One of the privileges of my job is the chance to meet with some of the world’s bravest people: dissidents, exiles, relatives of political prisoners who come through Washington from every corner of the world, looking for support in their battles against dictators of every stripe.
Lately, though, there’s been something different about these visits.
It used to be that The Post was a stop they made before or after the main event, which would be a meeting with administration officials. Since Donald Trump’s inauguration, that has changed. The State Department, where virtually every important office remains unfilled, is a vacuum. The White House often seems on the side of the oppressors, not the oppressed.
Much has been said in the past week about the U.S. retreat from global leadership, given President Trump’s truculence in Europe and his decision to join the Nicaragua-Syria axis in withdrawing from the Paris treaty on climate change.
The retreat from any commitment to democracy and human rights — the failure to stand with people such as Angela Gui, Li Ching-yu or Ali H. Aslan — won’t generate as many headlines. But in the long run, it may do as much harm to U.S. interests and reputation, if not more.
Gui, 23, is a Swedish citizen, a university student in Britain and the daughter of Gui Minhai, a Hong Kong publisher who was apparently kidnapped by Chinese authorities while on vacation in Thailand in 2015. He’s been in Chinese captivity ever since. His firm angered authorities by publishing gossipy biographies of Communist Party leaders. Angela last heard from her father a year ago, when he telephoned to say she should stop agitating for his freedom.
“I understand you’ve got to say that,” Angela replied. “But until you can tell me there’s going to be an end to this, I’m going to continue campaigning.”
You might expect Sweden to lead that campaign, because her father, too, is a Swedish citizen. You might expect to hear from Britain, which 20 years ago accepted China’s solemn promise that freedoms in Hong Kong would be respected. But both have been pretty quiet, which is why Angela was in Washington.
Li Ching-yu’s husband, Li Ming-che, is imprisoned in China, too. He is a Taiwanese human rights activist, but in Taiwan “they’ve been telling me I should keep quiet,” his wife told me during a recent visit.
“That’s why I’m here in the United States,” she said. “I’m hoping the United States will uphold its values and use its power to influence China to release a prisoner of conscience.”
Ali Aslan has the same wish, though not much hope. He was Washington correspondent for Zaman, a leading Turkish newspaper until the increasingly authoritarian government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan shuttered it. Now, more than 50 of his former Zaman colleagues are in prison.
“[President Barack] Obama was too soft on Erdogan,” Aslan said during a visit to The Post last week. “We told him, ‘This isn’t how you deal with a bully.’
“But at least Obama was not encouraging or supporting him,” he said. “Now we have Trump, who acts like a bully himself. He’s getting along better with dictators than with democratic allies.”
Aslan’s assessment of Obama is a useful reminder that human rights supplicants often departed from Washington disappointed long before Trump. Even when the United States was encouraging democracy overseas, it necessarily balanced that interest against security and commercial concerns.
But it’s also true that even a meeting with a deputy assistant secretary or a photo op with a presidential adviser could have major impact, saving one prisoner from torture, winning freedom for another, maybe just boosting the morale of someone else. Trump, in helping two U.S. citizens escape political captivity (one from Egypt, another from Chinese agents in Thailand), has already seen how much clout he could have if he chose to wield it.
Given this administration’s predilections, visitors are putting hope in meetings with members of Congress committed to human rights, such as Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.). Others look to France or Germany to pick up the slack.
And then there are those such as Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, who optimistically said he believes this administration eventually will pivot because of “the connection between these severe human rights abuses and the instability that occurs as a result.”
“I think the evidence is so plentiful that it’s only a matter of time before they understand it,” Zeid, a Jordanian, said during a visit to The Post last month. “If you want a prevention rather than an intervention agenda, you have to embrace a human rights agenda.”
Angela Gui, Li Ching-yu, Ali Aslan and thousands of others can only hope that such a revelation comes sooner rather than later.