There’s been a lot of talk about China this week. Obviously. As discussions about what would be said at the public and private meetings between President Obama and President Hu were carried out amongst journalists, human rights activists, government officials, students and ordinary citizens like myself, I kept coming back to a strong feeling of déjà vu: this is a conversation that has been happening for decades and what do we have to show for all of the rhetoric?
I think many of us were relieved and quiet honestly, even a little surprised,that President Obama so openly and specifically addressed China’s Rights Problem at the joint news conference of the two heads of state yesterday: “I reaffirmed America’s fundamental commitment to the universal rights of all people. That includes basic human rights like freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association and demonstration, and of religion — rights that are recognized in the Chinese constitution.
As I’ve said before, the United States speaks up for these freedoms and the dignity of every human being, not only because it’s part of who we are as Americans, but we do so because we believe that by upholding these universal rights, all nations, including China, will ultimately be more prosperous and successful.
So, today, we’ve agreed to move ahead with our formal dialogue on human rights. We’ve agreed to new exchanges to advance the rule of law. And even as we, the United States, recognize that Tibet is part of the People’s Republic of China, the United States continues to support further dialogue between the government of China and the representatives of the Dalai Lama to resolve concerns and differences, including the preservation of the religious and cultural identity of the Tibetan people.’’
The first question from the reporter pool was regarding rights and when pressed in a follow-up question, President Hu stated: “China has always protected and promoted human rights to the utmost of its abilities.
Hu continued: ‘’China regards respect for human rights as a universal principle, but at the same time believes that the universal principle of human rights should be integrated into the action situation of each country.’’
M-hmm. As in a ‘’non-action plan’’ on human rights. As in r-e-b-u-f-f. As in I believe it may be a good idea in theory for me not to eat so much dairy but I doubt I’m actually going to stop eating cheese. Ever.
As I was saying: déjà vu. We’ve heard this all before. And where has this dialogue gotten us?
Where has it gotten the Tibetans, the Uyghurs? Where has it gotten Liu Xiaobo and Gao Zhisheng? And what about Hu Jia, the human rights and AIDS activist whose health is deteriorating and who was just denied medical parole by the Chinese government?
This visit was the redux of that delusionary spectacle of epic proportions also known as the 2008 Olympics – the biggest, grandest game of all. And we could all watch modern, open, clean, environmentally-friendly China on prime time, all wrapped up in a nice big red bow. During the bidding process in which Beijing was awarded the summer games over shortlisted cities with, let’s just say arguably better human rights records — cities including Toronto, Paris, Istanbul and Osaka — many government officials and NGOs criticized China’s bid over concerns about China’s abysmal human rights record.
Just like yesterday, China played an excellent PR game and Beijing Olympic bid chief Wang Wei stated in the bidding process that awarding Beijing the Games would actually lead to progress on human rights: ‘’We will give the media complete freedom to report when they come to China… We are confident that the Games coming to China not only promote our economy but also enhances all social conditions, including education, health and human rights.’’ They even chose the manta “New Beijing, Great Olympics” and posted billboards on the streets saying “One World, One Dream”. Apparently their PR shop understands the nuances of irony a little too well.
We all know the censorship that occurred during the Games and how foreign journalists were detained for reporting on sensitive topics. We know about the crackdown that ensued leading up to, during and after the Games, with border closures, arrests of citizens who spoke out and escalating violence in Tibetan areas.
One such Tibetan is Dhondup Wangchen, who traveled throughout Tibet interviewing over 100 Tibetans about their views on the Olympics, the situation in Tibet and their lives.
In March 2008, footage from his aptly-titled documentary, Leaving Fear Behind, was smuggled out of China and soon afterwards, Dhondup and his helper were detained. He escaped on on July 13 and called his cousin in Switzerland to tell him that while he was being held he had been beaten, punched in the head, deprived of food and sleep, and tied to a chair. He was detained again the following day.
An edited version of Leaving Fear Behind was shown to foreign journalists in Beijing just days before the Olympic Games in August 2008. Chinese security forces interrupted the screening.
In June 2009, Dhondup was charged with “inciting separatism”. He was tried in secret, found guilty and sentenced to six years in prison. He suffers from Hepatitis B, for which he has not received any medical treatment.
The International Olympic Committee says that the spirit of the Olympics ‘’seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example and respect for fundamental ethical principles.”
Which brings us back to the events this week in Washington. China did not make good on the promise that it made ten years ago in its bid for the Olympics to improve human rights. One more laughable example of this is when Liu Binjie, General Administration of Press and Publication minister told The China Daily in July 2008: ”China’s open door to the foreign media will not close after the Games. It is a long-term policy rather than a makeshift puff of wind. We are mapping out a new regulation that we are confident will make China’s media still more open and transparent…We regard the May 12 earthquake and the Olympic Games as an important test of the media operation system reforms and will explore building a more open and transparent media system after the Games.”
At the same time Mr. Hu was touting his human rights credentials, Reporters Without Borders also held a press conference in Washington which my colleague Richard Finney attended. Geng He, the wife of well-known Chinese rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng spoke and said that her husband disappeared in police custody in April and has not been heard from since.
According to Amnesty International, on September 13, 2007, Gao Zhisheng wrote an open letter to the US Congress saying he did not support the country’s staging of the 2008 Olympics. Nine days later, plainclothes police officers came to his home, stripped him naked and beat him unconscious. He was held incommunicado for nearly six weeks and subjected to beatings and repeated electric shocks to his genitals. After he was released his acquaintances described him as “a broken man”. Gao’s children have been prevented from attending school and his family’s bank accounts have been frozen. His daughter attempted suicide as a result of the pressure and his family were forced to flee China in March. Gao was taken from his home in Shaanxi Province by police on 4 February 2009 and his current whereabouts are unknown.
His wife recalled that President Obama once said he felt “regret and pain” at his own father’s absence during his childhood. This is what her own children suffer, she said, and added that they don’t know now if their father is alive or dead, or if he is still being tortured in some remote part of China.
A few things have changed since the Olympic games of 2008.
Many more journalists and activists have been arrested and jailed in China. The United States has a different head of state who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. A Chinese human rights activist calling for democracy in his homeland received the Nobel Peace Prize last year and continues to languish in prison.
What has also changed is that while President Obama can continue to call on Mr Hu and him encourage China to improve its rights record, he has the unique capacity to do more. He is not only The President but a Nobel Laureate and along with that distinction that no other current head of state holds is the great opportunity and responsibility to honor the ideals of his titles. Both of them.
He doesn’t have to play golf in Beijing and hang out with the Women’s Volleyball team while Russia attacks Georgia like the last guy in charge. When the rings of the pomp and circumstance and the sweet taste of White House apple pie à la mode has faded, just as when the last light went out at the closing ceremonies, he has to do something else. We have to do something else. We can say and we can hear “We can talk about it’’ but after years of empty words and promised unfulfilled, that simply isn’t good enough. Instead, we have to say “We can do something about it.” Human rights is not a two week summer game.