Revealed: young Rudd's China sermon

May 10, 2008
Young Rudd ... "moved" by Wei.

Young Rudd ... "moved" by Wei.
Photo: Peter O'Halloran

KEVIN RUDD famously stole the stage from John Howard last September by addressing China's president Hu Jintao in Mandarin at a state lunch during APEC.

While Rudd was welcoming Hu in the Grand Ballroom of Sydney's Sofitel Wentworth Hotel, outside in Hyde Park a Chinese man called Wei Jingsheng warned a protest rally that attempts by Western leaders to win China's favour would only make Beijing's communist regime more dangerous. Rudd's remarks dominated evening news bulletins, helping cement his pitch to voters as the alternative prime minister. By contrast, Wei's presence in Sydney passed largely unnoticed, despite his international reputation as China's Sakharov. A former electrician, Wei spent 18 years in prison in China for advocating human rights. He is a leading figure in the democracy movement.

And he was also a seminal influence on Rudd. Back in 1980, the 23-year-old Rudd handed in his honours thesis in Asian studies at Australian National University.

The cover page contained two large Mandarin characters for the word "renquan": human rights.

The next page sets out the title: Human Rights In China: The Case Of Wei Jingsheng.

The topic of Mr Rudd's university thesis has been known for some time. But its content has so far not been reported. It turns out 

to be a compelling and highly detailed 300-page dissertation on human rights in China and Wei's role in the short-lived Democracy Wall protest movement which emerged in Beijing in 1978. Rudd's account is couched in neutral academic language. Yet it conveys a clear sense of Wei's courage and of the Machiavellian way China's then supremo Deng Xiaoping manipulated the democracy movement.

And the long-ago writings of Rudd the honours student turn out to be highly relevant for understanding the approach of Rudd the Prime Minister to China.

For the thesis shows that from the start of his long engagement with China, Rudd had a sophisticated analysis of the issue of human rights. It reveals his thinking on the issue to be a mixture of idealism and realism.

The thesis is sympathetic towards those pursuing political freedoms and clear-eyed about the dictatorial nature of the communist regime (despite being written in an era when many on the Australian left were in the thrall of Maoism). Yet it is far from naive about the prospects for democratic change in China.

Rudd starts by noting that when the American missionary William Martin translated a treatise on international law into Mandarin in 1864, there was no classical Chinese word for rights.

"The concept ... presupposed the primacy of the individual whereas for two thousand years, Confucian China had taught not the primacy of the individual but the primacy of that individual's responsibility to society," Rudd writes.

He goes on to chronicle debates about the individual and society in intellectual circles in China through the imperial, republican and communist periods.

Rudd says that despite occasional liberalising tendencies, the common thread in Chinese history has been suppression of individual rights to the interests of the collective.

"In Imperial China there was no notion of individual rights.

"In Republican China, the search for a new identity offered the opportunity for animated debate on the nature of rights and the role of rights in a new China - though the military demands of the time meant that rights became little more than a theoretical notion. In communist China, rights were defined in terms of class rights which were to be exercised by one class over the other. In all these periods, rights were conditional on one's duty to the collective ... Such conditionality is antithetical to the absolute and inalienable rights of the individual espoused in classical Western liberalism."

Rudd then turns to Democracy Wall and the events of late 1978 and early 1979, still fresh at the time he was writing. The political context was the communist leadership's embrace of economic reforms. Deng stepped up the "four modernisations" policy of reforming agriculture, industry, science and national defence and the regime launched propaganda drives to support these reforms.

But, Rudd says, these campaigns caused people like Wei to ask why political freedom was not also being embraced.

A wall behind a bus station in Beijing became the focal point for these debates. Posters were displayed, unofficial journals sold, speeches delivered and protest rallies held. Rudd emphasises the complexity of this movement and its entanglement with the power politics playing out on the Communist Party central committee. For some activists, the emphasis was on democracy as a way of realising the four modernisations. For Wei, it was an end in itself, an essential fifth modernisation.

