Since late March, when China’s new president Xi Jinping took power, nearly one hundred Chinese human rights activists have been detained. What all the detained activists seem to have in common is that they are accused of organizing actions that would take place not just in cyberspace but in the physical space of city streets. Chinese leaders always see such public campaigns as an open challenge to their control. They fear that activists are seeking to take China’s rising number of local protests about social and economic problems to another level—turning it into a political movement that could challenge the authoritarian regime.
On January 13, President Obama invited me and four other activists and scholars—the writer Zha Jianying, whose brother is a former political prisoner in China; Andrew Nathan, a Columbia professor; author Bette Bao Lord; and Paul Gewirtz, director of Yale’s China Law Center—to meet with him at the White House to discuss the current state of human rights and reform in China. The meeting, which lasted more than an hour, took place as the president prepares for this week’s meeting with Chinese president Hu Jintao in Washington. He wanted to know whether we think his approach on these issues is working, and how that approach might be improved. For me, it was an opportunity to bring to the direct attention of the president some critical questions about China’s human rights record I hope he will take up in the summit. The following outlines some of the issues I raised with the president, including a series of specific recommendations concerning US policy toward China.