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In 1997, Timothy Cooper became one of D.C.’s leading dissidents. As a leader of the Stand Up for Democracy Coalition, Cooper condemned Congress’ takeover of the city’s elected government. He and his allies picketed the White House and even protested at Sen. Lauch Faircloth’s North Carolina home. This winter, Cooper raised his sights a bit: He was recently named international director of the Free China Movement, a coalition of 30 Chinese dissident organizations aiming to turn the world’s largest dictatorship into a pluralistic democracy. On April 1, he organized a joint protest by D.C. and Chinese activists at the Chinese Embassy on Connecticut Avenue.

If it had been China, do you think you’d have been shot for what you did in 1997?

Absolutely.

Who else would have been?

All the people who participated in protests would have been jailed, and the leaders would have been either given very stiff sentences—as at Tienanmen—or executed.

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Have you talked to Chinese dissidents about D.C.’s plight?

We had 30 or 40 dissidents come down from New York City, and we had D.C. activists with them in equal numbers, and we were chanting “Free China, free D.C.” It was a wholly inspirational moment to see democracy dissidents uniting.

What do they think of D.C.’s cause?

If nothing else, we can relate to a deep and abiding injustice that lingers in both countries. They can help us in terms of coalition-building and elevating it in world opinion. They have the population. And if we can form an alliance with the world’s largest population—20 percent of the world—we can get a leverage we never dreamed of before.

Are there any lessons from the home rule movement that could help in China?

Having not won the home rule struggle in 200 years, I’m not sure we’re in a position to pass down any pearls of wisdom.

Who’s more likely to have real democracy in 50 years—D.C. or China?

China.

—Michael Schaffer