Barristers, solicitors and other members from the legal profession take part in a march of silence in Hong Kong last year to protest Beijing's policy towards the judiciary. (Bobby Yip/Reuters)

Robert Edward Precht is president of the legal think tank Justice Labs. From 2008 to 2012, he was the Beijing-based director of the China Rule of Law Program of Pilnet: The Global Network of Public Interest Law.

Did you know that the American Bar Association has a branch in China? That perhaps sheds light on why the organization decided recently not to criticize an unprecedented crackdown on lawyers there and points to a growing problem for nonprofits and universities working in the country: the pressure to keep silent in the face of human rights abuses even if doing so violates their mission statements.

In July, Chinese authorities launched a highly organized campaign against human rights lawyers. Police have detained or summoned for questioning more than 245 people, most of them lawyers who have worked on civil rights cases. More than 30 are still in custody or have simply disappeared. Many commentators believe this is part of President Xi Jinping’s escalating crackdown on the country’s growing human rights defense movement.

Lawyers’ groups worldwide mobilized to make forceful statements criticizing the arrests, but the ABA has been noticeably quiet. As Yu-Jie Chen, a researcher at the U.S.-Asia Law Institute, stated in an online forum of China experts, “Protests from other lawyers’ groups are not only closely watched by Beijing but also rights lawyers themselves. Several Chinese rights lawyers with whom I have spoken have expressed how important it is for foreign lawyers’ groups to show public support for them and to protest about the Chinese government’s mistreatment of lawyers.”

More than two dozen lawyers’ groups from around the world have criticized the attacks on Chinese lawyers, but all eyes have been on the ABA.

The ABA represents nearly 400,000 members of the legal profession. It has a long-standing commitment to supporting legal professionals and advocates of human rights. Its mission pledges the organization to work for human rights and “hold governments accountable under law.”

The organization opened a branch office in Beijing to administer programs “to strengthen the Chinese bar, so that it can effectively advocate for citizens’ rights and for the rule of law.” Since 2004, the ABA has received millions of dollars from the U.S. government and other donors to support these programs. Its Beijing staff has grown to 12.

At the ABA’s annual meeting in Chicago last month, members who wanted the organization to issue a statement criticizing the crackdown were met with strong opposition. Opponents argued that such a statement might provoke the Chinese government to retaliate by closing the Beijing office. Those opponents prevailed. The final statement was nonjudgmental, taking pains to note that developing the rule of law is a struggle for every nation, “including the United States.” It was addressed to nobody in particular. It acknowledged the detentions but neither criticized the arrests nor called for the release of the lawyers. ABA members who are supporters of the Chinese lawyers were bitterly disappointed.

One of the greatest contributions U.S. rights groups can make to improving rule of law in China is to provide moral support to Chinese human rights activists who confront unjust government actions and are persecuted for it. To be sure, speaking out carries risks. The Chinese government could try to close the offices of offending organizations. For the ABA, this would be a setback, but it would not threaten the organization’s survival. Chinese rights lawyers face much greater risks, including arbitrary harassment, arrest and imprisonment. They need and deserve international support.

The ABA is not alone in facing moral dilemmas in China. In the past decade, environmental groups, foundations and universities have poured tens of millions of dollars into setting up offices and campuses in the country to extend their important missions to this growing global giant. Nonprofits, by definition, exist not to make money but to promote social values. Universities that are pledged to uphold academic freedom must navigate an environment in which faculty cannot freely speak on topics such as Tibet or human rights. They all face pressures not to offend their Chinese hosts, but the solution cannot be to compromise the values that define them.

It’s not too late for the ABA to do the right thing. It should withdraw its weak statement and issue a new one calling on the authorities to immediately release the wrongfully arrested activists and to make clear that they are not at risk of torture and other ill treatment. China’s beleaguered civil rights lawyers deserve no less.