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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

What Comes Next?


With his striped Pierre Cardin shirt and easy smile, Dong Yunhu doesn't fit the stereotype of a toe-the-line Communist. Yet at just 37, he is a prime architect of China's sensitive human rights policy.

The very concept might seem an oxymoron to many in the West, where China is perhaps better known for silencing political opponents with prison. But as founder and director since 1993 of the China Society for Human Rights Studies, Dong organizes human rights exchanges with other countries, publishes articles on the topic and advises the government on how to mold and present its ideas.

With a Ph.D in Western philosophy from a Chinese university, he cites Kant, Hegel and the U.S. Bill of Rights in his quest to develop "a concept of human rights appropriate for China's reality," which he freely acknowledges has non-Western priorities.

The child of a poor peasant family where he was one of 14 children, he defends China's insistence that freedom from hunger is the most important human right. But he adds, "I don't think we'll ever be totally at one with the West on these issues."

Just a decade ago, Dong was something of a intra-party rebel, daring to write about human rights at a time when the very topic was considered a bourgeois obsession. By laboriously collecting speeches and writings from the likes of Marx and Mao, he attempted to convince party leaders that "socialism and human rights were not incompatible."

At first many balked, even blocking publication of his first book. But ultimately his view prevailed, which he views as a great personal triumph.

"This was a very big change for the '90s - opening up human rights as a legitimate topic of study and concern," he said. "Now we can talk about it with foreign governments."

Even skeptical Westerners may find much to support in Dong's human rights agenda. He relentlessly harps on the need for rule of law and for officials to follow legal procedures. He has urged better protection for women against discrimination and more openness in government, including trials accessible to the public and press.

It is because of people like Dong that officials such as U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson say they can now have a human rights dialogue with the Chinese government - even though there is little evidence yet that the two sides always speak the same language.


Zhao Shujing became a feminist only in 1994, after she read "The Second Sex," by Simone de Beauvoir, which had only recently been translated into Chinese. Today, she is the executive producer of China's most influential women's show, "Half the Sky," which broadcasts three times a week on state television.

Outspoken and independent, Ms. Zhao represents a new breed of Chinese women who pursue careers at an age when, earlier in this century, they might already be approaching grandmotherhood. And she said she belongs to a new brand of Chinese woman's movement - one initiated by women themselves rather than being prescribed by the state.

"In the last decade, women's consciousness has been stronger than at any time in the last 100 years," she said recently at a Beijing teahouse, wearing a trendy black outfit and lugging a distressed leather bag.

Her show's name is a nod to Mao's line "Women hold up half the sky - his statement of female empowerment. But in fact, Ms. Zhao said, reality did not always live up to that ideal in the early years of communist rule.

"In the past, the women's movement was developed by men - it was not their own, it was Mao's," she said. The few women in power were mostly wives of important officials and had little independent claim to high status.

For Ms. Zhao's generation that has largely changed, as women's advocates are increasingly vocal and speak their minds. These women, like Ms. Zhao, are taking on both society and officialdom on topics like discrimination in housing and jobs. They are encouraging open debate on issues not normally mentioned in China, like the changing relationship between conservative mothers and their more liberal daughters regarding dating and sex.

Ms. Zhao said she never thought about feminist concerns as a girl in Beijing, having absorbed her society's biases. "I thought the difference was just biological and that being a woman was a lot of trouble,'' she said with a laugh.

She said the publicity leading up to the 1995 International Conference on Women, which was held in Beijing, impelled her and many others to rethink their ideas. It was then that she switched from general programming to the women's show.

For example, in the early 1990s her television station - like most state institutions - would not allocate apartments to single women, who were forced to live in dormitories. Shortly after the women's conference, senior women at the station protested to government officials and, at age 35, she got an apartment for herself.

She is traveling a new route, increasingly common among professional women today: She is now married, but plans not to have children. "Many people in my circle don't want children - it's too much trouble,'' she said. "The world has 6 billion people and so many orphans. Is it necessary for me to give birth to be a woman?''


In China, too, hackers and MBAs dream of silicon jackpots. Among the many start-ups trying to emulate everything from Yahoo to eBay, 3-year-old Sparkice I-Com Ltd. is already the old guard, and its founder Zeng Qiang - Edward Zeng to foreigners - is already famous. All this before his company has made a dime or seriously begun carrying out its plan for global e-commerce.

It is all on the verge, said Zeng, 36, who conjures up wild success with his spiel. "We want to be the cyber-bridge between East and West," he said, pointing to the large map of the world behind his desk, next to the picture of President Clinton shaking his hand last year at one of the Internet cafes that Zeng started here in 1996.

Others may dream of selling the proverbial shirt to a billion Chinese, but Zeng's idea is instead to use the Internet to sell the products of a million Chinese companies to wholesalers, retailers, factories and individuals abroad.

"We are the future, connecting the merchandise made in China with the global buyer," he said. "We aim to be the dominant mega-portal," he said, "and I don't think anyone can compete with us." Hedging his bets, though, he and several competitors are also exploring the potential for domestic e-commerce.

Zeng's history may entitle him to some confidence. Born in Beijing, he studied economics at Qinghua University there and in 1987, after securing a master's degree, he became a policy adviser in the central government's State Planning Commission.

He declines to discuss the tumultuous events of 1989, when Beijing was engulfed in pro-democracy demonstrations. But the facts are suggestive: On June 4, when the tanks rolled in, he was attending an econometrics conference in Tokyo. Instead of returning home, he flew to Toronto with scarcely a dollar in his pocket.

As soon as he could save $20, he bought a book called "How to Succeed in the Stock Market," he recalls fondly. He soon was in another master's degree program; then he took a job as a statistician for the Canadian government and started building his own capital.

