Human rights activists have poured scorn on Donald Trump for showering China’s “terrific” president Xi Jinping with praise just hours after one of the world’s most famous political prisoners died in the custody of Chinese security services.
Speaking in Paris shortly after it was announced that the democracy champion and Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo had died, the US president said nothing of the activist’s plight.
Instead, when asked for his personal thoughts on Xi by a Chinese television journalist, Trump replied: “He’s a friend of mine. I have great respect for him … a great leader.
“He’s a very talented man. I think he’s a very good man,” Trump continued at a joint press conference with French president, Emmanuel Macron. “He loves China, I can tell you … He wants to do what’s right for China.”
“President Xi is a terrific guy. I like being with him a lot, and he’s a very special person,” added the US president, who has been trying to forge a partnership with China to tackle North Korea.
Friends of Liu Xiaobo and campaigners slammed the timing and nature of Trump’s comments about Xi, who observers say has overseen the most dramatic crackdown on civil society in decades in a bid to shore up the Communist party’s monopoly on power.
Hu Jia, a veteran activist, said: “I feel so disappointed. Trump has shown so little interest in human rights since he came to power, and sometimes he even shows contempt for human rights issues.”
“Trump did nothing during the G20 summit and now makes these comments in Paris. Is he trying to encourage the dictator? Is his message: ‘What you’ve done can be ignored?’”
“The remarks I’ve heard from Trump leave me feeling cold, even in such a hot, damp summer,” Hu added.
Teng Biao, a human rights lawyer who was forced into exile in the US by Xi’s crackdown, said the west as a whole had failed to stand up to Beijing over Liu Xiaobo’s case and the wider human rights crisis.
“And it is especially shameful that Donald Trump praised Xi Jinping at the moment when Liu Xiaobo was dying,” Teng added. “Xi Jinping is so brutal … Xi Jinping is not a respectable leader. He is a brutal dictator.”
Rose Tang, another exiled human rights activist, said Trump’s comments were “incredibly horrific and infuriating”.
“He has no human decency … let alone the tiniest bit of courage to stand up to China, a dictatorship that’s been growing stronger by the day because of appeasement from the west.”
The White House later issued a brief statement which said Trump had been “deeply saddened” by the death of the “courageous advocate” Liu Xiaobo.
However, that statement contained no criticism of the role China’s leaders played Liu Xiaobo’s ordeal and was far shorter and more restrained than those of other prominent Republicans, including former president George W Bush.
In a statement, Bush said Liu Xiaobo had “dared to dream of a China that respected human rights”. “For that he spent much of his life as a political prisoner of conscience. But he never wavered in his quest to advance freedom and democracy.”
Senator John McCain said Liu’s treatment represented “an egregious violation of the fundamental human rights” for which he had battled. “Unfortunately … this is only the latest example of Communist China’s assault on human rights, democracy and freedom,” McCain added.
Senator Marco Rubio also slammed China’s “shameful treatment of this peaceful hero, who championed the very ideals that are at the foundation of America’s own experiment in self-government”.
Terry Branstad, the new US ambassador to Beijing, also went beyond Trump’s comments, calling on China “to release all prisoners of conscience and to respect the fundamental freedoms of all”.
Teng, the exiled lawyer, said Trump’s fawning over Xi underlined how the world was turning its back on Chinese human rights defenders as they put their country’s economies ahead of their values.
“Western governments feel that for them it is more important to talk [with China] about North Korea or counter-terrorism, or climate change or international business, than human rights,” he said.
Additional reporting by Wang Zhen
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