Interview: Hong Kong with political prisoners is ‘the sad reality now’

Jeff Merkley says concerned U.S. athletes should 'use your special status' to raise awareness of China issues.
Interview: Hong Kong with political prisoners is ‘the sad reality now’ Activists calling for a boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics due to concerns over China's human rights record rally at the Chinese Consulate in Los Angeles, CA, Nov. 3, 2021. The flames in the torch on the placard represent Uyghur, Tibetans, Hong Kongers and other targets of Chinese repression.

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley is chair of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC), a body set up in 2000 to monitor China’s compliance with international human rights standards, to promote the development of rule of law in China, and to maintain a list of victims of human rights abuses in China. He spoke to Carmen Wu of RFA’s Cantonese Service in Wednesday about the #OlympicPrisoner social media project highlighting cases of political prisoners drawn from the CECC’s Political Prisoner Database during the Feb. 4-18  Beijing Winter Olympics. The senator from Oregon also discussed human rights developments in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and other parts of China in the year since he took over the helm of the bipartisan CECC. The interview has been edited for length.

RFA: Can you explain how the CECC came up with the #OlympicPrisoner social media project

Merkley: It's of great concern that the Winter Olympics are being held in China, and China is using the glitz and glamor of Olympic gold to distract attention from their horrific human rights abuses, abuses that include the enslavement of the Uyghur ethnic community, certainly the treatment of Tibet, the crushing of political rights in Hong Kong and the treatment of journalists, human rights lawyers and other advocates. So this is a piece of that overall effort to draw attention to these concerns. And specifically, the Olympic prisoner project includes highlighting some 60 individuals representing all aspects of that oppression. I am so disturbed that the Olympics are being used to help a country obscure, hide or overlook its horrific treatment of individuals.

RFA: I noticed that there are a lot of retweets on the post about Hong Kong political prisoners like Joshua Wong. It has been retweeted more than 400 times.

Merkley: We certainly do have a significant Hong Kong diaspora that is helping to illuminate the loss of rights and the fight for those human rights and freedom of the press in Hong Kong. The crackdowns in recent years have necessitated that for the first time, the Congressional Executive Commission on China includes Hong Kong political prisoners on the commission's political prisoner database. I never thought I'd see the day when that would be necessary, but that is the sad reality now. And even as we advocate for those who are currently detained, we need to protect those who are fleeing persecution. It's why I'm working with my colleagues to open up humanitarian pathways for people of Hong Kong to find safe haven in the United States, safe haven elsewhere.

RFA: How did you decide which 60 cases to be highlighted from the database?

Merkley:We have over 10,000 files, and over 2,000 of those individuals in that database are currently in prison. And so it has grown significantly as China's abuse has grown significantly. We have a professional, nonpartisan staff, so this is Democrats and Republicans working together to provide as representative sample as possible. And so they selected cases of Hongkongers, Uyghurs, Tibetans, advocates for religious freedom, human rights lawyers who have been detained and locked up, journalists, environmental advocates, civil society, women's rights defenders and workers’ rights defenders.

RFA: The Olympics are right around the corner. What message do you want to tell the U.S. athletes competing in Beijing about the situation in China?

Merkley: I say to the athletes, if you're aware of the circumstances in China, you will do a great service to the world if you draw attention to them while you're at the games. The protection of the International Olympic Committee has now promised to give you to speak up on behalf of the Uyghur community, the Tibetans, the imprisoned human rights lawyers, imprisoned journalists, the crushing of rights in Hong Kong. As you choose, if one speaks to your heart and you want to highlight it, please do so. The only way freedom thrives in this world is for us to resist oppression in every form, and you can use your special status as an incredible athlete at this moment when the world is paying attention to draw attention to these horrific circumstances that are underway in the host nation. 



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