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President Barack Obama

The White House

1600 Pennsylvania Ave, NW

Washington, DC 20500

Dear President Obama,

We write to you on the occasion of your first official visit to the People's Republic of China.  We urge that you make the protection and promotion of human rights in China a central purpose of your visit.

In the nine months since you took office, the trend on human rights in China has been distinctly negative. The Chinese government has continued to demonstrate its profound hostility towards human rights and has failed to keep its commitments to undertake reforms towards a more open society based on the rule of law. It has disbarred human rights lawyers, rolled back key legal reforms, imprisoned critics, and further tightened internet and press censorship.  It has executed Tibetans suspected of taking part in March 2008 protests and Uighurs accused of taking part in July 2009 protests, despite serious concerns about due process. It has "disappeared" dozens of other Uighur men and boys in the wake of these protests.

We appreciate your administration's efforts to press the Chinese government on some human rights concerns, particularly the statement on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre and efforts on behalf of the groundbreaking Chinese legal aid organization Open Constitution Initiative.

At the same time, Secretary Clinton's comments that human rights "shouldn't interfere" with other issues in the bilateral relationship have been widely interpreted, not least by Chinese authorities, that the US has downgraded the importance of human rights in its relations with China. We are also concerned by other symbolic decisions, such as your opting not to meet the Dalai Lama prior to the November summit, which sent shockwaves through the Tibetan community.  The administration has provided no details of its private discussions with Chinese officials, saying only that these discussions were "frank," nor has it expressed concern over the recent executions unless prompted by the media to do so.

All of this has raised concerns that human rights will not play a prominent role in your upcoming visit.  We also fear that they have raised expectations within the Chinese government that you will not press these concerns. We urge that you not fulfill the Chinese government's hopes in this respect, and that you speak publicly and unambiguously in Shanghai and Beijing about human rights in China, and the value the United States places on fundamental rights and freedoms.

There are a myriad of human rights-related issues that you could raise. We suggest that you publicly raise three particular issues, each of which has considerable relevance to US-China relations.

Freedom of expression and information

These rights-which underpin the exercise of so many other rights-are chronically assaulted by the Chinese government. Critics of the government continue to be imprisoned on vague charges of "incitement to subversion" or "violation of state secrets laws." Domestic and foreign journalists operate under serious constraints.  China's journalists, bloggers, and an estimated 338 million internet users continue to be vulnerable to the arbitrary dictates of state censorship, often not knowing when they might be arrested for peaceful expression. The efforts of Chinese citizens to obtain information about local corruption, public health crises, or the whereabouts and well-being of detained family members are also often subject to criminal prosecution. We ask that you raise three particular freedom-of-expression-and-information issues with the Chinese leadership:

  • Express concern about the continuing detention and plans to prosecute Liu Xiaobo, a prominent government critic who was arrested in December 2008 for his involvement in a pro-democracy and human rights manifesto, known as Charter 08. After six months in detention, Liu was formally charged on June 23, 2009, with "incitement to subvert state power."
  • Ask that charges be dropped against Tan Zuoren and Huang Qi, two activists facing charges of subversion for investigating the deaths of schoolchildren in the May 2008 Sichuan earthquake and posting the information they had gathered online, and Shi Tao, whose user information was turned over to Chinese authorities by Yahoo and is currently serving a ten-year sentence on state secrets charges. He had authored a message posted anonymously on an overseas website about instructions that the Chinese propaganda department had given to newspapers.
  • Explain that the free flow of information in China is crucial not only to Chinese citizens but also to a host of US interests, making clear that your administration will continue to monitor closely harassment and abuses of Chinese and foreign correspondents and the government's censorship of news that has consequences outside China, such as public health scares, pessimistic assessments of the financial situation, or corruption scandals.

Rule of law

Although Chinese government officials like to affirm commitment to the rule of law, and although it is true that there are now increasing numbers of lawyers and cases going to court in China, the judicial system lacks any semblance of independence and remains under the complete control of the Chinese Communist Party.  Access to justice for ordinary citizens remains extremely difficult. Local courts often simply refuse to hear cases brought against local officials; this problem is exponentially worse if the case is somehow politically sensitive.

In recent months we have documented hundreds of cases of suspected Tibetan and Uighur protestors summarily pushed through the courts in trials that fell far short of due process, and harassment and disbarment of "rights protection" movement lawyers, who try to take politically sensitive cases to court.

Particularly given your background as a constitutional lawyer and legal aid activist, we ask that you:

  • Stress the value of an independent judicial system not only for foreign investors, but also for resolving the kinds of long-standing social and economic grievances that otherwise lead to unrest.
  • Urge that the Chinese government abolish the practice of renewing lawyers' and firms' licenses annually, and explain that your administration will pay particularly close attention to the disbarment of civil rights lawyers.
  • Press the Chinese government to acknowledge the existence of "black jails," illegal detention facilities in which thousands of Chinese citizens are held incommunicado for weeks and months at a time.
  • Urge that the scope of state-secrets law, which is under revision, be narrowed, and that a process be established whereby charges under this law can be challenged.

Tibet and Xinjiang

The violence that rocked Tibet in March 2008 and Xinjiang in July 2009 was the worst China has experienced in decades.  While the Chinese government was quick to assign blame to the Dalai Lama and Rebiya Kadeer, among others, the origins of the unrest clearly lie in large part in decades of discriminatory and repressive policies toward Tibetans and Uighurs. In both regions, the Chinese government systematically conflates expressions of linguistic, cultural, and religious identity, as well as peaceful aspirations for self-determination, with "splittism," "separatism," and "terrorism."  In the aftermath of these incidents, Human Rights Watch documented dozens of arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, summary judicial proceedings, and executions following trials that lacked due process.

Following your decision not to meet the Dalai Lama in October 2009 in Washington, your administration stressed its commitment to address these issues in a substantive way as part of its engagement with China.  We therefore urge that you:

  • Express grave concern about the failure of due process and lack of fair trials that preceded recent executions of Tibetans alleged to have committed crimes during the March 2008 protests and of Uighurs for their involvement in the July 2009 protests.
  • Explain that your administration will closely monitor whether those against whom no charges have been brought are released, whether the Chinese government ceases its practice of enforced disappearances in Xinjiang, and whether accurate information about detainees in both regions is made available to their families and their lawyers.
  • Urge the government to permit independent investigations by the relevant United Nations special mechanisms.
  • Suggest that it is in the Chinese government's interest to review its policies towards these regions or risk further unrest.

Finally, we urge that you relay to the Chinese leadership the same list of prisoners given to them by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi during her May 2009 visit.  This will not only show a high degree of coordination amongst US policy makers in raising human rights issues in China, but will also indicate the seriousness of the United States in obtaining information about these individuals.

The Chinese government will make its calculations about your commitment to human rights based on whether you raise these issues on your upcoming visit.  We urge that you demonstrate unambiguously to them what you have said elsewhere: that human rights are not an American issue, but a global issue, and that you will support them everywhere.


Kenneth Roth

Executive Director

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