US-China Human Rights Dialogue Reconvenes in Washington
Dui Hua Executive Director John Kamm spent the week of July 13 in the nation’s capital for meetings with top officials at the Department of State, National Security Council, and Congress. Discussions focused on which issues and prisoners would be raised at the then upcoming 19th session of the US-China Human Rights Dialogue.
Held in Washington, DC, on August 13 and 14, 2015, the 19th session of the would-be annual dialogue reconvened after a two-year gap. The 18th session took place in Kunming, the capital of China’s southern Yunnan Province, in the summer of 2013, but 2014 failed to produce a human rights dialogue, presumably because President Barack Obama met with the Dalai Lama at the White House in February of that year. Some were concerned that the 19th session would meet a similar fate after the Dalai Lama attended the White House prayer breakfast in February 2015. Bolstering these concerns, the Statement of Outcomes released at the conclusion of the Strategic & Economic Dialogue in July omitted dates for both the human rights dialogue and the upcoming legal experts’ dialogue (slated for mid-October).
The 19th session opened with brief remarks from US Secretary of State John Kerry and Chinese Ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai. The agenda proceeded with a full day of exchanges between the leaders of the American and Chinese interagency teams, Tom Malinowski, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Rights, and Labor, and Li Junhua, Director General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Department of International Conferences and Organizations, followed by a working dinner. The US team included representatives of the Department of State, White House, Department of Commerce, Department of Justice, and Environmental Protection Agency, while the Chinese delegation included representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Public Security, and Supreme People’s Court, among others.
August 14 was given over to a visit to a Maryland detention center, meetings with senior staffers of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and a non-governmental organization (NGO) roundtable that brought together Chinese delegates and a number of China’s harshest critics in the human rights and legal communities. The roundtable marked the first time that a Chinese delegation to a US-China human rights dialogue met with critical members of civil society for a wide-ranging give and take about human rights in China.
At the end of the first day of discussions, Assistant Secretary Malinowski gave an on-the-record briefing and responded to journalists’ questions. He referenced the “growing sense of alarm in the United States about human rights developments in China,” and promised that human rights would figure “very prominently” in talks between President Obama and President Xi Jinping when the latter makes his first presidential state visit to the United States in late September 2015.
Malinowski then outlined the issues raised by the Americans. In the order of his briefing, they included:
- The crackdown on lawyers, “which has resulted in over 250 attorneys, activists, and their family members being detained, questioned, interrogated, or held incommunicado”;
- The enactment of an “ambiguously worded” national security law;
- The “expansiveness” of the draft NGO law under consideration;
- The clampdown on freedom of expression;
- The importance of free online and offline discourse and a free media;
- America’s strong interest in China ruling on journalist and academic visas in a “timely and predictable” manner and granting US news outlets “fair and equitable treatment”;
- The campaign to desecrate and demolish churches in Zhejiang Province and elsewhere;
- “The dangers of conflating terrorism with peaceful expression of dissent or religious belief” in Xinjiang and elsewhere;
- America’s suggestion to reduce tensions in Tibet by renewing dialogue with the Dalai Lama and respecting Tibetan religious practices, like funeral rites (a veiled reference to the recent handling of the death in prison of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche); and
- The Chinese government’s emphasis on fighting “‘cultural infiltration and Western influence.’”
During his briefing, Malinowski named 16 individuals who are currently imprisoned, detained, or denied freedom of movement. Prior to the dialogue session, the American Embassy in Beijing handed over a list of more than 100 “cases of concern” to China’s MFA, and during the dialogue, the list was handed over again. (The Chinese side did not commit to providing information in response to the list.)
The day after Malinowski’s briefing, Director General Li Junhua gave a press conference at the Chinese Embassy. Stressing that the talks were “candid and professional,” Li revealed that the Chinese side had raised concerns about human rights abuses in the United States, including racial discrimination, excessive use of force (including the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri), and “the violation of human rights of other countries through massive surveillance activities.” Addressing concerns raised by Malinowski, Li stated that about 20 lawyers had been detained and prosecuted for breaking the law, and that concerns over the draft NGO law were due to a “misunderstanding.” Li said that China was open to discussing human rights during President Xi Jinping’s September state visit, but that human rights should not “dominate” discussions.
Between 1998 and 2008, China conducted more than 200 to nearly 600 endangering state security (ESS) trials annually. In a given year, Guangdong, as one of China’s most populous provinces, only accounted for between one and 14 of those trials. In 2013, things changed. Driven by a surge in inciting subversion cases, Guangdong experienced a notable increase in its number of ESS trials. The following is a sampling of people accused of inciting subversion in Guangdong between 2013 and 2015.
