A Small, But Telling, Victory for Human Rights in China

by Dr. David Aikman
April 7, 2010

For 23 years Dr. David Aikman was a foreign correspondent and senior correspondent for Time magazine. A former foreign policy consultant in Washington D.C., he is a current senior fellow of the Trinity Forum. Read full bio.

Recent headlines have been a steady reminder of China’s growing economic clout and of its disquieting boldness in defiance of the West. Watching the US and China go head-to-head over critical and divisive foreign policy issues can be disheartening.  Ordinary people can feel that that they are mere spectators in a clash of titans. In mid-April for example, President Obama hosted 44 nations in Washington at a conference on global nuclear security, and hoped to recruit China as a partner in a global economic campaign to thwart Iranian ambitions to acquire nuclear weapons.  And at the G-20 economic conference a few days later, the US sought an international coalition to persuade China to allow a revaluation of its currency, the yuan, widely considered under-valued against the US dollar and the root of China’s increasingly unfair trade advantage over other countries.

What you and I think about these weighty disputes between global superpowers isn't likely to influence events one iota.  But a small American-based private organization, the China Aid Association, has recently scored a significant victory over the normally unbending Chinese bureaucracy.  The CAA (website:  www.chinaaid.org) diligently and energetically works on behalf of China's harassed Christian community, keeping track of incidents like the arrests of Christian pastors or the bulldozing of house church buildings. One of the cases it has focused on most intently is that of Chinese human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who went missing in early February 2009, believed kidnapped by Chinese security agents.  Gao, a Christian, had been held, brutally beaten and tortured during an earlier kidnapping in 2007.  Usually, the Chinese government trots out its detainees in a show trial within weeks of an arrest and then sentences them to a few years of “re-education through labor” in a labor camp.  Gao simply disappeared in an incident reminiscent of Argentina's “dirty war” in the 1970's, when political oppositionists suddenly “disappeared,” never to be seen again.

The Chinese certainly had reason to be angry with Gao. He wrote a letter to the US Congress appealing for a boycott of China's 2008 summer Olympics on the grounds of China's forced abortion policy and savage mistreatment of falungong practitioners. Gao had no political agenda but merely hoped to bring attention to China’s human rights abuses.

China Aid, founded by exiled Chinese Christian Bob Fu, now based in Texas, went to work via its website.  Visitors to the site were encouraged to sign a petition on behalf of Gao, which was presented to the Chinese embassy in Washington.  Fu then traveled to Europe to meet with EU and European Parliament officials, and he badgered the State Department to buttonhole Chinese officials about Gao's case.  By early April 2010, 134,000 people from 181 countries had signed the petition to release Gao.  Annoyed and embarrassed by all this pressure, the Chinese government finally permitted the Beijing reporters of the Associated Press to speak with Gao by phone and confirm that he was alive and not technically in prison. (His wife and daughter had fled to the US via Thailand a year earlier, in the hope that, once out of China, they could not be used as points of pressure to get at Gao himself.)  The Chinese even arranged for Bob Fu to speak with Gao from the US to confirm that he had indeed been released.  

The next step is to put pressure on China to allow Gao to leave China and join his wife and daughter in the US. When that happens, what a story he will have to tell. It’s tragic that China, a great and ancient civilization, feels so threatened by truth and dissent that it resorts to copying the tactics of a disgraced South American military dictatorship. But we should take heart that a small organization like China Aid, propelled by the passion of a man like Bob Fu, can sway China’s political juggernaut. It’s a lesson we can all learn from.