BEIJING – Thousands of people will send letters to President Barack Obama this year. Few besides Yang Zili are likely to risk jail by doing so.
A Chinese dissident recently freed after eight years in prison, Yang said Thursday that he is seeking Obama's help in gaining medical parole for two friends who were jailed with him for forming a political study group.
The letter is among a number of appeals beginning to emerge ahead of Obama's arrival in China Nov. 15, with most seeking freedom for detained activists and a stronger line from the administration on human rights concerns.
Yang's appeal, made in an open letter, could result in him being re-arrested because the terms of his parole ban him from political activities. But Yang said he felt an obligation to help his friends, who are ill, and Obama may be able to raise their cases with Chinese leaders during his trip to Beijing next month.
"I have no choice but to take this risk because I feel I have a responsibility to help them," Yang said in an interview. "If I don't make an appeal that is particularly on behalf of these two people, they might just slip through the cracks."
Yang, Zhang Honghai, Xu Wei and Jin Haike were jailed in 2001 for taking part in the New Youth Study Group, an informal group of young professionals and academics that met privately to discuss democratic reform.
The harsh sentences given to the group, known as the "four gentlemen of Beijing," were a sign to many that China's intolerance of political dissent remained entrenched despite dramatic moves to reshape and liberalize the country's economic system.
Yang and Zhang were released in March, but Jin and Xu are still serving the final two years of their 10-year prison terms.
"They are both seriously ill. One has mental problems, and the other has been very sick ever since he had an appendectomy that went badly," Yang said.
In the letter, e-mailed to the U.S. Embassy with a copy given to The Associated Press, Yang urges Obama to persuade President Hu Jintao to give the men amnesty or medical parole. He says the study group did nothing illegal.
"As the latest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and the president of the greatest democratic country in the world, you have tremendous influence with the Chinese government and its people," said the letter, which was co-signed by Zhang.
"Whether or not this letter is effective depends on how much Obama cares about human rights in China," Yang said.
Many Chinese — especially political activists and religious dissenters — are eager to see whether Obama will take a stand on human rights during his first trip to China as president.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton angered activists in February when she said during a trip to Beijing that the United States would not let its human rights concerns interfere with cooperation with Beijing on global crises.
Other letters to Obama include one released Thursday by the China Support Network, a U.S.-based rights organization. It called on Obama to help secure the release of several jailed lawyers and scholars, including outspoken writer Liu Xiaobo. Chinese police took Liu away Dec. 8, a day before the publication of a document he co-authored calling for more robust civil rights and an end to the Communist Party's political dominance. He has yet to be formally charged.
"Do we want a Reaganesque 'Tear down this wall' speech? It would be a step in the right direction," the group's director John Kusumi wrote, referring to President Ronald Reagan's famous remark in Germany shortly before the Berlin Wall came down in 1989.
Beijing activist Qi Zhiyong, who was crippled by gunfire during the June 4, 1989 military crackdown on democracy protesters in Tiananmen square, said Wednesday he was planning a different kind of statement. Qi said he will go to police headquarters in Beijing on Friday to protest Obama's visit because the trip will likely result in him being put under house arrest.
Chinese authorities routinely round up dissidents ahead of politically sensitive anniversaries such as June 4 or when foreign dignitaries visit to prevent them from demonstrating or meeting with foreign delegations.
"His arrival is a great inconvenience for many of us activists and petitioners and other people because we will end up waiting for it while under house arrest or being detained and locked up," said Qi.