Tomorrow morning, President Obama will meet with President Hu Jintao in a series of talks which will set the trajectory of US-Chinese relations for the remainder of his tenure in office. We applaud the President for beginning his State visit by speaking yesterday in Shanghai concerning religious freedom and freedom of expression. However, in order to make true progress in the human rights debate with Chinese leaders, the President must fully integrate human rights into the larger discourse concerning our strategic partnership.
Many in the West have become enamored of the narrative that China is slowly plodding towards political liberalization. Thus far, the Obama administration’s dealings with China have been in this vein, focusing on issues of so-called “strategic interest,” largely to the exclusion of human rights. Secretary Clinton went so far as to declare we wouldn’t let human rights, “interfere” with dialogues on issues like global climate change and the financial crisis. This may be appealing, but in the long run the choice between human rights and strategic interests is a false one. China’s central government may sign on to global climate initiatives, but local officials will continue jailing journalists for reporting on lead poisoning in children. Should the US and China reach favorable trade agreements, this does not ensure clarity with regards to the growth rates issued by the Chinese government (7.1% for the first half of 2009 despite falling energy use and tax revenues for the same period). Does it stand to reason that a government that can’t enforce its own domestic environmental regulations will enforce international agreements on the same subject? Is it sound economic practice to stake our own financial recovery on a state-run economy with murky statistics? Although conversations on “strategic interests,” may seem relatively simple compared to human rights dialogue, the Obama administration would do well to remember, with China there are no easy issues. (Read more after the jump)
However, there is one fact about China that remains certain: should the regime’s gross violations of human rights go unchecked by the international community, the abuses will continue. The Chinese Communist Party’s disregard for human dignity is endemic at all levels. Women who breach the One-Child policy by having a second child, a child out of wedlock, or by neglecting to apply for a birth permit in their first trimester, can be subjected to crippling fines, destruction of their homes, and even forced abortions (as late as nine months) and forced sterilizations. Roman Catholics, Protestant Christians, Uyghur Muslims, and Tibetan Buddhists, among many others, are unable to practice their religions freely.
Finally, there is the Laogai system, a network of “re-education through labor” camps where three to five million people currently suffer. This system is modeled on the Soviet Gulag, but unlike the Gulag, it exists today. I spent 19 years interred in these camps, and now bear witness to the evils of this system where inmates are forced to labor long hours in unsafe working conditions for no pay, little food, and with abysmal medical care. In a country where the judicial system is in shambles—the use of torture to extract confessions is common, and literally anyone can be imprisoned for up to three years without trial or charge—this system exists as a means of repressing those who stand in opposition to the Communist regime.
Human rights should not be boxed away, taken out only to make campaign promises. Indeed, human rights are a matter of life and death the world over, and China is no exception. My story is one among millions. Remember, Mr. President, the names on that prisoner list you have with you are not merely names, but symbols of freedom, people who had the courage to stand against oppression and had no fear of the repercussions. Remember, also, that dozens were detained or placed under house arrest in the days leading up to your arrival; their freedom was taken away simply to ensure that your visit goes smoothly. By bifurcating dialogue on “strategic interests” and human rights, you ignore the crux of the problem in US-China relations and dishonor those who give their freedom for the cause of a better China. Indeed, a free and fair China is in everyone’s strategic interest. I ask you, Mr. President, when you meet with leaders in Beijing tomorrow, to summon the courage to ask, “What about human rights?”
Harry Wu to Obama: Summon the courage to raise the issue of human rights with China's leaders| Laogai Research Foundation (laogai.org)