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Smith, Merkley to Biden: Press Xi on Political Prisoners, Human Rights

November 09, 2023

When President Biden sits down next week with Chinese President Xi Jinping, as expected, top human rights advocates in Congress want him armed with a list of American and Chinese political prisoners and to press for their freedom as a critical part of any good faith effort to reduce tensions between Washington and Beijing.

Rep. Chris Smith and Sen. Jeffrey Merkley, the top Republican and Democrat on the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, are calling on Biden to raise these human rights cases directly with Xi and other top Chinese officials during the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation trade summit set to take place Nov. 15-17 in San Francisco.

“The [People’s Republic of China] government and its security forces use intimidation and other tactics to coerce family members abroad into silence,” Smith and Merkley wrote in a letter to Biden sent Wednesday. “We ask that your administration be their voice both in seeking regular contact with their family members and to allow them the freedom of speech, religion, and movement guaranteed by international law.”

The meeting between Biden and Xi is only the second in-person discussion the two leaders will have had in three years. It’s taking place at a crucial time – after a six-month push by U.S. officials to engage Beijing through a series of cabinet-level visits after a diplomatic crisis in February when the U.S. shot down a Chinese spy balloon in U.S. airspace.

Some international relations experts view Xi’s plans to meet with Biden as a sign that he, too, is trying to tamp down international concern over Beijing’s threats against Taiwan and its newly formed political, military, and security alliances with Russia and Iran in opposition to the West. However, many in the human rights community remain highly doubtful the meeting will produce any breakthroughs.

During the Reagan administration and the first years of George H.W. Bush’s presidency, the U.S. government presented a list of political prisoners to the Chinese government, an act human rights activists long regarded as the most crucial part of the dialogues between the two geopolitical rivals. Yet, the practice began to wane after the passage of several massive trade deals opening up business ties between the two nations in the early 2000s.

Smith, who chairs the CECC, and Merkley argue it’s time to restart the practice. The pair submitted a list of 40 American and Chinese political prisoners to the White House for Biden’s consideration. The compilation includes a small selection of individuals arbitrarily detained, including American citizens wrongfully jailed or under house arrest in China and political prisoners representing “a wide spectrum of Chinese society, covering Uyghurs, and Tibetans, Hong Kongers, Chinese human rights defenders, Christians and adherents of other religious faiths,” Smith and Merkley said in their letter.

“Now, as the PRC officials hint at a willingness to resume dialogue with other countries on human rights, it is more important than ever to shine a light on the cases of individual detainees by submitting a list of political prisoners,” they wrote, noting that human rights organization have found that the inclusion of individuals’ names on prisoner lists triples their chance for clemency from Chinese officials. “We believe that by raising these cases, you can make a positive impact on prisoners’ lives and the lives of their families, and hopefully, we can bring about their release from politically motivated detention.”

The CECC list begins with three American citizens imprisoned in China – all of whom the State Department’s Office of Special Presidential Envoy on hostage affairs has officially designated as “wrongfully” detained. They include David Lin, a 67-year-old pastor from California who has been jailed in China since 2006. Chinese authorities convicted Lin on alleged “fraud” charges and sentenced him to life in prison, although last year it was reduced to a release date of 2029. The others are Texan Mark Swidan, who Chinese authorities have held for more than 11 years, and Kai Li, who has been jailed for seven years on espionage charges.

“My dad is a senior, he’s over 65. He’s frail and not in the best health,” Lin’s daughter, Alice Lin, told RealClearPolitics. “He’s already missed so much of our lives, having been away for 15 years. I don’t know how much longer he can last. We just want [Biden] to petition for him and bring him home.” 

Harrison Li, Kai Li’s son, and his family have repeatedly pressed the Biden administration – publicly and privately – to follow through on their promise to make “substantive progress” to secure his freedom. Harrison Li has tweeted and written several letters, expressing his deep frustration over seeing American hostages return from Iran, Venezuela, and Russia while his father remains imprisoned in China. In his latest letter to Biden, he specifically calls on the president to secure his father’s release before meeting with Xi in San Francisco. 

“This lack of progress is yet another instance where our family has been strung along by our government without real action,” Li told RCP. “Without a clear, successful effort at resolution prior to APEC, my father’s freedom remains at the mercy of the larger geopolitical winds that will blow unpredictably following next week.” 

One of the Chinese dissidents on the CECC list is Peng Lifa, a physicist and democracy activist who posted banners on a bridge in Beijing last year, denouncing China’s zero-COVID policy and labeling Xi a “national traitor” for his repressive policies. The messages demanding rights and political reforms sparked protests throughout China, which have been referred to as the “white paper” protests. Smith and Merkley nominated Peng for the Nobel Peace Prize and continue to press for his release.

Another is Gulshan Abbas, a retired medical doctor who Chinese authorities detained in September 2018, less than a week after her sister, Rushan Abbas, then a broadcaster for Radio Free Asia, spoke at a D.C. think tank about Uyghur rights issues. The Chinese government sentenced Abbas’ sister to 20 years in prison on “terrorism” charges in what human rights advocates describe as a “sham trial.” Abbas believes her sister has been pressed into forced labor as part of the Chinese prison system and is likely producing goods that U.S. customers are purchasing and consuming.

Rushan Abbas has since founded the Campaign for Uyghurs to advocate for her sister’s freedom and the nearly 1 million persecuted Uyghurs who have been forced into labor camps by Chinese authorities. The Biden and Trump administrations both formally declared that China is carrying out genocide against its Uyghur population.

