WASHINGTON, Nov. 24 (UPI) -- Chinese students educated in Western countries learn about democracy, but when they enter the work world at home they must adapt to an authoritarian state or face bleak employment prospects as they push for human rights reform in China, according to several Chinese civil rights activists.
"If you devote yourself to the democracy movement," said Chinese human rights activist Wei Jingsheng at a Cato Institute panel discussion Monday, "you're not going to make money."
Authorities have improved certain human rights issues since Xi Jinping became China's president in late 2012, but the country remains near the bottom globally on all significant human rights indexes due to myriad human rights violations, according to Human Rights Watch. These violations include legally baseless detention, torture and even murder of those who challenge the Chinese Communist Party.
The civil rights activists said human rights protections have deteriorated under Xi's administration; young Chinese, particularly overseas students, could use the power of their numbers to change China's political regime but serious financial repercussions and even detention serve as deterrents.
China's young adults who have gone to college abroad "still think they will go back to China to pursue their future careers there," said Yang Jianli, who protested as a young adult at Tiananmen Square in 1989. "They don't want to jeopardize their future so that's the fear factor still working."
Former Peking University professor Xia Yeliang added: "I see so many people have their brain washed by CCP. They say, 'It's fine, as long as we can live. As long as we can have some food and salary.'"
Activist Chen Guancheng, who was detained for more than four years for what he described as activism against the CCP, said experiences like his create public skepticism about the current political system.
"The government's decision to go after the people who raise issues rather than the issues themselves have also enlightened Chinese people in making them understand what kind of government this is," Guancheng said.
As the United States and other Western countries work to increase trade with China's lucrative markets, they are "paying more attention to business than human rights and freedom," said Teng Biao, a human rights lawyer who worked in China until he moved to the U.S. to continue his efforts.
But the profit-based focus is creating inequality, according to Jingsheng. But because Chinese law does not require high human rights standards for workers, companies can make products more cheaply than many Western trading partners, which puts China in a more favorable trading position than countries with better-regarded human rights records.
Jingsheng said a continued push for profit without regard for human rights threatens to destabilize markets and plunge the world into an economic recession.
In order to avoid such an outcome, Jingsheng said the international community must "pitch in" to pressure the CCP to adopt universal laws inclusive of high standards for human rights and punish those in violation of said laws.
"If you want to change this unfair situation, you must set up rules and carry out and make sure both societies are competing in fair rule," Jingsheng said. "This rule must have punitive measures. Without punitive measures, that rule will not be able to be carried out."