They meet with staffers from the House subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, then hustle back to the Senate side to talk to Sen. Barbara Boxer’s foreign policy adviser, who is especially interested when she learns that Geng is a constituent of the California Democrat.
Geng is “very persuasive,” Genser says later. “She speaks in sound bites that are easily digestible.”
“I was just a housewife helping my family,” Geng says. “I never put myself in a political position. . . . But now, my only calculation is my husband’s freedom.”
* * *
Gao Zhisheng is one of many prisoners of conscience in China, and human rights is not the only pressing issue in Sino-American diplomacy. The presence of Geng He and Xi Jinping in Washington reveals an American conundrum: the moral obligation to care about one 47-year-old man vs. careful bilateral cooperation — the “key to global economic stability,” as Biden has called it — with a country that holds $1.1 trillion worth of U.S. treasuries and buys more than $100 billion worth of American exports a year.
Human rights activists want high-ranking U.S. officials to be more vocal about specific cases of abuse. The administration, in turn, emphasizes that human rights is a central part of its diplomatic missions and that such discussions were a prominent part of public speeches and private conversations during Xi’s visit.
Sometimes the White House appears outwardly placid and noncommittal to achieve results privately. In his remarks at the State Department luncheon, Biden said leaders had discussed “the plight of several very prominent individuals,” which Genser and Geng hope includes Gao.
“Putting public pressure on China can be embarrassing for them, and then you’re less likely to get a result,” says a former senior official who was involved in East Asian diplomacy in several presidential administrations. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss the sensitive issue. “I’ve been involved in a number of cases that we did not want to highlight publicly, because then you are undercutting your ability to have any impact on [China’s] thinking.”
When your husband’s life may be at stake, though, embarrassing his captors is the least of your concerns.
* * *
On Tuesday morning, Geng does on-camera interviews at Radio Free Asia, then the team stops by Genser’s office at 19th and M streets NW so he can answer e-mails. In a nearby conference room, Geng takes a small book from her purse, opens it and quietly repeats English vocabulary words.
“Of course. Of course. Of course.
“Ice cream. Ice cream. Ice cream.