Human Rights Advocates Encourage Obama to Push Xi on Human Rights

President to raise China’s human rights abuses at summit

Chinese President Xi Jinping / AP

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President Barack Obama will raise China’s human rights abuses during his meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Friday in California, according to a White House official.

However, White House National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden declined to say if the president would raise the specific case of imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo when he meets the Chinese leader in California on Friday.

"Human rights is an important part of the dialogue whenever we meet with Chinese leaders," Hayden said.

Human rights will be "part of president’s discussions" as it was for National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon during his recent meeting with Xi, she said.

"It's clear that this is an area where we do not see eye-to-eye, and we will continue to engage at the highest levels to make our concerns known and encourage progress," Hayden said.

However, she declined to say whether specific cases of human rights abuses, including Liu, will be raised.

"Given the sensitivities involved, we don't discuss our handling of specific cases," she said.

Other topics to be raised at the summit in the Sunnylands estate in southern California include North Korea’s nuclear program, China’s cyberespioange against U.S. government and private networks, and China’s aggressive maritime activities in the East China and South China Seas.

Xi is expected to question the president on the administration’s announced "pivot" to Asia as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq wind down.

Human rights activists have scheduled a press conference for Thursday in Washington to urge Obama to pressure Xi to release political prisoners, including Liu, perhaps China’s most prominent political prisoner and pro-democracy activist who was jailed in 2009 on charges of "inciting subversion of state power."

His alleged crime was writing several articles calling for democracy in China and an end to Communist Party rule.

Yang Jianli, a Harvard professor and pro-democracy activist, said the president should raise specific cases of imprisoned and persecuted Chinese dissidents in the meeting with Xi.

Discussions with the Chinese leader on human rights "may be just a lip service again unless he insists on confronting President Xi with specific cases," Yang said in a statement.

"He might want to ask why the world's only jailed Nobel Peace Prize laureate, his fellow laureate, Liu Xiaobo, was sentenced to 11 years in prison for suggesting a peaceful transition to democracy," Yang said.

According to Yang, the section of Chinese law used to try and convict Liu has no reasonable or understandable basis for being applied to the case.

"Exactly what is ‘incitement to subvert state power’ without defining either incitement or subversion?" Yang asked. "China's own constitution allows the right to freedom of expression. Moreover, China is a signatory to the U.N.'s Universal Declaration of Human Rights."

Harry Wu, another pro-democracy activist, said Obama should seek Liu’s release in the summit meeting.

"Liu was the only Noble Prize winner today in the Laogai" as the Chinese prison labor camp system is called, Wu said in an email.

Wu said more than 100 Nobel Prize winners recently signed a statement asking the Chinese to release Liu. Obama, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, was not among the signatories, he added.

Still, Wu said he believes Liu, who was sentenced to 11 years in prison, will be released eventually.

Wu noted that three of the six articles written by Liu were published in the United States on a website that is blocked by censors in China and thus it is not possible that the articles were intended to subvert the Chinese government, he said.

Yang said the summit is an opportunity to promote human rights and freedom in China.

"I strongly believe President Obama should in the upcoming summit set the tone of the U.S.-China relations for his new administration and the new leadership of China," he said in a statement.

"It is crucial time to send the signal to China's new leadership that the quality of its relationship with the U.S. will largely depend on how it treats its own citizens and whether it lives by the universally accepted human rights norms for its international and domestic policies."

If the president fails to speak up on human rights, it "will send a wrong message to the new Chinese leaders about the U.S. priorities and may encourage them to allow abuses to continue," Yang said.

Yang said Chinese leaders are well versed at engaging in human rights dialogues as a way of diverting criticism and claiming China observes basic human rights and the rule of law.

That is why it is important to press specific cases of imprisoned dissidents, he said.

The Obama administration’s policy on Chinese human rights abuses was set in 2009 by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. "Our pressing on those issues [human rights, democracy] can't interfere on the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crisis."

Yang said it is a "myth" that the U.S. government must subordinate human rights promotion in China to economic interests.

"What do you think China will do in response to a strong human rights stance?" he asked. "Do we really believe that China will quit trading with a country whose goods it needs because that country demands better treatment of its citizenry? There is no past evidence in our relationships with China to support this myth."

The group Human Rights in China took a cautious approach to the White House statement on the human rights discussions expected at the summit.

Human Rights Watch said in a statement that the issue of abuses should be the central issue at the summit.

"Xi Jinping’s rhetoric suggests he and the government [are] feeling some heat of public pressure for change, yet the central leadership appears to have ruled out any fundamental reforms," said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. "The U.S. government can help reinforce rights-related reform by bolstering the voices of Chinese people on the ground."

Mi Ling, the group’s spokeswoman, said the failure to state publicly its policy on raising specific human rights cases does not mean the president will not raise them.

"The administration will not reveal to the public how they are pursuing or not pursuing sensitive cases with the Chinese leadership," Mi said. "One implication is that it may pursue them, privately, with the Chinese leadership."

China’s government under Xi has arrested and detained 15 activists in Beijing and Jiangxi Province for organizing protests that call on the government to implement anti-corruption and asset disclosure measures, Human Right Watch said.

The government also detained, arrested, and prosecuted Tibetans involved in self-immolations rather than address the deeper grievances against the government that underlie such actions, the group said.

The administration has a mixed record on Chinese rights abuses. The United States negotiated in 2012 the safe passage to the United States of blind activist Chen Guangcheng who reached the U.S. Embassy in Beijing from house arrest in a remote province.

Secretary of State John Kerry has continued the weak human rights policy toward China. His public remarks during his April visit to China included a single reference to having raised individual cases with Chinese leaders.

"President Obama should reverse course on sending lukewarm signals on basic rights to the Chinese government," Richardson said. "Many of these issues, such as an independent judiciary, the free flow of information, and the freedom of expression, underpin key diplomatic, economic, and strategic issues in the bilateral relationship."

Human Rights Watch urged the president to raise the cases of Liu, and other imprisoned dissidents, including human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng and activist Chen Guangcheng, whose family continues to face detention and harassment in China.

"The yearning for social justice is more acute in China than ever before," Richardson said. "President Obama can choose to stand in solidarity with ordinary Chinese people and support their struggle. Otherwise his silence could be taken as consent for the Chinese government’s continued repression."

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