CHINA has released two prominent activists who are seen as important to the development of the rule of law and public policy discussion of problems in Tibet and Xinjiang, following diplomatic representations by the Obama Administration.
The unexpected release of public interest lawyer Xu Zhiyong, his assistant Zhuang Lu and Uighur economist and commentator Ilham Tohti, who had been caught in a political security crackdown, was met with relief by human rights activists.
”This is excellent news,” said Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher with Human Rights Watch.
Mr Bequelin said their detention had threatened to stretch the boundaries of what was politically acceptable in China as both Mr Xu and Professor Tohti worked with at least one foot ”within the system”.
Their release appears linked to the weekend arrival of the new US ambassador, Jon Huntsman, and his announcement that President Barack Obama would make his first visit to Beijing in November.
Beijing sources said the Obama Administration had made senior representations to urge the Chinese Government to release Mr Xu in particular, and others including Professor Tohti, in order to remove an ”irritant” to a smooth presidential visit.
Publicly, however, the Obama Administration has been virtually silent on China’s human rights problems, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton controversially saying in February that human rights should not interfere with global policy concerns such as climate change.
Mr Xu’s ”Gongmeng” legal centre, or the Open Constitution Initiative, has made its name by taking on sensitive cases such as last year’s melamine milk scandal, which badly tainted the afterglow of last year’s Beijing Olympic Games.
Gongmeng also published a rare Chinese research paper on the underlying social and policy causes of last year’s Tibet riots, which was first reported in The Age in May.
Professor Tohti posted incisive commentaries about the underlying causes of Uighur discontent in Xinjiang on his website, Uighur Online.
On July 6, the day after the Urumqi riots that caused the deaths of about 200 people, Xinjiang government chief Nur Bekri publicly blamed Professor Tohti, along with exiled leader Rebiya Kadeer, for instigating the violence. Professor Tohti was taken from his Beijing home the following day.
Mr Bequelin was critical of the Obama Administration’s low-key public stance on human rights but said its strategic approach compared favourably with the ”inconsistent” human rights advocacy of the Rudd Government.
”There’s been a downgrading of Chinese officials who receive [Australian] human rights representations and they’ve adopted a more aggressive, less cordial tone,” Mr Bequelin said.
”I think this comes from the correct perception from the Chinese Government that they can afford to be more dismissive of Rudd Government efforts because those efforts are in fact governed by public relations concerns rather than thoughtful engagement with China.”