Thursday, June 07, 2007

Repression by China, and by Us

Published: June 7, 2007


I’d meant to focus this column on a Chinese woman whose battle for justice has led the police to arrest her more than 30 times, lock her in an insane asylum, humiliate her sexually, shock her with cattle prods, beat her until she is crippled and, worst of all, take away her young daughter.

The case of Li Guirong, a graying 50-year-old who now hobbles on crutches, reflects China at its worst — government by thuggery. But each time I start this column, I feel that President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have pulled the rug out from under me. Do I really have the right to complain about torture or extra-legal detentions in China when we Americans do the same in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba?

I keep remembering a heated conversation I had in Yunnan Province when I lived in China years ago. I reproached an official for China’s torture and arbitrary imprisonment, and he retorted that China was fragile and had lost hundreds of thousands of lives in the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. “If you Americans ever faced the threat of chaos, you would do just the same,” he said.

“Impossible!” I replied.

Yet I owe him an apology, for he has been proven right. The moment we did feel a threat, after 9/11, we held people without trial, and beatings were widespread enough that more than 110 of our prisoners died in custody in places like Abu Ghraib, Bagram and Guantánamo.

Our extrajudicial detentions and mistreatment of prisoners are wrong in and of themselves. But they also undercut our own ability to speak against oppression and torture around the world.

If I protest here about the abuse of Ms. Li, Chinese officials will simply say that we Americans are hypocrites who should clean up our own house before we go around pointing fingers. But let me protest anyway.

Ms. Li’s story began in 1994, when her husband was badly injured in a fall in the state-owned coal mine where they both worked. Rather than pay medical care and disability, the mine fired him.

Ms. Li protested to local officials — and then the mine fired her as well. So she made a series of trips to Beijing to appeal for help from the central government — but each time the police just rounded her up and sent her back to her native Jilin Province.

Twice the local police sentenced her to a labor camp. The first time, she was imprisoned for a year for trying to tell her story to a British journalist. The second time, she was imprisoned for 18 months for escalating her protests and trying to contact government leaders.

Local officials once had her stripped naked in front of male police officers and strapped down to a bed in a mental hospital, where they gave her injections of drugs that for a time left her in a stupor.

Another time, she was beaten and kicked so badly that she is still unable to walk without crutches. But the worst outrage, she says, is the targeting of her children.

The authorities threatened to deny her eldest daughter, Wang Lingli, a place in university, although in the end she scored so brilliantly on her college entrance exams that the officials backed off. Ms. Wang, who confirms her mother’s story, is now looking after her severely disabled father and is about to graduate from university — but only if she can pay $2,850 she still owes in college fees.

As for the younger daughter, now 12, the authorities carted her off to an orphanage. That just breaks Ms. Li’s heart. I brought two of my own children when I interviewed Ms. Li, and she told me how much she missed her own little girl as she held my daughter and wept and wept.

The United States must stand up against such human rights abuses around the world — and our first step should be to clean up our act.

Our own equivalent of Ms. Li is Sami al-Hajj, a cameraman for Al Jazeera who has been held in Guantánamo for more than five years. He still suffers from painful injuries that he apparently received in beatings while in American custody.

The U.S. government has never offered a hint of evidence that he is anything but a journalist. Indeed, Mr. Hajj’s lawyers say that the interrogators have offered to release him immediately if he will spy on Al Jazeera.

So, Mr. Bush, give prisoners like Mr. Hajj their rights — and give America back its moral authority to speak up for human rights around the world.

You are invited to comment on this column at Mr. Kristof’s blog,