The United States' top representative in China, U.S. Ambassador Max Baucus, is urging Chinese authorities to release prominent rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang and to stop seeing those who speak up for the rights of others as enemies.
In a statement released on International Human Rights Day, Baucus voiced the U.S. government’s concerns about an ongoing crackdown on human rights lawyers and others who seek “peacefully to contribute their views to the public discourse on the future of China.”
Several months ago, China launched a massive and wide-ranging crackdown that has impacted more than 300 people, including lawyers, law firm staff and their families, and rights activists.
More than 250 people have been forcibly questioned and temporarily detained, according to the China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group. Nearly 30 have been barred from leaving the country, and dozens of others have been put under residential surveillance.
“In some cases, these Chinese citizens have been detained in secret locations without access to their families or their lawyers,” Baucus said. ”This is deeply troubling and calls into question China’s commitment to the rule of law.”
The ambassador said rights lawyers such as Wang Yu, Li Heping and Zhang Kai – who have been swept up in the crackdown – “bravely fight for the legal rights of religious believers, journalists, victims of forced evictions, and women who simply want to protest sexual assault.”
“They should be embraced as partners, not enemies, of the government,” he said.
He also raised the case of Pu Zhiqiang, a lawyer who is known in China and around the world for his efforts to support the rule of law.
Pu has been in jail awaiting trial for more than 18 months and “releasing him would be a step toward a more just society,” Baucus said.
A pre-trial meeting was held for Pu Zhiqiang earlier this week. He faces up to eight years in prison for comments he posted on social media that were critical of the government and has been charged with “inciting ethnic hatred” and “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”
China routinely rejects foreign criticism of its rights record, and has yet to comment on the statement. The German Embassy also voiced its views on Thursday, noting that “serious problems persist with regard to freedom of opinion” in China. The statement highlighted the plight of rights lawyers swept up in the crackdown, as well as Pu Zhiqiang’s case, among others.
On Wednesday, the state-run Global Times newspaper urged judges in Pu’s case to ignore what it called political pressure from the West.
In a commentary, the paper said, “China’s judiciary will not accept the West setting the tone for Pu’s case. It has not done so for the case of Liu Xiaobo either.” The paper said that the courts needed to be firm in handling the case, adding that if the West wanted to look into the ruling, that's their own business. Liu, a dissident writer and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, was sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2009 on subversion charges.