Human rights groups are urging the Obama administration to halt an impending visit by the Chinese president to Washington amid reports that Beijing has launched a sweeping crackdown against dozens of rights lawyers in the country.
More than two-dozen human rights lawyers and activists have been detained by authorities or have disappeared since last week, a campaign of repression that analysts say is unprecedented. Another group of more than 100 lawyers and sympathizers were warned against agitating for their colleagues’ release and in some cases were briefly held by police.
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The detention of lawyers follows China’s recent enactment of a new national security law, which critics say is a thinly veiled measure to curtail freedom of expression and criticism of the Communist Party. Activists say the law is now being used to crush an inchoate civil society in China that emerged when lawyers—who often do not accept compensation from their poor clients—encouraged citizens to stand up for their rights.
Beijing’s suppression of lawyers and civil society presents a challenge to President Obama, who has largely adopted the policies of previous administrations and pursued engagement with China’s leaders. Xi Jinping, the Chinese president and party head who is viewed as the country’s most authoritarian and ideological leader since Mao Zedong, is slated to make his first state visit to Washington in September.
Analysts in the human rights community have called on Obama to suspend that meeting with Xi until the lawyers are released, though some suspect the visit will go forward as planned.
"Even this round up of lawyers may not dissuade President Obama from pursuing ‘engagement’ and welcoming General Secretary Xi to the White House in September," said Ellen Bork, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Initiative who specializes in human rights issues.
"Certainly, it should, as should China's thwarting of democracy in Hong Kong, repression in Tibet, and the imprisonment of Liu Xiaobo, Xu Zhiyong and hundreds and thousands of others."
A senior administration official said the White House will "raise our concerns" about the detained lawyers and activists to Chinese leaders and suggested that Xi’s visit would not be canceled.
"We will raise our concerns regarding the treatment of human rights lawyers and other activists in China in the lead up to and during our meetings with President Xi and other Chinese leaders in September, as we have done in the past," the official said. "We have consistently emphasized the importance of human rights in our engagements with Chinese officials, and noted that history demonstrates that upholding universal rights is key to the success and prosperity of all nations."
The group Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) also advocated that the Obama administration "puts the September visit by President Xi Jinping on hold until his government completely halts the massive police operations, releases all detainees and prisoners of conscience, and lift its extraordinary measures against freedom of expression, association, and assembly."
Chinese security officials appeared to specifically target the Fengrui Law Firm in Beijing, where lawyers have represented activists and members of the banned spiritual group Falun Gong. Police detained several lawyers and staffers and raided the firm’s offices. Another lawyer who was detained, Li Heping, formerly represented Chen Guangcheng, a blind dissident who was one of the founders of the rights lawyers movement.
State-run media accused the lawyers of "rabble-rousing" to earn profits and said Fengrui was overseeing a "criminal syndicate."
John Kirby, U.S. State Department spokesman, issued a statement on Sunday urging Beijing "to release all those who have recently been detained for seeking to protect the rights of Chinese citizens." Kirby also said U.S. officials were "deeply concerned that the broad scope of the new National Security Law is being used as a legal facade to commit human rights abuses."
Bork said the statement was "pretty mild."
"Unless the U.S. imposes consequences for China's abuses, nothing will change, and it will be clear that the U.S. is insincere, and weak, in support of democracy and human rights," she said. "That damages U.S. standing among its allies, and hurts the Chinese people's prospects for the future."
She added that, "Congress should also be more involved" in pressuring the Obama administration to hold Beijing accountable for rights abuses.
Some U.S. lawmakers issued statements assailing Beijing for the crackdown on lawyers, including Rep. Chris Smith (R., N.J.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), the chairmen of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China. In a joint statement, they said the actions of Xi’s government were "an undeniable setback in U.S.-China relations" and questioned whether the September visit should continue.
"President Xi’s increasingly bold disregard for basic human rights must necessarily serve as the backdrop for the planned September summit," they said. "We are compelled to ask whether such treatment of one’s own citizens is deserving of a red carpet welcome in Washington."
In another report that alarmed rights activists, Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, a prominent Tibetan religious leader, died while serving a 20-year sentence in Chinese prison that defenders say was politically motivated.