While in Beijing . . .

By Ellen Bork. She works on human rights issues at Freedom House (THE WASHINGTON POST, 07/01/08):

China's government arrested one of the country's most prominent dissidents late last month. State security agents entered the home of Hu Jia on Dec. 27, according to reports, cut the phone line and gave his wife, Zeng Jinyan, a warrant accusing her husband of subversion.

The arrest of Hu, an advocate for AIDS victims and a critic of Beijing's handling of the 2008 Olympics, poses a problem for the White House.

President Bush has accepted an invitation to attend the Summer Games. An aide explained that the president will attend as a sports fan, but the president of the United States is never just a spectator. Bush's presence cannot help but lend the prestige of his office to the Chinese government, which hopes to use the Olympics to improve its international standing.

There is, however, something Bush can do to make his visit worthwhile as well as more consistent with his "freedom agenda": meet with dissidents in Beijing.

Chinese dissidents want to meet him. They know that they have not been given the same prominence in American foreign policy their Soviet counterparts once received and that Ronald Reagan met with nearly 100 dissidents when he went to Moscow in 1988. (On another occasion, Reagan is said to have introduced Andrei Sakharov to Mikhail Gorbachev, telling the Communist Party general secretary that the dissident was "one of your constituents.")

Unlike much of the world, Chinese dissidents have no illusions about the Olympics. In August, more than 40 Chinese writers, intellectuals and activists, including Hu Jia, signed an open letter questioning the widely held assumption that the Games are an unmitigated boost to freedom in China. "We, as citizens of the People's Republic of China, ought to be feeling pride in our country's glory in hosting the Games," they wrote. "Instead we feel disappointment and doubt as we witness the continuing systematic denial of the human rights of our fellow citizens even while -- and sometimes because -- Olympic preparations are moving forward."

Nevertheless, these dissidents did not call for a boycott. Among other things, they see the Olympics as an opportunity to draw the world's attention to China's human rights abuses and the consequences of Communist Party rule. Many dissidents have hoped that the Olympics will allow more latitude than usual for them to speak freely, meet with each other and talk to foreign visitors.

Hu's arrest is a sign that the regime feels otherwise.

Things are likely to get worse. During important events, the Chinese government tries to sweep problems and "troublemakers" under the rug. Surveillance of regime critics is increased. There will be arrests and harassment. Another crackdown will no doubt begin before the June anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre and will probably continue until the Games are finished. After that, any leverage for greater openness arising from Beijing's interest in staging a successful Olympics will be gone.

So Bush's window of opportunity is small. In addition to meeting with political dissidents, the president should worship with unregistered and frequently persecuted Christian congregations. He should not attend the state-controlled church that he and other American presidents have gone to in past visits.

Bush should also meet with "petitioners," ordinary Chinese citizens who travel to Beijing from the provinces to appeal for redress of injustices and abuse by local and provincial authorities. These are some of China's most vulnerable. One of their leading advocates, Liu Jie, helped organize an open letter signed by more than 12,000 petitioners asking for political reforms, freedoms of speech and association, and improvements in the petitioning system. Liu, who suffered abuse as a petitioner herself, was picked up by security agents in mid-October and later sentenced without trial to "reeducation through labor."

If she is free -- and especially if she is not -- President Bush should seek to meet Liu Jie.

Dissidents play a critical role in the expansion of freedom and in transitions to democracy. Just ask Vaclav Havel or Kim Dae-jung. They also value American support. Consider what Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, herself a former political prisoner, told a Washington audience in October: "I am here as living proof to tell you that if the United States were to lose its will and go quiet on issues of liberty and human rights, that this would shake the foundations of democracy around the world."

President Bush has called himself a "dissident president." Meeting with dissidents during his visit to Beijing would be the best way to associate himself and the United States with Chinese people who are working the hardest and risking the most on behalf of the freedom about which he so often speaks.