Democrats Retake House, No Relief for China

On virtually every issue of concern to Americans – border security, immigration reform, climate change, tax policy – the Trump administration is at loggerheads with Democrats in Congress. With Democrats taking control of the House of Representatives on January 3, divisions have deepened, witness the longest government shutdown in American history touched off by a dispute on how best to secure the southern border.

On one issue however, President Trump and members of his team align with congressional Democrats: the need to get tough on opposing Chinese behavior. Whether on trade, national security, or human rights, both sides favor policies that confront China. In fact, in some areas, notably human rights and Taiwan, Democrats in the House of Representatives advocate policies on China that are tougher than those advocated by the Trump administration. The unlikely alliance between the Democratic House and a Republican president bodes ill for repairing the badly frayed relationship between the two countries.

A review of Democratic leadership in the House reinforces the view that body will push for tough policies on China. Democrats are led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and the chairs of key committees that hold hearings, propose legislation, and provide oversight – Foreign Affairs, Ways and Means, Armed Services, and Intelligence – have all taken highly critical positions on China over the years.

In March 2018, then-Minority Leader Pelosi had this to say: “The United States must take strong, smart, and strategic action against China’s brazenly unfair trade practices.”

Pelosi returned as Speaker of the House on January 3. Pelosi built her political career criticizing China on human rights and Tibet. She had been in Congress for less than two years when, in 1989, the events of June 4 in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square played out. Together with Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, Pelosi authored legislation that would place strict human rights conditions on the renewal of China’s Most Favored Trade status.

Decades later, Pelosi remains a vocal critic of China’s human rights practices. She has led bipartisan delegations to Tibet and met with the Dalai Lama. In 2010, Pelosi attended the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo in honor of then-jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. Among her many duties, Speaker Pelosi will appoint the new chairman of the Congressional Executive Commission on China. The agency monitors human rights and rule of law developments in China, holds hearings, and reports its findings to congress on an annual basis.

Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA), Chair of the House Intelligence Committee, has joined Republican lawmakers in backing measures to clamp down on Chinese technology companies ZTE and Huawei, referring to the companies as “cybersecurity threats.” Representative Eliot Engle, (D – NY), Chair of the House of Foreign Affairs Committee has been sharply critical of China’s trade policies and intellectual property rights violations and the consequent damage done to American companies. Ranking members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee include Democrats who have been vocal critics of China – mostly on issues of trade and security, but also on issues of human rights. Notable China critics include Taiwan-born Ted Lieu (D – CA), Brad Sherman (D – CA), and Tom Malinowski (D – NJ). Mr. Malinowski served as Assistant Secretary of Democracy, Rights, and Labor during the Obama administration and probably knows more about human rights in China than any other member of Congress.

Sherman will serve as Chair of the Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific and Non-Proliferation. Sherman has introduced legislation to prevent U.S. technology from being exported to China to facilitate the construction of reeducation camps in Xinjiang. He has also called for applying Global Magnitsky sanctions on those who have created and run the camps.

Representative Adam Smith (D – WA), Chair of the House Armed Services Committee has criticized China for cyber espionage and being uncooperative on North Korea. Richard Neal (D-MA), Chair of the Ways and Means committee, issued a statement calling for President Trump not to lift tariffs on China. Last year, Neal joined committee members, as well as the likes of Peter Navarro, one of Trump’s most hawkish advisers on China, in an open letter calling on the president to get tougher on China.

Now that Democrats have taken back the House, it’s likely that Congress will do little in the way of reining in Trump’s hawkish policies on China and in fact may well pressure the White House to get tougher on China when it comes to issues of trade, cybersecurity, and human rights.


Chen Wuquan (陈武权) was sentenced to five-years imprisonment for “picking quarrels and provoking troubles” by a Guangdong court on January 9. The lawyer-turned environmental activist led the campaign “War to Protect the Sea” in protest of land appropriation and reclamation that took place from October to December 2017 in Zhanjiang. Six other villagers were also arrested and sentenced to one to one and a half years imprisonment, respectively.

On January 28, after being held incommunicado for three and a half years, rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang (王全璋) received his judgement. The Tianjin No.2 Intermediate People’s Court sentenced Wang to four years and six months imprisonment, with five years’ deprivation of political rights, for the crime of subversion. According to a previous indictment, Wang was accused of recruiting dissidents under the guise of legal training and using foreign funds to sensationalize certain cases.

A Hubei court issued the judgement for Liu Feiyue (刘飞跃) on January 29. The founder of the group Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch was sentenced to five years imprisonment for inciting subversion, with three years deprivation of political rights. The evidence against Liu involved articles published by his group that called for non-violent movements against the Chinese Communist Party, reports about stability maintenance, and cartoons about human rights violations.

