Barack Obama held “candid” talks with Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping during the G20 Summit, the White House said Saturday, talks which were said to have briefly touched on the topic of human rights. But that didn’t seem to help China’s many dissidents.
In fact, the visit of the American president seems to have made the situation worse. Before Air Force One landed, there was a general round-up of political dissidents. According to Chinese Human Rights Defenders, Chinese police are known to have seized 42 activists in and around the city of Hangzhou prior to the Summit there. The human rights watchdog believes the actual number of those taken into custody to be much, much higher.
Only one of those swept up, an activist by the name of Shen Aibin, was formally arrested. Shen was charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” – an accusation so vague that it could be leveled against anyone who was in any way critical of the government – and is being held at the No. 2 Detention Center in Wuxi City near Hangzhou.
The whereabouts of most of the others are simply unknown. The authorities are holding most of them in one of the thousands of illegal “black jails” that have sprung up in China in recent years. Dissidents who have been “disappeared” in this way are outside of any legal protection—weak though these are in China—and at much greater risk of torture and ill treatment. Not to mention that they can be held indefinitely without charges or trials.
Past visits by U.S. senior officials have often been accompanied by the release of one or two high-profile detainees, and even by a general amnesty. In 2005, for example, days prior to a visit by then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, political prisoner Rebiya Kadeer was released from a Chinese prison and allowed to travel to the U.S. In releasing Rebiya, whom I have since gotten to know, the Chinese Party-State was seeking to defuse criticism of its human rights record by a Bush administration that consistently promoted freedom and human rights throughout its tenure.
A much different scenario unfolded in 2012 when Rice’s successor, Hillary Clinton, was slated to visit China. The blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng had just sought sanctuary at the U.S. Embassy. Famed for his extensive reports on human rights abuses in China’s one-child policy, Chen was initially welcomed within its walls. Within days, however, he was turned back over to the Chinese authorities.
Hillary Clinton was later to claim that Chen’s eventual release into exile was a major accomplishment of her time as secretary of state. She devotes an entire chapter of her 2014 book, Hard Choices, to the episode, using it to highlight her “defense of universal human rights.” She claims that she and her subordinates always tried to do what Chen said he wanted, but that he was “unpredictable and quixotic.”
This is not how Chen recalls it. According to his memoir, The Barefoot Lawyer, Clinton refused to stand up to China, wanting only to smooth over relations with the Beijing regime. As Chen later wrote, it was only thanks to “enormous pressure from Congress and the American public” that he was freed. Republicans like Chris Smith and Frank Wolf, along with Democrats like Jim McGovern, “proved to be principled and fearless friends of the Chinese people.” Clinton not so much.
Why has the human rights situation in China gotten so much worse in recent years? Most of the responsibility belongs to the new leader of the Chinese Communist Party. Xi Jinping deliberately models himself after the late Chairman Mao Zedong, who was one of the great mass murderers of the Twentieth Century.
Like Mao, Xi has launched a series of political campaigns against his real and perceived enemies. He has purged hundreds of thousands of officials he suspects of being disloyal, accusing them of corruption. He is tearing down crosses from Christian churches and, in defiance of Rome, anointing his own lapdog Catholic bishops. Under his direction, the Chinese Party-State is carrying out the most severe crackdown on dissidents of all stripes since the persecution that followed the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989.
But there is another factor at work here as well. The United States under Barack Obama is no longer the unapologetic beacon of liberty that it once was. In fact, the current occupant of the Oval Office goes around the world seeming to apologize for America’s very existence.
Our founding documents proclaim to the world that freedom is the universal right of all of God’s children, a message proudly repeated by every president up to the present one. Not so Obama, who would rather accuse the country that elected him of the “sins” of racism, sexism, and neocolonialism than, say, to hold up the Bill of Rights as a charter for all mankind.
If the President of the United States holds his own country and its principles in such disregard, why should the leaders of other nations like China respect our values and institutions?
When is the last time an American president was called “a son of a whore,” as Obama was by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte? When is the last time an American president was unable to disembark from Air Force One because his Chinese hosts refused to provide the necessary stairway?
One can’t imagine George W. Bush being deliberately insulted by the Chinese this way. Certainly Donald Trump would not have ignored such a provocation. In fact, he made it clear that if the Chinese refused to greet the President of the United States with the proper respect on future trips, he will simply order his pilot to take off again.
Obama, for his part, could have made the lives of China’s imprisoned dissidents – people like Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, now serving the seventh year of an 11-year prison sentence – better by simply asking about them by name.
But by largely ignoring China’s dissidents, and then going to China anyway, he arguably makes their lives worse.
Obama left China touting the climate change agreement that he and Xi signed. But instead of worrying so much about what the weather might be like a century from now, perhaps he should have tried to help the dissidents who are being arrested, mistreated, and tortured in China this very day?
Steven W. Mosher is the President of the Population Research Institute and the author of the forthcoming, The Bully of Asia.