- - Thursday, March 31, 2016

If human rights are sidelined again this week in the Obama-Xi meeting — it will not only be an unconscionable abandonment of China’s best and brightest who today suffer jail, torture and death for freedom, but it will be a colossal strategic mistake as well.

The Obama administration cannot meekly “raise” human rights concerns when it is increasingly clear that our security and economic interests with China cannot be ensured without dramatic human rights improvements and advances in the rule of law.

Mr. Xi comes to Washington in a time of growing bilateral tensions. In addition to a nuclear North Korea, economic slowdowns, and strained relations with China’s neighbors, Mr. Xi has also presided over an extraordinary assault on the rule of law, human rights, religious freedom and civil society. The scope of Mr. Xi’s repression is immense, with more arrests, censorship and control now than at any time since Chairman Mao ruled China.

Rights lawyers and labor organizers are jailed; Hong Kong booksellers disappear; journalists and religious leaders are harassed and detained; even the family members of overseas journalists — who dare to print information critical of President Xi — are targeted. Under his leadership, the Chinese government has pushed through new laws and drafted legislation that would legitimize and further curtail civil liberties and civil society and expand censorship of the Internet.

Draconian population control policies also remain in place and gendercide — the extermination of the girl-child through sex-selection abortion — is a massive, festering problem that has catastrophic social and economic consequences.

President Xi’s shift toward a hard authoritarianism is a disturbing development. More than any time in recent memory, China is becoming a garrison state, with security forces empowered to silence dissent and drive a wedge between the Chinese people and the international community. These facts have real strategic and diplomatic consequences.

The Obama administration cannot continue to engage in the fantasy that avoiding human rights will somehow bring about a change of heart in Beijing. It will not. A new approach is needed. The U.S. administration must raise human rights because U.S. interests and better U.S.-China relations depend on it.

There is a direct link between China’s domestic human rights problems and the security and prosperity of the United States. The health of the U.S. economy and environment, the safety of our food and drug supplies, the security of our investments and personal information in cyberspace, and the stability of the Pacific region will depend on China complying with international law, allowing the free flow of news and information, complying with its World Trade Organization obligations, and protecting the basic rights of Chinese citizens, including the fundamental freedoms of religion, speech and association.

There are also clear strategic imperatives for the United States to prioritize human rights and democratic governance in China. A government that does not respect the rights and basic dignity of its own people cannot be assumed to be a responsible actor in the global arena. A government that brutally crushes the yearning of its citizens for fundamental freedoms cannot be a trusted partner able to work on a number of pressing bilateral and global issues.

President Obama must end his legacy of silence in the face of China’s repression and human rights abuses. He cannot be morally neutral, but must show leadership and resolve because only the United States has the power and prestige to stand up to China’s intransigence.

U.S. officials must not shy away from meeting with the Dalai Lama or other dissidents. We must use visa bans on Chinese officials who egregiously violate human rights. We must connect Internet and press freedoms as both economic and human rights priorities. And we must demand, repeatedly and clearly, that the unconditional release of political prisoners and an end to torture in detention is in the interest of better U.S.-China relations.

It is appalling that Liu Xiaobo remains in prison — particularly given that a fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate resides in the White House. I do not believe the president has done enough to seek the freedom of Liu Xiaobo or his wife Liu Xia. If President Obama will only meekly seek the release of a fellow Nobel Prize laureate — then what is being done for the thousands of other imprisoned political prisoners? The answer is not enough.

Until the release of Liu Xiaobo, and until many other rights defenders are a clear and consistent priority of U.S.-China relations, the Chinese government will continue to believe that it can act with impunity and without any consequences.

Human rights concerns are not issues to be sidelined in a bilateral relationship. They are vital to furthering the safety and protection of our private citizens and businesses, essential to global security and peaceful dispute resolution, and critically important to ensuring the prosperity and freedom desired by both the American and Chinese peoples.

Rep. Chris Smith, New Jersey Republican, is the chairman of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Global Human Rights and International Organizations.

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