Why Won’t Obama Speak Out About China’s Crackdown on Activists?

Foreign Policy, 5 August 2015


By Rana Siu Inboden  – Since early July, the Chinese government has increased its repression of Chinese human rights defenders. According to the China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, 261 human rights defenders, including lawyers, staffers, and activists have been disappeared, detained, questioned, or harassed as part of this latest crackdown. The NGO Human Rights in China has described the extent of this crackdown as “unprecedented in scale,” even surpassing the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) suppression of human rights defenders following the 2011 Jasmine Revolution. Yet the Obama White House has thus far remained on the sidelines as the crackdown has deepened.

The Obama administration’s muted response is surprising given that many of the activists and lawyers who have been detained have championed the very causes that President Barack Obama worked to advance during his years as a community organizer and civil rights lawyer, such as harassment and discrimination. For example, detained lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison in May, is known for speaking out on behalf of the beleaguered Uighur Muslim minority group and defending victims of torture at the hands of law enforcement authorities. Years ago, as a State Department official, I had a memorable meeting with Pu. He spoke passionately and authoritatively about using the legal system to fight for the rights of others, and the need for more Chinese citizens to be brave enough to speak out against injustice. Lawyer Wang Yu, who has been detained since mid-July, represented women’s rights advocates working to combat sexual harassment. Other rights defenders who remain detained or missing are known for defending underground Christians, Falun Gong practitioners, dissident writers, and victims of forced evictions. These activists have acted out of love for their country and concern for the rights of their fellow citizens.

As Obama wrote in his book, Dreams from My Father, “I try to do my small part in reversing this tide.” He now has an opportunity as president to reverse the tide of repression in China by taking several steps to support these besieged human rights defenders.

Meet with Chinese dissidents and their families.

President Obama could demonstrate support for those under siege by meeting with family members of detained human rights lawyers and those who have been persecuted as part of the ongoing crackdown. Past presidents, including Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush have met with dissidents. This would demonstrate his personal interest in the fate of those detained, and his solidarity with their work, as well as continuing a tradition of U.S. presidential meetings with those fighting for freedom around the world.

Condition Xi Jinping visit.

President Xi Jinping’s upcoming visit, which is planned for September, offers an opportunity for the United States to encourage the PRC to take steps to improve human rights in China. Such steps could include the release of human rights defenders who have been detained, including but not limited to lawyers Pu Zhiqiang, Wang Yu, Li Heping, and Zhou Shifeng; an announcement clarifying that the new National Security Law should not be used against those who peacefully express views contrary to state policy; repeal of Article 306 of the Criminal Defense Law which has been used detain, arrest and prosecute lawyers taking on sensitive cases; and allow international monitors access to PRC prisons and detention centers.

The PRC has generally been eager to ensure positive atmospherics during presidential summits, and as this is Xi Jinping’s first state visit to the United States it is especially key to his personal legacy. U.S. diplomats will argue that this will damage the bilateral relationship and hamper PRC cooperation on issues related to climate change and Iran’s nuclear program. Yet, the Obama administration should remember that the PRC has as much if not more interest in fostering its relationship with the United States.

U.N. Human Rights Council.

The Obama administration has backed away from using the U.N. as a venue to raise concern about human rights violations in China. Since coming into office, the Obama administration has failed to even raise the possibility of a resolution on China at the U.N. Human Rights Council. Previously, Bush administration State Department officials used the possibility of U.S. sponsorship of a resolution as leverage to obtain PRC agreement to take a number of steps, such as releasing a number of individuals and cooperating with U.N. Human Rights experts, such as allowing U.N. human rights rapporteurs to visit. Even though the composition of the U.N.’s human rights body meant that the United States was unlikely to succeed in gaining passage of a resolution, Bush administration officials understood that the PRC interest in avoiding the embarrassment of the introduction resolution could be used as an opportunity to encourage positive human rights change in China.

Don’t Pigeonhole Human Rights.

Rather than relegating human rights to sideline discussions, such as the bilateral human rights dialogue, Obama administration officials, even those not charged primary with responsibility for human rights should raise concerns about human rights abuses, particularly the latest crackdown, in their meeting with PRC officials. Raising these concerns at the Cabinet level will convey the importance of human rights in the bilateral relationship and that freedom affects other issues. For example, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew’s meetings last month with PRC officials would have been an opportunity to raise human rights and communicate to PRC interlocutors that a free society supports technological innovation a vibrant economy, and peaceful political expression.