A bad sig­nal to China on tor­ture

The U.S. doesn’t sign onto a let­ter con­demn­ing hu­man rights abuses.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION -

FRUS­TRATED BY China’s re­lent­less crack­down on civil so­ci­ety and hu­man rights, West­ern gov­ern­ments have lately adopted the tac­tic of draw­ing up joint com­mu­ni­ca­tions to Bei­jing. Last year the United States joined in at least two such ini­tia­tives, a dec­la­ra­tion at the United Na­tions Hu­man Rights Coun­cil and a let­ter rais­ing con­cerns about new Chi­nese laws on cy­ber­se­cu­rity, coun­tert­er­ror­ism and non­govern­ment or­ga­ni­za­tions. The ap­peals haven’t stopped re­pres­sion by the regime of Xi Jin­peng, but they have at least em­bar­rassed it, and forced se­nior of­fi­cials to re­spond.

On Feb. 27, a new let­ter was dis­patched to the Min­is­ter of Pub­lic Se­cu­rity, Guo Shengkun, on the vi­tal sub­ject of the tor­ture and se­cret de­ten­tion of a num­ber of hu­man rights lawyers. It was signed by 11 gov­ern­ments, in­clud­ing Bri­tain, France, Ger­many, Canada, Aus­tralia and Ja­pan. But from China’s point of view, the big news was the sig­na­ture that was miss­ing — that of the United States. Whether in­ten­tional or not, it was an­other sig­nal that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion will play down hu­man rights in its for­eign pol­icy, grant­ing a free pass to regimes it re­gards as al­lies or with which it hopes to cut deals.

Such a pol­icy can only mean more per­se­cu­tion of brave peo­ple like Xie Yang, one of the sub­jects of the new let­ter. Mr. Xie, who was ar­rested in 2015, pro­vided his lawyers in Jan­uary with a de­tailed ac­count of the tor­ture he has been sub­jected to, in­clud­ing re­peated beat­ings and threats to his fam­ily. The let­ter called for an in­de­pen­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tion into “cred­i­ble claims of tor­ture” against Mr. Xie and fel­low lawyers Li Heping, Wang Quanzhang and Li Chunfu, ac­cord­ing to the Toronto Globe and Mail, which first re­ported on the mis­sive last week.

Bei­jing’s re­sponse to the let­ter ex­ploited the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s own rhetoric. As the Globe and Mail re­ported, in the days after it was sent state me­dia pub­lished ar­ti­cles de­scrib­ing Mr. Xie’s al­le­ga­tions of tor­ture as “fake news.” The state news agency Xin­hua called them “clev­erly or­ches­trated lies.”

In fact, the State Depart­ment it­self doc­u­mented cases of tor­ture and il­le­gal de­ten­tion in its lat­est hu­man rights re­port, say­ing China was guilty of “il­le­gal de­ten­tions at un­of­fi­cial hold­ing fa­cil­i­ties . . . tor­ture and co­erced con­fes­sions of pris­on­ers and de­ten­tion and ha­rass­ment of jour­nal­ists, lawyers, writ­ers, blog­gers, dis­si­dents, pe­ti­tion­ers and oth­ers.” But that re­port was drawn up by State’s pro­fes­sional staff, and Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son chose not to make a press ap­pear­ance when it was re­leased ear­lier this month.

In a visit to Bei­jing last week­end Mr. Tiller­son said he had “made clear that the United States will con­tinue to ad­vo­cate for uni­ver­sal val­ues such as hu­man rights and re­li­gious free­dom.” So why not sup­port a con­crete ap­peal drafted by Amer­ica’s clos­est demo­cratic al­lies? A State Depart­ment of­fi­cial told us that the in­ac­tion was mainly the re­sult of tim­ing; Mr. Tiller­son had just taken of­fice and quick ac­tion was dif­fi­cult. But it’s doubt­ful that China’s lead­ers — or the coura­geous lawyers suf­fer­ing tor­ture — in­ter­preted it that way.

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