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Worsening Crackdown in China

And the still invisible U.S. response.

9:22 AM, Apr 4, 2011 • By KELLEY CURRIE
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Ai is an internationally renowned artist (his recent work at the Tate Modern, “Sunflower Seeds,” is simply incredible & must be seen to be believed), but is perhaps best known in China for his role in designing the iconic "Birds Nest" Olympic stadium. In a turn that shocked many Chinese, he later denounced the Beijing Olympic Games as a "fake smile China was putting on for the rest of the world" and refused to participate in any of the events surrounding them. As he has become increasingly political over the past few years, he's come under closer attention from the authorities. After becoming involved in private efforts to investigate the collapse of large numbers of poorly-constructed schools during the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, he was attacked by police and beaten so badly he suffered a brain hemorrhage. His transformation from artist to dissident was the subject of a Frontline episode called, "Who's Afraid of Ai Weiwei?," that aired last week. If the Chinese regime is willing to go after one of China's most famous international citizens in this intense and flagrant fashion, one can only imagine the fate of the lesser known dissidents, lawyers, bloggers, and others who have disappeared or been detained in recent weeks. 

The situation in China has become truly terrifying for everyone who simply disagrees with the government or attempts to hold it accountable, but you might never know this if you were just listening to U.S. officials. Last Thursday as Yang Hengjun's fate hung in the balance, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific Kurt Campbell was testifying about the Obama administration's Asia policy before the House Foreign Affairs Committee's Asia subcommittee hearing on "Protecting American Interests in China and Asia." His opening remarks were rightly focused on recent disasters in Asia and how the U.S. response highlights our long-term commitment to the region, but would have also been another golden opportunity to talk about recent alarming events in China. Unfortunately, as Ellen Bork notes, Campbell continued the Obama administration's regrettable trend of giving short shrift to the emerging human rights crisis in China. And it would seem this lack of attention was not due to a lack of time or space, as Campbell's prepared remarks went on at length on such topics as U.S. participation in the Pacific Islands Forum in Vanuatu, the new U.S. compact with Palau, and plans for hosting the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Hawaii—six months from now, in November. 

In talking about the administration's view that Chinese president Hu Jintao's January 2011 visit to Washington was a raging success, Campbell said: "We also held firm to the principles that are important to us as Americans, making strong statements in both public and private about our concerns on China’s human rights record." Recall that these "strong" public statements included President Obama's response to a question about human rights in China with some discursive cultural relativism: "China has a different political system than we do. China is at a different stage of development than we are. We come from very different cultures with very different histories.... And I want to suggest that there has been an evolution in China over the last 30 years since the first normalization of relations between the United States and China. And my expectation is that 30 years from now we will have seen further evolution and further change." Recall also that Hu's government started rounding people up in earnest shortly after President Obama returned to Washington from this "successful" visit.

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