Families of Jailed Chinese Human Rights Leaders Press Biden for Meetings

Families of Jailed Chinese Human Rights Leaders Press Biden for Meetings
Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) (3rd L) greets President of the China Aid Association Bob Fu (4th L), Geng He (5th L), wife of Chinese human rights attorney and dissident Gao Zhisheng, Sophie Luo (6th L), wife of Chinese human rights lawyer Ding Jiaxi, and President of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation Andrew Bremberg (R) prior to a hearing before the Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee at Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington on April 20, 2023. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Susan Crabtree

During meetings with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev or other top Soviet Union officials, President Reagan often pulled out a card from his pocket and recited the names of the country’s jailed dissidents and pressed for their freedom.

The practice became such an annoyance to Soviet officials, human rights activists recall, that they often complained to Secretary of State George Schultz that Reagan’s constant focus on their government’s human rights abuses were impeding other areas where the two countries could make diplomatic progress.

Bob Fu, a prominent religious freedom activist and China critic who immigrated to the United States from China in 1996, said several Reagan aides told him about those tense exchanges as a testament to the power of directly challenging authoritarian regimes’ human rights abuses to spur international condemnation.

“I hope our president and vice president, whatever party is in the White House, would do the same as Reagan when they are meeting with China virtually or in person,” Fu told a House Foreign Affairs Committee subcommittee hearing on Thursday. “That way [Chinese officials] can be reminded that this is serious, this is important.”

Sadly, Fu said, neither the current administration or any other since Reagan have prioritized and elevated human rights abuses in such a powerful way. Instead, when it comes to China, most of Washington has spent three decades pointedly looking the other way.

In late May of 1994, President Clinton abandoned a central foreign policy principle of his administration, announcing that he had decided to “de-link” China’s privileged trading status from its human rights record.

While Clinton acknowledged that China continued to commit serious human rights abuses, he said that broader American interests justify the policy reversal.

The pivot set the United States and other Western countries on a more conciliatory path with China. It also paved the way for China’s entry into the World Trade Organization, and in 2000, the United States granting Beijing permanent normal trade relations status, a legal designation allowing free trade between the two countries.

At the time, expanding U.S. business ties to China was a bipartisan cause. Led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, it allowed American companies to move their manufacturing operations to China to take advantage of its cheaper labor and production facilities.

“The premise of this policy was that if the West opened our markets to China, that the Chinese economy and society would liberalize and that [Chinese Communist Party] leaders would come to see the world as the way of the West, valuing democracy, rule of law, and critically human rights,” said Andrew Bremberg, who previously served as President Trump’s representative of the United States to the Office of the United Nations and is now the president of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. “We were wrong.”

Instead, Fu told the panel, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has increasingly asserted far more control, and Chinese citizens are now experiencing the worst period of persecution since Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution.

Over the last few years, the United States has acknowledged China’s genocide against the Uyghur Muslims, and has condemned Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s tightening of CCP control in Hong Kong and his war on religion and dissent of any type.

Human rights advocates are now urging the U.S. government to more aggressively confront China about the startling scale of its human rights abuses and the arbitrary imprisonment of dissidents.

On Thursday, Rep. Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican and longtime human rights champion, urged President Biden to meet with Geng He and Sophie Luo, the wives of two prominent human rights defenders detained by China. The pair provided emotional testimony before a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee that morning about their husbands’ confrontations with the CCP and their detainments and disappearances

Smith also called on China to disclose the location and legal status of some Chinese human rights attorneys who either represented religious minorities and other dissidents or led pro-democracy movements in China and have since disappeared.

The two women testified that the Obama and Biden White Houses have not reached out to them about the plight of their husbands despite many attempts over several years.

“That has to change,” Smith said, pledging to introduce legislation requiring the Biden administration to report to Congress on efforts to pressure China to free all prisoners of conscience.

