11-2-2011By Sam Quatromoni
Human Rights Defenders Program
As the public outcry over the ongoing abuse and detention of the blind human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng gains increasing international attention, the U.S. diplomatic mission in China must seize the opportunity to publicly support a human rights defender at risk. Newly appointed American Ambassador Gary Locke promised at his Senate confirmation hearing to forcefully promote universal human rights in China and to raise individual cases with Chinese officials at the “highest levels.” He should now put those commitments into practice. Locke recently gave an encouraging speech at the Beijing Foreign Studies University, which pressed the universality of human rights and highlighted the benefits of an open, vibrant society that allows dissent, but thus far Locke has not acted on Chen’s case.
This openness that Locke advances is at odds with the perpetual “softdetention” suffered by Chen and his family, and with China’s proposed legalization of secret detention and forced disappearance. Locke should make explicit this conflict by heeding calls from Chinese activists to publicly support Chen and by echoing the popular outcry over Chen’s detention. Even if Locke or Embassy staff have privately discussed Chen’s case with Chinese officials, it is important that the U.S. diplomatic mission publicly raise this case as concrete evidence of the U.S. Government’s commitment to the protection and promotion of human rights and human rights defenders in China.
The Chinese government imprisoned Chen for four years in response to his work documenting forced abortions and sterilizations. Since Chen’s release from prison in September 2010, the police have cordoned off his home from the rest of his village and severely beaten him at least three times. Chinese authorities often use this soft detention on activists and dissidents, but Chen’s case sparked an outpouring of support for him and criticism of the government. His supporters have fed a Guangcheng Campaign on the Chinese microblog service Weibo, calling for visits to Chen’s home in Liyi, Shangdong province, posted his photo as their own in Weibo profiles, and made financial donations to supporters seeking to visit Chen. Another site, “Dark Glasses. Portrait: Love Guangcheng, Free Guangcheng,” displays dozens of photos of supporters donning dark sunglasses resembling Chen’s own.
Many more “ad hoc activists” have shown solidarity by responding to the calls to visit Chen’s home. The security cohort supervising Chen’s family has tried to violently halt the flow of visitors, yet the visits increase. AFP has reported that 30 supporters attempting to visit on Saturday, October 23 were assaulted and robbed of phones and cameras by a group of “300 hired thugs.” Many of Chen’s would-be visitors recount their experience on Weibo, further swelling public awareness of his situation. One supporter summed up his reason for visiting Chen, like this: “I couldn’t believe something so dark and evil could happen in my country, so I had to see for myself.”
In standing up for Chen, Locke and the U.S. diplomatic mission will implicitly oppose the proposed secret detention legislation. Chinese activists are not optimistic that their opposition can defeat the bill, but in publicly supporting Chen, Locke will demonstrate that the U.S. Government supports the Chinese people in their efforts to eliminate government abuses. Public support by the U.S. government, generally, can provide significant encouragement to the lawyers, judges, journalists, bloggers, students, religious leaders, trade unionists, and others who put themselves at risk of harassment, and detention to work non-violently for the recognition and protection of human rights. In Chen’s case, Locke’s support will amplify the frustrations of the Chinese people and ensure that the Chinese government gets the message.