In a post last week about the dramatically deteriorating human rights situation in China, there remained many questions about what had really happened to Dr. Yang Hengjun, the Australian citizen of Chinese descent, who disappeared one week ago and was believed to have been in Chinese custody.On his way out of China, he gave a poignant—yet cryptic—interview to his friend John Garnaut, a Beijing foreign correspondent who covers China for the Sidney Morning Herald. In the interview, Dr. Yang refused to say more about his strange disappearance than he has already said: that he was "ill" and his mobile phone battery died. He did, however, thank colleagues, friends, and the Australian government for speaking up for him, and criticized fellow Chinese colleagues for not raising questions about his situation in their role as journalists. Dr. Yang also insists he will return to China to continue working for human rights and democracy, and asked the foreign media not to give him any more publicity, as it will harm those efforts. Under these circumstances, this may be the last we hear in public of Dr. Yang's ordeal for some time. (To read more of John Garnaut's excellent reports on this case, you can go here, here, here and here. Evan Osnos also has a good summary of the overall horrible situation in China over at the New Yorker blog. The folks at China Human Rights Defenders also have released a more comprehensive list of the missing and detained.)
Over the weekend, the news from Beijing has only been worse. Ai Weiwei, China's most prominent and widely known contemporary artist, was detained at the Beijing airport as he tried to board a flight to Hong Kong on Sunday and remains in detention. In what appeared to be a coordinated effort, his studio in Beijing was simultaneously surrounded by police and raided. Reports indicate that up to 8 of his staff were detained and questioned by police for several hours, and around 30 computers and hundreds of other electronic devices were confiscated. (Ai is a multi-media, large installation artist, photographer, and part-time videographer/documentarian/blogger.) His wife was also detained for questioning, and then later released (the last update was that she is now at home and is "shaken" by the events of the day). They have a 2-year-old son. In addition, there are unconfirmed reports that a colleague of his in Fujian province, Wen Tao, was also taken into custody at the same time. The two were about to begin a video project on persons facing legal injustices in Fujian. Ai Weiwei, who is one of China's most prolific online personalities, is also being erased from cyberspace. His posts on Chinese Twitter-like sites and blogs began to disappear about the same time he did. (The arts website Hyperallergic has a good summary of this evolving situation.)
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.
There is nothing about China's "different political system" or "state of development" that can possibly excuse the Chinese party-state's incorrigible habit of kidnapping law-abiding individuals and jailing them for non-violent political expression. Contrary to President Obama's wishful thinking, the present evolutionary trend of China's human rights situation is from "high-functioning dictatorship" to lawless thugocracy. There is nothing stable, sustainable, or responsible about the manner in which the Chinese government is waging war on its domestic critics. It is wholly unrealistic to expect that the United States can establish a truly "cooperative, constructive, comprehensive" relationship with this government, or trust it to live up to commitments in a meaningful way.
Assistant Secretary Campbell will reportedly be heading to China this week to talk about the upcoming U.S.-China Strategic & Economic Dialogue. He should consider postponing his trip until the Obama administration can caucus with our allies in the free world to come up with a coordinated strategic response to Beijing's descent into totalitarianism. If there is one thing the Chinese understand, it is a cancelled visit from a high-level official; it’s a political weapon they deploy all the time. If he does go to Beijing, his agenda must focus heavily on what is happening inside China today, and how the regime's effort to achieve stability through repression is damaging Chinese society and China's reputation abroad.