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US Congressmen Pledge to Help Those Fighting for Human Rights in China

Members of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee on Thursday heard testimony from the wives of three Chinese human rights lawyers who were detained and tortured by Chinese authorities, and the lawmakers vowed to do all they can to help protect those fighting for positive change in the area of human rights in China.

Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey, who has closely monitored China’s human rights and political conditions for decades, pointed out at Thursday’s hearing that when a dissident is sent off to jail, “it is not just that dissident who suffers, it’s the wives, the families and extended families” that also end up suffering. “Very often they as well are rounded up and interrogated and beaten.”

Threats against families

One of the wives, Chen Guiqiu, who recently arrived in the United States with help from the U.S. government, said at the hearing that her husband’s interrogators threatened to stage a car accident against his wife and children if he refused to admit his crimes.

Chen’s husband, Xie Yang, was one of the hundreds of attorneys and legal assistants rounded up across China on or about July 9, 2015. The attorneys were known to have defended farmers, dissidents, AIDS patients and religious minorities. Their arrests became known as the July 9 or “709” incident and is widely regarded as an illustration of the tightening political environment in China.

In notes made public by an attorney Chen hired to defend her husband, Xie revealed in his meetings with his attorney in January of this year that he was interrogated for days on end around the clock. He said one of his nighttime interrogators would say to him, “I rest very well during the day, and get very excited around this time at night; it is my intention to torture you and turn you into a madman; don’t think you can get out of here and practice law again, you’re going to be a wasted man.”

The House committee hearing also saw video testimony sent by two wives of lawyers still in China. 

Shackled, unable to stand

One of them, Wang Qiaoling, said that when her husband, Li Heping, one of the most prominent human rights lawyers in China, was sent home May 9, neither she nor their daughter could recognize him; he had lost a significant amount of weight and looked 20 years older. He has been sentenced to three years with a four-year suspension and detained for nearly two years.

Wang said her husband’s jailers made him wear metal handcuffs and footcuffs linked by a metal chain that kept his body bent around the clock for nearly a month, after which he was unable to stand straight.

The video testimony sent from China also featured Li Wenzu, wife of Wang Quanzhang. Wang is the only known “709” arrestee from whom no one has heard anything since 2015. 

His wife told the committee that no one has been able to gain permission to visit her husband, and he has not been presented on state television, which has been used in recent years to parade dissidents and their “confessions.”

Focus on the positive

Congressman Smith said at the hearing: “Chinese officials repeatedly tell us, and they tell me all the time, that I should focus more on the positive aspects of China and not dwell so much on the negative.” 

Smith said that could be “a difficult task” when one reads accounts of human rights lawyers and their families’ sufferings and the torture they go through.

Smith, a Republican, who often spoke out against what he and human rights groups have described as the Obama administration not doing enough to help those who fight for human rights in China, vowed to extend the same standards to the new administration. 

“If President Trump, Vice President Pence, gives the same indifference … which I think is a callous disregard for suffering people, I will be here at this podium speaking out against that lack of concern and empathy for suffering people.”

Bipartisan support

Colleagues of Smith on the House Foreign Affairs Committee who were present at Thursday’s hearing voiced unanimous, bipartisan support. 

Congressman Joaquin Castro, a Democrat from Texas, urged America’s allies around the world, “those nations who also believe in strong human rights,” to join in efforts to help safeguard basic, fundamental human rights that Chinese citizens are seeking.

Another member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee at the hearing, Tom Garrett of Virginia, told the witnesses that “to the extent I have the ability to cast a vote that will deal favorably or unfavorably with the regime, based on how it treats its own citizens and people who seek positive human rights changes, I’ll consider their activities.”

He added, “within my small ability to make a difference, I will side with human rights and with people who have suffered like yourselves.”