White House

Trump has ignored Chinese human rights abuses so far. Will that change at Mar-a-Lago?

Protesters displayed a portrait of jailed Chinese Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo and his detained wife, Liu Xia, during a demonstration in Hong Kong on Saturday, April 1, 2017. Human rights activists and some in Congress want President Trump to press Chinese President Xi Jinping to release Liu Xiaobo and other political prisoners when the two leaders meet this week.
Protesters displayed a portrait of jailed Chinese Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo and his detained wife, Liu Xia, during a demonstration in Hong Kong on Saturday, April 1, 2017. Human rights activists and some in Congress want President Trump to press Chinese President Xi Jinping to release Liu Xiaobo and other political prisoners when the two leaders meet this week. AP

As President Donald Trump prepares to meet with his Chinese counterpart on Thursday, human rights advocates – including some in his own party – are urging him to elevate an issue that he’s so far publicly avoided: China’s continuing crackdown on lawyers, activists and others attempting to speak freely.

Expectations among advocates are low.

“Thus far, the Trump administration does not seem very interested in human rights issues,” said Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch.

On the campaign trail and in the White House, Trump has said little or nothing about China’s hard-line practices at home. His frequent Twitter blasts suggest he is more interested in confronting President Xi Jinping over China’s trade policies and its leverage over North Korea.

Some critics of China, including Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., are urging the president to make human rights a focus of discussion when he meets with Xi at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate.

“It is imperative that the president raise the plight of political prisoners and human rights activists by name,” Rubio said in a statement to McClatchy this week. History has shown that presidential pressure “often results in improved conditions and shorter sentences” for those facing persecution, he added.

“U.S. diplomacy has been stuck for too long with policies that no longer match Chinese realities,” added U.S. Rep. Christopher Smith, a Republican from New Jersey. “The reality is that China’s internal repression drives both its external aggression and its aggressive mercantilist trade policies.”

Rubio and Smith co-chair the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, a panel Congress created in 2000 to monitor China’s compliance with international human rights standards. The commission holds regular hearings and maintains a database of more than 1,400 political and religious prisoners currently jailed or detained in China.

In recent years, Rubio and Smith were harshly critical of the Obama administration’s approach to China on human rights. In March of last year, they held a news conference where Smith warned Obama it would be an “unconscionable abandonment” if the president didn’t press such concerns during an upcoming meeting with Xi.

The two Republicans have yet to accuse the Trump administration of indifference to Chinese rights issues. That’s not so with some international rights advocates.

Human Rights Watch’s Richardson noted that just last month Canada and 10 other countries had called on China to investigate reports of torture against human right lawyers. As The Globe and Mail of Canada first reported, the United States didn’t sign on to the joint statement. “That just left everyone wondering if this issue has fallen off the table,” Richardson said.

When U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Beijing last week, he came under fire for parroting Chinese talking points, such as building a positive relationship “built on nonconfrontation, no conflict, mutual respect.” But to the surprise of some administration critics, Tillerson also vowed to keep pressuring China on civil liberties.

“I made clear that the United States will continue to advocate for universal values such as human rights and religious freedom,” he said.

Controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, the People’s Republic of China is an authoritarian state that has never tolerated dissent, press freedoms or public assembly. Since coming to power in 2012, Party Chairman and President Xi Jinping has unleashed the security services to arrest and detain lawyers, journalists and activists critical of the government. One academic, Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti, was sentenced to jail for life in 2014 on charges of separatism, a claim his supporters say is unfounded.

The Obama administration protested Tohti’s detention and jailing. It also repeatedly called for the release of Liu Xiaobo, a writer and activist sentenced to 11 years in jail who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010.

Jonathan D. Pollack, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution’s John L. Thornton China Center, said Trump had shown few signs that he cared about human rights, given his warm greeting Monday to Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, an autocrat known for imprisoning many of his political opponents.

Trump “seems to be drawn to characters who don’t rank rights of citizens very high on their policy agendas,” Pollack said Tuesday during a briefing at Brookings, a Washington-based think tank.

He seems to be drawn to characters who don’t rank rights of citizens very high on their policy agendas.

Jonathan D. Pollack, senior fellow, Brookings Institution

Jonathan Stromseth, another senior fellow at Brookings, said he hoped Trump would continue to press China on opening up society to outside partners, including foreign nongovernmental organizations. A new Chinese law effective this year could force the departure of foreign NGOs involved in issues deemed “sensitive” by Beijing, including criminal justice and HIV prevention.

“I would hope that this is raised particularly forcefully, and I think the Chinese will notice if it isn’t,” said Stromseth, who previously worked at the State Department and, before that, as the nonprofit Asia Foundation’s representative in Vietnam and China.

Some China analysts have urged not pushing rights issues too aggressively, warning it could infuriate Beijing and impede progress on strategic cooperation between the two countries, including reducing the nuclear threat posed by North Korea. But Richardson said she’d “never bought the argument” that Chinese leaders would disengage because of public criticism over human rights.

“They want to remove irritants from the relationship,” she said. “They will let Liu Xiaobo go if it is an irritant in the relationship.”

Stuart Leavenworth: 202-383-6070, @sleavenworth

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