Human rights groups are blasting the Obama administration after officials refused to confirm whether National Security Adviser Susan Rice raised the plight of a dissident with Chinese diplomats this week.
Rice met with Chinese officials and President Xi Jinping for the last three days in Beijing to discuss a host of issues, including the Chinese military’s increasingly aggressive maneuvers in the Asia-Pacific region and the global terrorism threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS).
An administration official told the New York Times that Rice did discuss human rights issues, but would not say whether she specifically mentioned dissident lawyer Gao Zhisheng. Gao, who says he was brutally tortured throughout years of detention in China, has been barred by authorities from joining his family in San Francisco after his release from jail last month.
The official told the Times that speaking about Gao’s case publicly would be "counterproductive." Human rights activists were not impressed.
"If individual cases were indeed raised behind closed doors, then, the public have a right to know," said Renee Xia, international director for Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD), in an email to the Washington Free Beacon. "Of course the Chinese leaders want to save face by not being seen as giving in to U.S. demands."
"But that argument is often self-serving—these leaders could have saved face by not persecuting human rights campaigners like Gao Zhisheng in the first place," she continued. "In any case, the leaders tend not to free political prisoners unless either the price of bad publicity is too high or there are practical gains from doing so."
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, also expressed concerns to the Times about the administration’s silence on Gao.
"It’s quite extraordinary not even to mention the names of imprisoned dissidents whose names have been quietly raised," he said. "It’s difficult to comment on whether there is something about these particular discussions that require such unusual discretion, but I’m skeptical."
A National Security Council spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
Gao is in "alarmingly poor health," said his wife Geng He at a news briefing on Tuesday in Washington. According to Geng He, Gao lost almost 40 pounds in prison and has several loose teeth, and he additionally suffers from poor nutrition, low blood sugar, and a cyst on his gall bladder.
Geng He called on President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry to publicly raise concerns about Gao’s condition and inability to leave China. She was granted political asylum by the United States and lives here with her and Gao’s children.
"He said he wants very much to come to the United States to reunite with his family and his body needs to be able to recover," she said.
Gao was sentenced to three years in jail in 2006 for "inciting subversion of state power" but was informally detained before actually beginning the sentence in December 2011. He irked Chinese officials by representing underground Christians, poor villagers, and members of the banned Falun Gong religious group.
Gao previously wrote about the severe torture methods he endured in detention, including beatings, electric shocks, and the piercing of his genitals with a toothpick.
The State Department said last month that it had urged Chinese authorities to allow Gao to join his family in the United States "if he so chooses." Rice previously criticized the "increasing restrictions on [the Chinese people’s] freedoms of expression, assembly and association" in a December speech.
Chinese Human Rights Defenders has reported that at least 17 detainees in China are in urgent need of medical treatment that is often denied by authorities. President Jinping has launched a broad crackdown on political dissent since assuming office in 2013.
When asked by the Free Beacon on Wednesday whether U.S. officials should publicly press for Gao’s freedom, Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas)—a frequent critic of the Obama administration—said "yes, yes, and a thousand times yes." Cruz introduced a resolution in June that calls for renaming a street in front of the Chinese embassy in Washington after Liu Xiaobo, a Nobel laureate and human rights activist who remains in prison.
"Whether it is Pastor Saeed Abedini wrongfully imprisoned in Iran, an American citizen; whether it was Merriam Ibrahim, married to an American citizen, sentenced to torture and death in Sudan for her Christian faith; whether it is Kenneth Bae, another American citizen wrongfully imprisoned in North Korea; or whether it is Leopoldo Lopez in Venezuela, who is subject to a sham trial and wrongfully imprisoned for speaking out for freedom against [President Nicolas] Maduro and his oppressive socialist policies;—on every front, President Obama has been AWOL," Cruz said. "He seemingly cannot bring himself to utter the names of those fighting for freedom, and that is a critical aspect of leadership of the American president."