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China rights activists hope Obama won’t disappoint

Posted by Author on January 20, 2011

WASHINGTON — The wife of missing Chinese human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng fought back tears Wednesday as she spoke of her children’s pain living without their father, who disappeared in April 2010.

Geng He said her daughter of 17 is depressed and her seven-year-old son asks where his father is and speaks of needing to keep up his Chinese so he can speak with him.

“Mr Obama, if you still remember the pain of the void you had growing up without your dad, maybe you can help my children reunite with their dad,” she pleaded, speaking through an interpreter.
Her personal appeal at a news conference here illustrated the ambivalence of exiled dissidents, hopeful that President Barack Obama will help bring change to China but still feeling the bitter sting of experience.

In vivid counterpoint to Obama’s summit with visiting Chinese President Hu Jintao, exiled human rights activists pointed to China’s record of harassment, imprisonment, torture and even death for those who step out of line.

As they spoke, Obama and Hu held a press conference at the White House that gave little indication the Chinese leader had budged on such issues.

Obama said he had been “very candid” with Hu, but the Chinese leader defended what he called “enormous progress” on human rights.

A senior US official later told reporters that Obama had raised the plight of Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned winner of the Nobel peace prize, and had reaffirmed that freedom of expression was a universal right.

Outside the White House, several hundred protesters lined Pennsylvania Avenue, some chanting “Hu Jintao, go home!” and “Shame on Hu Jintao.”

Banners and brightly colored flags reflected a potpourri of simmering human rights conflicts — over the Falungong spiritual movement, Tibet, the Muslim Uighur minority and the perennial tensions with Taiwan.

The Obama administration, which initially favored realpolitik, has gingerly moved human rights out of the backrooms of US diplomacy in recent months and promised to frankly raise US concerns with China.

Exiled human rights and pro-democracy advocates said they hoped Obama wouldn’t disappoint them.

“At this time, all eyes in China are focused on this summit,” said Rebiya Kadeer, the exiled champion of the rights of China’s Uighurs.

“Millions of people in China believe President Obama can make great change by speaking out on human rights issues.

“We all believe that Obama will not disappoint the hopes and dreams of millions of people suffering under Chinese rule,” she added.

Ngawang Sangdrol, a Tibetan nun who was jailed at age 15 and spent 10 years in prison before being released on the eve of a 2002 US-China summit, said in a statement that international pressure made a difference in her case.

She urged Obama to ask Hu to free all prisoners held for exercising their right to free speech, allow freedom of religion and self-rule and peacefully resolve the future of Tibet through negotiations.

Other activists described a deteriorating climate for political freedoms in China, with arrests of journalists, judicial harassment of non-governmental organizations and prolonged detention of activists who run afoul of the government.

Reporters Without Borders pressed the Obama administration to ask Hu to free 106 journalists and bloggers and to criticize growing censorship in China.

“China is the world’s biggest prison for journalists,” it said.

The exiled activists each had their own story of repression. But Gao’s case was among the most chilling.

His wife said he was tortured in 2007 after being convicted of subversion in December 2006 and given a three-year suspended sentence.

At that time he was stripped naked, thrown onto a wet floor and subjected to electrical shocks all over his body with a baton, she said.

When Gao disappeared again in February 2009, Geng fled to the United States with their two children.

“This time the torture was more severe than last time,” she said, describing how her husband was beaten with a handgun, forced to stand for prolonged periods with his head in an awkward position and had his face covered in wet towels to the point of suffocation.

Gao was missing for 14 months before being released. In April, he vanished again, and his family has been told nothing of his fate.

When her young son asks about his father’s whereabouts, Geng tells him he’s on a business trip.

She said the boy told her: “In my heart, I have a red string attached to my dad’s heart, so no matter where he goes we are connected.”

AFP

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