Before Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping even set foot in California, protesters were already assembled near the Sunnylands estate, in the hot California desert, where Xi and U.S. President Barack Obama are holding their two day summit over June 7 and 8.
The protesters gathered at a time when Obama has been strongly called upon to do more to support human rights in China, most recently by outspoken New Jersey congressman Chris Smith, who brought the topic up in a House session on June 6, calling China the “torture capital of the world.”
“A robust discussion of human rights abuses in China must be on the agenda and not in a superfluous or superficial way,” Smith said. “It’s time for President Obama to cease his numbing indifference toward the victims of Beijing’s abuse. Can a government—no, read that, dictatorship—that crushes the rights and freedoms of its own people be trusted on trade and security?”
Smith also cited the ethnic minorities, political and religious dissidents, and human rights defenders that were the victims of the Chinese regime’s persecution—many of whose representatives had gathered in the desert 100 degree sun to greet Xi Jinping.
On Thursday, roughly 150 Falun Gong practitioners gathered near the entrance of the estate in the city of Rancho Mirage, along with a small group of people remembering the victims who died when the Chinese regime suppressed the 1989 democracy protests in Tiananmen Square. A group of Falun Gong practitioners also assembled in front of the Hyatt Regency Indian Wells Resort and Spa Hotel that Xi will be staying in.
Jiang Pinchao was imprisoned for four years because he participated in the 1989 student democracy protests. He is now the director of the June Fourth Heritage and Culture Association based in Los Angeles. Jiang, who was at the estate premises on Thursday, spoke through a translator: “They [students in 1989] wanted the constitution for the people of China, and they wanted anti-corruption. But after that, you know what happened, the bloodshed and everything. That’s why we are here, to protest, because of the new president, Xi Jinping. The past years and years, it’s always lip service only, there’s no change. But with the new government we are demanding change. “
Falun Gong is a spiritual practice with traditional Chinese beliefs that gained popularity in China during the 90s but was banned by the Chinese regime in 1999. Since then, practitioners in China have faced severe persecution.
Falun Gong practitioners who were tortured while imprisoned in China for their faith have since found refuge in the United States and spoke at a press conference on Thursday evening. Organized by Falun Gong practitioners from the San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego area, the group called for an end to the persecution and for the perpetrators within the Chinese leadership to be brought to justice.
Ma Chunmei, who traveled to California from her home in Washington D.C., was sentenced to the Hei Zuizi Women’s Labor Camp in Jilin Province after she traveled to Beijing to petition for ending the persecution. She was forced to labor for 18 to 19 hours a day, making disposable chopsticks, toothpicks, and trinkets in unsanitary conditions. When she came to the United States, Ma saw in American stores the same type of toothpicks she had made in the labor camp.
Later, when she refused to sign a statement renouncing her faith, she was severely beaten, at one point to near death. “They kept beating me with an electric baton, and pulled my hair and then knocked my head against the wall. I would pass out, and when I woke up, they would beat me again. I didn’t even know for how long they beat me.” She urged Xi to stop the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners in China, including her younger sister Ma Chunling, who is still being detained at the Masanjia Labor Camp in Liaoning Province.
On Friday, the first day of the Obama-Xi meeting, Tibetan groups, Vietnamese groups, Falun Gong practitioners, and Chinese democracy groups from across California gathered along Bob Hope Drive near the estate. Despite the triple-digit degree weather, the atmosphere was active and loud. Tibetan and Vietnamese groups held up flags, placards, and banners while shouting chants during their rally. Falun Gong practitioners were seen practicing their exercise movements.
Prior to the protest near the estate, several Tibetan and Chinese democracy groups held a press conference at the Thousand Palms Community Center to unveil a sculpture by the Chinese artist Weiming. He said he hopes the piece of artwork will serve as a sign of “the Han people’s support for our Tibetan friends, as well as our memorial and symbol of admiration for them, because the price they paid for freedom is simply too heavy.”
Near the estate on Friday, Tenzin Gyaltsen of the Students for Free Tibet in the Bay Area said he hopes President Obama can “take a stand on Tibet” because the Chinese regime’s repressive policies there have already pushed 118 Tibetans to self-immolate in protest. Tibetans cannot learn their own language and are prohibited from practicing their religion, while calling out “Long live the Dalai Lama” can lead to a prison sentence, he said.
Giovanni Vassallo, president of the Bay Area Friends of Tibet, said the situation in Tibet has become worse since Xi took office. Since Xi took power, and since the People’s Liberation Army began having a large military presence in the region, 44 Tibetans have self-immolated.
He said, “the way China has responded so far to any type of peaceful dissent is only with more brutality, more repression.” As an activist, it was “extremely troubling” to find that as he and his organization worked harder for Tibetans’ freedom, the situation has worsened.
Vietnamese groups were there to protest China’s continued aggression in the South China Sea. Both Vietnam and China claim ownership of parts of the Paracel and Spratly Islands, but in recent years, Chinese vessels have attacked Vietnamese fishermen who fish in waters that Vietnam says is within their economic zone.
Fang Zheng was a student protester in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and lost both his legs after they were crushed by a tank. Now residing in California, he hopes he and other democracy activists’ presence will allow Xi Jinping to hear more closely “their cries for rehabilitating June 4.” Given the Chinese regime’s heavy censorship and denial of the crackdown in 1989, Fang hopes Obama will ask Xi to openly address the issue of the June 4 Incident.
Protests are expected to continue on Saturday, Xi’s second day of visit.
With reporting by Albert Roman and Robin Kemker. Alice Su from NTD Television contributed reporting.