“President Biden must convey his awareness of these situations and state his unwavering commitment to securing the release of all those arbitrarily detained,” Rushan Abbas told RCP in an email.

She urged Biden to emphasize that family members of U.S. citizens should not be held hostage or subjected to punishment as a form of transnational repression in response to their family members’ exercise of First Amendment rights in the United States.

“My sister’s case vividly illustrated how Xi’s influence extends across oceans, attempting to stifle my voice as an American citizen,” she added.

The CECC’s letter also highlights the plight of Wang Yi, the influential pastor of a large, unregistered Protestant House church. Wang and 100 members of his congregation were detained in December 2018, one day before the Chinese government banned his church, the Early Rain Covenant, amid a crackdown on unregistered churches. 

Authorities refused to allow the lawyer who Wang’s family hired to represent him at trial, ultimately sentencing him to nine years in prison on the charges of “inciting subversion of state power,” a national security offense. Since his initial detention in 2018, officials have only allowed Wang a single visit with his wife, Jiang Rong, and have not allowed him any contact with his son. The U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has determined that Wang was arbitrarily detained.

“Nobody has seen Wang in two years. We don’t even know what his status is, what his physical and mental health conditions are like,” said Dr. Rana Inboden, a distinguished scholar at the Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas. “He never should have been arrested, so we’re calling for his release. But he should be allowed visits from his family, access to pen and paper and a Bible.” 

Corey Jackson, a senior pastor at Trinity Park Church in North Carolina, got to know Wang through his role as a U.S.-based strategic adviser for a network of unregistered house churches in China. Before Wang became a pastor, he was a human-rights activist who was deeply familiar with the Chinese constitution and was known worldwide for his writings and work, even attending a White House meeting with President George W. Bush in 2006.

Anticipating his arrest and trial, Wang wrote an essay titled “My Declaration of Faith Disobedience,” which he directed supporters to release if and when authorities had detained him for more than 48 hours. It has been read hundreds of thousands of times in more than 100 countries. 

“He would educate people about the Bible, but also educate them about their rights as human beings created in God’s image, and also as Chinese citizens,” Jackson said. “He’s been referred to as the Dr. King of the Chinese House church movement because he writes so well, so compellingly.” 

Jackson and other religious freedom and human rights activists argue that the Chinese authorities are targeting intellectual leaders like Wang, who challenge and threaten the government’s authority and represent a movement it’s trying to quash.

Chinese police arrested Ekber Eset, founder and CEO of a popular Uyghur language website, in April 2016 on suspicion of “inciting ethnic hatred.” Eset is one of at least six Uyghur webmasters and writers detained between March and May of 2016. Officials detained Eset weeks after attending a U.S. leadership program organized by the State Department. In January 2019, Chinese authorities told a U.S. senator that Eset had received a 15-year sentence. His U.S.-based sister, Rayhan Asat, has campaigned for his release.

Despite the chorus of U.S. voices advocating for these political prisoners’ release ahead of Biden’s meeting with Xi, the administration is walking a cautious line and appears to be trying to lower expectations ahead of the summit. On Wednesday, Reuters reported that no “grand bargains appear in the offing.” 

The State Department decided to invite the financial chair of the Hong Kong government, which launched a crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in 2019, to attend the APEC summit despite calls from Capitol Hill and the human rights community to snub the Chinese territory entirely.

The Department portrayed the invitation as a compromise because it did not invite Hong Kong’s chief executive, John Lee, who is under heavy U.S. sanctions, along with 10 other Hong Kong and Chinese officials over the crackdown. 

But the move angered several human rights organizations and members of Congress, including Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, and Rep. Mike Gallagher, a Wisconsin Republican who chairs the Select Commission on China. The pair accused the State Department of possibly deceiving them that it would not invite a member of the Hong Kong government. 

“The State Department either deliberately lied to or misled Congress in July or later caved to the PRC demand, or both,” Rubio and Gallagher said in a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken. 

Rubio and Gallagher may never know whether the Biden administration caved to direct or more subtle Chinese pressure over the Hong Kong invite. The Chinese government has carefully tried to avoid international forums where their actions are condemned after a United Nations Human Rights sub-commission passed a resolution censoring Beijing over Tiananmen Square in 1989. 

Ever since, Beijing has studiously avoided multilateral discussions over its treatment of dissidents and minorities and pressed Western countries only to bring those criticisms up in close-door, bilateral human rights dialogues. Those types of human-rights dialogues between China and foreign governments were frequent, occurring more than 120 times in the late 1980s and 1990s, according to the Dui Hua Foundation, a human rights organization that compiles its own political prisoner lists. 

Back then, those private, high-level diplomatic dialogues regularly included the presentation of prisoner lists. And China, deeply worried about its trade privileges with other countries, including its Most Favored Nation status in the U.S., made several concessions, including releasing dozens of political prisoners. 

But as time went by, after China attained Permanent Normal Trade Relations Status in 2000 and entered the World Trade Organization a year later, it didn’t make as many concessions on political prisoners and held fewer and fewer bilateral human rights dialogues. 

Inboden argues that doing so has only enabled Beijing’s brutal crackdown on human rights over the last decade and Xi’s leadership. The United States and other countries, she said, are kowtowing to Beijing’s demands to keep discussions about human rights violations at lower-level diplomatic meetings rather than between heads of state. 

“We have had presidents or national security advisers raising these kinds of cases with [Chinese] leaders,” she said. “Have we seen it recently? No. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t happen. It should happen, and maybe part of the problem is the U.S. has been too fearful of angering China to consistently raise these cases at high levels.” 


This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.

Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics' White House/national political correspondent.

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