FPI Bulletin: U.S. Should Stand Up for Chinese Human Rights Lawyer

December 11, 2015

On Monday, China will put a leading human rights lawyer on trial.  Pu Zhiqiang was detained on May 6, 2014 after participating in a small, private discussion about the 25th anniversary of the massacre around Tiananmen in June 1989.  He now faces eight years in jail due to postings on “micro blogs” – akin to tweets – in which he criticized the Communist Party.  In detention, he has been subjected to prolonged interrogation and inadequate medical care for diabetes.

Pu came to prominence for defending the authors of a book critical of a local party official against defamation charges.  He has defended both ordinary citizens and party officials in cases involving extra-judicial punishment.  His approach to changing the mindset of those who uphold China’s Communist Party rule has been creative; in the past, he set aside a conference room in his law office to show the security agents minding him The Lives of Others – the 2006 film about an East German security agent transformed by the experience of eavesdropping on a dissident playwright.

American administrations of both political parties have tried to advance the idea of the rule of law in China, an objective that supports the efforts of those like Mr. Pu, but which is unacceptable to Chinese leaders for whom the Party is supreme. Every phase of China’s “rights defense” or wei quan movement, that seeks to use existing laws and the constitution to protect individual rights, has been met with repression. 

The latest clampdown came last summer when Beijing rounded up some 200 human rights lawyers and advocates.  One of these is Wang Yu.  Ms. Wang has defended Ilham Tohti, the imprisoned Uighur intellectual and Cao Shunli, a human rights activist who died after mistreatment in a Chinese jail in 2014.  She is included in the Obama Administration’s  #Freethe20 social media campaign announced just weeks before General Secretary Xi Jinping was received at a state dinner at the White House.  While announcing the initiative, UN Ambassador Samantha Power would not say, however, whether the President or other senior officials would raise individual cases like Ms. Wang or Mr. Pu.

Human Rights Watch has put forward “one simple, evocative step” America’s ambassador to Beijing, and those from other democracies can do: turn up at the courthouse, Beijing Municipal No. 2 Intermediate Courthouse to observe Pu’s trial. “Not only would this significantly raise the price for Beijing as it calculates just how long to lock Pu away,” writes Sophie Richardson, HRW’s China director, it would also send a powerful message of support to those facing similar reprisals as Pu.” 

In a twist on the “naming and shaming” human rights groups use to call out abusers, she has identified by name the 36 ambassadors to Beijing from democratic countries that engage in human rights dialogues with China and called on them to attend the trial. The list includes envoys from all 28 members of the European Union, plus Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland, and the United States. These ambassadors would honor themselves and their countries by attending the trial. 

If the Obama administration wants Chinese communist leaders and Chinese citizens to believe America is sincere about human rights, freedom of expression and the rule of law, then U.S. Ambassador Max Baucus should attend Pu’s trial on Monday.  If Secretary Kerry wants to demonstrate to Beijing that that the U.S. other democratic countries share something more important than the desire to trade with Beijing, he will call his counterparts on the other 35 countries engaged in human rights “dialogues” with Beijing and ask that they too send their top diplomats to the trial. If they are not admitted, they should stand outside and resist any effort to force them to leave.  It is widely believed that human rights dialogues with Beijing are ineffectual. Perhaps they would not be if the governments involved chose to show solidarity with Pu Zhiqiang and other heroes of China’s human rights movement. 

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Addendum – Full List of Democratic Countries Engaged in Human Rights Dialogues with China:

Austria, Australia, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, European Union, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, United States

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