Obama China trip: human rights activists face detention, warnings

As President Obama meets Chinese leaders and conducts youth forums, activists call on the US to take a tougher line with China on human rights.

While President Obama meets Chinese leaders and converses with handpicked groups of youths on his visit to China next week, another group of citizens expect to be staring at the walls of their apartments.

They are China's human rights activists, and to judge by past experience, those who are not in jail will find themselves under house arrest next week, to prevent them from causing any trouble.

"I would like President Obama to know that his arrival will cause various troubles for us [activists]," says Li Hai, who was not allowed outside during former President George Bush's visit here last year. "We will be deprived of our freedom."

"I expect the police to be on duty outside my door on the morning of Nov. 15," the day of Mr. Obama's arrival in China, adds Gao Hongming, who was imprisoned in 1994 for seeking to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

Twice this year, before the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre this past June and before the 60th anniversary of China's founding on Oct. 1, policemen accompanied Mr. Gao on obligatory trips outside the capital. "But since [Obama's] visit is very short, I don't think I will have to leave Beijing," Gao says.

During past trips by US leaders, community leaders have also been followed, detained, or warned to leave the capital. "The president's trip will put lawyers and NGOs – and the important work they do – at risk," says Sara Davis, head of Asia Catalyst, a New York group fostering NGOs in China.

Insufficient US pressure on human rights?

Human rights advocates both inside and outside China have expressed disappointment in the current US administration over its apparent reluctance to put pressure on Beijing to end human rights abuses.

Obama himself rejected that charge in an interview with Reuters before he left for Asia. "We believe in the values of freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of religion ... and there has not been a meeting with the Chinese delegation in which we didn't bring these issues up," he said.

There is no lack of issues to raise, the critics say. Over the past year, the Chinese authorities have disbarred some two dozen of the country's most active human rights lawyers, ratcheted up Internet censorship, jailed critics, and – according to Human Rights Watch – "disappeared" Uighur men and boys since violent riots broke out in the western region of Xinjiang in July.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, however, said on a visit here last February that human rights "can't interfere" with US efforts to enlist China's help in tackling climate change, the global recession, and security crises."

Such statements have fed "the overall impression at home and abroad ... that the US will no longer be the leader on human rights," complained a group of Chinese human rights advocates in an open letter to Obama last month.

Activists care about American voice

"Most Chinese activists really care about the American voice," says Yang Kuanxing, one of the letter's drafters. "We want to hear from the US."

"The Chinese government is now betting that President Obama won't raise human rights, while Chinese civil society activists, lawyers, and peaceful critics – the kind of people with whom the president typically aligns himself – are fervently hoping he will," says Kenneth Roth, head of Human Rights Watch.

"Obama should learn from President Reagan to have a serious conversation with the Chinese government about China's human rights issues," says Jiang Qisheng, another 1989 activist who has been under permanent surveillance since mid-May.

The plainclothes policeman at his front door, keeping him under house arrest, was removed on Oct. 4, Mr. Jiang says, "But they put a camera up outside my apartment" instead.

With Obama's visit approaching, he adds, it is only a matter of time before the policeman comes back to keep him indoors. "They will definitely send police to guard my door" he predicts.

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