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Will Promoting Human Rights in China be a Priority for President Trump?

Donald J. Trump was inaugurated as president of the United States on January 20, 2017. During the campaign and the transition period, Mr. Trump leveled a series of criticisms against China, calling the country a currency manipulator that was “raping” the American economy. He called climate change a “Chinese hoax” and he called on China to exert more pressure on North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.

Especially troubling to Beijing was president-elect Trump’s accepting a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen on December 2, 2016. For nearly 40 years, American presidents had refrained from any interaction with a Taiwanese leader. In an interview on December 12 Trump declared that he didn’t see why America should be bound by the One-China policy.

On another sensitive topic, the president-elect criticized China’s building of a “massive military complex” in the South China Sea in a tweet sent out on December 4. He followed up by accusing China of stealing an American underwater drone in another tweet sent out on December 12.

Another topic of conversation was recent developments in Beijing and Hong Kong. Washington analysts agreed that Xi Jinping’s recent elevation to the “Core” of China’s Communist Party marked a further consolidation of the Chinese leader’s power in the run-up to the 19th Party Congress at the end of 2017. Many expressed surprise that the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress had issued an interpretation of the Basic Law article on oath taking while the issue was still before the courts in Hong Kong.

As troubling as the president-elect’s remarks were, his appointments to key posts were even more worrying. He appointed fervent China critic Peter Navarro, author of “Death by China” to the newly created position of chairman of the National Trade Council on December 21. On January 3, the president-elect named another China critic, Robert Lighthizer, as United States Trade Representative.

Also unsettling to China’s leadership were remarks delivered at the confirmation hearings of picks for key cabinet posts. Rex Tillerson, the new Secretary of State, had this to say on January 12: “We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that first, the island-building stops, and second, your access to those islands (is) also not going to be allowed.” On January 24, the new White House Press Secretary Sean Spizer underlined Tillerson’s position by saying that the US would make sure “that we defend international territories from being taken over by one country.”

On January 18, president-elect Trump’s pick for Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross called China the most protectionist country among the world’s large economies, and threatened to take action against Chinese trade practices.

The day before Ross’s hearing, Trump’s nominee for Defense Secretary James Mattis said that the world order “is under the biggest attack since World War II from Russia, from terrorist groups, and with what China is doing in the South China Sea.” He accused China of “shredding trust along its periphery.” On January 13, the day after Rex Tillerson said the United States would deny access to China’s man-made islands in the South China Sea, CIA director Mike Pompeo attacked China, saying its activities in the South and East China Seas and in cyberspace were creating tensions.

Trump’s pick for National Security Advisor Michael Flynn did not go before the Senate for confirmation, so his views on China are largely unknown. In his book “The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and its Allies” Flynn raised eyebrows by claiming that China is part of a global alliance with Islamic jihadists that the United States must confront.

Trump and his team have taken China to task for its trade and currency policies, its refusal to do more to stop North Korean nuclear development, its role in passing the Paris climate agreement, cybersecurity, and its actions in the South and East China Seas, while challenging the One-China policy. Flynn resigned on February 13 after accusations he had discussed sanctions with the Russian Ambassador. In one area, however, Trump and his team have been uncharacteristically silent: human rights.

During the campaign, candidate Trump angered Chinese dissidents by calling the June 1989 protests in Beijing a “riot.” In August, candidate Trump stated that the United States would get out of the nation-building business, which observers interpreted as meaning that promoting democracy and human rights overseas would be a low priority in a Trump presidency.

In his confirmation hearing, Rex Tillerson was asked pointblank by Senator Marco Rubio, chair of the Congressional Executive Commission on China, whether he thought China was one of the world’s worst violators of Human rights. While noting that China “certainly has serious human rights violations,” he declined to label them one of the worst human rights violators. His answer didn’t satisfy Rubio, who threatened to vote against Tillerson’s nomination. (In the end he voted for Tillerson, virtually assuring his confirmation in the full Senate.)

