News / Asia

US Lawmakers, Activists Press China to Improve Human Rights

Protesters outside the White House during Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit, Jan 19 2011
Protesters outside the White House during Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit, Jan 19 2011
William Ide

U.S. lawmakers and activists called on China Wednesday to dramatically improve its human rights record as Chinese President Hu Jintao had his first state visit with President Barack Obama.

Protesters rallied outside the White House Wednesday as President Obama met with Chinese leader Hu Jintao and prepared to treat him to China's first state dinner in more than a decade.

Some cried for more rights for minority groups such as Tibetans and China's Muslim Uighurs and freedom of religion, others denounced the country's human rights record and enforcement of its one child policy through the practice of forced abortions.

Tenzin Dolkar of the group Students for a Free Tibet says the abuses that China commits against its own  people show that it remains a repressive and authoritative state.

She says China's oppression of the Tibetan people in the wake of the 2008 protests continues.

"China has launched a full scale attack against Tibetan writers, intellectuals, musicians and even artists and even just regular Tibetan people who dare to challenge China's failed policy inside Tibet, so the situation has just been suffering, said Dolkar.

Elnigar Iltebir, is with the group Uighur Americans in the United States.

"If China wants to be a strong international power it cannot continue oppressing its own people, said Iltebir.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers, activists and experts raised questions about China's behavior in a wide range of areas from security to trade and human rights.

China's behavior in international affairs and at home is also raising concerns.

Chairwoman of the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs, Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen:

"Would a responsible stakeholder refer to the Nobel committee as a bunch of clowns for awarding an honor to a distinguished Chinese human rights advocate? Would a responsible stakeholder arrest the wife of a Nobel Peace prize winner as further retaliation for speaking the truth about the gross human rights violations in China, asked Ros-Lehtinen.

Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in December. He is currently serving an 11-year prison sentence for his advocacy of human rights and democracy in China. His wife has been detained since shortly after Liu was awarded the prize in October and her whereabouts remain unknown.

Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican Congressman from the state of California voiced his strong opposition to treating China to a state dinner. He thanked the committee for holding the hearing just as President Obama was meeting with Mr. Hu.

"We have to understand that as we speak our country is officially welcoming President Hu as if he had the same stature and acceptability here as a democratic leader, said Rohrabacher. “We welcome him the same as we do countries that are democratic that respect human rights. This is wrong!"

The exact number of individuals in China who are being held as prisoners of conscience is unknown.  

Former Tiananmen activist Yang Jianli, says that what is clear is that Chinese officials at the local and central level continue to use direct violence, house arrest and disappearances to silence dissent.

"I also urge you to pay attention to the disappearance of Chinese citizens as a result of the government's unwarranted actions,” said Yang Jianli. “The most notorious case is Gao Zhisheng. He has not been heard from ever since last April. After being repeatedly detained and severely tortured."

Geng He, the wife of Gao Zhisheng a human rights lawyer, attended the hearing Wednesday and spoke out about her husband at a separate press conference.

"So many times, we've had sleepless nights as we worry about his safety,” she said. “So many times, when we think about the torture that he is going through our hearts break. So many times, we have wept as we wonder where he is."

Geng He added her voice to a growing chorus of others who are calling on the U.S. to press China to improve human rights and urged President Obama to help her children get their father back.

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