15 Nov

China detains dissidents ahead of US visit

Separately, some of the activists who spoke to the FT said the Chinese government had handpicked six students from Shanghai’s elite Jiaotong University to participate in a “town hall” meeting that Mr Obama hopes to hold with young Chinese in Shanghai on Monday.

By Jamil Anderlini in Beijing, FT


Chinese police have detained dozens of dissidents and political reform advocates ahead of US President Barack Obama’s first visit to China, according to family members and human rights activists.

The crackdown comes as human rights groups worry that Mr Obama, who arrived in China on Sunday, will play down China’s poor human rights record in order to get cooperation from Beijing on issues such as climate change, trade and the economy.

The Financial Times has independently confirmed the cases of four Chinese activists who have been detained over the past two days in preparation for Mr Obama’s visit.

At least 30 other activists who were expected to join one dissident in applying for the right to protest have also likely been detained, according to activists. They provided more than a dozen names of people whom they said had been detained.

“We get the impression Obama doesn’t want to talk about human rights on this trip, but it is precisely because of his visit here that these people are being rounded up and detained right now,” Ai Weiwei, a prominent Beijing-based artist and social commentator, told the FT on Saturday.

Separately, some of the activists who spoke to the FT said the Chinese government had handpicked six students from Shanghai’s elite Jiaotong University to participate in a “town hall” meeting that Mr Obama hopes to hold with young Chinese in Shanghai on Monday.

They said the students were being “trained” in an undisclosed location on what to ask Mr Obama. US officials have been negotiating the terms of the forum with Beijing. Some of the differences to be ironed out have included whether to broadcast the forum live on television and the internet.

Mr Obama is visiting China as part of a four-nation tour of Asia, his first Asia tour as president.

“We’re not asking him to give us human rights, but he’s coming here to make deals and advance US interests, and we think if he doesn’t talk about the real conditions here then he shouldn’t come.”

Civil liberties groups heralded the election of Mr Obama in 2007, after years of criticising George W. Bush over Guantanamo, secret Central Intelligence Agency prisons and other alleged human rights abuses.

In recent months, however, human rights groups have soured on the Obama administration’s stance on human rights. One turning point came in February when Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, said human rights could not “interfere” with Sino-US co-operation on “the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crisis”. Her comments, which were made in Asia before a trip to China, were castigated by human rights activists.

Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China, said Mr Obama “should not give China a free pass on human rights”.

“One-quarter of humanity – as well as the rest of the international community – deserves better,” she added.

In one of the cases confirmed by the FT, Yao Lifa, a democracy campaigner was detained near his home in the town of Qianjiang, Hubei Province, on Saturday morning while out for a walk with his baby daughter. Security officers took Mr Yao and his daughter into custody and later released the child to her mother, according to Yao Yao, the campaigner’s 26-year-old son.

The authorities told Mr Yao’s relatives that he was being placed under administrative detention for “a few days” because “an important visitor” was coming to China. Mr Obama arrives in the country on Sunday. Mr Yao was previously detained in January after the US consulate in Wuhan, Hubei province, invited him to attend a party celebrating Mr Obama’s inauguration.

In a separate incident, Zhao Lianhai was detained around midnight on Friday by Beijing public security officers, according to activists and family members.

According to one witness, more than a dozen police came to Mr Zhao’s home and presented him with a detention warrant. When Mr Zhao pointed out that the warrant did not state a cause for his detention, one of the officers wrote “provoking an incident” on the warrant and took him away in handcuffs. The police also confiscated two computers, cameras, hard drives, recorders, business cards and mobile phones.

Mr Zhao became an accidental activist after his own child fell ill from drinking melamine-tainted milk powder last year. Family members say he angered the authorities by organizing online support groups for other parents of victims who are seeking compensation from the Chinese Dairy Association and the manufacturers of the tainted milk products.

Mr Zhao, whose five-year-old son is still suffering from the effects of drinking the poisoned milk last year, has been detained on at least one other occasion.

Zeng Jinyan, wife of the imprisoned human rights activist Hu Jia, told the FT on Saturday that security officers had warned her that they would come to her apartment in the afternoon to explain how her movements would be restricted during the upcoming “sensitive time”.

Ms Zeng, who has a two-year-old child, said she was hoping she would only be placed under house arrest rather than taken into custody so that she could care for her child.

“They’re becoming much stricter all the time, especially around sensitive anniversaries and visits,” said Ms Zeng. “This is our daily life now.”

Three independent sources said Qi Zhiyong, the veteran activist who lost a leg during the suppression of student protests near Tiananmen Square in 1989, had been detained after applying for official approval to hold a protest during the presidential visit. Mr Qi could not be reached on his mobile phone on Saturday.

In a related situation, Feng Zhenghu, an activist from Shanghai who provided legal advice to people in human rights cases, has been stranded in Tokyo’s Narita airport for 11 days because Beijing, which regards him as a “troublemaker”, will not allow him to return to the country even though he holds a Chinese passport.

Mr Feng, who has refused to leave the airport and return to Japanese soil, said he was suing Air China and Northwest Airlines in Japanese courts for allegedly refusing to carry him to China because of opposition from Beijing. He has been turned back from China on eight occasions.

“I hope Mr Obama will pay attention to the human rights situation in China during his visit there,” Mr Feng told the FT by telephone from Narita airport on Saturday.

“The Chinese government will say this is an internal matter but when a country violently forces its citizens into exile in another country then this becomes an international matter and the business of the whole international community.”

A Chinese government official responsible for dealing with the foreign media declined to comment and also refused to provide contact details for a spokesman who could address the claims.

The news of the detentions comes days after Human Rights Watch released a report detailing the China’s use of secret prisons to detain dissidents and other people they want to keep under control.

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