Lawmakers Press Obama to Confront China About ‘Extraordinary Assault’ Against Its Own People

New report offers potential U.S. responses to Beijing’s massive crackdown against lawyers, activists, and religious and ethnic minorities

Mao Zedong / Wikimedia Commons

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is urging the Obama administration to overhaul its engagement with China on human rights issues and press Beijing on what activists say is the worst repression of dissidents and minorities in decades.

On Thursday, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China—a group that includes representatives and senators from both parties as well as senior administration officials—offered several recommendations in its annual report about how to pressure the Chinese Communist Party on rights abuses. President Xi Jinping has initiated a wave of persecution against human rights lawyers, activists, and religious and ethnic minorities unseen since the era of Mao Zedong, rights groups say.

"President Xi has presided over an extraordinary assault on the rule of law and civil society using repressive and retrograde policies that threaten freedom advocates in China and challenge both U.S. interests and U.S.-China cooperation and goodwill," said Rep. Chris Smith (R., N.J.), chairman of the commission, in a statement. "U.S. leadership on human rights is needed now more than ever."

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One of the report’s main suggestions is for administration officials publicly to raise the cases of political prisoners, and include Chinese dissidents at international dialogues. Obama and his advisers have previously been criticized for not publicly mentioning the cases of prisoners out of fear that it could embarrass their Chinese counterparts and raise tensions.

However, former Chinese prisoners have said that their treatment in jail improved after their plights attracted attention from foreign governments and the international community.

As part of a crackdown by the party that began in July, more than 300 human rights lawyers and activists were interrogated and harassed by authorities. More than 20 remain in detention, including prominent lawyers Wang Yu and Li Heping, according to the group Chinese Human Rights Defenders. The website ChinaChange.org reported on Friday that Yu’s 16-year-old son, Bao Zhuoxuan, was seized by police in Burma while traveling on holiday. Her husband was also previously detained at an unknown location.

The commission maintains a database with nearly 1,300 cases of political and religious prisoners currently believed to be behind bars.

The group’s report also called on Obama to use statutes already in place to deny visas to Chinese officials involved in abusing religious minorities, which would prevent Party leaders from entering the United States.

Government officials in China’s Zhejiang Province are reported to have begun a campaign to remove more than 1,000 crosses from both underground and state-sanctioned Christian churches. Pastors and congregation members who have not complied have been jailed.

Chinese officials have increasingly raised concerns about the threat that Christianity—a religion that now boasts 60 million members in China—could pose to Party allegiance. Beijing has also continued it efforts to suppress the cultural freedom of Tibetans and Uighurs.

Other recommendations in the report include rebuking China for its abuses in a resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Council, of which China is a member; providing more funding to civil society groups in China; addressing the problems caused by China’s one-child policy; providing more online technology that will allow citizens to bypass government censors; and potentially revoking the separate treatment of Hong Kong under U.S. law if Beijing asserts more control over the city and denies it free elections.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment about the report’s recommendations.

Obama again came under fire for his human rights record during Xi’s official state visit last month in Washington. White sheets were raised around the White House during Obama and Xi’s press conference, blocking protesters from a view of the two leaders and eliciting criticism from activists.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), co-chairman of the commission and a presidential candidate, said in a statement that the administration’s approach to human rights in China must change.

"Millions of Chinese people yearn for the same basic rights that we as Americans enjoy, but their aspirations have been met with intimidation, imprisonment, torture, and even death," he said. "These realities must not be sidelined in the context of broader U.S.-China relations."

"There is both a moral and strategic imperative to prioritize advances in human rights and democratic governance," he continued. "A government that does not respect the rights and basic dignity of its own people cannot be assumed to be a responsible actor in the global arena."