California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s six-day trip to China produced a flurry of photo-ops that only spurred more speculation about his presidential ambitions: Newsom grinning while clasping hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping, his tour of a Chinese electric vehicle manufacturer, shots and videos of the governor tieless and sporting sunglasses while touring the Great Wall, and even a few showing the governor’s attempt at some basketball diplomacy with Chinese school boys.
Newsom seemed eager to lean into his relationships with China’s brutal communist regime as a bold contrast to Republicans’ and even many Democrats’ post-COVID condemnation of China. Their list of grievances with Beijing is long and unbending: China’s lack of transparency over the virus’s origins, its abysmal human rights record, China’s trade imbalance with the U.S., and its ever-increasing surveillance networks at home and abroad.
While touring the Great Wall, Newsom said the trip’s goal was to “tear down” walls between the United States and the People’s Republic and “reconcile our differences” to work on mutually beneficial objectives, such as climate change and reducing carbon emissions. On Sunday, Newsom’s last day in China, he toured a Tesla factory, and his office touted a climate partnership he forged with Shanghai, a global shipping hub.
But for many human rights advocates and Republicans, those differences are as fundamental as they come, representing not just a gulf but an unbridgeable chasm.
(Newsom failed to mention that Xi has broken previous clean-energy promises in the past. Despite pledges to scale back emissions by 2030 and reach net zero carbon by 2060, Beijing started a domestic spree of new coal emissions in 2022.)
Rep. Chris Smith, a long-time human rights champion who chairs the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, on Monday condemned the trip as an “excursion based on a naïve understanding of China’s repression and ill intentions that will have long-term negative ramifications for American security interests and the brave human rights and democracy advocates struggling for freedom in China.”
Smith accused Newsom of allowing himself to be used as a “propaganda tool” while failing to secure “any improvements on human rights or even seriously broach the critical issues.”
The New Jersey Republican specifically highlighted the plight of David Lin, a 67-year-old pastor from Orange County, Calif., who has been wrongfully detained and jailed in China since 2006. Chinese authorities sentenced Lin to life in prison for what the U.S. government says are meritless charges of contract fraud. The sentence was recently reduced to an end date of 2029.
Smith said Newsom, at a minimum, should have conditioned his trip to China on Lin’s release.
Before Newsom’s trip, Lin’s daughter, Alice, called on the governor to press Chinese officials to release him. Newsom should “raise my father’s case by name as well as the names of other wrongfully detained Americans,” she said in an interview in mid-October with Politico. “We do not want my dad to be forgotten.”
A read-out of Newsom’s meeting with Chinese officials included a mention of Lin among several weighty topics that Newsom broached with Chinese officials, along with “human rights violations and anti-democratic efforts in Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang, and Taiwan.”
Yet, later, during an interview with a television reporter accompanying him on the China trip, Newsom said the State Department told him not to bring up human rights with President Xi but to do so with China’s vice president and foreign minister instead so he could focus on climate change with Xi.
“I had the opportunity to talk about the most important issue in our lives!” Newsom told the reporter, referring to climate change.
But human rights activists countered that millions of persecuted Chinese, including Uyghurs, Tibetans, and Falun Gong, are fighting for their lives and those of their loved ones every day in China. The governor’s office did not respond to follow-up questions about which officials Newsom spoke to about Lin and broader human rights abuses, and how they responded. Chinese officials blocked American media from attending the meeting while allowing Chinese reporters inside, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
Lin is one of three Americans imprisoned in China – all of whom the State Department’s office of special presidential envoy on hostage affairs has designated as “wrongfully” detained. The others are Texan Mark Swidan, who Chinese authorities have held for more than 11 years, and Kai Li, a Harvard student who had been jailed for seven years on espionage charges.
Swidan’s mother, Katherine Swidan, has taken exception to the extraordinary effort the Biden administration made in freeing American women’s basketball star Brittney Griner from Russia, as well as five Americans released from detention in Iran in August in exchange for the U.S. agreeing to unfreeze billions of dollars in Iranian funds and the release of several jailed Iranians.
After the Iran hostage deal went public last week, Katherine Swidan implored the Biden administration to do more to secure her son’s freedom.
“It is time to get the wrongfully detained Americans OUT OF CHINA,” she tweeted. “You have ignored them long enough.”
Human rights advocates, including ChinaAid, which earlier this year helped 63 Chinese Christians obtain refugee status in the United States, said Lin is a Christian minister who has been traveling to China to evangelize since the 1990s. His visits were initially allowed or tolerated, but he was swept up in a 2006 crackdown and detained by Chinese police after applying for a license for his ministry and helping an underground church.
In April, Chinese authorities allowed Nicholas Burns, the U.S. ambassador to China, to visit Lin in person. It was the first time in more than five years that China had granted a meeting between Lin and a U.S. official, and the meeting provided signs of hope to his family and advocates back home.
Rep. Katie Porter, a Democrat who represents Orange County and is running for Senate, has spent several years pressing the State Department and President Biden to do more to win Lin’s release. Last March, she wrote a letter to Biden, urging him to “actively engage with President Xi and advocate for Mr. Lin’s release.” Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, also signed it.
“Although the Chinese government has reduced Mr. Lin’s sentence, the fact remains that Mr. Lin has been separated from his family for nearly 16 years and may die in prison,” she wrote to Biden. “At age 67, his health is already starting to decline, and he may never have the opportunity to hold his grandchildren or see his family again.”
Nizar Zakka knows the agonizing disappointment of being left behind when other U.S. hostages have been freed. Zakka, who was nabbed on a diplomatic trip to Iran in 2015, thought he would be part of the Obama administration’s 2016 hostage deal with Tehran. But three more years would pass before Zakka secured his freedom in a deal spearheaded by the Lebanese government.
After settling into life back in the United States, Zakka founded Hostage Aid Worldwide to help other wrongfully detained Americans.
Zakka said his organization has spent several years with Porter trying to win Lin’s freedom. Under the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery Act, which provided new funds and guidelines for U.S. efforts to free Americans held overseas, efforts to secure Lin’s freedom are supposed to be a top priority during meetings with Chinese officials because the State Department has designated him “unlawfully detained,” Zakka said.
Newsom wasted an opportunity by not predicating the trip on Lin’s release, Zakka argued, as he pointed to Porter’s previous success in bringing Ziad Auf, an unlawfully jailed constituent, home from Lebanon earlier this year. Porter, he said, traveled to Beirut but refused to meet with any top officials until Auf was freed.
“She’s a strong woman and a tough negotiator,” Zakka said. “So, I believe the least Newsom could have done was the same.”
Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics’ White House/national political correspondent.