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For Obama and China, a human-rights opportunity

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By Times Wang
Friday, November 13, 2009

Before starting college in 2008, my sister, Ti-Anna, spent a year in Washington advocating for our father, Wang Bingzhang, a political prisoner in China. She accomplished a great deal: She met influential politicians and policymakers and even had an op-ed published on this page in January. When Barack Obama won the presidency in a historic election last year, my sister and I celebrated. After voting for him in my first American election, I toasted his victory with friends at Duke Law School, where I was a first-year student. Meanwhile, my sister attended inauguration parades and balls, absorbing the excitement of hope and change.

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What did Obama's election mean for our father? With all the turmoil in the economy, we thought foreign policy issues such as human rights in China would not figure prominently on the new administration's agenda. But we figured that, if nothing else, the new administration would be at least as supportive as the Bush administration had been.

As it turns out, we were wrong. Beginning with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to Beijing in February, when she said that human rights shouldn't interfere with economic policy, and continuing with the president's decision to turn down a chance to meet with the Dalai Lama, it became evident that the Obama administration's penchant for caution and pragmatism extended beyond domestic issues and into its China policy. (Incidentally, my sister and I met His Holiness in April -- and we think the president missed out.)

My sister has begun university studies in Montreal. When she left Washington, I transferred to New York University School of Law, largely to pick up the slack. New York was a better place than North Carolina to press my father's case, and I wanted to study with Jerome Cohen, an expert on Chinese law. The day before the Nobel Peace Prize was announced last month, I was in Professor Cohen's seminar on law and society in China. We were talking about Chinese dissidents, some of whom were favored to win the prize. My dad, a veteran dissident, was among those nominated. The next morning, I saw the news that the president had won and, like many, I wondered: For what?

Notwithstanding my skepticism over his peace prize, my admiration for the president remains strong. He is a role model, and some aspects of his life resonate with me. When I told a professor at Duke about my father, he asked whether I had read "Dreams From My Father" because my relationship with my father reminded him of that of the president. Like the president's father, mine was an intelligent, ambitious dreamer, an exchange student from a developing country who was burdened with many flaws. Like the president, I have been and continue to be shaped by my father's heritage and politics despite our distance. Like the president, I was raised by my mother and grandparents.

Whereas the president's father passed away before they could meaningfully reconcile, however, I have been luckier. The first time I visited my dad in prison, he apologized for his failings as a husband and a parent. I told him that all was forgiven, that he should never worry about it again and that we were going to do everything we could to get him out of prison. He was so moved he couldn't speak. I imagine the president would have appreciated a similar reconciliation.

The Obama presidency gives my sister and me hope. Over the years, the advice we receive most often regarding our father is to have the U.S. government pressure China. But during the past administration, the United States lost ground in international prestige and in its ability to claim the moral high ground. On a more personal level, we often became demoralized by the difficulty of our task. So when we saw how popular Obama was around the world, including in China, we became hopeful that the best aspects of our democracy would also regain international currency. We were also heartened by the prospect that transcendent social change was once again a realistic aspiration.

Now the president is heading to China. Will human rights continue to be regarded as "interfering" with U.S.-China relations? In my view, if the peace prize was a call to action, then this visit is the time to act. It is especially appropriate that Obama should confront human rights issues on this trip; within Chinese prisons sit numerous peace prize nominees who would undoubtedly have benefited had a Chinese dissident won. If Obama's award is to be more worthwhile than the prize going to one of them, this is the first great opportunity to make it so. It would certainly mean a great deal to me as a supporter and admirer of the president, and as the son of a dissident.

The writer is a law student in New York. His family maintains a Web site about his father and his imprisonment at http://www.wangbingzhang.com.


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