Op-Ed

Who will speak for China's dissidents?

The Chinese government is tightening its stranglehold on dissent as it tries to steady its swooning currency and economy. Since July, Beijing has rounded up at least 270 human rights lawyers and activists, some of whom have now been missing for months. In recent weeks the Ministry of Public Security has targeted nearly 200 people for "spreading rumors" about China's plunging stock market and paraded a noted journalist on state-run television with a supposed "confession" that his unsubstantiated reporting led to market dips.

Yet as the pressure on dissenters has mounted, criticism from around the world has been muted. And when Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives in Washington this month for his first state visit, there's reason to worry that President Obama will hold his tongue. Word that the Secret Service plans to close off Lafayette Park to demonstrators during Xi's visit sends the wrong signal.

Over the last 10 years, Beijing has made shrewd use of its massive domestic consumer market, global infrastructure investments and cultural budgets to stifle reproach from governments and private institutions alike.

Indeed, with every large, global American bank, corporation, museum and university now compelled to have its own "China strategy," many of those that previously might have been outspoken on rights are now beholden to Beijing.

Last month, the American Bar Assn., for example, could muster only a tepid statement responding to the escalating roundup of lawyers, stating that "development of a just rule of law is a continuing struggle in every nation, including the United States." Critics cited this mealy-mouthed language as designed to not jeopardize collaborations with Chinese government-linked bar associations, judges and others.

University presidents and law school deans also have been mum on the crackdown, perhaps because 274,000 Chinese students attended U.S. universities in 2013-14, adding an estimated $22 billion to the U.S. economy. There are nearly 100 U.S. university campuses that operate "Confucius Institutes" in partnership with the Chinese, with Beijing-approved instructors teaching Chinese language and culture. Some top universities, including NYU and Duke, have launched major partnerships with Chinese universities, all with significant Chinese government funding. Western academics who criticize China can find themselves shut out from visas and conference invitations.

The media are not immune. After Bloomberg published an expose in 2012 of corruption among Beijing's ruling elite, the Chinese government cut purchases of the firm's lucrative financial terminals. Some in the newsroom claim that subsequent corruption coverage was curbed. In 2014, Bloomberg's chairman said in a speech that "we probably … should have rethought" far-reaching exposes that deviated from the company's core coverage of business news.

Even Google, which withdrew from China in 2010 because of its inability and unwillingness to accommodate Chinese censorship across its service, is reportedly working on a version of the Google Play app that will comply with Chinese strictures on speech. Last week Beijing declared new rules that U.S. tech companies must uphold if they want to do business in China, including storing their data in country and, ominously, "accept[ing] supervision from all parts of society."

Hollywood directors also strive to stay on Beijing's good side. Some vet potentially controversial scenes with Chinese censors to make sure their action films won't be barred from the world's second-largest film market.

Other countries succumb to these pressures too. South Africa, which counts China as its largest import source, was accused of "selling its sovereignty" when it acceded to Chinese objections and canceled a planned summit of Nobel Peace Prize winners in honor of Nelson Mandela rather than grant a visa to the Dalai Lama.

In the past, the West often raised human rights concerns with the Chinese. Even though such exchanges might seem fruitless, Chinese dissident writers, editors and lawyers insist the mentions are in fact essential for their protection and help subtly shape the Chinese debate.

Obama ought to keep that in mind when he meets with Xi. Now at a stage of his presidency in which he is trying to establish a legacy for history, he should use forceful language, mentioning key dissidents such as Ilham Tohti and Liu Xiaobo by name, calling out the relentless persecution of ethnic minorities and pressing Beijing to loosen restrictions on the media and the Internet. As the number of voices willing to speak out dwindles, each one becomes more important. If the U.S. president won't lead the defense of liberal values in the face of China's challenge, it is not clear that anyone else will.

Western university presidents, like-minded governments, newsroom executives and studio moguls need to hear that doing business with the Chinese should not mean caving in to Beijing. If they stiffened their spines collectively, the Chinese would have little choice but to adapt.

After blind Chinese rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng escaped house arrest in 2012, he said that he sought refuge in the U.S. Embassy because "if you look around the world, even though the U.S. is sometimes weak in the face of dictators, it's still the best defender of freedom." Obama should make it clear that the U.S. will live up to the faith invested in it by Chen and scores of Chinese dissidents.

Suzanne Nossel is executive director of PEN American Center.

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