An open plea: Xi and Obama can accomplish one thing

Dear President Xi and President Obama,

You will both have received many public and private letters of advice prior to your meeting on Friday and Saturday in California. They will urge you to take up specific issues ranging from military and trade concerns to human rights. That diversity of concern is an indicator of how complex the relationships between your two countries are. They lend themselves to no easy solutions, and it is doubtful there will be immediate, radical change when you and your teams conclude the talks. 

Rather than add our voice to those calling for wide, fundamental reforms on either side, the Committee to Protect Journalists would like to make a much smaller request: One concrete result that could come out of your meetings is the release of a self-taught Tibetan filmmaker, Dhondup Wangchen, who has been jailed since March 2008 for making “Leaving Fear Behind,” a documentary portraying the lives of ordinary Tibetans.

He is due for release in early 2014, but his wife Lhamo Tso is deeply concerned about her husband’s state of health. He is currently being held in a labor prison in Qinghai. Lhamo Tso says he is in a wretched state of health, with hepatitis, symptoms of eye pain, and headaches which sound like migraine. He is battling depression, too.

Though he has been featured in several campaigns for media freedom and human rights outside of China, Dhondup is a relatively low-level figure. He and his wife are not radical separatists. In making his film, Dhondup sought only to portray the hardships of ethnic Tibetans living in Tibet. He hoped for a peaceful future between all the people of China.

Lhamo Tso was recently granted asylum in the United States. Their four children–two boys 18 and 16, two girls 14 and 12–are in Dharamsala, India, with family members. The children appear on track to be allowed to join their mother, though the process can be lengthy. Lhamo Tso meanwhile is camped out with two other families in a small apartment in San Francisco, lobbying to get her family back together. Because he is under close supervision when he receives visitors, she says Dhondup has not been directly asked if he wants to seek asylum in the United States. But she is convinced he does.

President Obama, you are familiar with the sort of person Dhondup Wangchen is from your days as a neighborhood community organizer. He is a man who wants only to improve the conditions under which his neighbors and his family live. In the midst of your high-level talks, asking President Xi for Dhondup’s early release would be an honorable extension of how your political career started, with the concerns of the welfare of individual citizens at the forefront.

President Xi, you know of people like Dhondup Wangchen from your days as a Party member on the factory floor in Shaanxi province during the Cultural Revolution. At the time, you were separated from your father, who had been sent to work in a factory in far-away Henan. Recall that pain when you consider the request to reunite this man and his family.

For the presidents of China and the United States, agreeing to the early release of Dhondup Wangchen from prison would be a return to your mutual political roots. It would be a small but significant step amid the broader issues you will be tackling when you meet. They will be difficult to resolve, but reuniting a man with his family is well within the powers you share as world leaders.

Follow CPJ Asia’s campaign to release Dhondup Wangchen on Twitter and Facebook.