A website operated by the Supreme People’s Procuratorate disclosed a case of endangering state security. A district-level procuratorate reported the case of Huang Meng (黄萌), a suspect in an inciting subversion case, to the Xi’an procuratorate of Shaanxi Province in September 2018. The specifics of Huang’s case are unknown.


Featured: Jailhouse Informants and Wrongful Convictions

Zhang Hui (right) and his uncle Zhang Gaoping (left) were acquitted in March 2013 after spending a decade in jail due to false testimony given by a jailhouse informant. Photo credit:

A controversial issue facing criminal justice reformers around the world is the use of jailhouse informant testimony, which has been discredited as being unreliable and a leading cause of wrongful convictions. Jailhouse informants are detained or incarcerated individuals tasked with obtaining inculpatory information about criminal suspects. Informants are often pressured into becoming informants in exchange for financial rewards and sentence reductions.

Administrative Penalties Against Lawyers: Another Strike Against Professional Autonomy and Religious Freedom

Prisoner Update Quarter 4

Dui Hua Digest, January 2019

John Kamm Remembers

John Kamm Remembers is a feature that explores Kamm’s human rights advocacy prior to and since Dui Hua’s establishment in 1999.

Ashes and Water: The Death of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche (Part 1 of 2)

On April 3, 2002, an explosion took place in the central square of Sichuan Province’s capitol, Chengdu, injuring two people. The police moved quickly, detaining Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, a senior Tibetan religious leader, and his nephew Lobsang Dhundop on April 7. They were put in Dartsedo Detention Center. Although there have been improvements in recent years, Chinese detention centers in the early to mid-2000s were credibly accused of using torture to extract confessions, as attested to by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture Manfred Nowak, who visited China in late 2005.

Both Tenzin Delek and Lobsang Dhundop were formally arrested, tried, and convicted of causing explosions, inciting splittism, and illegal possession of firearms; the prosecutors alleged that both men had been involved in a series of explosions. They demanded death sentences.

The trial by the Garze Intermediate People’s Court took place on November 29, 2002. It was a closed trial. Lobsang Dhundop was sentenced to death, and Tenzin Delek Rinpoche was sentenced to death with two-year reprieve, and suspension of political rights for life. Lobsang Dhundop was executed in late January 2003. Tenzin Delek appealed his sentence to the Sichuan High People’s Court, which dismissed it in January 2003, the same day the execution of his nephew took place.

Tenzin Delek was a much-revered and widely respected Tibetan monk who had been recognized as a reincarnated lama by the Dalai Lama in the 1980s. He was much loved by Tibetans – especially among nomads in Lithang, the place of his birth. From Orthok Monastery, he fought for justice, health care, educational opportunities, and especially for a clean environment, in the process making many enemies among mining and logging companies and their political protectors.

The man widely believed to be behind the persecution of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche was then party secretary of Sichuan Province, Zhou Yongkang. Zhou was a hardliner known for cracking down on Tibetans and members of the Falun Gong group. He was promoted to Minister of Public Security in Beijing in December 2002, immediately after the conviction of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche and his nephew and right before the rejection of Tenzin Delek’s appeal and Lobsang Dhundop’s execution.

Once in Beijing, Zhou continued his rapid ascent, eventually becoming a member of the all-powerful Standing Committee of the Politburo with responsibility for overseeing the police and the courts. He was purged by Secretary General Xi Jinping in 2013, becoming one of the most senior victims of Xi’s anti-corruption campaign. None of this had an impact on Tenzin Delek or any other political prisoner persecuted by Zhou. They remained in prison, denied any clemency.

Tenzin Delek Rinpoche was put in Sichuan’s Chuandong Prison, a high-security facility located in the remote Dabu Mountains in Dazhu County, a bleak landscape accessible only by car or bus.  Chuandong Prison, also known as Sichuan Prison Number Three, is in Chongqing Municipality about 180 kilometres from Chongqing City and a four to five-hour drive from Chengdu. It has for decades been the prison in Sichuan where the most important political prisoners are held.  As such it has acquired a well-deserved fearsome reputation.

Tenzin Delek’s sentence of death with two-year reprieve was commuted on January 26, 2005. The sentence was changed to life in prison.

The Execution of Lobsang Dhundop

The execution of Lobsang Dhundop marked the first execution of a Tibetan for a political crime in more than 20 years. His death prompted international outrage.

Once I learned of the execution of Lobsang Dhundop I called a Chinese official with whom I had worked on human rights cases. He sounded much besieged.  I admonished his government for killing Lobsang Dhondup, reminding him of remarks widely attributed to Chairman Mao Zedong: “We should be careful about killing people. People are not like vegetables. If you cut off their heads, they don’t grow back.” A grim silence followed.

After the execution, international attention turned to Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s death with two-year reprieve sentence. Governments and human rights groups called for the sentence to be commuted.

