Rights groups ask to weigh in at White House ahead of Xi Jinping visit

Journalists, lawyers, and religious minorities have all raised concerns over China's crackdown on civil society. President Xi is making his first state visit to Washington this month.

Pablo Martinez/AP/File
President Barack Obama met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing last November. President Xi will be in Washington later this month.

Nine prominent human rights groups want an invitation to visit the White House ahead of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit this month to acknowledge China’s crackdown on civil society that they say is taking place with “a ferocity unseen in the past two decades.” 

In a letter released Wednesday, they point to a host of new forms of “persecution” of groups they say most share the values of the United States. These include 250 human rights lawyers rounded up in China this summer, new laws that hamper NGOs and make criticism of the state a crime, the persecution of religious believers, and the ongoing imprisonment of Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo.

The letter is addressed to President Barack Obama, with the lead signatory being Human Rights Watch. Other signees include organizations representing Tibet, the Uighur minority in China, Christians, and journalists. It asks the president to welcome “peaceful lawyers, writers, activists, and religious leaders into the White House and thereby stand with civil society against Beijing's repression.”

The question of how to emphasize human rights has been a challenge for US administrations since China’s opening a quarter-century ago. Some analysts say it is an unwise provocation, while others argue the US is the only nation large enough to press the issue without retribution from Beijing.

The suggestion of welcoming rights activists ahead of the Obama-Xi meeting comes as The New York Times reports that Xi’s delegation, which features Chinese technology moguls, will first stop in Seattle to meet with the executives of Microsoft, Google, and other top US tech firms – ahead of a visit to the White House that is likely to raise concerns over cybersecurity. As The Times reports:

As President Xi Jinping of China prepares for his first state visit … Washington has warned that it could hit Chinese companies with sanctions over digital attacks for trade secrets. Beijing is now pushing back in an unorthodox way: by organizing a technology forum to demonstrate its own sway over the American tech industry. 

The Times today also pointed to fears among journalists and financial institutions in China. Chinese authorities arrested 197 people and forced a public confession by one journalist accused of spreading rumors that purportedly led to China’s recent stock market collapse.

The Communist Party’s response to China’s monthslong stock market crisis has been swift and forceful. In addition to spending as much as $235 billion to buy shares and bolster prices, the authorities have imposed a range of extraordinary restrictions on the sale of stocks — and backed them with the full weight of a security apparatus usually more focused on political dissent than equity trades.

Civil society advocates are a particular concern for rights groups. The sudden arrest this summer of most lawyers willing to take cases involving religious rights, the environment, and political opposition has been seen as an area Obama would be especially sympathetic to, given his background as a lawyer and constitutional scholar. The letter to him points out that 22 lawyers rounded up in August are still missing. 

Radio Free Asia reports that one of the missing lawyers is Zhang Kai, who had been working with evangelicals. In the past year, Chinese authorities have pushed against Christians and torn down hundreds of their church crosses in the coastal province of Zhejiang.

Zhang Kai had recently been based in Zhejiang's coastal city of Wenzhou, known as "China's Jerusalem," to offer pro bono advice to more than 100 Protestant churches facing the removal of their crosses and the detention of pastors, lay preachers, and church members.

He was taken away by state security police alongside two legal assistants on Aug. 25, sources told RFA at the time.

Xi's visit is set for late September and comes after last week's giant military parade in Beijing to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. The parade took place as Chinese naval vessels sailed in the Bering Sea, off the coast of Alaska, as Obama took a rare trip to the Arctic circle.

The Christian Science Monitor noted that, "Pentagon officials said China’s Navy had every right to patrol international waters, noting the US did the same off the coast of China. But they described the move as a first, and one that showed China’s growing capability as a naval force able to project power."

Evan Osnos, writing in the New Yorker, pointed out that the military parade needed to be a big hit for domestic audiences, since there has been an increasing black mood over the stock market collapse in China over the past two months.

Others have registered their doubts about China’s economy more quietly. Money is leaving the country. China’s foreign-exchange reserves have shrunk by more than three hundred and forty-one billion dollars since reaching a level of nearly four trillion last year. This week, Goldman Sachs economists estimated that the pace of money leaving China may have accelerated to “possibly between $150 billion and $200 billion” since the currency devalued, on August 11th, and state-backed economists (who tend not to speak without evidence to support their claims) are predicting that more is yet to come.

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