Largely inspired by the New Citizens’ Movement that was co-founded by lawyer and civil society activist Xu Zhiyong, a number of Guangdong-based activists, armed with banners and placards, staged sporadic small-scale protests in 2013 to build support for public disclosure of government officials’ private assets. In response, Guangdong police slapped protestors with public order offenses, such as “provoking a serious disturbance.” In some other cases, protesters were charged with inciting subversion and denied access to lawyers and family members on the grounds that such contact would threaten state security. Yang Wei (杨微) remained in custody for eight months. Police detained him on June 8, 2013, just four days after the 24th anniversary of the 1989 June Fourth protests, and released him in February 2014 due to a lack of evidence. On June 12, 2013, Yang Lin (杨林) was detained in a separate incitement case. The Shenzhen Intermediate People’s Court brought him to trial on May 6, 2014 but has yet to issue a verdict. Liang Haiyi (梁海怡) was detained much earlier, during the crackdown on the Jasmine Revolution in 2011. Nonetheless her suspended sentence for inciting subversion was not issued until three years later, on July 18, 2014.
Foreign governments and international human rights groups began publicizing the trial of three Guangzhou men, Tang Jingling (唐荆陵), Wang Qingying (王清营), and Yuan Xinting (袁新亭), in June 2015. These Xu Zhiyong supporters were detained in May 2014. They are accused of distributing books about non-violent civil disobedience by American political scientist Gene Sharp and organizing “meal gatherings.” Prosecutors alleged that the gatherings provided opportunities to study non-violent ways to overthrow the Communist dictatorship and to discuss a range of political and social issues, including hukou (household registration) reform, June Fourth, and Lin Zhao (a prominent dissident executed in 1968 for her criticism of Chairman Mao). Media reported that the gatherings were legal and low-key, but that police constantly harassed, summoned, or detained participants.
This trial and other arrests in 2014 indicate a deterioration of the respect for freedom of speech in the province. Due to Guangdong’s geographical proximity to Hong Kong, local authorities have been particularly concerned about speech that supports the Occupy Central protests that broke out in the former British colony on September 26, 2014. Police suppressed Guangdong activists who expressed support for Hong Kong protesters’ demands for universal suffrage in the 2017 chief executive election. Supporters Chen Qitang (陈启棠), Su Changlan (苏昌兰), Wang Mo (王默), Xie Fengxia(谢丰夏), and Zhang Rongping (张荣平) were indicted for inciting subversion. Police charged several others with incitement, but later withdrew the charge or changed it to “provoking a serious disturbance,” which is not an ESS crime.
The investigation of Liang Jiancai (梁建才) may also be related to mainland concern over the Occupy Central protests. According to official documents discovered by Dui Hua, Guangzhou’s Yuexiu District Procuratorate began investigating Liang on December 9, 2014. He allegedly raised a reactionary banner and shouted “down with the Communist Party of China” near a tourist information center at Guangzhou Railway Station. Dui Hua is seeking more information about this case.
In 2015 Guangdong-based lawyer Sui Muqing (隋牧青) was placed under residential surveillance for inciting subversion as part of the nationwide crackdown on criminal defense lawyers. The crackdown began on July 10 and has been mostly concentrated in Beijing.
Guangdong stopped publicizing ESS statistics after 2008, but information in Dui Hua’s Political Prisoner Database shows that inciting subversion cases are on the rise in the province. Given the increasingly difficult human rights situation in China, it would come as no surprise for the country to see an overall increase in ESS cases, but given the liberal tradition of the province, it is a surprise (and a disappointment) to see a growing disregard for freedom of expression in Guangdong.
By the end of August, Dui Hua’s year-to-date tally of media mentions had risen to more than 200 news articles and NGO reports. On August 25, The Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time Report interviewed Executive Director Kamm about Xi Jinping’s plan to pardon four kinds of prisoners. Kamm said the pardon displayed Xi’s self-confidence as he consolidates power in an apparent attempt to become the next Chairman Mao. The pardon is unlikely to impact any prisoners of conscience.
In July, The New York Times and Foreign Policy cited Dui Hua research on criminal prosecutions in Xinjiang, home to the majority of China’s Uyghur minority. The Economist referenced Dui Hua’s estimate of the number of executions in China in its report on global trends in capital punishment. Another article in The New York Times cites Dui Hua analysis in its discussion of Chinese police turning more often to ambiguous laws, such as “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” to restrict free expression online.
Featured: China Mulls Harsher Penalties for Protesters, “Cults”; Fewer Capital Crimes
In July, members of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee published and opened for a one-month period of public consultation a set of proposals for amending China’s Criminal Law. Among the proposed changes were removing the death penalty from nine criminal offenses, broadening the scope of “gathering a crowd to disrupt public order” to include solo petitioners and funders, and raising the maximum penalty for “cult” offenses from 15 years to life.
