Trump intervened with Xi on UCLA players. But what about human rights activists?
For days, President Trump has touted his achievement in securing the release of three UCLA basketball players who were arrested in China for alleged shoplifting. Claiming that the trio would have had to stay behind bars for as long as a decade if he hadn’t personally asked Chinese President Xi Jinping for the favor to intervene, Trump very characteristically demanded gratitude and fealty from the players and their families. But the father of one of the students refused to comply, Trump lashed out and fired back, saying that he should have just left them in jail.
To the Chinese, it seems bizarrely funny.
First, suggesting the players “were headed for 10 years in jail” is nonsense. Shoplifting is treated as a relatively minor crime in China, especially if committed by a foreign visitor. In all likelihood, they’d be expelled in a short time. There are hardly any foreign visitors serving time in Chinese prisons for shoplifting. In other words, the players would have been released quickly anyway, with or without Trump getting involved.
Second, raising this issue with Xi didn’t require Trump to use any of his political capital; Xi didn’t intend to incarcerate the players in the first place. This is in stark contrast to the difficult diplomatic maneuver five years ago by then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in Beijing. Clinton conducted tough and nuanced negotiations before finally winning concessions from the Chinese authorities to provide safe passage to the United States for Chen Guangcheng, a prominent activist against forced abortion.
In the past, when they met with their Chinese counterparts, most US presidents and secretaries of state would raise concerns over the treatment of Chinese human rights activists behind bars. That kind of diplomatic brinksmanship demanded courage and wisdom.
The father of one of the basketball players had played down the president’s role in getting them released.
Over the past few years, there has been increasingly harsh crackdown on dissidents, lawyers, and journalists in China. A visiting US president could have seized the opportunity to provide some moral support to them, if the universal values still carry some weight with the current US administration. Obviously, that doesn’t appear to be the case.
Some may argue that in the “America First” era, the president understandably pays far less attention to the fate of foreign human rights activists than that of US citizens. But if Trump was sincere about protecting the American players, parading them as thieves on social media is not the way to go about it. Even for a narcissist who enjoys playing the hero and basking in applause.
Finally, it is ironic that Trump, who campaigned on law and order issues, does not seem to feel the slightest moral compunction about asking a strongman to interfere in his country’s justice system. While the Chinese legal system is not known for its independence, it at least still claims “yifazhiguo,” or “rule by law,” a principle that was conveniently pushed aside over a petty theft case by the president of a nation that has long been viewed by the world as a beacon of judicial independence.
Audrey Jiajia Li is the 2017 Elizabeth Neuffer fellow with the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF). She is currently in residence at the MIT Center for International Studies.