By YANG Jianli, published: March 18, 2014
Michelle Obama will be a terrific goodwill ambassador when she visits China later this month. She will put America’s best foot forward. The Chinese people will watch her appreciate China’s rich culture. They will see her interest in and concern for all segments of its diverse society — especially the youth — just as she has shown here in America.
She and her daughters will experience the stimulating sights and sounds of my homeland, as they walk the Great Wall, gaze out over the Terra Cotta soldiers and visit the Forbidden City. Perhaps, as they view the vastness of Tiananman Square, they will also ponder its tragic history and the looming 25th anniversary of the Massacre there.
I wish them a wonderful trip. At the same time, I find myself considering its potential impact in the context of foreign travels by previous First Ladies. As the Post noted in its recent review of those such trips, each First Lady has focused on her particular priorities, sometimes including human rights. On her China trip, Mrs. Obama reportedly will emphasize education and cultural exchange, rather than potentially more controversial topics
I respect her predilection. Nonetheless, she should remember that even “soft” subjects, such as education, are inextricably linked to politics in China. For example, Dr. Xu Zhiyong and his colleagues in the New Citizen Movement, are already jailed or facing trial simply because they sought education for the millions of children from rural areas now not allowed to enter schools in cities to which their parents have migrated. Ms. Obama could inquire not only about the plight of these children, but also about the persecution of their advocates.
In addition, if it is not too audacious, I would ask her to consider seeking to relieve a desperate situation, whose near hopelessness might also justify an exception to her plan.
Liu Xia, a 53 year old poet and photographer, is seriously ill with a bad heart condition and other chronic ailments. She has been recently hospitalized — not for the first time — because her condition continues to deteriorate, intensified by anxiety and depression over cruel punishment she does not deserve. As a Washington Post editorial observed she:”[H]as been kept under house arrest for five years, although she has not been charged with a crime, and the lawless confinement appears to be taking its toll.”
On top of that, largely cut off from friends and contacts in the community, Mrs. Liu has also witnessed her brother being sentenced to 11 years imprisonment on trumped-up charges, in order to tighten the screws on her.
What has Mrs. Liu done to merit such cruel treatment? She is the devoted wife of Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize Winner, who is now serving an 11 year prison term for co-authoring a call for democratic freedoms in China. When he won the Nobel Peace Price four years ago, the Chinese Government would not allow him to accept the award. (He remains the world’s only imprisoned Peace Prize winner.) Still, the images of his Empty Chair when the award was made in absentia went viral and focused attention on his wife, as well as him. She has remained loyal to her husband and continued to visit him on the few occasions permitted, thereby earning the enmity of an embarrassed regime. For these “offenses” the authorities have put her physical and mental health increasingly at risk. Even the circumspect State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights for 2013 explicitly referred to her torment and its adverse effects on her health.
For Mrs. Liu Xia, unlike Mrs. Obama, being the wife of a Nobel Peace Prize winner has brought pain as well as pride.
Under these compelling circumstances, Mrs. Obama could ask to bring Mrs. Liu Xia back to America for thorough and truly conscientious medical care. But, if that would seem too ‘intrusive” on China’s domestic affairs,” she could, at least, privately urge President Xi Jinping to allow this innocent victim to come here under less-public other arrangements.
Such a humanitarian request by Mrs. Obama would be a teachable moment for her children, and would indeed make their China trip complete.
By YANG Jianli, President, Initiatives for China, former political prisoner of China (2002-2006).