I spent little time on this effort. Commutations of these sentences to life in prison or sometimes a lesser fixed term sentence like twenty years are the norm. By some estimates, fewer than 1 percent of prisoners serving sentences of death with two-year reprieve are executed. I assumed that Tenzin Delek’s sentence would be commuted, and it turned out I was right.

I soon set about trying to figure out a way to win Tenzin Delek’s early release. Early release in the Chinese prison system can be achieved by successive sentence reductions, parole, or medical parole. Sentence reduction and parole must be approved by a court. To get a sentence reduction or be paroled, the prisoner must admit guilt and express remorse. This Tenzin Delek refused to do. He pled not guilty at his trial and, while in the detention center, secretly taped a statement proclaiming his innocence. The statement was taped on January 20, 2003 and smuggled out of the detention center the same day. It was broadcast on Radio Free Asia on January 21, 2003. Tenzin Delek resisted his imprisonment, staging a hunger strike that landed him in solitary confinement.

Medical Parole for Political Prisoners

Tenzin Delek Rinpoche Image Credit: FreeTibet.Org

Medical parole for political and religious prisoners is not unusual. It does not require an admission of guilt. Although regulations state that a prisoner serving a life sentence must serve a minimum of seven years in prison before being considered for medical parole, they also state if the medical problem is serious enough, medical parole can be granted at any time. Unlike sentence reduction or parole, courts are not involved. The prison authorities can grant medical parole, though it must be approved by local prison bureaus and, in the case of sensitive prisoners, the Ministry of Justice in Beijing.

Since I began intervening on behalf of political prisoners in 1990, I have worked on more than a dozen cases of medical parole for prominent political prisoners, including Tibetans Jigme Sangpo and Ngawang Sangdrol, the Uyghur businesswoman Rebiya Kadeer, and democracy advocate Xu Wenli. All their medical paroles were approved by the Ministry of Justice, and in every instance the most senior officials in the Chinese government and Communist Party were consulted and gave the go-ahead.

I needed to get information on Tenzin Delek’s health, but I did not have a good channel to his family or to other individuals in Tenzin Delek’s home county who knew him. Dedicated activists for the cause of Tibet, Mandie McKeown and Alison Reynolds of Tibet Information Network (TIN) in London, had excellent contacts in Tibet and within the Tibetan diaspora, including with members of Tenzin Delek’s family. Of special importance was the relationship with Tenzin Delek’s niece, Nyama Lhamo who now lives in India after leaving Tibet in 2003. In a stroke of luck, TIN reached out to me for assistance, beginning more than 10 years of collaboration on the case of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche.

From the outset, I recommended medical parole. Over the years, the family applied for medical parole on several occasions. They never received a response from the prison authorities.

Bilateral Rights Dialogues

Complementing the efforts of international human rights groups, especially those focusing on Tibet, I began lobbying foreign governments that had official bilateral human rights dialogues with China to put Tenzin Delek’s name on the lists of political prisoners submitted at these dialogues. Western politicians and media often referred to Tenzin Delek Rinpoche as China’s top religious prisoner. From March 2003 to April 2011 – a period of eight years — the Chinese government gave written responses to at least 25 requests for information on Tenzin Delek submitted by the United Nations, the United States, the European Union (EU), European governments, Australia, and Canada. Dui Hua also submitted his name directly to the Chinese government, on average at least once a year, receiving both written and verbal responses.

While international efforts were underway to help Tenzin Delek, domestic pressures were building. In an extraordinary act of civil disobedience, 40,000 Tibetans living in Tenzin Delek’s home county of Lithang signed a petition demanding a retrial in 2009; the entire population of Lithang was, at the time, around 45,000. Local Tibetans staged a hunger strike, resulting in the detention of dozens of strikers.

Up until December 2006, China’s responses to foreign governments invariably claimed that Tenzin Delek was healthy, without giving details. Things changed in 2008. A Chinese response to the United States that year stated that Tenzin Delek had an illness prior to being put in prison (significant because prisoners cannot get medical parole if he or she had the medical condition prior to being admitted to prison), but that the condition had been treated and that his health was now okay. The response also said that the Rinpoche undertook light exercise and was sleeping and eating well.

In the November 2009 response to the EU, China repeated that Tenzin Delek’s health was okay, that he was eating well and was observing a strict diet, and that he did light exercise and gardening work. By this time the lama’s family knew that he was in fact seriously ill with high blood pressure and heart disease. He walked with a cane and had troubling spells of dizziness.

One of the last written responses to the list of a bilateral dialogue partner was the Chinese response to the United States in April 2011. After the EU-China human rights dialogue of May 2012 (a written response to a prisoner list was handed over – no information was provided on Tenzin Delek), China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs made a “policy decision” to resist receiving prisoner lists from foreign governments, and under no circumstances to give written responses. The reason given for this decision was unhappiness over how the blind activist Chen Guangcheng’s case had been handled by the United States. Information on Tenzin Delek through governmental channels dried up.

To be continued in Dui Hua’s March Digest