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."
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.
The report also chronicled the missing: Julius Jia Zhiguo, an underground Catholic bishop arrested in March 2009; underground Catholic priests Zhang Li and Zhang Jianlin, detained by authorities in 2008; and Wu Qinjing, the bishop of Zhouzhi in Shaanxi Province, detained in 2007.
Human rights groups have chronicled other abuses in China, including the imprisonment of leaders of the Linfen Church in Shanxi Province. The U.S.-based ChinaAid reports that at least 10 leaders of the Christian church remain in prison and labor camps after their arrests last October.
Trouble began for the Linfen Church in September when some 400 officials and hired workers raided the church's construction site and severely injured more than 20 members. The church reported massive destruction by officials: destroyed buildings, looted property, smashed appliances, and destroyed personal belongings. ChinaAid reported that a mob reduced the church building to rubble.
Officials arrested church leaders on charges ranging from "disturbing the social order" to "unlawfully occupying agricultural land." A Chinese court sentenced pastor Yang Rongli to seven years in prison. The court sentenced four other leaders to sentences ranging from three years to five years and six months in prison. Officials sentenced five other leaders to two years of "re-education through labor." ChinaAid is assisting with appeals but reports that the process is moving slowly, and that prison conditions are worsening.
Freedom House-a human rights group in Washington-reported a string of human rights abuses by the Chinese government in its annual report and noted a troubling trend: "While these acts of repression are disturbing, so is the absence of protest from the democratic world."
The group noted that abuses of dissidents in the Soviet Union once drew widespread condemnation from international leaders: "China's current actions, by contrast, elicit little more than boilerplate criticism."
Human rights advocates have leveled similar charges against the Obama administration's approach to Iran. After hundreds of thousands of Iranian protesters poured into the streets of Tehran after dubious presidential elections last summer, Iranian officials violently cracked down, killing as many as 200 citizens and detaining as many as 4,000 demonstrators.
As the so-called "velvet revolution" unfolded, marking the largest outcry against the ruthless regime in 30 years, Obama was slow to voice support for dissidents, drawing criticism from human rights activists. The president said he wanted to avoid becoming a foil for Iranian forces in an internal conflict.
That conflict continued to unfold, and the U.S. State Department chronicled Iranian abuses in its 2009 report, despite the administration's restrained approach. The report cited a litany of severe Iranian abuses: "The government executed numerous persons for criminal convictions as juveniles and after unfair trials. Security forces were implicated in custodial deaths and the killings of elections protesters and other acts of politically motivated violence, including torture, beatings, and rape. . . . Authorities held political prisoners and intensified a crackdown against women's rights reformers, ethnic minority rights activists, student activists, and religious minorities."
In May, Freedom House condemned the execution of five more political prisoners and said dozens more are on death row. Golnaz Esfandiari-an Iranian journalist for Radio Free Europe-told the Heritage Foundation in June: "Iran today is a prison."
The Obama administration's reluctance to speak forcefully about human rights abuses in Iran is likely tied to efforts to persuade the regime to back off its development of nuclear weapons. So far, it isn't working: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad remains defiant and continues development.
Jim Phillips-senior research fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs at the Heritage Foundation-says that the administration's reluctance to address human rights abuses in Iran is "due to expediency and wishful thinking." He adds: "It undermines an opportunity to make it clear that we're on the side of the Iranian people."
Political considerations also likely undergird the administration's muted approach to human rights in other regimes: China holds a massive chunk of American debt and remains a key player in the global economy. Obama also promised an open-handed approach if harsh governments would unclench their fists. So far, fists remain clenched in regions around the world, including parts of Africa, Russia, Asia, and the Middle East.
Human rights activists say that speaking publicly about specific cases-and offering assistance to pro-democracy groups in oppressed countries-bolsters beleaguered dissidents and strengthens America's ability to continue to advocate for justice in severe cases of abuse.
In a July speech in the U.S. House, Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., called for the Obama administration to "find its voice" on human rights, and said he recently met with two human rights lawyers visiting the United States for legal training: "The lawyers said quite pointedly that their lives improve, and those of their cohorts in prison or facing pressure by the Chinese government, when the West speaks out for their plight and raises their cases by name."
Other dissidents agree. Adrian Hong-a Chinese activist imprisoned in 2006 for helping North Koreans escape the country-spoke at an April conference for dissidents at the Bush Institute in Texas. Hong told former President George W. Bush: "When I was released [after 10 days] I was told that it was because of very strong messaging from the White House and the culture you set."
Syrian dissident Ahed Al-Hendi told the gathering that human rights advocacy had declined since Bush's departure: "In Syria, when a single dissident was arrested during the administration of George W. Bush, at the very least the White House spokesman would condemn it. Under the Obama administration-nothing."
Wolf says that sluggishness over human rights is part of a "bipartisan apathy," and he calls for more action from both Democrats and Republicans. But he says Obama must set the tone for an effective human rights agenda: "It's got to come from the top."
Hillary Clinton showed a willingness to help set the tone during a July visit to Vietnam. The secretary of state publicly expressed concerns about intolerance for dissent, and she called on the deputy prime minister, Pham Gia Khiem, to promote greater freedoms in a country full of human rights abuses and oppression of religious freedom.
Groups like the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom are waiting to see if the State Department is willing to take the next step: adding Vietnam to its list of countries of particular concern for human rights abuses.
Back in China, Yu-the dissident writer-is concerned about his future, but determined to continue speaking out against communism and to advocate for religious freedom. When a security official urged Yu to back off his Christian activities and said he should obey the Bible's command to submit to authority, Yu says he replied: "We must obey God rather than men."
Harry Wu-founder of the D.C.-based Laogai Research Foundation-says his group is committed to helping Yu continue to write and publish. Wu is concerned about his friend, but he says Yu is "a very courageous man." He hopes that the United States will speak more openly about abuses in China and for cases like Yu: "Why do we keep quiet?"
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