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An Open Letter to President Barack Obama

Dear Mr. President,

You are scheduled to meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao this coming Monday, November 12th in Hawaii at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference. The APEC meeting has been given a theme — “seamless regional economy” — and a goal of promoting common prosperity through free trade and investment.

Certainly it is in the interest of the United States to promote common prosperity in the Asia Pacific region. There are many important fields of cooperation between the U.S. and China. There are, however, some areas of unresolved disagreement. One key area involves not just the economic arrangements between the various participants but also the basic political and social arrangements within and among the people that make up each of these nations and whether they can trust each other.

Mr. Hu would like you to focus solely on the success of the Chinese economy for the past three decades in lifting millions of China’s people from poverty, to believe that the only rights that matter are economic rights whatever they mean, and to pretend that China’s human right situation is none of your business.

That notion is wrong and getting more wrong by the day.

There is simply no avoiding the frank discussion you must have with Mr. Hu about his government’s aberrant and cruel treatment of its citizens.  Seamless economic relations cannot simply exist by free trade with a country that is not free.   Would you- – as a business matter — trust contractual arrangements with a government with such a perfunctory attitude toward binding legal contracts? Would you trust that your rights – either economic or legal – would be upheld in that state’s courts of law knowing that the state fundamentally does not see any difference between the exercise of its ruling party’s political power and its legal jurisprudence?

Let’s be more specific. Here are a few people you might want to inquire about.

You might want to ask why the jailed Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Liu Xiaobo, was sentenced to 11 years in prison for suggesting a peaceful transition to democracy. Yet the section of Chinese “law” under which Liu was presumably tried and convicted- – Section 105 of its criminal code — has no reasonable or understandable basis for having been applied to his case. Exactly what is “incitement to subvert state power” without defining either incitement or subversion? China’s own constitution allows the right to freedom of expression. Moreover, China is a signatory to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

You might inquire of Mr.Hu why Liu Xiaobo’s wife, Liu Xia, was placed under house arrest pursuant to absolutely no law known to anyone — including Mr. Hu. While discussing this topic, you might also ask for an explanation of why China’s rulers – having recognized the illegality of such detentions – are now seeking some means of codifying them into some new law. There is nothing less likely to instill trust in contracting with a state or its business entities than knowing in advance that any breach of an agreement will simply be re-codified into an acceptable action sometime later by the state.

You might seek from Mr. Hu an accounting for his government’s treatment of  Chen Guangcheng, the blind civil rights lawyer whose “crime” was disclosing multiple cases of forced abortions in Shandong Province, whose subsequent trial was another farcical example of Chinese “justice” and whose prison sentence of more than 4 years was presumably based on “damaging property and organizing a mob to disturb traffic”.  Mr. Chen and his wife have been under house arrest at home after serving this outrageous sentence and the couple have been brutally beaten multiple times by guards in past months.

You might ask what happened to Gao Zhisheng, another human rights attorney whose “offense” was to defend religious minorities facing China’s court system. In his 2007 memoir, Mr. Gao had the temerity to accuse the Chinese regime of engaging in torture, including being tortured himself. In April 2010 Mr. Gao simply disappeared. Mr. President, would it be too difficult to ask Mr. Hu where his police bureaucracy is holding Mr. Gao?

Mr. President, please not be shy from showing to your Chinese counterpart your feelings on the young Tibetan monks and nuns who set them on fire to protest the conditions under which they are forced to live. Please ask what has caused them to take such a desperate action which is in contravention of their vows and their faith that renounce violence in all its forms.

When you met with Mr. Hu last January, I wrote to you an open letter which appeared in the Washington Post. I asked you to raise the issues presented by these outstanding human rights cases. Yet, in public, you chose to minimize the human rights issue by stating at your press conference that the disagreement with China on human rights “doesn’t prevent us from cooperating in these other critical areas”. At least Mr. Hu was honest enough at that time to admit that “a lot still needs to be done in China in terms of human rights”.

Mr. President, when do you stop apologizing for China’s behavior towards its own citizens? When your complaints to Chinese officials in private are completely disregarded? When the leader of that one-party state is standing in your own home state of Hawaii and trying to convince the world that his authoritarian, state capitalist system works better than yours — an open, democratic society? When your Chinese counterpart is ignoring any reference to correcting his nation’s human rights atrocities?

We have been pretending long enough about China’s treatment of its own citizens. We have been pretending that this treatment has no bearing on how China behaves and is likely to behave with respect to people – including business people – outside of China. We have pretended our way, Mr. President, into thinking that by just ignoring the human rights nastiness China’s regime engages in – all the while supposedly objecting to it in private – that somehow we are not enabling that behavior to continue.

So I will close this open letter to you by paraphrasing a writer’s warning about the effect of continuing to enable the brutish behavior of a one-party regime active in the previous century: “Be careful what you pretend to be because, in the end, you are what you pretend to be”.

Respectfully Yours,

YANG Jianli
President of Initiatives for China
Former Political Prisoner in China (2002-2007)

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