A stand selling books in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia. [Derik van Zuetphen/flickr] some rights reserved.Twenty years is a long time in anyone’s life. Most people can reflect on what they have achieved since 1996 – work done, books completed in the case of writers, countries travelled to, children born and growing up. In 1996, I was ending my time as an English teacher in Hohot, the provincial capital of the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region in the People's Republic of China. Since then I did my PhD, joined (and left) the UK's foreign office, became a university professor in Australia and then London, and have written dozens of columns for openDemocracy. For pretty much anyone twenty years is plenty of time to map out accomplishments, challenges, and, of course, the inevitable failures that happen too.
For one man who I met in Inner Mongolia just a year before I left, however, the last two decades have been, and continue to be, a story of simple incarceration. Hada was an ethnic Mongolian bookseller whose shop I used to visit for materials to try to start learning Mongolian. His was one of the few places in the city that had this sort of thing. It also had the mandatory portraits of Genghis Khan, and the usual iconography of Mongolian identity. But as he and his wife were keen to tell me, despite only about 10% of the region categorised as being of Mongolian ethnicity, its history, culture and landscape were still distinctive, and that is what people like him were attempting to maintain.
Evidently the authorities didn’t regard his ideas as so benign. In summer 1995, shortly after a visit from a British journalist covering what they somewhat excitedly described to me as a "major underground separatist movement", over 250 people were rounded up. Hada was the most prominent. But there were plenty of teachers, students and others. The one common factor was that they were all Mongolian.
It is still unclear if the visiting journalist had been the trigger for this clampdown. In any case, the government at both local and national levels was particularly jittery at the time because of the looming elections in Taiwan in 1996, the island's first ever democratic contest. Late one evening, I was wandering down the central Xinhua boulevard back to the college where I was living at the time when a long convoy of military vehicles trundled by, carrying what must have been hundreds of soldiers. This was certainly a nervous and uncertain period. Evidently, no one was taking any chances, even with a small, ill-funded and low-profile movement like the one Hada was claimed to be the leader of.
Hada was sentenced to over fifteen years in jail, and simply disappeared. While some who had been taken managed to negotiate or bribe their way out, other simply served their shorter sentences and were then released, he remained incarcerated. In 2000, I went back to Beijing to work at the British embassy. When visitors met with their counterparts in the Chinese government and raised concerns about individual people, the Hada's name would often appear on their lists. On sporadic trips back to Hohhot over the next decade, I would hear, at third, fourth, or fifth hand, about his plight, and that of his wife and family. He was reportedly in jail close to the city, his health was bad, and his family impoverished. It was pitiful to think that the relaxed and scholarly figure I had known briefly just a decade before had become, in effect, a ghost.
Hada was released at the end of his sentence, in 2010. But only to be sent into a second, perhaps even worse form of imprisonment – one where he was kept under house-arrest, his movements carefully monitored, his family spied on, and his ability to live any kind of normal life next to impossible. And this has continued for the last 6 years. In 2014 he drafted a lengthy appeal to the local supreme court, asking for his 'informal' detention to be ended. This was lodged in 2016. It is unlikely, in the current climate, that anything will happen any time soon.
Hada and a common vision
Over the last two decades, as a diplomat and then an academic, I have had to think a lot about the 'values dialogue' between China and countries that evidently differ from it in terms of their political and social structures, like the United Kingdom or United States. It is a conversation that has grown ever more vexed and complex. Certainly, the vast majority of Chinese live lives where politics never enters their space. They are, in some ways, even freer than people in the west. It is always amazing, and admirable, to see how inventive so many Chinese are in their daily lives in plotting ways to get officialdom and government out of their way and achieve what they want. As one Chinese businessman said to me a few years ago: "the trouble is that you British are not free thinkers like we Chinese." He had a point.
The west’s confidence in its value system is now at a low ebb. Grand talk of defending enlightenment values has now to deal with the election of a misogynist as president of the United States, and with the perversity shown in the UK's decision to Brexit despite the clear, and well spelled out, economic and political harm this would involve. With systems underpinned by values that lead to calamities like these, many Chinese might think, "what possible reason would we want to take the risk and adopt similar approaches?"
Even so, when I move from the abstract to the specific, things become clearer, sharper and more painful. The bottom line is that a man who simply ran a bookshop in a small city in China two decades ago, and who had some perhaps naïve but harmless ideas about self-expression and autonomy, who never harmed anyone, never practised or even proposed violence in any shape or form, has been locked away ever since, and that his family have suffered the daily toll through association, despite their never having been before any court of law whatsoever.
Whatever differences there might be between China and the outside world, we ought all to hold the common value of dignity. Yet in this case of one individual, the Chinese system has displayed no dignity. That is their loss, and ours.