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Opinion The true cost of Trump’s basketball intervention in China

President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping are shown in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Nov. 9. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)

President Trump’s personal intervention to help free three American college basketball players in China was hailed as a victory for diplomacy before it devolved into another ego-driven Twitter war. Lost in the celebration and controversy was the fact that Trump ignored all of the other American citizens being held unjustly in Chinese jails — not to mention the human rights and political prisoners the Chinese government holds.

Administration officials confirmed that neither Trump nor Secretary of State Rex Tillerson raised in public or private any cases of Chinese detention of American citizens or other political prisoners during the president’s visit to Beijing this month, aside from the three UCLA basketball players who allegedly stole sunglasses from a Louis Vuitton store in Hangzhou.

Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping “had a candid exchange of views on human rights,” according to a White House statement. An administration official said an acting deputy assistant secretary of state delivered a list of priority political prisoners to a mid-level Chinese counterpart.

However, for the community of people both inside and outside government who work on these issues, Trump’s basketball-focused advocacy was not only a missed opportunity but a setback to the effort to highlight the more important cases. “The focus on the basketball players took all the air out of the room,” said John Kamm, the founder of the Dui Hua Foundation, a nonprofit organization that has worked on hundreds of cases of Americans and others unjustly imprisoned in China. “Unfortunately, more time was spent on something that a lot of time shouldn’t have been spent on.”

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Trump’s personal intervention on behalf of the basketball players was problematic not only because it supplanted other cases, but because it undermined the long-held American principle that China should follow due process and the rule of law when dealing with these issues, Kamm said. “The president of China simply ordered their release without any judicial due process at all. In that respect, this is a setback,” he said. “This isn’t rule of law, this is rule by man.” Trump’s tweet a few days later saying he “should have left them in jail” for not being grateful enough to him only underscored that point.

The White House has made the return of American prisoners abroad a priority, including in the cases of Americans held in Egypt, Iran and North Korea. Even with regard to China, the administration has shown what a little top-level attention can accomplish. Tillerson raised the case of American businesswoman Sandy Phan-Gillis while in Beijing in March and the Chinese government released her shortly after the Trump-Xi summit at Mar-a-Lago in April.

Three UCLA basketball players returned to the U.S. on Nov. 14, after being detained in China on suspicion of shoplifting. (Video: Reuters)

As Xi consolidates power, the rare president-to-president interactions are more crucial than ever. By using his time with Xi to push for the UCLA players’ release, Trump allowed Xi to appear to be reasonable on the prisoner issue without giving ground on any of the cases the Chinese government actually cares about. “It takes pressure and attention away from the other cases the Chinese would prefer not to face pressure on or have to move on,” said Ryan Hass, a Brookings Institution scholar who worked on such cases in the Obama White House.

Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said Trump’s flattery of Xi and his failure to raise important individual cases could do long-term damage. “When you stand up and lavishly publicly praise somebody like Xi Jinping, who sits atop one of modern history’s most abusive governments, you are doing harm,” she said. “It will take years to repair the damage that he has done to the idea of U.S. advocacy on human rights issues and advocacy of American prisoners in China.”

There are about 100 Americans currently subjected to what advocates call coercive measures in China, according to Kamm, as well as about 20 who are stuck there due to exit bans. There are also hundreds of Chinese lawyers, activists, scholars and others jailed unjustly by the Chinese government.

Here are just a few of the cases Trump ignored:

  • American Mark Swidan has been sitting in a Chinese prison in Guangdong province since 2012 after being charged with drug offenses, despite a lack of forensic evidence and absent due process. Found guilty in 2013, he was never sentenced.
  • Liu Xia, the wife of deceased Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, has been under de facto house arrest at the hands of the Chinese security services for years. Trump administration officials have raised her case with Chinese authorities but not during Trump’s China trip.
  • Pastor John Cao was arrested in March in Yunnan province and charged with “organizing illegal crossings of national borders.” He had been working to build schools for ethnic minorities in Myanmar.
  • Wang Bingzhang, a leading Chinese democracy activist and U.S. permanent resident, was sentenced to life in prison in 2003 on charges of espionage and terrorism. In 2006, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution calling for his release.
  • Jiang Tianyong, a prominent human rights lawyer in China, was tried in August and sentenced last week to two years in prison as part of Xi’s crackdown on civil society. He is part of what’s called the “709” group, named in remembrance of Xi’s July 9, 2015, roundup of lawyers and activists, many of whom later reported being tortured in custody.
  • Gui Minhai, a Chinese-born Swedish citizen, was abducted by Chinese authorities in Thailand in 2015. He is one of five staff members of Hong King’s Causeway Bay Books store who disappeared and were later revealed to be detained by Chinese authorities. Despite reports last month of his release, this week his family said he was still not free.