Last week the PEN American Center announced it was sending out letters to the Bush Administration and Congressional leaders protesting, fifty days before the start of the Olympics, the curtailment of human rights in China. I figured this meant that a petition PEN hand-delivered – via much hoopla in early May – to the Chinese Mission at the United Nations asking for the release of dozens of imprisoned Chinese writers came up short.

The news is worse – not only has China’s media clampdown become more draconian over the past few months, but the government’s indifference to finger-pointing letters and petitions such as PEN’s suggests that human rights advocacy wields embarrassingly little influence. Unless you believe that conditions for writers in the People’s Republic of China would have been harsher without these efforts in the international community. The catch, suggested in an excellent recent piece in the New Republic, is that it could also be claimed that China’s authorities reinforce their hold on power by thumbing their noses at demands that they increase freedom of expression.

According to PEN, “a grinding and relentless campaign to jail or silence prominent dissident voices” has accelerated since May: six writers and journalists have been detained and many more harassed, the media has been blocked from reporting in Tibet and the earthquake-affected Sichuan Province, and attempts by the Chinese government to control the Internet, via sabotaging or blocking sites, are growing. Nine of the recent arrests involve writers and journalists who posted or distributed work on the Web.

According to Larry Siems, who directs the Freedom to Write Programs at PEN American Center, China gave explicit assurances regarding its commitment to improve human rights in order to secure the Olympic Games. The hope, explains Siems, was that China would use its star turn on the world stage to renovate its reputation and assert its legitimacy by making pledges and fulfilling them. The catch is that, at least so far, the promises are turning out to be empty — “window dressing that is not fooling anyone.”

Feng Zhenghu, a Shanghai-based writer was detained by the Chinese police on June 5. He was released 10 days ago.

So why hasn’t PEN, as some writers have suggested, asked for a boycott of the Olympics? Why play the fool? In a recent BBC interview, playwright Tom Stoppard summed up the argument, insisting that the Olympics are not a sporting event but a crudely air-brushed exercise in political and commercial marketing. He believes that writers should boycott the competition rather than play up its importance.

Siems respects that position, but explains that PEN is about “gathering people together,” searching out approaches and pressure points for the international community that will generate improvement in human rights. The recent letters to the President, Secretary of State, and members of both houses of Congress are PEN’s attempts to remind elected officials that any conversations with Chinese representatives should include talk about the plight of imprisoned writers. If, by the time of the Olympics China doesn’t improve its treatment of the imprisoned authors, Siems believes that President Bush should skip the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics. Why confer legitimacy on a government that doesn’t live up to its pledges?

In “The New Republic,” Andrew J. Nathan questions whether a boycott or any form of PEN-like pressure will have any influence:

    Thus it is not only China’s growing military and economic power that renders it less and less vulnerable to human rights advocacy, which depends on international reputational costs. Perhaps even more importantly, the government is protected by its success in shaping its own public’s reaction to the criticism. Indeed, the regime faces more risk in yielding to Western criticism than in being subjected to it. The audiences that matter are not in the United States and Europe, but in China and the Third World. Even the main Olympic sponsors–GE, Coca-Cola, Kodak, McDonald’s, Visa, and seven other American and foreign companies, who are front and center in the eyes of international consumers–have decided to hunker down and absorb whatever hits cannot be avoided in order to protect their enormous long-range stakes in China. This is an almost unimaginably large market, and a market that remembers. Name and shame works with countries dependent on the West, but China is no longer such a country

“Assertive and unapologetic, the new and future China now struts the stage,” concludes Nathan. In a recent PEN op-ed piece, Siems builds on this point by raising the question of how seriously the United States is fighting for freedom of expression in China. He points to the experience of a writer named Tohti Tunyaz who, ten years ago, was arrested in western China and sentenced to eleven years in prison for “stealing state secrets” and “inciting national disunity.” Tunyaz is a Uighur, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group in China. His crime, writes Siems, was obtaining and copying – with the full knowledge and help of a government librarian – a 50-year old document for his Ph.D. research into the history of his homeland’s policies toward its ethnic minorities. PEN wrote to the U.S. State Department asking for Tunyaz’s release in 2002.

