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The High Price of Diplomacy With China
Posted on Apr 23, 2008
Editor’s note: Below is the first of two related reports by the Center for Investigative Reporting. Click here for a parallel article linking the chief organizer of the Beijing Olympics to torture. For more information and the source documents these reports are based on, click here.
Bush Backs China
By James Sandler
The Bush administration is trying to scuttle a federal human rights lawsuit that threatens to embarrass one of China’s top political leaders. The administration says the case could jeopardize trade and “has already had a chilling effect on U.S.-China relations,” documents show.
The lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. district court, accuses Bo Xilai—a member of China’s elite Politburo and until recently the country’s trade minister—of controlling and directing forced labor camps where inmates were beaten, suffocated and killed.
The abuses occurred while Bo was governor of Liaoning province between 2001 and 2004, before he was named China’s minister of commerce, according to the complaint.
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The plaintiffs are all part of the Falun Gong religious movement, members of which according to a 2007 U.S. State Department report were subjected to shock treatments, forced abortions and “credible reports of deaths due to torture and abuse” at the hands of Chinese authorities. Protestant and Catholic priests and their followers were also abused, according to the annual report, which echoed those from previous years.
The United Nations, in its own report on global torture, last year alleged that while Bo was governor of Liaoning province, Falun Gong members were killed for their hearts, livers and other organs, which were removed for reuse in transplant patients. At the time, the Chinese dismissed the allegations of organ harvesting as “rumor.”
Despite the reports, the Bush administration has asked Judge Richard J. Leon, who is hearing the Bo case in the District of Columbia federal court, to dismiss it, saying the suit has had “immediate adverse foreign policy consequences.”
“It will undercut the U.S. government’s efforts to engage China on human rights issues, including its treatment of the [Falun Gong],” according to diplomatic correspondence reviewed by the Center for Investigative Reporting. “It could also adversely affect U.S. engagement with China on a broad range of other issues, including counter-terrorism, law enforcement, economics and trade, trafficking in persons, adoption, narcotics suppression, and nuclear proliferation.”
The civil action against Bo, 58, was filed under federal statutes that allow noncitizens to sue alleged torturers in U.S. courts. It comes at a delicate time for U.S.-China relations, and the Bo case offers a rare glimpse into the administration’s strategy to aggressively protect its financial and diplomatic relationship with a country long considered an ideological nemesis.
During Bo’s tenure as commerce minister, U.S.-China trade increased 67 percent, to nearly $387 billion in 2007. China is now America’s second-largest trading partner. Its recent crackdown on protesters in Tibet has heightened worldwide concern and attention regarding its human rights policies. The focus comes as the Communist regime prepares to host this year’s Summer Olympics.
Behind Closed Doors
Four members of the Falun Gong living outside of China filed the lawsuit against Bo in 2004. The case was first reported on in 2006, by the Legal Times trade magazine, and has since received little attention publicly. But privately, the allegations against Bo drew immediate concern at the highest diplomatic levels.
Bo was served with the legal papers in an embarrassing episode at the Fairmont Hotel in Washington, D.C. While passing through the hotel lobby, on route to a dinner with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, “an unidentified man suddenly rushed toward Minister Bo and the Chinese entourage,” according to a complaint letter sent from the Chinese Embassy to the State Department. “Minister Bo and other members of the Chinese entourage swiftly dodged this physical attack.” A U.S. court clerk, however, considered Bo served.
As the case moved through the courts, China’s Foreign Affairs Minister Li Zhaoxing warned his U.S. counterpart—Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice—of financial consequences if the case were to proceed, according to a 2006 letter sent directly to Rice.
“This is something neither of us wants to see,” the minister wrote.
A month later, China’s Justice Minister Wu Aiying wrote then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, asking that he give personal attention to the Bo suit and “resolve the case” and suggesting some American legal principles that could be applied in getting it dismissed.
The Justice Department has since taken an active role, filing a series of legal briefs urging Judge Leon, who was appointed by President Bush in 2002, to shut down the lawsuit. Because Bo has not responded in court to the allegations, the Bush administration is the only party fighting the suit. Civil cases filed against alleged foreign torturers are infrequent, but it is not uncommon for the U.S. government to oppose such legal actions.
Tightening the Noose
Falun Gong, an offshoot of Buddhism and Taoism, was officially banned by the Chinese government in 1999, along with certain Protestant and Catholic groups. The government set up a special security bureau to enforce the ban.
The State Department—which monitors religious freedoms worldwide—has for years expressed particular concern over China’s repression of “unauthorized” religions. Its 2007 International Religious Freedom Report is strewn with torture references, including “beatings with fists, sticks and electric batons ... cigarette burns ... and submersions in water or sewage.” The report cites “credible” reports from Falun Gong adherents in the United States who claim that more than 100,000 practitioners have been detained since 1999 and that many “have been subjected to excessive force, abuse, rape, detention, and torture, and that some of [the group’s] members, including children, have died in custody.”
According to Scott Flipse, the East Asia program director at the State Department’s Commission of International Religious Freedom, a bipartisan monitoring arm, the abuse is not limited to the Falun Gong.
“It is a deteriorating situation for many religious communities. They [the Chinese] are targeting unregistered Protestants, unregistered Catholics and others,” said Flipse.
Upsetting Foreign Relations
The administration’s arguments against the Bo suit are familiar refrains among critics of the Torture Victim Protection Act and similar laws used to penalize alleged foreign torturers. They argue that plaintiffs and judges fail to grasp the nuances of foreign relations and may in fact undo diplomatic strides gained in private negotiations.
“I think you can condemn a country’s practices and use a variety of tools to induce them to improve and still be concerned that you don’t want these ad hoc private-party lawsuits being the vehicle for conducting our foreign relations,” said Curtis A. Bradley, a visiting law professor at Harvard who in 2004 worked in the State Department’s legal advisory office.
But some legal specialists said diplomatic and political concerns appear to be distorting the Bush administration’s judgment in this case.
Jacques deLisle, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on Chinese and international law, said if the case proceeded, it would be unlikely to impact trade or other relations with the Chinese. “The level of outrage that gets cranked out, I think, is somewhat disingenuous,” he said. “It is possible [for the Bush administration] to explain to China’s government that we do believe in letting these laws on the books operate and letting these litigants have their day in court.”
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