When talking about human rights issues in China, United States officials are often prone to hedge their language—to convey a sense of U.S. values, but not be perceived as threatening by the regime.
Not Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ). On a recent trip to China, Rep. Smith gave a speech titled “A Duty to Defend Universally Recognized Rights,” in which he referred to “female gendercide” and a litany of other official abuses.
Predictably, he was ignored in the press—which is often given censorship and propaganda commands about what it can and cannot report—and flamed online by Internet users that seemed particularly supportive of the positions of the Chinese Communist Party.
Rep. Smith’s was nearing the end of his 5-day trip to China, visiting NYU-Shanghai China upon the invitation of the school’s Vice-Chancellor Jeffrey Lehman.
“Over the past several years, I’ve heard the same thing—human rights conditions have gotten worse,” said Rep. Smith, who had been in China four times before, but was back for the first time since 2008, when he was denied a visa.
“Human rights lawyers are ‘disappeared’ for simply trying to represent the poor and vulnerable. Labor rights advocates are targeted, academics and students muzzled, civil society and ethnic minorities increasingly are viewed as a security threat,” Rep. Smith said.
Since last July, over 300 lawyers, legal assistants, staff members of law firms, and social activists, have been detained and interrogated by Chinese security forces. One of the most prominent lawyers, Wang Yu, was formally charged on suspicion of “subversion of state power” in January of this year. If convicted, Wang faces a potential life sentence.
Rep. Smith added that “Religious freedom—the universally recognized human right to peacefully exercise faith in God—has not yet improved in China, and I join with many around the world and in China in an appeal to President Xi to safeguard this internationally-recognized human right.”
Rep. Smith also condemned the Chinese regime’s use of forced abortion and ongoing labor abuses.
State news outlets ignored Rep. Smith’s trip, and it received almost no play in the media. It was unclear if this was due to official orders or simply a lack of interest. Audience participation gave no sign of the latter, however: Rep. Smith’s website refers to a “standing room only crowd” who came to hear him speak.
Guancha, a news website partially owned by the state-affiliated Shanghai Federation of Social Science Associations, published an article calling Smith an “anti-China adept,” and asked why “someone who obviously doesn’t like you still comes to your house and scolds you.”
On Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-like service, nearly all the comments about the Congressman were negative. It is unclear if comments favorable to the Congressman had been censored, but it was clear that Party’s online propaganda unit, known as the “50 Cent Army” was felt to be in full swing, as evidenced by one remark left by a netizen from Shandong: “Too many 50 centers have polluted the online environment.”
One netizen from Shandong Province, who may or may not have been a paid pro-regime commentator, said: “Doesn’t this show that China has freedom of speech?”
Another user, who may or may not have been satirizing the paid commentators, wrote: “China and North Korea are the countries most concerned with human rights.”