Trump’s silence on human rights in China might not last. An event like the conviction and sentencing of American business woman Sandy Phan-Gillis would likely bring about harsh remarks from President Trump. As one of his first acts as secretary of state, Rex Tillerson will roll out the State Department’s annual country reports for human rights. The report on China will be harsh.

Trump’s pick for United Nations Ambassador will need to decide who to appoint as the US Ambassador in Geneva; the post oversees America’s role on the Human Rights Council. President Trump, together with Secretary of State Tillerson, will have to decide who to nominate as Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, the most senior officer in the US government charged with promoting human rights.

Whether he likes it or not, President Trump will not be able to ignore calls from Congress and the American people to stand up for human rights in China. How and when he will do so is anyone’s guess.


President Xi Jinping and President Donald Trump held a 45-minute telephone conversation on February 9. According to a statement released by the White House, “President Trump agreed, at the request of President Xi, to honor our “One China” policy.”

Although most American media portrayed Trump’s pledge as a climb down from his previous statements on “One China,” in fact what he did was to reaffirm the status quo. Moreover, it is almost certain that Xi did not ask Trump to honor America’s “One China” policy. Under the latter, the United States sells arms to Taiwan, sends Senate-approved officers to Taiwan, and conducts a wide range of bilateral activities. What exactly Xi asked Trump to honor is a mystery.

The two men agreed to visit each other in their respective countries, but no dates for the visits have been agreed.



An official document Dui Hua discovered reveals that Zhao Fengsheng (赵枫生) received a sentence reduction of seven months on December 27, 2016, and is scheduled for release from Hunan’s Chishan Prison on April 27, 2017. Originally from a Yao minority county, Zhao was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for inciting subversion by Hunan’s Hengyang Intermediate People’s Court on November 28, 2014. He posted an open letter online shortly before he was detained in November 2013. One was addressed to the Turkestan Islamic Party, accused by the Chinese government for masterminding the car attack near Tiananmen Square in late October 2013. In the letter, Zhao claimed that the attack should have targeted government officials, not innocent civilians.

Dui Hua previously reported a rare trial of armed rebellion, one of the 12 crimes under the category of endangering state security, concluded in Sichuan in 1999. Lai Shihua (赖仕华) was a leader of an anti-government militia formed in the early 1990s with the intention to overthrow the Communist regime. After his death with two-year reprieve sentence was commuted to life in 2000 and further commuted to 19 years’ imprisonment, Lai has thus far received four additional sentence reductions totaling 64 months. If the latest sentence reduction of 15 months was granted by the Dazhou Intermediate People’s Court, Lai will be released early from Chuandong Prison before his sentence expires in November 2018.


Featured: Juvenile Justice Trends in the US Could Provide Lessons for China’s Courts (January 26)

A Young Offender Confined in the US. Image Credit: Juvenile-In-Justice Project.

Amid high-profile reports of violence among children under the age of 14 in China, voices from several corners of Chinese society have called to lower the age of criminal responsibility. However, some Chinese legal experts remain opposed to adopting a more punitive juvenile justice regime and a look into the recent history of the US juvenile justice system supports a more cautious approach. Since 2000, legislatures throughout the United States have been scrambling to correct excessive punishments imposed upon young offenders in the 1980s and 1990s. Since 2000, several states have enhanced the authority of their juvenile courts, and by 2015, 41 states had raised to 17 the maximum age for transferring offenders to criminal court (often called “adult court”).

Juvenile Justice Trends in the US Could Provide Lessons for China’s Courts (January 26)

Previous DigestJanuary 2017.


“Special Prisoner 01”

In March 1993, American businessman John Kamm traveled to Beijing to attend an international conference on small and medium-sized enterprises hosted by the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade. During and after the conference he had talks with Chinese government officials on US-China relations and the need for more prisoner releases.

