Bearing Witness to Chinese Persecution

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Last week, Chinese authorities indicted Liu Xiaobo for "incitement of state subversion," citing his essays and association with Charter 08, a blueprint for democracy, human rights and the rule of law released in December 2008. That document, inspired by an earlier generation of dissidents in Czechoslovakia, the Charter '77 movement, was signed by Liu and some 300 other intellectuals and activists. In the following weeks and months, 11,000 people added their names, most of them inside China. Charter 08 is the most significant democratic reform movement in China in a decade. Not surprising, then, that Chinese communist party authorities wish to stop it.

In order to demonstrate support for Mr. Liu and concern over the implications of his case, I seek to observe Mr. Liu's trial, if there is one. Foreign observers are allowed under Chinese law and the notion is consistent with international legal norms on the openness and transparency of legal proceedings.

My purpose is also to demonstrate concern for the rule of law in China. For some time, the West has placed its hopes for change in China in the rule of law. Since the rule of law is a pillar of democracy, legal institutions, it was thought, could lead the way toward political reform. Certainly, in recent years, China's leaders seemed to be tolerating changes in the legal system. The number of private lawyers and law firms has grown exponentially. Lawyers and citizens energetically began pursuing rights in court. A "wei quan," or "rights defense" movement, grew up around lawyers and activists seeking to use the laws on the books, and the institutions allowed by law, to assert and defend human rights without challenging the underpinnings of China's communist system. Such efforts were tolerated at first, and there were even modest signs of greater professionalism in the communist judicial system.

Unfortunately, initial signs of progress have given way to serious setbacks. Many lawyers who take on politically-sensitive cases have been subject to a kind of backdoor disbarment, finding it impossible to renew their licenses. Some lawyers have been the target of surveillance, confined to house arrest, the victims of physical attacks, raids and confiscation of their property. Law firms and other groups pursuing law in the public interest have been shut down.

Moreover, there has been an alarming increase in the use of "subversion" or state security charges leveled against activists. These cases have become a substitute for the old "counter-revolutionary" crimes. Others convicted on such grounds include Hu Jia, the AIDS activist who also criticized abuses surrounding the staging of the Summer 2008 Olympic Games and Huang Qi, who posted public information on his website about the government's response to the Sichuan earthquake.

Liu's prosecution requires a serious response from the United States. Cooperating with China on other issues like the environment or North Korea does not mean we must silence ourselves when it comes to the rights and freedoms of China's citizens. Indeed, we are unlikely to get meaningful cooperation on any issue when we appear weak in defense of our principles, which as President Obama has said many times -- most recently in his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize -- are universal principles.

I hope that Liu is released and the charges against him dropped. Liu is an extraordinary person, outspoken about freedom and democracy and human rights. In 1989 he joined students at Tiananmen Square in their protests. Later, he persuaded many to leave before the tanks were sent in. In recent years, he has been a constant voice for tolerance, urging an end to racist propaganda against Tibetans and advocating dialogue between Chinese leaders and the Dalai Lama.

Short of Mr. Liu's release, I would like, in President Obama's words, to "bear witness" to Liu's persecution, by attending the trial. It would be a powerful statement of American concern if Ambassador Jon M. Huntsman and I were to attend the trial together.

Above all, it is vital that Chinese leaders know that they will lose something in their relations with the U.S. if Liu is imprisoned. There must be consequences for abuses of human rights, in this case, the mere expression of ideas. Chinese authorities seek to make a symbol out of Liu Xiaobo. We must do the same.

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