Chen Guangcheng and Katrina Lantos Swett 9:13 a.m. EDT September 24, 2015
U.S. leaders should call for the release of imprisoned human rights lawyers.
During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first state visit to the U.S., the White House, the secretary of State and Congress should duly note a grim reality — Beijing’s recent, sweeping detention of human rights lawyers and activists.
China’s repressive crackdown makes both of us feel we are caught in a hall of mirrors, where the same scene is being played out without end.
For one of us, that scene is a replica of personal history, a time when world leaders initially responded with a deafening silence that must not be repeated today.
|(Photo: Ted S. Warren, AP)|
Since July 10, Chinese authorities have been detaining human rights lawyers and activists in unprecedented numbers. An estimated 250 have been taken into custody. Police and thugs are grabbing people from their homes and offices, and even from restaurants, without warning or rationale. They are being interrogated, threatened and accused of fabricated crimes. Many are being held without access to family, friends, legal representation, or any other semblance of due process under the law.
These circumstances are all too familiar to one of us. In 2005, authorities kidnaped Chen Guangcheng, a blind human rights activist from rural China, and detained him for months in an unknown location — a “black jail” without communication with his family or lawyers.
This was followed by a show trial — complete with manufactured evidence and paid witnesses — and more than four years of prison. After serving out his sentence to the day, he was held at home for over a year and a half, guarded 24 hours a day. He and his wife were beaten at random. It was only a harrowing escape that brought seven years of persecution to an end.
Beijing not only detains and imprisons with complete disregard for the rule of law, to this day it also tortures people to the point of emotional breakdown, as in the case of the all-star lawyer Gao Zhisheng, and even death, as with activist Cao Shunli.
The number of lawyers willing to take on human rights cases in China is small. They know the dangers they face. Many have assigned power of attorney as a precaution in case of arrest.
That the authorities have made such a broad sweep shows how they intend to intimidate as many as possible, dissuading others from human rights advocacy. And with their habit of zhulian, or implicating whole families and communities in their dragnet, the number of affected citizens is likely to be even greater than is reported in the West.
Those human rights defenders who bravely try to contact their imprisoned colleagues risk joining them in jail or face physical assault, as happened to Chen Guangcheng’s lawyers. We know of one lawyer who sought out detained human rights attorney Sui Muqing, only to be denied the right to visit his client.
It is no mystery why the Chinese authorities are launching this assault. It reveals an existential fear on the part of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The recent slowdown in China’s economy and stock market serves to intensify the government’s anxiety. Beijing is desperate to keep an iron thumb on an increasingly sophisticated and restive population. Like dictators everywhere, China’s leaders believe that targeting and imprisoning high-profile reformers will intimidate others into silence and acquiescence. That is why the budget of the CCP’s Orwellian named domestic “stability maintenance” force — in other words its secret police — actually exceeds China’s military budget. That is why the government continues to pass repressive laws and deploy an army of more than 100,000 Internet police and censors.
In the short run, repression could succeed, but in the long run, the Chinese Communist Party is sowing the seeds for precisely what it fears the most: instability and conflict. Leaders who cannot win their people’s hearts and minds will lose the battle for the future.
It is vital that political and civil society leaders in the West stand with China’s noble human rights defenders. We know — and in Guangcheng’s case from personal experience — that these embattled heroes draw the strength to go on from the knowledge that they are neither alone nor forgotten, and that those who live in freedom stand with them.
On the occasion of President Xi’s visit, the U.S. president, the secretary of State and congressional leaders should speak out against China’s flouting of its own laws and international obligations, and call on China to release these innocent prisoners and other prisoners of conscience. The U.S. and China seem to be drawing ever closer economically and culturally. Let us use this opportunity to influence China, and not the other way around, on human rights.
Chen Guangcheng, a Chinese human rights attorney, is founder of the Chen Guangcheng Foundation and author of The Barefoot Lawyer. Katrina Lantos Swett is president of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice.