High-level balancing act to talk about human rights in China
17 December 2010
A professor of human rights in China has to perform a careful balancing act. It is important not to tread on the Chinese authorities’ toes by voicing direct criticism, at the same time as the country’s human rights abuses must not be overlooked.
Per Sevastik works at the Raoul Wallenberg Institute, but is currently a visiting professor at Peking University Law School for three years. He has been there for a year so far and has learnt various tricks to successfully manage the balance. One trick is to start with the positive aspects, another is to ask counterquestions.
“When someone asks me what I think about China, I usually start by talking about everything I appreciate about the country. Then I can gradually bring up the negative aspects from a human rights perspective: the treatment of dissidents, the death penalty, the overcrowded prisons, censorship...”
When the Norwegian Stortinget awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to dissident Liu Xiaobo in October, Per Sevastik was visiting Xi'an province.
“At three different universities the students asked me what I thought about the Peace Prize. I began my answer with a counterquestion: ‘what do you think about it?’ Every time there was someone who claimed that Liu Xiaobo was a criminal and that the prize was a provocation, and others who thought it was a good decision and that Liu Xiaobo really deserved the prize.”
This last answer surprised Per Sevastik, who had not dared to believe that there was such openness at the universities. He is in favour of the Norwegian decision, which could put further pressure on the Chinese authorities to make changes for the better.
“Because China’s economy is developing so rapidly and people’s standard of living has improved so much, the regime has strong support. Therefore, it has been able to relax control without fear of losing power”, he says.
The economic development means that major cities in China in many ways resemble those in the West. At the universities, the students ride mountain bikes from the gym to the lecture theatres, and are as well equipped with rucksacks, mobile phones and fashionable clothes as students in Europe and the USA.
“It is only occasionally you realise that you are in a dictatorship with strict censorship. One example was when I googled the words ‘China’ and ‘death penalty’ before a lecture and received no hits”, he says.
On the other hand, he then opened his lecture with this example, and received several emails afterwards from the Chinese students, all of them offering tips on how to get round the Internet censorship, of which the students were well aware.
Per Sevastik has previously been a visiting professor on the Raoul Wallenberg Institute’s Master’s programme in 2006–2007 at Peking University in Beijing. The Swedish support is going to be phased out, as there are now Chinese specialists who can provide equivalent education.
His current position as visiting professor – a gift promised by Fredrik Reinfeldt on his visit to China in 2008 – is based at Peking University but is primarily aimed at serving other universities in the country.
“There are 650 universities in China, but only 10–12 with study programmes that have any connection to human rights. Since Peking University is one of the country’s top higher education institutions, all doors are open to me when I want to visit one of these universities”, explains Per Sevastik.
He has already visited five universities, including in Inner Mongolia and Yunnan, where he was able to give his lectures without restrictions. Or at least, almost; in the title of his lecture “Human Rights – Limits and developments of international law”, the first two words were removed in Xi'an.
“It was right after the Nobel Peace Prize, so the situation was probably a bit sensitive around human rights... I was able to hold the lecture itself as planned though, and that was the most important thing”, says Per Sevastik.
He thinks that the guest chair has given him a unique opportunity to help Chinese students acquaint themselves with issues relating to international law and human rights. If the price for this is a sensitive balancing act, then it is a low price to pay for an important opportunity.
- Ingela Björck
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