When Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives in California on Friday for weekend meetings with President Barack Obama, he’ll enjoy lush accommodations at a private estate near Palm Springs: Sunnylands’ 200 acres include gardens, pools, 850 olive trees, Mexican lava stone walls, a 25,000-square foot house, and sweeping views of the Santa Rosa Mountains.
More than 6,000 miles away, Chinese dissident Gao Zhisheng likely will spend another day in a sparse prison cell in a remote region of western China, enduring an open-ended prison term for criticizing China’s human rights abuses.
The question: Will Gao’s predicament surface at Sunnylands’ retreat?
Dozens of human rights advocates hope so. A group of 30 non-government organizations (NGOs)—including Christian groups, human rights organizations, and religious freedom groups—have called on President Obama to ask for the release of 16 Chinese prisoners of conscience during his meetings with the Chinese president.
The chances seem unlikely. The White House has billed the weekend as a “shirtsleeves summit,” where Obama and Xi can enjoy more casual interaction in a relaxed setting during Xi’s first visit to the United States since assuming the presidency earlier this year.
High priority talking points likely will include China’s economic policy and foreign policy matters like the country’s relationship with a belligerent North Korea. White House officials say Obama also will broach cyber-security—a crucial topic in the wake of fresh revelations that Chinese hackers have breached the networks of several Western companies and agencies.
While Obama may discuss human rights with Xi, a confrontation over a growing list of imprisoned dissidents isn’t a likely agenda item. Still, members from the coalition of 30 NGOs hope raising the cases of the 16 dissidents will convey a message to both Obama and the Chinese government that human rights advocates haven’t forgotten those suffering under a still-repressive regime.
Earlier in the week, the coalition—including groups like Freedom House, Jubilee Campaign, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, ChinaAid, and the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission—published a letter asking Obama to remember “the China 16”—a group of dissidents that represent many more imprisoned for defending human rights, religious freedom, and pro-democracy work.
Last December, WORLD profiled three of the dissidents in our Daniel of the Year issue:
- Gao Zhisheng is serving at least three years in a remote prison in western China. (Authorities have released and imprisoned Gao many times since 2006.) The outspoken Christian attorney has defended religious minorities, including a network of house-church pastors in Beijing.Shortly before his first imprisonment, Gao wrote an open letter about the urgency to inform Christians around the world that “… our house church members are suffering persecution under the Chinese regime, and all on account of a willingness to love the Lord ‘with all our heart, mind, and strength’ instead of loving the Chinese Communist Party.”
- Liu Xianbin is serving a 10-year prison sentence for his democracy and human-rights activism, including calls for religious freedom. The Christian dissident was one of the original signers of Charter 08—a pro-democracy document condemned by Chinese authorities.
- Guo Quan is serving a 10-year sentence for his writings on democracy and human rights. Guo’s wife says his Christian conscience compels him to defend political, religious, and personal freedoms.
The dissidents on the “China 16” list also include other human rights activists, including those defending the heavily persecuted Falun Gong religious minority. Indeed, the U.S. State Department’s 2012 Human Rights report noted that religious groups outside government oversight are “illegal and face severe restrictions, harassment, detention, imprisonment, and other abuses.”
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) kept China on its list of “countries of particular concern” for religious freedom abuses. And the Texas-based group ChinaAid reported on June 4 that Chinese officials had forced closure of more than a dozen unregistered churches in Hainan Province. The group reports it’s one part of a larger pattern for house churches in some parts of the country.
Those realities haven’t been high-profile talking points for the Obama administration. U.S Rep. Chris Smith, R.-N.J., delivered remarks during a hearing on June 4, asking the administration to end its “manifest indifference toward human rights in China” and to press the Chinese president for action.
Smith noted China’s brutal one-child policy that leads to forced abortions: “Hundreds of millions of women have been forced to abort their precious babies … which has led to gendercide, the violent extermination of unborn baby girls simply because they are girls.” (Recent cases of violent, forced abortions have gained increased attention in China, and have led to outcries by some parts of the Chinese public.)
Smith acknowledged doubts that the Chinese president would respond to calls for expanded human rights. During his June 4 speech—on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre—Smith mentioned the U.S. State Department last week asked Chinese officials to end the government’s ongoing harassment of those involved in the Tiananmen protests 24 years ago. (The department also asked Chinese officials to account for those killed, detained or missing.)
Smith noted the Chinese Foreign Ministry responded by saying the U.S. should “stop interfering with Chinese internal affairs so as not to sabotage China-U.S. relations.”
This weekend, human rights advocates hope Obama won’t see advocating for human rights as interfering with foreign relations. Smith asked the president to remember those suffering, and to “be bold, be tenacious, and seriously raise human rights with Chinese President Xi.”