President Clinton was a few weeks into his presidency. He was considering how to fulfill his campaign promise to put human rights conditions on renewal of China’s most favored nation (MFN) tariff status. China’s leaders were concerned that he might support and sign legislation imposing conditions, as opposed to issuing an executive order, which could be reversed with the stroke of a pen. Clinton had to make a decision no later than June 4, when China’s MFN expired.

On March 2, 1993 Kamm was hosted to dinner by Minister Zeng Jianhui of the State Council Information Office, together with his deputy Li Yuanchao. Media coverage of recent releases was reviewed. The release of Wang Xizhe in February had generated positive press coverage, but it was mostly in Hong Kong and Overseas Chinese media. Zeng asked Kamm to name one or two prisoners whose release would make the front page in the United States. Kamm, opting for two, said “Wei Jingsheng and Xu Wenli.”

Both Wei and Xu were veterans of the Democracy Wall Movement and both had been in prison for more than 10 years. Wei was China’s most prominent political prisoner, known for authoring an essay, “China’s Fifth Modernization,” which he posted on Democracy Wall in December 1978. The essay, which he signed above his address, called for China to adopt democracy and criticized China’s leader Deng Xiaoping by name. For this and other writings in his magazine Explorations, Wei was arrested and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Like Wei, Xu Wenli was the editor of a pro-democracy magazine (April Fifth Forum) where he posted essays advocating political reform. In June 1980, together with Wang Xizhe and other dissidents, he tried to organize a political party. For this he was convicted of counterrevolution and given a long prison sentence in 1981. Xu was reportedly known by Chinese authorities as “Special Prisoner 01.” The release of Wei and Xu were high priorities for Western governments and human rights groups.

Kamm had been told by senior officials of the Ministry of Justice in 1992 that Wei was unrepentant, and showed no willingness to reform. He enjoyed arguing with his guards. The American businessman was told that, because of his attitude, Wei was not being considered for early release. With this in mind, Kamm decided to first push for Xu’s release.

Zeng Jianhui told Kamm he’d work on Xu’s release, and then asked Kamm at what time of the day Xu should be released for maximum publicity. Kamm said major newspapers on the American east coast closed their editions for the following day at midnight. Ten in the morning Beijing time was the best time to announce important news.

On March 8, 1993, Kamm met with Vice Minister of Justice Jin Jian. Jin told the businessman that “people like Xu Wenli can be released in accordance with Articles 71 and 73 of the Criminal Law, as had been demonstrated in the case of Wang Xizhe. It isn’t necessary for them to change their anti-government positions. They have to follow regulations, do meritorious service, and show an understanding of their crimes.” Jin did not mention that prisoners would need to admit their guilt to win parole, a significant departure from the usual litany of things prisoners would have to do to gain clemency.

After Kamm left Beijing he flew to Washington where he briefed Clinton administration officials and members of Congress on possible prisoner releases in the run-up to the president’s MFN decision. On May 16, 1993, Kamm returned to Beijing. At a banquet in his honor on May 18, Kamm was advised by Public Security Ministry director general Zhu Entao that Xu’s release was imminent. At his meeting with the Ministry of Justice on May 19 Kamm was told that an application to parole Xu had been filed with the Beijing Intermediate Court. A director general of the Supreme People’s Court told Kamm that the decision to release Xu had been made in April. In a final meeting with Zeng Jianhui, details of the release were hammered out.

Kamm left Beijing for Hong Kong on May 20. In the early morning of May 26, Kamm received a fax from the State Council Information Office with a simple message: Xu Wenli would be released on parole that day at 10:00 AM. Kamm, who had predicted that the release would take place before the end of May, informed the press. Reporters were waiting for Xu when he returned home.

Coverage in the American press was heavy. The Clinton administration welcomed the news. On May 28, 1993, President Clinton issued an executive order renewing China’s MFN for one year, but placed conditions on renewal of the status in 1994. In May 1994, Clinton reversed course and renewed China’s MFN without conditions.