The big flash came in early 1996, he said, when he read about an Israeli company developing an Internet telephone service. He flew to Israel to see for himself, and then hurried to Beijing, establishing his chain of Internet cafes that are popular with computerless students.

No big business in China is entirely private, and Zeng is building a series of strategic alliances at home, which are necessary to obtain suppliers and gain official cooperation. He already has a partnership with a state telecommunications company and is exploring joint ventures with government ministries and companies. He is also pursuing ties with some giant electronic stores in the United States.

So far the company has relied on capital - "something over $10 million,'' Zeng said - from his own pocket and a handful of foreign investors. Like other entrepreneurs here, he hopes to raise big money abroad, perhaps with a public offering in New York. But all investments are in limbo now, after a key minister's surprise claim that foreign investment in Chinese Internet services is illegal.

Projected revenues? "We're targeting billions of dollars a year,'' he said.

This year, between the cafes and modest Web sales, Sparkice should take in $5 million, he said, but it projects five times more for next year, and then ....


His style is more Beverly Hills than Beijing at the reception announcing his latest baby, an "entertainment gala'' featuring Chinese and Russian classical performers in the Kremlin, destined for broadcast on Chinese television.

Sun Jianjun, the 43-year-old producer who pulled off a similar event in the Hollywood Bowl two years ago, darts among the celebrities and executives, making sure that the right introductions are made, whispering urgent messages into the right ears.

It is a prestigious project, but Sun's bread and butter right now is the weekly television show he produces, Global Entertainment, which features clips from new movies abroad (endlessly fascinating to Chinese who buy the latest American hits on pirated videodiscs) and interviews with Chinese directors and actors. It has high ratings on the leading Beijing network, and its sponsors include Hewlett-Packard, Panasonic, Coca-Cola and Pepsi.

With longish hair, immaculate clothes and a knack for intricate deals, Sun is emblematic of a new generation of producers and directors who operate on the competitive fringes of the stodgy government studios, trying to entertain and make money rather than preach.

His company, Pegasus Film & TV Production Center, produced a modestly successful imitation of the American series "Three's Company'' two years ago and is developing a more ambitious family comedy.

"Government control is not the main problem for the entertainment business,'' he said in his spacious, rose-colored office inside the government's aging Beijing Film Studio compound. "The main problem is quality,'' he said. "Writers, especially, just don't know how to entertain people.''

"Too many people in China - not just the government, but producers and directors too - still think that the main purpose of television is to educate people,'' he said. "They want to tell people how to live their lives, which is kind of stupid.''

He seems to be friends with everyone, from the conductor of the Beijing Symphony to hot film directors like Fang Xiaogang, a neighbor at the hip, expensive Asian Games Village apartments. Sun has cultivated what the Chinese call good guanxi, or "connections,'' not just in the arts but also in the powerful ministries and networks that still call the shots.

After graduating from art college in the southern city of Nanjing in the late 1970s, Sun found his way to the University of California at Irvine, where he studied fine arts. He stayed in California working as a photographer.

By 1990, Sun and three partners from China and Taiwan sensed that opportunities were opening in the entertainment business. They incorporated Pegasus in the United States and created a joint venture with Beijing Film Studio, in hopes of co-producing movies.

That hope was dampened by the dismal state of the country's film industry, so he dived into television and special events. But now, after six years of experience and contacts, Sun feels ready to make his move.

"I know the people, and I know the industry,'' he said of filmdom. "I just need the right time.''


Lu Zhi, a leading light in China's nascent animal protection movement, was only 16 in 1981 when she was accepted by elite Beijing University from her home in the northwestern city of Lanzhou.

Eighteen years later, she has more than fulfilled her early promise, distinguishing herself as a scientist and an awesomely hardy field researcher who may know more than anyone about China's most famous species, the giant panda.

And now, looking younger than her years, she has thrown herself into the most complicated challenge yet: saving the mountain redoubts of the thousand or so surviving pandas, regions that happen to be densely populated by poor farmers.

Last year, a government group named her one of China's "Top 10 Young Intellectuals,'' an unusual honor for a Chinese employed by one of the few foreign-based nongovernmental organizations allowed here, the World Wide Fund for Nature.

As a college senior and an unhappy biochemistry major, Ms. Lu said, she went on a field trip with Pan Wenshi, the doyen of Chinese panda researchers, and found her calling. So for her doctorate, she switched to zoology.

It was a personal breakthrough. "Up to then, I always did what people told me to do,'' she said in her Beijing office the other day, just before taking off for rugged western Sichuan province.

When she started, little was known about pandas' living habits, and she would spend most of seven years tracking them in the wild, often without adequate food or warmth for herself. Today, she plays down those hardships and notes how lucky she was to find pandas quickly and then come to know them "like members of a family.''

In path-breaking publications, Ms. Lu and her mentor, Pan, refuted the impression, derived from pandas in zoos, that the species has trouble breeding. Left alone in their bamboo havens, it turned out, they do fine; the problem is protecting the land.

Another question was whether pandas are dangerously inbred. So Ms. Lu took a fellowship at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland, where she mastered genetic analysis and found that inbreeding is not yet serious. She returned home to make another leap, from science to sociology. She now spends her time with local farmers trying to harmonize economic development with wildlife.

No panda pictures grace her office. "Sometimes I get tired of them,'' she said. They are the global logo of her organization and a lucrative tool for fund raising, all of which leaves her cold. "To me, the panda picture becomes a symbol of conservation politics,'' she said. "And a panda in the office is different from one in the wild.''

She has turned down offers of government jobs, expecting to return to Beijing University, where, she said, she could be in a better position to help shape national policies, train a new generation of conservation scientists and perhaps even find time to reacquaint herself with some pandas. "I don't see them any more,'' she lamented. "I see people now.''