Then-Assistant Secretary of State Lorne W. Craner wrote back pledging support. “The President has clearly communicated to China that ‘the war on terrorism must never be an excuse to persecute minorities,’” he replied.

    “The Administration shares your concern for Mr. Tunyaz and for all prisoners of conscience in China,” Craner concluded. “We will continue to press Mr. Tunyaz’s case with the Chinese government.”

We now know that even as Mr. Craner was writing these words, our government was abusing Uighur detainees in Guantanamo Bay to soften them up for Chinese interrogators.

    A 438-page report released last month by the Justice Department’s Inspector General – dryly titled A Review of the FBI’s Involvement in and Observation of Detainee Interrogations in Guantanamo Bay, Afghanistan, and Iraq – records that “several Uighur detainees were subjected to sleep deprivation or disruption while being interrogated at Camp X-Ray by Chinese officials prior to April 2002. The [FBI] agent said that one Uighur detainee claimed that the night before his interrogation by Chinese officials he was awakened at 15-minute intervals the entire night and into the next day. [This detainee] also claimed he was exposed to low room temperatures for long periods of time.”

In a footnote, the Inspector General’s office adds, “The agent stated that he understood that the treatment of the Uighur detainees was either carried out by the Chinese interrogators or was carried out by U.S. military personnel at the behest of the Chinese interrogators.”

    “Lawyers who had contact with some three dozen Uighurs held in Guantanamo say the mistreatment went well beyond sleep deprivation and temperature extremes. Those who refused to talk to the Chinese interrogators were placed in solitary confinement. To force cooperation, interrogators warned prisoners that they would be killed or jailed if they were returned to China. The men were subsequently threatened with repatriation by their American jailors if they did not provide information on their fellow detainees.

According to the Center for Constitutional Rights, “Chinese officials told another prisoner that the Defense Department has given the Chinese information the prisoner had previously provided to U.S. interrogators about himself and his family, violating specific promises by U.S. interrogators that they would not provide this information to the Chinese. The Chinese also attempted to photograph this prisoner during the interrogation, and when he resisted, U.S. soldiers forcibly restrained him and held his head so that the Chinese could clearly photograph his face.”

At a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee this month, Representatives Dana Rohrabacher (R-California) and Bill Delahunt (D-Massachusetts) lambasted the administration for allowing Chinese interrogators into Guantanamo, and demanded that the Uighurs be released, apologized to, and compensated for any mistreatment. It has long since become clear that the imprisoned Uighurs are not terrorists. And yet despite a federal judge’s ruling that their continued imprisonment is unlawful, 17 of them remain in prison in Guantanamo.

 Also still in prison, six years after PEN raised his case with the U.S. State Department and 50 days before China hosts the Olympic Games – Games it secured on the promise of improving its human rights record – is Tohti Tunyaz. How hard has the U.S. really been pressing for his release? And given what has been going on behind the scenes, how seriously does China take us when we do?”

But all is not entirely lost. Siems supplies evidence that global pressure on China has had some small but real effects leading up to the Olympics. He sent along a recent release from the Independent Chinese PEN CenterWriter in Prison Committee

    Dear All,

    It has been confirmed that Feng Zhenghu, a Shanghai-based writer who had been detained on June 5, was released at 13:15 on June 15, four hours and 15 minutes before the scheduled time. Today, he issued on internet a statement about it, entitled “The Honor of Imprisonment.” According to him, he was detained for his publications of his collection of 189 unfair cases in Shanghai and his journal Ducha Jianbao (”Supervision Bulletin”). He is very grateful to those concerning his detention. On June 18, He got back what had been taken by the police who drove him home with his belongings including 4 computers and 509 copies of the latest issue of his journal published on June 4. He said that the police was surprised that the globe reactions to his detention were so quick. He felt honored by the detention that had resulted in such reactions and so many concerns. He maintained what he had been doing was right and legal, and so that he would continue to be a rights defender even though the imprison had become a part of his life …

One writer is released while dozens remain under arrest — not even a bronze metal for human rights and freedom of expression in China as the Olympics approach.