ONE OF the things we hope Chinese President Xi Jinping takes away from his visit this month to the United States is the importance of free expression in a strong society. It’s a point that President Obama should stress in his meetings with Mr. Xi. And to show how America not just allows — but actually welcomes — this precious freedom, Mr. Obama might want to point out the windows of the White House to Lafayette Square, a prominent place for political protest in the nation’s capital. That’s assuming, of course, the White House doesn’t take a page from Mr. Xi’s playbook and shut down protests in the park, ostensibly for security reasons.
Among those who want to gather across the street from the White House when Mr. Xi is in town are civil liberties activists and advocates for ethnic and spiritual minorities who are oppressed in China. Two groups applying for a permit to the National Park Service for Sept. 24 and 25 are the International Campaign for Tibet and Initiatives for China; representatives of the groups met last week with National Park Service and other officials to, as part of the permitting process, outline their general plans.
Yang Jianli, president and founder of Initiatives for China, told us officials were “respectful, forthcoming, informative and generally helpful.” But he said the groups, which in the past have protested in the park when Chinese leaders visit the White House, became concerned when the probability was raised of the Secret Service moving to close the park for security reasons. Indeed, a spokesman for the Secret Service told us in an e-mail, “On September 25th, it is anticipated that Lafayette Park will be closed for a brief time prior to a protective movement on the north grounds of the White House. . . . This is a standard temporary closure.’’
In other words, just as Mr. Xi is walking into the White House, the Secret Service will ensure that he won’t be embarrassed by any protests? The Park Service, which has no control over closures instituted by the Secret Service, tries to work on alternative locations for protesters, but there is an importance to Lafayette Square that simply can’t be replicated.
Beijing has been unabashed in preventing peaceful demonstrations at events such as the anniversary of the massacre at Tiananmen Square or the Olympics. And there has been an alarming deterioration in human rights conditions under Mr. Xi as his regime has essentially declared war on the lawyers and activists who have spoken out against official wrongdoing and tried to protect the rights of oppressed minorities. The White House, already too timid in speaking out about the abuses, should realize it would be sending a terrible message if protests at Lafayette Square were curtailed in any way for whatever reason. Mr. Obama should tell the Secret Service that the park must stay open.
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