Xinjiang’s State Security Prisoners: Failing to Reform (Part 1 of 2) (August 25)
Draft Criminal Law Amendment Takes Aim at Defense Lawyers in China (August 18)
Fewer Juvenile Arrests Approved; Migrants Bear Brunt of Charges (July 28)
More People Say China Doesn’t Respect Human Rights: Global Poll (July 7)
Previous Digest: July 2015
Ren-Yin Yu joined Dui Hua in June 2015 as Development Officer. She will handle communications, outreach, and fundraising programs, working closely with Dui Hua constituents and supporters and contributing to publications, events, and special programs. Ren-Yin has lived in Taiwan and mainland China and is bilingual in Mandarin and English. After graduating from UC Berkeley with a BA in legal studies and interdisciplinary field studies, Ren-Yin joined university staff as a Development Associate and Project/Policy Analyst for the Vice Chancellor’s Office for Undergraduate Education.
After serving in a part-time capacity for several months, Jonathan Kinkel began work this past August as Dui Hua’s full-time Publications & Programs Officer, handling a range of issues including research and grant reporting. In May 2015, Jonathan completed his PhD in political science at the University of Texas at Austin, where he focused on comparative and Chinese politics and conducted in-China dissertation fieldwork on court reforms. Previously, he earned a JD from Wisconsin Law School and served for three years as an Assistant Attorney General for the Wisconsin Department of Justice. Jonathan brings experience with both the American criminal justice system and Chinese legal system, as well as fluency in Mandarin, to his work with Dui Hua.
This section delves into the human rights activism of John Kamm between 1990 and 1999, the year he established Dui Hua.
“I Guess You’d Call it a Miracle”
In early 1991, after stepping down as president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, John Kamm began working as a private businessman to help political prisoners in China, starting with several visits to Guangzhou. Human rights activists initially greeted his efforts with skepticism. At a breakfast meeting with Kamm, Human Rights Watch Hong Kong Director Robin Munro expressed disbelief that businesspeople could be effective rights advocates.
A few weeks after the breakfast, Munro phoned Kamm at his Hong Kong office. Making clear that he was calling in his private capacity, Munro told Kamm that a journalist friend had given him a letter smuggled out of a detention center in Hengyang, Hunan Province. “You say that businesspeople can help political prisoners,” Munro told Kamm. “Well, here’s your chance.”
Two brothers, Li Lin and Li Zhi, wrote the letter. They had been leaders in the spring 1989 protests in Hengyang. Both fled to Hong Kong after the protests subsided, courtesy of Operation Yellow Bird. Once in Hong Kong, Li Lin, a leader of the Hunan Independent Workers Federation, found work as a mechanic, while his younger brother, Li Zhi, worked as a salesman and musician.
The brothers went back to their hometown to visit family during the Lunar New Year holiday in 1991. Contrary to assurances from local officials, both were detained on February 16, 1991.
Munro gave Kamm the brothers’ names (in Pinyin and in characters) as well as their Chinese ID numbers and the location of the detention center where they were allegedly being tortured.
It happened that, in the afternoon, Kamm was to meet with a Deputy Vice-Secretary General of the State Council, accompanied by an editor of a left-leaning Chinese newspaper in the then-British colony, and an officer of the American Consulate General. The State Council official got right to the point: “Why is it so difficult for China to win renewal of its Most Favored Nation (MFN) trade status in the United States?” Kamm responded, “Because, every day, average Americans like me hear something about how your government treats its citizens that makes us angry.” The official asked, “What do you mean?” Kamm replied by handing the official a note with the information on the Li brothers. “I understand they are being tortured,” Kamm said. The official took the note, folded it, and put it into his pocket.
In order to prepare for two testimonies to Congress in late June 1991, Kamm flew to Beijing to obtain updates on political prisoners in early June. He set up meetings with a number of officials, including the State Council official who had accepted the note. Prior to this meeting, Kamm met with the Supreme People’s Court (a court vice president and directors of court’s Criminal Division and Foreign Affairs Bureau) and an official of the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade, Kamm’s official host. The purpose of this meeting was to ask about the possibility of parole for Lo Xaixing, a former Hong Kong Trade Development Council representative who was serving a five-year sentence for his role in helping dissidents escape China in the aftermath of June 4.
After asking about Lo, Kamm followed up with a question about two men who had been convicted along with him. The vice president misunderstood Kamm’s question and replied: “Regarding the Li brothers, their case will be handled in accordance with the policy that those who have committed offenses during the turmoil can return to China provided they do not commit new crimes.”
After being sentenced to five and a half months for illegal border crossing, the Li brothers were released on July 9, 1991—four weeks after Kamm’s meeting with the State Council official. The brothers went directly to Hong Kong and had dinner with Kamm the following day. They were emaciated and showed signs of having been tortured. The day Kamm raised their cases was the day police started treating them better, the Li’s told Kamm. The Li brothers eventually traveled to the United States where they were granted political asylum.
Months later, on another trip to Beijing, Kamm had an informal meeting with the Supreme People’s Court Foreign Affairs Bureau official who had attended the meeting at which the Li brothers were discussed. Kamm asked for information on the policy that those who fled China after June 4 would not be detained provided they did not commit new crimes. The official replied that he was also curious about this policy, but had found no relevant official documents. Kamm asked, “If that’s the case, why were the Li brothers released?”
The official replied, “I guess you’d call it a miracle.”