have a chicken today, but not tomorrow"), and nationalism. Particularly since the adoption of the strategy of fast economic development at all costs, the combination of power and economic control have led to blatant widespread corruption that nobody can challenge. In Frank's words, in a nutshell: "Nobody can criticise them. Not any elections, not any voting, not any competition".
Furthermore, the Chinese government (controlled by the CCP) has dramatically upset the traditional Chinese sense of morality, by convincing the people that it is unscientific to believe in consequences for their actions. Frank explains: "They don't want the people to think too much, because if they want to improve their spirit they'll want more freedom. So they just encourage people to make more money. The CCP sets the standard for morality, but they are corrupt and the people have a hard time having any faith in them". In the beginning they used ‘class struggle' to establish their own morality, now they don't have religion and their propaganda encourages a warped sense of values and lack of personal responsibility.
In Frank's view, "all the Chinese problems are caused by the [effectively] one-party dictatorship. Democracy is the only solution". He asks me how many Chinese live in Australia, and I reply that I don't know but it's a lot. He then suggests that the millions of Chinese immigrants you see in places like Australia, America and around the world are here because they don't like the system in China. They want democracy. These are the lucky ones who have the means to get out of the country; many others would jump on a plane tomorrow if only they had the chance.
Does the CCP have a future?
"It cannot last much longer. Dictatorships cannot last forever". A simple, determined answer. Despite the name of ‘Communist Party' in effect it is a dictatorship, says Frank. When I ask him what he thinks of the enigmatic Chinese premier, he seems cautious: "Some Chinese say Wen Jiabao is a good man. He may want reform but he can't have it. It will be rejected by every level of government. Leaders are wary of introducing accountability and having to pay back the money they obtained illegally".
What about the recent citizen occupation and elections in Wukan? Were they real and fair elections? Do they herald the start of a new phase for China?
Apparently not. Originally, the first round of elections in Wukan had no connection to the CCP and it was held by the locals, who elected the new administration of their village. "This indicates the people can make a decision for themselves. The Chinese government says the people are low quality, have low education and are not qualified for elections, but it's a lie" says Frank angrily. The elections were declared illegal and in the new ‘government approved' elections, deemed an exception in China and a likely publicity stunt, the CCP interfered and appointed the Communist Committee's branch secretary. While discussing these rigged elections Frank lowers his eyes and says "I feel very disappointed for what they did there", adding that sadly the Wukan occupation and elections cannot spread because even those on the other side of the province (Frank's own Guangdong), as well as the rest of China, had been prevented from learning about what happened in Wukan.
A Chinese politician's thoughts on Tibet
I'm not surprised that Frank has a lot to say on the subject of Tibet. After all, it was at a Tibetan protest outside the Chinese consulate in Melbourne that I first had the honour of meeting him, and he admits to "having the same feeling" of being an exile as his "Tibetan brothers and sisters".
"I think many Chinese don't understand why the Westerners support Tibet, maybe they think they have some hostilities [against China], maybe they think they are receiving some money from the Tibetan exile government. There is a lot of misunderstanding". Frank feels that it is not only the Tibetans and other minorities but also the Chinese who are suffering the effects of repression and intimidation, and that the sooner the Chinese majority realises they are in fact on the same team there will be much greater cooperation.
For him, there is no doubt around the question of autonomy or the relationship between the Chinese and their Tibetan neighbours: "Actually there is no conflict between the Chinese and Tibetan people or nationalities. The two lived together very well for thousands of years. Before, they had their own leadership. They had autonomy. Now all officials are appointed by the CCP. Some say Tibet has autonomy, but it's not true. There is an ethnic Tibetan governor of the TAR, but the CCP is the first to make the decisions, not him".
Frank believes it is unjust for the Chinese government to encourage its citizens to look down on Tibetans, arguing that "Tibet is really important to China, in terms of religion. Most Chinese have no religion, no morality. I think the Tibetan Buddhism can save China". When I question Frank on how the government is handling what it no doubt perceives to be its ‘Tibetan problem', he gives me perhaps my favourite line of the afternoon's interview. Without thinking, he retorts "There is no Tibetan problem. China only has a communist problem".
Let's imagine that one day soon the CCP regime is overthrown, and China holds its first free elections. What would the Chinese Democratic Party promise the people of China and Tibet in their campaign?
Frank gets into campaign mode, with a message to his fellow citizens of China: "We should work hard to establish the democratic constitution: freedom of association, freedom of speech, freedom of religion. Everywhere you can believe in everything. Magazines, newspapers, radio, TV, all free. We should stop the Han Chinese migrants to Tibet, Mongolia and Xinjiang, and convince some of them to return to their hometowns. In a democratic system local people elect local government, so they need to represent the people. People say in a democratic country you can move where you like, it's not true. They can move anywhere except Tibet and Xinjiang. They (the ethnic minorities in those regions) can make their own policy on accepting migrants. This should be decided by the local governments". Frank contends that China is different from other countries because of its unique ethnic regions, and a Chinese democracy would reflect that. "For example, there is a lot of oil in Xinjiang, and they can't get it themselves, but there can be an exchange. We can work together".
If you could do everything again, or make different choices, is there anything you've done that you would change?
"No. I don't regret that I'm on this road. I don't regret this. The Chinese government is very big. Everyone keeps silent, keeps to themselves, and one day it will destroy them. If it were a Western country they would have been gone long ago". Frank explains that in Chinese culture there is an attitude of not getting involved in another's problems, but he has a warning for those who fail to help their neighbours: "Today they damage another and you keep silent, tomorrow it will be your turn and nobody will help you".
I ask Frank what would likely happen to him now if he returned home to China, after all his work for democracy and human rights. He shakes his head dismissively, saying "I'm not allowed, I'm on the blacklist. I worry now about [things like] pollution and morality. If we go back we can't keep quiet now. [But] as a Chinese man, I think we should have this conscience for China".
In the past three years, Frank has been sending out a PDF file to a secret network of distributors in China who print the material and leave it in conspicuous places all over town, in the middle of the night. The distribution changes cities often to avoid detection, and Frank is very aware of the danger faced by those in his network if they are caught. The lengths they are willing to go to only illustrate the desperation of the Chinese people in their quiet and muted suffering. Frank smiles as he tells me that some of his paid journalists within China are double agents: "they have two pens- one pen to write for the government, and one pen to write for me".
It seems fate intervened when Frank was offered the chance to travel to Australia. While overseas he learnt that he was being investigated for an article he'd written criticising Deng Xiaoping, the man behind the command to butcher thousands of peaceful demonstrators under the wheels and bullets of military tanks at Tiananmen. He decided wisely not to return to his homeland, and has not been able to return since. Currently there is a Propaganda Bureau investigation order on the Tiananmen Times, sent out to local governments ordering them to find the "publisher of the enemy of China".