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Iris Chang's photo

Iris Chang
1968 - 2004

    ... writer.  The Chinese in America followed Ms. Chang’s international best seller, The Rape of Nanking, and Thread of the Silkworm. Other work appeared in a variety of publications. Her many honors included the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Program on Peace and International Cooperation Award, and the Woman of the Year Award from the Organization of Chinese Americans. Ms. Chang took her own life in November, 2004, losing her battle with depression. Her family is honoring her memory by working to overcome the stigma of mental illness in in the Asian-American community.

Excerpts3:23 secs

One factor alone can predict if a government will abuse human rights -- at home or abroad -- the late Iris Chang believed. She had spent years researching the experiences of Chinese at home and in America, never shying away from atrocities or genocide. It’s not religion, not race, not nationality or political philosophy, she concluded. It’s power. Iris Chang had no doubt that the more concentrated power is in the hands of an elite in government, the more likely that elite is going to wage war abroad and then torture their own citizens at home. She was particularly concerned about her own country, the United States.

How does one gauge how well -- or poorly -- justice is working? Ms. Chang urged an examination of how America’s minorities are faring. No matter how unpopular a particular minority might be, she said, every time a group is targeted -- made into a scapegoat -- everyone is at risk. America’s democracy, she knew, is a very young and fragile experiment. Every generation of Americans, not just Chinese-Americans, she insisted, have had to struggle for their rights and freedoms and civil liberties. If today we do not continue that struggle, as our descendants will have to do behind us, the republic cannot survive, she believed.

Iris Chang documented the experiences of Chinese in America from the beginning of the 1800s. She brought to this work the same intensity that led to her internationally acclaimed book, The Rape of Nanking, in which she documented long-ignored World War Two atrocities the Japanese committed against the people of China.

Iris Chang’s passion for justice and the protection of human rights went well beyond her books. She was deeply concerned about the current political climate in the United States.

A true democracy, she said, is one where there’s widespread grassroots participation.  Where people are educated and well-informed. Where there is full disclosure of government records. As someone who used the Freedom of Information Act with great frequency, Ms. Chang had infuriating experiences gaining access to information. She saw these obstacle as part of a very disturbing trend, starting September 11, 2001. After that date she found any sense of government accountability in serious decline.

One of her vivid examples: invoking Executive Privilege, the Bush Administration summarily prevented declassification of all Reagan administrations’ records. Indefinitely.

Do not be complacent, Ms. Chang warned. She cited the “Korematsu” case, which challenged the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War Two. When this case went before the U.S. Supreme Court, it did not win. So that law, she cautioned, is still very much on the books.  It could be used to intern people, right now.

Her conclusions? Justice and human rights require vigilance. Study what is happening to minority groups. Oppose the concentration of power and secrecy in government. Defend the right to excellent public education. Oppose growing media concentration, demand it be open and fair. The condition of the media, Iris Chang concluded, determines your safety at home or abroad, whether America will be a democracy or a tyranny.

[This Program was recorded April 22, 2004, in Atlanta, Georgia, US.]

Conversation 1

Iris Chang describes how she revived the experiences of immigrants from one of world’s oldest civilizations, China, to one of the world’s newest, the United States, for Paula Gordon and Bill Russell.


Conversation 2

Acknowledging how emotionally difficult her books were to write, Ms. Chang says their common themes are power, human rights abuses, and justice. She describes a three-step process she believes triggers genocide, including American atrocities toward Chinese immigrants. Ms. Chang includes Chinese-Americans’ contributions to civil rights law as she describes the many, little-known ways they have enriched the nation. American democracy is still a very young and fragile experiment, she says, mindful that the struggle for democracy must include everyone, constantly. Any affront to any minority puts everyone at risk, she insists, with examples.


Conversation 3

Ms. Chang reports on repeated suspensions of Constitutional rights for America’s minorities, clear that the violation of rights is an American issue, not an ethnic one. Human rights are at the heart of her concern, she says, offering one hopeful and one chilling scenario of what the future of the United States might be. She cites empirical research that suggests that only one factor -- power -- can predict if a group will commit human rights abuses against its own citizens. Based on personal experiences with abuses, she cites ways to counteract what she sees as troubling increases in the concentration of government and media power in the U.S.


Conversation 4

If the United States does not create an effective immigration policy, Ms. Chang worries, it bodes ill for its future. She then recounts how meager income from frequently menial work that Chinese immigrants did in America had profound and lasting impact for their families in China. Noting the experience of Chinese workers had in and with slavery in the Americas, she brings this story up to the present, addressing the present-day plight of exploited laborers in the U.S. Ms. Chang returns to the many contributions Chinese-Americans have made to America.


Conversation 5

Education’s historic role in China and more recently among Chinese-Americans is addressed. Ms. Chang confronts stereotypes about Asians. She summarizes the experience of Chinese who emigrated to other parts of the world, noting their enormous economic power. She compares the four great “middle-men” minorities -- Chinese, Jews, Armenians and Lebanese -- from entrepreneurial experiences to pogroms. She describes recent “scares” about Chinese-Americans, then warns that the U.S. Supreme Court’s failure to declare the internment of Japanese-Americans unConstitutional means it could happen again, at any moment. When Chinese-Americans succeed, the bar is raised, she maintains, with examples.


Conversation 6

Ms. Chang describes Japanese atrocities in China she documented in The Rape of Nanking.  She brings the story into the present, concerned that high level Japanese officials openly honor Class A World War Two war criminals. She reports how China’s responses to this insult have changed.  Iris Chang concludes with her central themes -- human rights and the struggle for justice.


Acknowledgements

Our time with Iris Chang in the spring of 2004 was memorable. We treasure the photo she insisted be taken of the three of us as well as the note she wrote us when she sent that photo to us. We will remember Iris for her strong commitment to justice as well as for her excitement in having presented wonderfully on this program the ideas and issues about which she cared so passionately.

We extend our condolences to Iris Chang’s family by joining with them in working for a better understanding that mental illness is precisely that -- an illness -- and urging those suffering from mental illness, including depression, to seek help.

Rest in Peace, Iris. Your contribution to the struggle for justice and for human rights has been great.

Related Links:
The Chinese in America and The Rape of Nanking are published by Viking/Penguin.
Ms. Chang was deeply committed to justice and human rights. She maintained a bulletin on human rights at her website, where more information about her life and work continue to be available.
For information, publications, and resources on depression and other mental illnesses, visit the website of the National Institute of Mental Health.
The Culture to Culture Foundation <http://www.culturetoculture.org> has created under its structure and umbrella the Chinese American Mental Health Network (CAMHN) which Ms. Chang’s family is actively supporting in the hope that others will get the help they need and be spared Iris Chang’s tragic end.


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