At the state dinner, leave some seats empty for China’s political prisoners

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Originally published by The Washington Post on September 20, 2015

Canceling this week’s state dinner with Chinese President Xi Jinping or downgrading it to a burger-and-fries get-together, as some Republican presidential candidates proposed, would have been foolish. China is a force to be reckoned with, and President Obama is right to engage.

But it isn’t foolish to hope that Obama would find a way to welcome Xi without celebrating him, given the harsh and unexpected repression that has marked his rule.

Thus a modest proposal: Host the Chinese leader with all the pomp and glitter that he expects, but set a few places for eminent Chinese who merit spots in the official delegation but find themselves unable to attend.

Reserve an honored place, next to the first lady, for Obama’s fellow Nobel Peace laureate, Liu Xiaobo. Most governments would be proud to include a Nobel Prize winner in their delegation. But Liu, a writer, has been in prison since December 2008 because he co-authored a manifesto calling for a gradual shift toward democracy. He was, as the official Nobel Web site notes, “sentenced for the crime of speaking.”

Set another place at the head table for Liu’s wife, Liu Xia; the empty chair might give Xi an opportunity to reflect on the barbaric treatment his police have subjected her to. Though charged with no crime, Liu Xia has been kept under suffocating house arrest for five years, allowed virtually no contact with the outside world other than a monthly visit to her imprisoned husband.

At the next table, keep a place open for Wang Bingzhang, one of China’s longest-serving political prisoners. Wang survived the Cultural Revolution and then moved to North America, where he helped found and lead for more than two decades the overseas democracy movement. In 2002 he traveled to Vietnam for what he thought would be a meeting with fellow activists; instead he was beaten, blindfolded, abducted across the border into China and, after being held incommunicado for six months, sentenced to life in prison.

I became friends with Wang’s daughter, Ti-Anna Wang, after she wrote an op-ed about her father’s plight in January 2009. Since she published that plea for her father’s freedom — almost seven years ago — China has refused to allow her even to visit her father in prison. Let’s set Wang’s place next to the foreign minister, and let him ponder that small act of cruelty as he savors his filet mignon.

Who else to invite? Like the White House protocol chief, we’re going to have trouble paring our list. But definitely set a place for one or two of the many lawyers whom Xi has illegally detained or imprisoned in his crackdown on civil society — Pu Zhiqiang, perhaps. Pu was one of the most respected attorneys prodding China to meet its own constitutional guarantees of free speech and assembly. He “carefully and painstakingly adhered to peaceful and lawful means” as he represented artist Ai Weiwei and others, Human Rights Watch wrote this year.

But following the law was no protection against Xi’s crackdown. Pu has been in “pre-trial detention” for 14 months, awaiting trial for “inciting splittism,” among other offenses. He has recently been denied access to lawyers and needed medicines, according to China Human Rights Defenders.

Wang Yu is “one of the few remaining women human rights lawyers in China,” the human rights group noted recently. But she’s been disappeared, too — in secret detention since police broke into her apartment and took her away on July 9. Set a place for her, and perhaps one of the security officials traveling with Xi can report on her whereabouts.

Let’s set a place, too, for Ilham Tohti, the respected economist who was sentenced to life in prison last year as part of China’s brutal crackdown on the ethnic Uighur minority. Calling for independence is “always punished severely when the offender belongs to China’s minority Uighur community,” the BBC reported. “But what is so extraordinary about the sentence is that Ilham Tohti was not an independence activist, far less a terrorist, but an outspoken advocate of building bridges between the two communities.”

There are too few tables, and too many political prisoners — 2,000, for example, just among Tibetans, who are under such assault by the Xi regime. But even a few empty places, reserved in honor of the many men and women of integrity whose talents China is forgoing, might serve as a silent reminder of what Ti-Anna Wang wrote in 2009: “Any government that jails its own people for political dissent still has a long way to go to become a respected member of the international community.”

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