The Cable

Obama on Chen Guangcheng: No comment

President Barack Obama declined to confirm or deny Monday that blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng is hiding in the U.S. embassy following a daring escape from house arrest, but he did call on China to improve its behavior on human rights.

"Obviously I'm aware of the press reports on the situation in China, but I'm not going to make a statement on the issue," Obama said Monday during a press conference with visiting Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda. "What I would like to emphasize is that every time we meet with China, the issue of human rights comes up. It is our belief that not only is that the right thing to do because it comports with our principles and our belief in freedom and human rights, but also because we actually think China will be stronger as it opens up and liberalizes its own system."

"We want China to be strong and we want it to be prosperous, and we're very pleased with all the areas of cooperation that we've been able to engage in," Obama said. "But we also believe that that relationship will be that much stronger and China will be that much more prosperous and strong as you see improvements on human rights issues in that country."

The State Department declined to confirm that Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell was dispatched earlier than scheduled to Beijing to deal with the issue, although Campbell was photographed Sunday night arriving at his hotel in Beijing.

"It is not uncommon for Assistant Secretary Campbell or other assistant secretaries to travel in advance of the secretary's trips. So he is involved in preparing the trip," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at Monday's press briefing.

Nuland repeated her mantra from Friday's briefing to decline to say anything substantive on the Chen case, such as where he is, whether the U.S. would offer him asylum, or whether the U.S. and Chinese governments are discussing the matter.

"Again, I have nothing for you on anything having to do with that matter," Nuland said.

The State Department again postponed a briefing to preview Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's trip to Beijing to attend the May 3 and 4 U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) and Nuland refused to say if the Chen incident would impact those talks.

"Well, as you know, the secretary is looking forward to her trip to Beijing. We've leaving this evening. This is the fourth round of the S&ED. And further than that, I don't have anything for you," she said. "The plan is that it will go forward."

Reporters at the briefing pressed Nuland to at least repeat past statements in support of Chen and his family or to acknowledge that Chen's family has been subjected to additional abuses since Clinton last publicly spoke out about the case last November.

Nuland wouldn't even mention Chen's name out loud and eventually got fed up with the repeated questioning and shut down the discussion.

"I have nothing further for you on this subject," she said. "I think that was the eighth time I've said that. I want to learn how to say it in Chinese, but I couldn't get a good, clear translation."

NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/GettyImages

The Cable

State Department advocacy for Chen Guangcheng dates back years

The State Department has been silent about what it will do about Chen Guangcheng, the blind Chinese activist and self-taught lawyer reported to have fled house arrest and sought refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. But Chen had good reason to believe America was on his side.

Dating back years before his Thursday escape, the State Department has repeatedly and publicly demanded Chen's release while carefully documenting the Chinese government's abuses of him and his family.

Most recently, in a November speech in Honolulu, entitled, "America's Pacific Century," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton singled out Chen's house arrest to complain about China's human rights practices.

"We have made very clear our serious concerns about China's record on human rights," she said. "When we see reports of lawyers, artists, and others who are detained or disappeared, the United States speaks up both publicly and privately. We are alarmed by recent incidents in Tibet of young people lighting themselves on fire in desperate acts of protest, as well as the continued house arrest of the Chinese lawyer Chen Guangcheng. We continue to call on China to embrace a different path."

Clinton raised the issue of Chen's treatment directly with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi during their bilateral meeting that same day, according to a senior State Department official speaking to reporters at the time.

Administration officials won't say anything right now about Chen, shown at left above with dissident Hu Jia, as rumors fly that the U.S. and Chinese governments are having top-level discussions about the case, which threatens to disrupt Clinton's trip to China next week for a major security and economic dialogue. The AP reported that Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell was dispatched to Beijing earlier than planned to deal with the crisis.

At Friday's State Department press briefing, Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland repeated variations of the same phrase six times to avoid saying anything substantive about the potential asylum case. "I don't have anything for you on that subject," she said.

A senior White House official repeated that same line on a Friday afternoon conference call to preview Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiki Noda's visit to Washington on Monday. The State Department abruptly cancelled a conference call to preview Clinton's trip to China next week.

Reporters at the briefing pressed Nuland to acknowledge that Clinton had spoken out several times about Chen in the past, but Nuland refused to repeat past calls for Chen's release or say anything substantive about his situation.

"I don't have anything for you on that subject," she said. "I don't have anything on this issue at all."

The State Department has used Chen as a premier example of China's human rights shortfalls, and several U.S. government reports have documented what they see as the unlawfulness and unfairness of Chen's imprisonment and house arrest.

In a press availability at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing last April, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Labor, and Human Rights Michael Posner criticized the Chinese government's treatment of Chen and said it was part of a much broader pattern of oppression dispensed on those whose speech or activism run afoul of the Chinese government.

"A particular concern is what seems to be a range of interferences with the work of lawyers who are often courageously working to defend others from charges or to help citizens register their concerns. Lawyers like Teng Biao who has been missing since February; Chen Guangcheng, a blind lawyer who with his wife Yuan Weijing is under house arrest since his release from prison last year," Posner said.

"Our discussions these last two days focused on these lawyers, but also bloggers, artists, NGO activists, journalists, representatives of minority religious communities and others who were asserting their rights and calling for reform... Societies need to give their own people an opportunity to voice and pursue their aspirations."

In a January 2011 speech at the State Department, Clinton pledged to advocate for human rights progress in China despite Chinese government objections, and invoked Chen as a problematic example of Chinese repression.

"America will continue to speak out and to press China when it censors bloggers and imprisons activists; when religious believers, particularly those in unregistered groups, are denied full freedom of worship; when lawyers and legal advocates are sent to prison simply for representing clients who challenge the government's positions; and when some, like Chen Guangcheng, are persecuted even after they are released," she said.

"Now, I know that many in China, not just in the government, but in the population at large resent or reject our advocacy of human rights as an intrusion on sovereignty. But as a founding member of the United Nations, China has committed to respecting the rights of all its citizens. These are universal rights recognized by the international community."

The 2011 Annual Report of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China detailed the conditions of Chen's confinement and treatment by Chinese authorities.

"Hu Jia, a human rights and environmental advocate, and Chen Guangcheng, a self-trained legal advocate who publicized population planning abuses, were released from prison this year only to face, along with their families, onerous conditions of detention and abuse with little or no basis in Chinese law," the report said. "In Chen's case, authorities kept him and his wife under extralegal house arrest and allegedly beat them after video footage of their conditions was smuggled out of the house and released on an overseas Web site."

The State Department's 2010 Human Rights Report on China alleges that Chen's arrest and three year imprisonment was trumped up and politically motivated.

"On September 9, blind human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng was released after completing a prison sentence of three years and four months on politically motivated charges of ‘disrupting traffic,'" the State Department paper stated. "Since his release, Chen, his wife, and his mother have been under house arrest and prevented from communicating with others. Chen was not allowed to seek medical attention for a gastrointestinal condition he developed in prison."

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