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Ashley Rindsberg

Ashley Rindsberg

Posted March 18, 2009 | 03:21 PM (EST)

China's Top Dissident Breaks Silence on Freeman


Wei Jingsheng, the leading anti-PRC dissident who spent two decades as a political prisoner in China, recently came out to voice disapproval of the selection of Chas Freeman for the position of National Intelligence Council chair. Mr. Freeman withdrew from the appointment last week, in part because of criticism he received from Chinese dissidents over his seat on the advisory board of China's third-largest oil company and statements he made concerning the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and China's violent suppression of Tibetan demonstrations in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics last year.

In an exclusive statement, Mr. Wei commented that "due to conflict of interest, Mr. Freeman cannot make a normal and fair judgment on the related major issues when it is related to China. Yet, for President Obama to nominate this person in not just unsuitable to the Chinese, but also for the non-Chinese. Even for a non-Chinese [perspective], it is not reasonable to name a person who could not objectively make reasonable judgments on issues, especially if the person is expected to assist and thus affect the President's judgment. That could have very dangerous results."

While Mr. Freeman withdrew from the position appointment, a controversy regarding the circumstances of the withdrawal has erupted, especially on account of an outgoing statement made by Mr. Freeman, published in Foreign Policy magazine, in which Freeman assigned blame for his withdrawal on a "Lobby" of pro-Israel activists.

Commentators and newspaper editorials have fallen on both sides of the issue since Mr. Freeman's exit, with the Washington Post calling Mr. Freeman's statements a "screed", while other newspapers, including The New York Times, seemed to vindicate Freeman's allegation that he was the victim of a political witch hunt led by supporters of Israel.

However, one critical issue that has been pushed out of the public discussion since Mr. Freeman's exit is the China issue. Just weeks after Freeman's appointment was leaked to the media, a group of 87 Chinese dissidents, including a number of pro-democracy activists who were present at the infamous 1989 Tiananmen Square protests where up to 3,000 demonstrators were killed by Chinese troops, wrote a letter to President Obama protesting Mr. Freeman's appointment.

The Washington Times reported that the group of 87 were alarmed by comments Mr. Freeman made in the past concerning China. Specifically, Freeman asserted that the Chinese government's brutal suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations were a "monument to overly cautious behavior on the part of the leadership, not as an example of rash action." Freeman also drew fire for calling China's violent suppression of demonstrations by Tibetan monks in advance of the Beijing Olympics a "race riot."

Freeman also came under fire by both Chinese human rights activists and members of congress from both parties for his paid position on the advisory board of the Chinese oil and gas corporation CNOOC, which has ties with Iran's Islamist regime and attempted a 2006 takeover of American oil company Unocal.

Wei Jingsheng's statements come at a time when the debate about Freeman has turned towards focusing on President Obama's policies on Mideast peace. Many maintain that Freeman's "realist" worldview and experience as US ambassador to Saudi Arabia supplied him with the analytical skills required for the crucial national intelligence position, especially as the success of the peace process in the Middle East has emerged as a centerpiece of the Obama administration's foreign policy approach.

However, Mr. Wei has expressed caution on this view, at least as far as Charles Freeman is concerned, saying, "Mideast issues and China issues will be the major difficult issues for Obama in dealing with foreign affairs during his presidency. Yet, he nominated a person who could not make a good judgment exactly on these two issues, does this means that President Obama made compromises with someone?"

Mr. Wei has long been identified by the West as the spearhead of contemporary Chinese dissent. Once called "China's most prominent dissident" by The New York Times Wei has also widely been seen as the "Chinese Nelson Mandela." Mr. Wei was an unusually vocal and unabashed critic of the Chinese regime, a role he took on after publicly criticizing Deng Xiaoping, the leader of the Communist Party of China and China's main power-holder between the late 1970s and early 1990s.

Mr. Wei was also one of the most prominent writers on Democracy Wall, a long brick wall in a Beijing district which democracy activists used to post "truth to power" news and commentary on large paper sheets. Mr. Wei has held teaching posts at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and was hailed by famed New York Times' columnist William Safire as one of three "heroic dissidents" alongside Soviet dissidents Natan Sharansky and Andrei Sakharov.

Wei also spoke out against the Chinese government's treatment of Tibetan monks in the weeks and months before the 2008 Summer Olympics.

Like many international observers, Mr. Wei sees China and the Mideast as two hinges for the success or failure of Mr. Obama's presidency. "If Obama makes mistakes on Mideast and China issues in the next four years," Mr. Wei noted, "he will basically destroy all his effort on the economic front. As a friend to the Americans, we the Chinese democracy advocates of course are very sensitive on these issues and thus [on] the nomination of Freeman."