American First Lady Michelle Obama’s “good-will” tour with her family in China last week wasn’t good for the Chinese: a number of people (some aren’t even dissidents) were detained, kidnapped, assaulted or put under house arrest. Yet, Mrs. Obama self-censored herself on the topic of human rights during the entire trip and seemed blind and mute, despite worsening abuses in my motherland. As a Tiananmen Massacre survivor who voted for Barack Obama, I’m utterly disappointed.
With her mother, two daughters and hundreds of Chinese police, Mrs. Obama was busy playing ping pong and Tai Chi, jumping rope, practicing calligraphy, hiking on the Great Wall, watching pandas, sampling Chinese and Tibetan food. She did work a bit – delivering two speeches to students.
On March 25 she spoke to students at Chengdu No. 7 High School about the American fight against racism and offered this subtle message about the power of ordinary citizens: “They held peaceful protests and marches. They called on government officials to change those laws, and they voted to elect new officials who shared their views.”
Perhaps she didn’t know when she landed in Chengdu that about a dozen ordinary local Chinese citizens were kidnapped by police in the streets. The Chengdu-based NGO, 64 Tianwang Human Rights Affairs Center, reported a few were brutally beaten and put in detention. The victims were villagers, petitioning the government over the loss of their homes and farm land through forceful demolition and government land grabbing.
On March 24, a young tour guide collapsed as police kicked and beat him severely to clear the terra-cotta warrior museum before the Obamas showed up. As she wandered among those cold clay figures, perhaps she didn’t know they are symbols of an ancient totalitarian regime, the Qin Dynasty, whose first emperor burnt books and buried scholars alive.
Perhaps she also doesn’t know that the current Communist regime is much worse. Why was she so demure and subtle, so Chinese? She could have been more American and she could have done so much more.
In a speech at Peking University on March 22, Mrs. Obama said: “It is so important for information and ideas to flow freely over the Internet and through the media. Because that’s how we discover the truth, that’s how we learn what’s really happening in our communities, in our country and our world.”
I hope she knows the truth of China, Tibet, East Turkestan (Chinese: Xinjiang), Hong Kong, Taiwan and Southern Mongolia (Chinese: Inner Mongolia). She failed to mention the case of Cao Shunli, a Peking University alumnus. Six days before the Obamas landed in Beijing, Cao, a legal scholar, died after six months’ detention. She had been kidnapped by the police from the Beijing Airport last September, where she was to board a flight to Geneva for a United Nations human rights workshop.
Nor did Mrs. Obama say a word about Xu Zhiyong, a legal scholar who led the peaceful New Citizen’s Movement and called on officials to disclose personal assets. He was recently sentenced to four years in prison. Xu’s two-month-old daughter hasn’t met her father because she was born after he was detained. History has been repeating itself: my artist father was in detention before I was born during the Cultural Revolution for criticizing Mao Zedong in his personal diaries.
In 2012, I voted for Barack Obama. I admired the Obamas for their tenacity and courage. It was my first time to vote in America, and I cherished the moment. Many Chinese died for demonstrating for this basic right. I was lucky to have survived that massacre in Beijing nearly 25 years ago. To this day, any texts or pictures of that tragedy are banned in China.
Mrs. Obama was in China to talk about women. As the wife of a Nobel Peace Prize winner, she should know that poet Liu Xia, the wife of jailed Chinese Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, has been under house arrest for more than three years. Her only crime is to be married to Liu Xiaobo.
Her home prison is about two miles away from the restaurant where Mrs. Obama dined with Chinese First Lady Peng Liyuan and posed with her and her husband President Xi Jinping for photos. Peng, a prominent entertainer, serenaded military troops in Tiananmen Square shortly after they mowed down unarmed students and civilians in June 1989.
As Mrs. Obama strolled with her daughters Malia and Sasha on an empty Great Wall usually packed with tourists, did she realize the police had driven petitioners out of the city and put activists under house arrest? Beijing-based activist Hu Jia Tweeted: “(The Wall) was tailor made by the Party for Michelle. As long as she’s in China, I have to accompany her by being under house arrest.” To this day, Hu is still detained at home, well after the Obamas left. The Chinese government has banned posting her Great Wall photos, citing bad publicity.
Mrs. Obama said Chengdu is her favorite Chinese city. Thousands of Sichuanese children perished in earthquakes around Chengdu and near the panda areas in 2008, when their shoddily built classrooms collapsed. Their parents are still banned from visiting the sites.
The First Lady swooned over pandas and ate Tibetan food in Chengdu. My hometown. Why send subtle messages about Tibet through eating? Where are her teeth? Does she know pandas are from Tibet and Tibetans are “endangered people”? Their culture and environment have been raped by the Chinese government. More than 130 Tibetans have burnt themselves to death and so many more are in jail. Some are imprisoned in Chengdu.
The restaurant, Zangxiang Renjia (Tibetan Village Home), is part of a state guesthouse, Chengdu Tibet Sky Lake Hotel, owned and operated by the “the Representative Office of the People’s Government of the Tibetan Autonomous Region.” In her travel log about the meal, she wrote that Tibet is “a region of China” and Tibetans are a “minority” group. Many Tibetans and Tibet supporters were shocked at this statement, posting comments on social media with messages such as “Shame on you!”
The hotel where she dined proudly states on its website (http://www.th-hotel.com) that the former Chinese President Hu Jintao visited there in 1990 when he was Communist Party secretary of Tibet. Hu and four other senior Communist Party leaders last month were given Interpol arrest warrants by Spain’s National Court on charges of “genocide, torture and crimes against humanity” as a result of ordering some of the bloodiest crackdowns in Tibet’s history when Hu was party secretary in Tibet from 1988-1992. Does the First Lady know that?
I’m not asking Mrs. Obama to be as politically involved as Hilary Clinton or Eleanor Roosevelt. I’ve simply been hoping she would do more and say more, rather than being a clothes horse, a mother, a spouse and a gardener advocating healthy food.
I hope that Mrs. Obama will remember what she’s seen in China and will publicly say something one day. But actually I don’t give a damn about what she says or wears. We don’t need her. People in China, Tibet and East Turkestan are waking up and rising up. The murderers and cronies she met and dined with during this trip will be held accountable. That day won’t be far away.
Rose Tang is a Chinese-born New York-based writer and artist. As a student, she survived the Tiananmen massacre of 1989.