China 16 Urged President Obama to Champion Human Rights at Summit

June 11, 2013 Updated: December 15, 2013

WASHINGTON—The day before the summit meeting of June 7–8 between President Barack Obama and chairman of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping, a diverse coalition of human rights leaders joined with family members of Chinese prisoners and held a press conference to urge the president to raise the issue of China’s human rights record in his private discussions with Xi. 

Their intent was to make human rights the most important priority in the bilateral dialogue. As a starter, the names and bios of 16 prisoners of conscience—called the China 16—were provided, and the president was urged to call for their immediate release.

“Each of the China 16 merits a strong voice … from you as our President,” says a letter to Obama, signed by 30 faith and human rights organizations that was made public at the press conference. 

The letter urged Obama to be more forthright in conversations about human rights with Xi. Even with the serious issues during the Cold War, American administrations would not fail to press Soviet leaders to respect the rights of Soviet Jews and Pentecostals and this didn’t detract from U.S.-Soviet bilateral relations, said the letter.

Obama was scheduled to host a meeting with Xi at Sunnylands, the historic Annenberg estate in Rancho Mirage, Calif. Constructed in the mid-1960s as the winter home of Walter and Leonore Annenberg, Sunnylands has served as a kind of West Coast Camp David. It has hosted seven U.S. presidents. 

In support of this NGO letter, a brief, bipartisan congressional letter to the president was also made public. Both letters were personally delivered to the White House on June 4 by Democratic Congressman McGovern, co-chairman, Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. The congressional letter requests Obama’s “response and readiness to call for the release for the China 16.”

The congressional letter was also signed by House human rights leaders, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), and Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.).

Some of the 30 organizations are well-known in Washington, including Freedom House, China Aid, Freedom Now, Lantos Foundation, Human Rights Law Foundation, Uyghur American Association, Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union, and International Campaign for Tibet.

The Rev. Bob Fu, founder and president of China Aid and one of the organizers of the event, read the names aloud of the 16 prisoners. He noted the diversity of groups that the China 16 represented: “Falun Gong practitioners, Christian House leaders, Tibetan activists, pro-democracy activists, human rights lawyers,” and others including ethnic minorities, such as the Uyghurs. Fu said that 4 of the 16 are serving life sentences, and the remaining 12 are serving sentences that total to 165 years. 

Chen Guangcheng, the blind rights defender, joined the press conference via live video feed. His nephew, Chen Kegui, is one of the China 16. He was sentenced to 39 months for defending his family when intruders came into his house. He has been beaten several times. Authorities are now refusing to allow him medical treatment for his acute appendicitis.

Chen said that the 16 prisoners of conscience are only the tip of the iceberg of hundreds of thousands of cases. Speaking through an English translator, he said this summit between the two leaders should not be just about building a personal friendship, but should have as its purpose, “the building up of human rights.” He advised Obama that when he meets with his counterpart that he “stop the trade-centered diplomacy and instead make it a human rights diplomacy.”

Frank Jannuzi, deputy executive director for Amnesty International USA, agreed with Chen. In a June 4 Amnesty International (AI) press release, he wrote, “The ‘rebalancing’ that the Obama administration says it wants to accomplish in East Asia should begin by making sure that national security and economic issues do not overshadow the human rights violations that are occurring in China every day.”

At the press conference, Jannuzi said of China, “Great powers don’t [cause] their citizens’ disappearance, torture, illegal house arrest and extra-judicial killing. These are going on today based on research AI has.”

Todd Stein, from the International Campaign for Tibet, spoke of the 120 Buddhists that have self-immolated to express their lack of freedom and dignity under communist rule in Tibet. Stein said that people were detained and sentenced who tried to recover the bodies, tell a neighbor, or conduct prayers for the self-immolated. “So what we have here, the Chinese [regime] is not only convicting people for freely expressing themselves, now the China party-state is sentencing people for compassion and sympathy.”

Family Member Hopeful
Family members of 5 of the 16 prisoners spoke about their hopes for the summit.

Ti-Anna Wang, daughter of Dr. Wang Bingzhang, dropped everything and flew on the red-eye from Taipei to Washington when she heard about the summit with the hope that Obama would mention his name and get their father home. 

Bingzhang, a U.S. permanent resident, was the founder of the overseas Chinese democracy movement. When in Vietnam in June 2002, he was kidnapped by Chinese agents and taken to China where he was sentenced in a closed-door, one-day trial to life imprisonment. Despite the odds, Wang and her brother from Los Angeles, came to Washington with the hope human rights will find a place on the president’s agenda.

Lisa Peng spoke of her father, Peng Ming, who founded the China Development Federation, which was soon banned in China. He was in Thailand when eight Chinese secret agents kidnapped him at gunpoint, said his daughter. He was taken to China and sentenced on false charges of organizing and leading a terrorist organization. Serving a life sentence, he suffers from many diseases, according to the letter.

Danielle Wang, daughter of Wang Zhiwen, hasn’t been able to speak to her father in 14 years. She said, “In the midnight hours of July 20th [1999], police cars swarmed around our house in Beijing, the police broke in and dragged Dad away into the night. … My dad had been ripped from my life—completely out of reach.” At her wedding she placed a rose on a chair “to symbolize his presence and celebrate his place in my life.”

Wang Zhiwen served as a volunteer contact person for Falun Gong practitioners in Beijing, taught the Falun Gong exercises and meditation, and helped set up workshops. He was seized on the day the Chinese Communist Party launched its brutal suppression of Falun Gong. 

In a nationally broadcast show trial, Wang was sentenced to 16 years, with three other practitioners, including Li Chang, another member of the China 16 who was sentenced to 18 years. The charges were vague and unsubstantiated, such as “illegally obtaining state secrets.”

Bridgette Chen misses her father Liu Xianbin, who was a prominent activist in the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy movement. As a longtime political dissident and organizer of the China Democracy Party, Liu has been sent back to jail three times and has spent more than 15 years in prison, according to his daughter.

Zhu Qiaofu spoke on behalf of his brother Zhu Yufu, while their sister held up his photo. Zhu Yufu was one of the founders of China Democracy Party. He spent seven years in prison for pro-democracy activities. He was rearrested in March 2011 just for a poem he wrote and sentenced to seven years. His brother said Zhu Yufu’s health is very bad. Even though his body is swollen and he cannot walk, he is denied medical care. Zhou Qiaofu told his brother that he is worried that he will die in prison.

The press conference was held at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C., which provided symbolic significance. Barbara Weinstein, director of the Commission on Social Action, said it was in this building that the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were drafted. She said that her organization was proud to be advancing the cause of human rights once again with the China 16.