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'Bearing Witness' Isn't Enough

The president needs to respond effectively to the persecution of a prominent Chinese dissident.

11:00 PM, Dec 15, 2009 • By ELLEN BORK
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In two recent speeches, the president and the secretary of state have tried to answer criticisms that Obama administration foreign policy neglects democracy and human rights. Neither however offered much to suggest a change in the priority given to these objectives, or a hint that there would be some effort to achieve results. In his Nobel address in Oslo, the president made a better case for the use of force than for diplomacy, exaggerating the benefits of "engagement" with dictatorships and dismissing advocates of a tougher line as achieving only the "satisfying purity of indignation." Then, Monday, at Georgetown University, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a speech intended at least in part to compensate for her earlier statements and omissions about democracy.

With regard to the most significant Chinese democracy movement in over a decade Clinton merely said that "those who advocate peacefully for reform within the constitution, such as Charter 2008 signatories, should not be prosecuted."

In doing so, she glossed over the fact that, Liu Xiao-bo, one of China's most prominent dissidents and a leading symbol of reform is being prosecuted. Last week, on International Human Rights Day, and soon after the president raised cases of dissidents with General Secretary Hu Jintao, communist authorities indicted Liu on charges of "inciting subversion to state power." According to reports, the case is based on his essays and his signing of Charter 08, a manifesto for a democratic system based on the rule of law which was released one year ago this month. (An English translation of Charter 08 by Perry Link can be found here.)

Inspired by the Czech and Slovak dissidents who wrote Charter '77 and went on to end communist rule in their country, three hundred activists, intellectuals, lawyers and others signed Charter 08 in early December 2008. In the following weeks and months, 11,000 more added their names, most of them inside China. According to the group Chinese Human Rights Defenders, at least one hundred have been detained, interrogated, or subjected to other penalties, their computers and bank accounts seized, and travel restricted. The law professor He Weifeng of Beijing University has been sent into internal exile in the remote Xinjiang region. 
The authorities have worse in mind for Liu. At the center of dissident intellectual circles, Liu returned from a visit to New York to join the students protesting at Tiananmen Square in 1989. Later, he helped convince demonstrators to leave the square to avoid being killed, although many were killed elsewhere in the city. He went to jail for his participation at Tiananmen, and again for writing a public letter critical of General Secretary Jiang Zemin.

In a country where racism and xenophobia are common, Liu has opposed (with many other Charter 08 signers) vicious propaganda against Tibetans and has called for talks between Chinese rulers and the Dalai Lama. In 2005 he chastised Chinese who posted racist comments about Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on the Internet. He has been the president of the independent Chinese PEN, an organization supporting free expression, which is a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy.
Liu used to meet the police who kept an eye on him at a teashop because his wife, the artist Liu Xia, took offense at having them in her house. That delicate balance of defiance and control broke down with the release of the Charter. He has been detained for the past year and could be tried and sentenced during the Christmas holiday to avoid attention and intervention from the West. Former U.S. attorney general Dick Thornburgh wants to observe Liu's trial and is asking the Obama administration's help to arrange it. 
Public security officials recommended to prosecutors that Liu be charged with a "major crime." This suggests a long term for Liu, possibly 15 years. It also sets the stage for a wider crackdown against other signers of Charter 08. This is an unmistakable sign of the direction Chinese communist authorities wish to take.

President Obama rejects the "purity of indignation" in response to repression. But the approach he favors--"bearing witness"--is too passive. If there is a new direction for the administration's human rights policy, it needs to respond effectively to the persecution of a Chinese dissident who represents the most significant movement for political reform in a decade.

Ellen Bork is Director of Democracy and Human Rights at the Foreign Policy Initiative