“Mr. Obama, if you still remember the pain of the void you had growing up without your dad, maybe you can help my children reunite with their dad,” said Geng He, the wife of former human-rights attorney and Chinese political prisoner Gao Zhisheng at a press conference in Washington D.C. yesterday.
Obviously, the person she was speaking to wasn’t in the room. But it was a valiant effort to raise media awareness for her husband’s plight, one of many similar attempts over the past few weeks. As Washington prepared for Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit, Geng appeared to have embarked on a campaign of her own. She’s given interviews to numerous news outlets, spoken at press conferences, and made appeals to the administration. But even though it’s crucial to speak out for political prisoners like Gao, the venture isn’t without risks. Geng’s husband could potentially bear the brunt of any anger the Chinese government may have over the public descriptions of his imprisonment.
Last week, for the first time, the AP published a 2010 interview with Gao about his previous treatment in prison. It was a story he requested they publish in only two circumstances. One was if he managed to escape from China and reunite with his wife and children in the U.S. The other was if he disappeared.
After eight months of no contact with the former human-rights attorney, AP and Geng decided enough time had gone by to go ahead with the piece. AP released the story to coincide with Hu’s visit. The account of Gao’s suffering is chilling on its own. And he admitted during the interview that there were certain aspects of the torture that he would not even divulge to the reporter.
But even though Hillary Clinton mentioned Gao’s mistreatment in a speech right before Hu’s visit, President Obama hasn’t publicly discussed the political prisoner since the Chinese leader arrived in D.C.
When Obama was pressed on human rights at a joint press conference with Hu yesterday, he offered only excuses for the Chinese government. The country, said Obama, “has a different political system than we do” and is “at a different state of development than we are.”
“We come from two different cultures and different histories,” he added.
Later that night, Obama hosted a lavish state dinner for President Hu. It looked like a beautiful event, at least from the photos. There’s even a picture of the first couple smiling as they post on either side of the Chinese leader (just a diplomatic nicety, of course).
Gao also seems to be someone who believes in the importance of smiling through unpleasant situations. “Even when I was tortured to near-death, the pain was only in the physical body,” he wrote in 2009. “A heart that is filled with God has no room to entertain pain and suffering. I often sing along loudly with my two children, but my wife never joins us. Despite all my efforts, she still feels miserable in her heart.”
Sure, the state dinner was just a matter of maintaining good relations with the Chinese government. Ensuring future stability for the U.S. and the world and all that. But with Hu returning home, and as media interest in Chinese political prisoners wanes, it’s less clear what the future holds for Gao Zhisheng and his family.