Geng’s husband is Gao Zhisheng, a three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee nicknamed “China’s conscience.” Gao has been jailed and tortured for more than a decade with his ultimate fate—whether he is alive or dead—unknown to even his family.

“The United States must stand up to the Chinese Communist Party and make it clear that we will not ignore or trivialize these crimes,” Smith said.

Sophie’s husband, Ding Jiaxi, and another human rights attorney, Xu Zhiyong, earlier this month received sentences of more than a decade for “subversion of state power.”

Ding and Xu are leaders of the New Citizens Movement, an initiative advocating for Chinese citizens to demand the civil rights and rule of law guarantees spelled out in the Chinese constitution, including Article 35, which states that “citizens of the People’s Republic of China shall enjoy freedom of speech, the press, assembly, association, procession and demonstration.”

In his memoir, “A China More Just,” published in the United States in 2007, Gao credits his Christian faith and its teachings on morality and compassion for his commitment to defending other religious minorities and dissidents across China.

The lawyer, who was once recognized by China’s Ministry of Justice as “one of the country’s 10 best lawyers,” drew the CCP’s ire in 2005 by sending open letters to the Chinese government on behalf of practitioners of the Falun Gong. The spiritual discipline became so widespread and popular in the 1990s that the CCP viewed it as a threat and outlawed its practice in 1999.

In 2005, the CCP disbarred and shuttered Gao’s law firm. He escaped to northeastern China, where he was working with Falun Gong practitioners who said government security forces had tortured them.

In early 2006, Amnesty International said Gao narrowly escaped an assassination attempt by Chinese secret police, then launched a hunger strike, which was joined by people in 29 Chinese provinces and supporters overseas, with several Chinese participants jailed for their participation.

In August 2006, Gao disappeared while visiting his sister’s family. He was officially arrested later that year, convicted of subversion, and sentenced to three years in prison, which a judge suspended and replaced with probation for five years after he confessed to several errors. But Gao recanted that confession and began to openly renounce the Communist Party while writing open letters to Congress and the European Parliament calling for a boycott of the 2008 Olympics in China.

In February 2009, Gao was nabbed by Chinese security agents and was freed in 2017, but was then kidnapped again by secret agents with nothing heard from him for nearly six years. In 2009, Gao’s wife and children escaped to the United States, which granted them emergency asylum.

Over the years, Congress and the State Department have issued statements calling on Beijing to free Gao or disclose whether he is alive or dead, and if alive, at least allow U.S. embassy officials to visit him.

“I am very worried,” Geng, his wife, said Thursday, struggling to hold back tears. “Nearly six years have passed, and not only is there no arrest warrant, but no unit or organization has been responsible for Gao’s abduction. No one has seen him, no one has heard his voice, and no one has confirmed that he is still alive in this world.”

Since 2012, Geng says she has asked to meet with Biden to discuss her husband’s case, both during his presidency and while he served as vice president, to no avail. She also has urged Biden to press Gao’s case in meetings with Xi, which she believes never occurred.

Ding’s wife, Sophie Luo, who also escaped to the United States several years ago, on Thursday testified that “there is no justice” in China because the CCP has repeatedly violated its own Constitution and laws to silence and torture human rights lawyers and civil society activists.

“There is no justice or fairness involved—just authoritarian rule to maintain their corrupt power,” she told the panel.

Luo warned U.S. companies to be wary of doing business in a lawless country without respect for international legal standards where they could be arbitrarily detained or worse.

Even though tensions between Beijing and Washington are running high, the United States has plenty of economic levers to pressure China on human rights, advocates argue. In addition to the United States’ global influence, Bremberg noted that U.S. and Western investments in Chinese companies are bolstering China’s power and enabling human rights abuses, something Washington needs to reevaluate.

“The impunity with which the CCP has been able to commit these crimes thus far cannot persist,” he said.

Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics’ White House/national political correspondent. She previously served as a senior writer for the Washington Free Beacon, and spent five years as a White House Correspondent for the Washington Examiner.
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