Rudd carries out a close textual analysis of several articles Wei wrote at this time, praising the "complexity, vitality and substance" of the ideas and showing how Wei attacked Marxism and Maoism as antithetical to democracy. When Rudd turns his attention to regime's response, he describes official arguments against democratic rights as Orwellian.

He suggests that by late 1978, when Deng had achieved his political goals inside the politburo, the regime's hands-off stance on the democracy movement had served its purpose. But the authorities deferred punitive action until Deng returned from a visit to the US where he cultivated the image of a liberalising China. The crackdown came in March 1979. Wei and about 20 others were arrested.

The final section of Rudd's thesis translates the transcript of Wei's trial. There is no commentary or analysis, yet Rudd's translation of this single day of proceedings provides great insight into the regime.

There is the prosecution's vicious invective. "The defendant Wei Jingsheng served as a willing running dog for the Vietnamese," the prosecutor tells the Intermediate Beijing Municipal People's Court. "He is the unadulterated scum of the nation. His crimes are against the people."

There is the pathos of fellow activists forced to give evidence against Wei.

"The Government, in accordance with the policies of the party, dealt with me in a lenient and timely manner," one of these witnesses tells the court.

"I have now returned to my position at work. I have resolved that from now on in my work, I will uphold the 'four basic principles' and will make a real contribution to the 'four modernisations'."

And finally there is Wei's spirited, intelligent and irreverent defence.

In response to a charge that he passed military secrets to a foreign journalist, Wei points out that the regime's official guidelines to citizens on safeguarding secrets are themselves secret.

And as to the core criminal charge of counter-revolutionary activity, Wei says: "After many years under the influence of the cultural despotism and obscurantism of the Gang of Four, there are some people who now believe that if one complies with the will of those currently in power, then one is revolutionary, and that if one opposes them, then one is counter-revolutionary. The revolutionary tide of today is that of democracy.

"Because democracy is the current revolutionary tide, those people and those things that are opposed to democracy, those despotic conservatives who stand opposed to the tide of democracy, they are the counter-revolutionaries of today."

Rudd closes his account by observing that Wei was clearly aware of the inevitable consequences of his actions.

"It follows that he must have been motivated by a profound commitment to the ideas contained in his writings," Rudd writes. "One cannot but be moved by the courage with which he defied a system which ultimately brooks no dissent."

The rest, as they say, is history.

Rudd completed his university studies and landed a plum position with the Department of Foreign Affairs.

It may be that the thesis helped. For it displayed many of the skills of a diplomat: garnering information, understanding a foreign culture and analysing political events.

In 1981, as Rudd started his career in public life, Wei was transferred to solitary confinement at Beijing No. 1 Prison. He languished in Chinese jails and labour camps for years, suffering beatings and losing several teeth due to malnutrition. Despite the intimidation he wrote defiant letters from his prison quarters to China's leaders until he was deported to the US in 1997.

What is the lasting significance of the academic work of the young Rudd and the case of Wei Jingsheng?

Rudd's expertise in foreign affairs and China were positives in his election campaign last year. Voters know Australia's economic future is tied to China's rise. Yet they retain strong reservations about human rights there.

On his first visit to Beijing as Prime Minister in April, Rudd balanced these imperatives, raising concerns over Tibet forcefully while still presenting himself to his Chinese interlocutors as a friend.

In a speech to students at Peking University, Rudd carefully used the word "zhengyou", which connotes the true friend who dares to disagree, rather than the more common Chinese term for friend. It was an approach that can be traced back to the nuanced analysis Rudd offered nearly 30 years ago when he expressed admiration for Wei while acknowledging that Western-style rights were alien to the Chinese political environment.

For his part, Wei is sceptical about those who believe economic engagement with China must come at the expense of turning a blind eye on human rights.

"These Olympics are the turning point in modern Chinese history," he wrote in March. "Having invited the world to polite tea, the Communist Party rulers have turned their palace of power into a global glasshouse.

"They can no longer show both the smiling face of a 'peaceful rise' to the world and the stern face of brutal suppression at home. The Olympics will force China to show its true face. Only international pressure, by the IOC and others, will make sure it is the face we all want to see."