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Silence equals death

Human Rights | Activists say the downplaying of human rights concerns by the Obama administration has not led to better relations with the world's most violent regimes

Issue: "Crossing the Rubiocon," Aug. 14, 2010

When six Chinese security officials arrived at Yu Jie's front door in the Chaoyang District on July 5, the dissident writer was editing an article with a lengthy but provocative title: "Terminating the State Security Bureau is the First Step Toward a Lasting Good Social Order."

The article is part of a book Yu plans to release through a Hong Kong publisher. The book-China's Best Actor: Wen Jiabao-is a criticism of the Chinese premier that won't find a willing publisher in the state-controlled environment of China's communist regime.

As security officials whisked Yu to an interrogation room at the nearby Dougezhuang Police Station, the outspoken Christian says he offered a simple prayer: "Almighty Lord, please grant me courage and wisdom to say what I should say, remain silent on what I should not say, and defeat the darkness and the evil."

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Call it the dissident's prayer: It's a plea echoed by endangered activists all over China and other oppressive regimes. But it's also the dissident's prod: Yu's prayer serves as a spur for leaders in free countries to speak wisely on behalf of those otherwise silenced by oppressive governments.

More than 18 months after President Barack Obama took office, Yu and other human activists say the prodding isn't working. They say that the Obama administration has made a slow start on human rights, and that U.S. officials are reluctant to speak publicly about specific cases, even as officials in high-profile regimes like China and Iran continue to commit egregious abuses against their own citizens.

Human rights activists worry that the low-key approach could leave thousands suffering in silence, with little open objection from the outside world. Foreign policy experts warn that the approach could undermine U.S. foreign policy instead of bolstering better relations with harsh regimes that show little willingness to change.

The U.S. government has a long history of defending dissent. Six of the most famous words uttered by President Ronald Reagan rang in the ears of some 20,000 Germans gathered in 1987 at the Berlin Wall. Addressing Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Reagan demanded: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

More than 20 years later, Yu doesn't expect a similar challenge to China from Obama. In an article recounting his recent interrogation by Chinese security officials, Yu quotes one Chinese officer telling him: "Since Obama came to power, the American embassy no longer keeps in touch with you. America is not reliable."

Yu says he told the officer he would criticize communism regardless of American policy toward China, but conceded: "Since Obama became president, he hasn't cared about Chinese human rights issues."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton didn't help that perception during her first visit to China last year. The top U.S. diplomat told reporters that human rights were important, but that those issues couldn't interfere with such issues as the economy, security, and global warming.

Obama improved the rhetoric during a trip to China last November, briefly speaking of the value of "universal rights," but the president avoided publicly addressing specific cases of abuse or holding meetings with dissidents, breaking with a common practice of President George W. Bush. A White House official told reporters that Obama privately spoke about several dissidents' cases with Chinese President Hu Jintao.

The U.S. State Department also seems to prefer private talks with the Chinese government, though officials have publicly mentioned at least two dissident cases: Jon Huntsman, the U.S. ambassador to China, has publicly called for the release of Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese dissident sentenced to 11 years in prison for co-authoring the Charter 08 petition for political freedom.

Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner told reporters in May that U.S. officials had also spoken with the Chinese government about Gao Zhisheng-a high-profile human rights lawyer seized by authorities in 2009. Gao's fate remains unclear.

But for every Liu and Gao, there are many more political prisoners remaining in Chinese prisons. Posner declined to mention other specific cases in his May press conference, saying only that U.S. officials prefer to raise the issues in private.

It's not that the State Department doesn't know about the abuses. In its 2009 annual report, the department catalogued a series of Chinese abuses, including "extrajudicial killings, executions without due process, torture and coerced confessions of prisoners, and use of forced labor."

The report included names of the dead: Li Qiaoming, a prisoner reportedly beaten to death in Yunnan Province; Li Wenyan, a prisoner who died in Jiangxi Province after officials neglected a series of health problems; Phuntsok Rabten, a Tibetan monk beaten to death by police in Sichuan Province.


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