Trump’s Silence Speaks Volumes in China

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Originally published by Huffington Post on November 20, 2017

Last Tuesday, three American basketball players from UCLA, arrested for allegedly stealing from a Louis Vuitton store in China, were unexpectedly allowed to leave the country. One day earlier, a young Chinese student from Beijing also had an unexpected outcome at the border: he was prevented from boarding a plane to Australia where he was set to begin university.

The American players were the recipients of an extraordinary intervention by President Trump, who made a personal request of President Xi Jinping to resolve the situation. The Chinese student, on the other hand, was collateral damage in the case of his mother Wang Yu, a well-known human rights lawyer who had previously been arrested by the Chinese government. While the players are re-uniting with their families in the United States, the fate of the student, and his mother, remains uncertain.

Watching from the US, it’s easy to laugh at Trump’s buffoonery in referring to his “great chemistry” with Xi Jinping and the “terrific conversation” they had about the basketball players. But Trump’s breezy attitude toward Xi and his gleeful touting of the release of the players is all the more stark and dangerous because of what he remained silent on: the widespread and increasingly virulent persecution of human rights lawyers, activists and scholars in China.

Over the last 15 years I have interviewed dozens of Chinese Human Rights Defenders both in China and abroad, and there is no question that the human rights situation in China is worsening. Trump’s visit to China was the perfect opportunity to register with Xi that the United States does not condone disappearing, jailing or torturing human rights activists. Unfortunately, the opportunity was missed.

This wasn’t the first time that Trump’s warm embrace of Xi grated against the harsh truth of life in China. In July, Liu Xiaobo, China’s Nobel peace laureate, died after wasting away from liver cancer in state custody. Liu Xiaobo, who was serving an 11-year sentence for inciting subversion of state power, was widely regarded as a beacon for democracy and peaceful resistance.

Several hours after his passing, while millions were mourning the senseless death of a Nobel peace prize winner, Trump declared of President Xi, “Well, he’s a friend of mine. He’s a great leader…A very talented man.” Meanwhile, Liu Xia, Liu Xiaobo’s widow, was under house arrest, a terrible injustice she has suffered for the last seven years, with no official charges against her. While Trump was heaping praise on President Xi last week, Liu Xia was several kilometers away, trapped inside her house, prevented from leaving by Chinese authorities.

For those of us in the China human rights community, the pairing of Trump and Xi is depressing and dispiriting, if not surprising, given their mutual disdain for human rights. Under President Xi the human rights landscape has deteriorated significantly, with a revolving door of activists and lawyers disappeared and often tortured. Right before Trump’s trip to China, Li Yuhan, a well-known human rights lawyer, was detained. Li, 60, had defended other human rights lawyers caught in the crackdown. With no clear charges against her, and her health failing, many activists and their supporters fear that she will languish in prison until she dies. Her family has been warned to stay away from her, or face serious consequences.

Trump has made it clear, both at home and abroad, that human rights are a burdensome detail that can easily be swatted away. His allegations of fake news and cherry picking of facts fits right in with a government like China’s, where state-run media is the norm and government censorship can make opposing facts and viewpoints disappear. Neither man has tolerance for people or opinions that they perceive as a threat to their ultimate grip on power. For human rights activists in China, the fact that the president of the United States will no longer even pay lip service to human rights spells even darker times ahead.

A few days ago in New York City I met with a dissident I’ll call Wang, who fled China in fear that he would be caught in the government’s dragnet. Wang was frozen with anxiety. He said that when he left one of his children had stayed in China and had just been contacted by authorities. Thinking about people like Li Yuhan whose families had been warned to keep their distance, Wang told me that he was terrified that even though he is safe in the US, his child is now in danger. He asked if I thought he should contact authorities in the US to help him, but before I had a chance to respond, he just shook his head.

This past week, when Trump had Xi’s ear, he was happy to make a show of using his influence. Trump has been boasting about his big victory with the basketball players. But Trump could have had much more influence. He could have sent a clear message to Xi Jinping that human rights must be upheld, and with that, created a victory not just for himself, but for the United States, China, and ultimately the world.


Jane Cohen, a former researcher at Human Rights Watch, has done extensive research on human rights in China and Africa.

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