Sixty-eight-year-old Congressman Chris Smith stood in the desert with the sun blazing down on his head and a strong wind blowing dust through his short gray hair.
Behind him towers a silver monument consisting of the Arabic numerals “six” and “four. To his right is an isometric sculpture inspired by the famous “Tank Man” photo.
“Every year we commemorate the Tiananmen Massacre and pay tribute to the dead and wounded,” Smith said into the microphone with his hand on the podium, his voice intermittent in the wind from the loudspeaker.
Forty degrees Celsius heat, he shed his suit jacket, light blue shirt sleeves rolled up to the elbow, dark blue tie is still tightly tied collar. In front of him stood one or two hundred representatives of pro-democracy activists, local governments and legislators from across the United States. At the back of the crowd fluttered several white flags with the words “Restoration of Hong Kong, Revolution of the Times” on a black background, and Hong Kong activists were also present.
“Because they had and still have noble dreams, and because the victims did not get justice,” he continued.
The rally to commemorate the 32nd anniversary of the June 4 massacre in Tiananmen Square was held at Freedom Sculpture Park in California’s Mojave Desert, and included a number of figures from the pro-democracy movement, such as Wei Jingsheng, known as the “father of the pro-democracy movement,” Wang Dan, a Tiananmen student leader, and the Reverend Fu Xiqiu, a religious freedom activist.
Chris Smith was one of the few non-Chinese attendees at the event. The U.S. Congressman from New Jersey has been a vocal critic of the human rights situation in China for decades. Whether relations between the U.S. and China are tense or de-escalating, he has never stopped denouncing the Chinese authorities’ oppression of religious freedom and forced abortions, and has consistently introduced or co-sponsored bills in the House of Representatives to that effect. In the Chinese official media, he is an “anti-China veteran. To pro-democracy activists, he is “a real old friend of the Chinese people.
Rethinking the relationship between trade and human rights
At a time when there is a bipartisan consensus in Congress to get tough on China, Smith remains one of the most active legislators on China.
“We need to rethink the relationship between trade and human rights,” he told Voice of America. “The people of China are suffering, and every year it gets worse. Look at what Xi Jinping and the others have done to Hong Kong, to the Uighurs, to the Tibetans, to the Han Chinese, everywhere. We need to say, enough is enough. Xi Jinping is the worst human rights violator in the world, and we need to hold him accountable. The trade issue can help.”
Last September, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Uyghur Forced Labor Disclosure Act (FLDA) and the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (FLPA), which Smith co-sponsored, respectively, both of which Both bills require companies with U.S. operations to certify that the goods they produce in Xinjiang do not involve forced labor.
In recent years, the U.S. political establishment has increasingly endorsed trade as a counterweight to China’s human rights abuses, and for decades after China’s economic opening in 1978, the dominant view in the United States and other Western countries was that trade with China and its inclusion in the global trading system would promote China’s democratization. Even after Tiananmen Square, the United States did not remove China’s most favored nation status for trade.
The rapid deterioration of China’s human rights situation after Chinese leader Xi Jinping came to power has made many scholars and politicians in the Western world realize that the theory that economic development leads to democratization does not apply to China.
But for Smith, who has followed China as a congressman since the 1980s, trade and human rights should never be decoupled. He told Voice of America that he praised former Democratic President Bill Clinton when he announced in 1993 that China’s most-favored-nation status needed to be conditioned on improving human rights.
“All of us, and I’m a Republican, applauded President Clinton for sticking to his principles,” Smith said.
Just a year later, however, former President Clinton announced that he was removing that condition in favor of pressuring China in other ways, such as increasing international broadcasts to China, putting Chinese human rights issues on the international multilateral agenda and supporting Chinese non-governmental organizations.
“I think the turning point in everything was May 26, 1994, when Bill Clinton decoupled human rights from trade,” Smith said.
That same day, Smith held a special press conference for that purpose.
In footage preserved by the U.S. public service channel C-SPAN, Smith, dressed in a black suit, striped shirt and brown hair, stood at the lectern and sounded slightly agitated. He denounced Clinton’s decision while highlighting the forced labor situation that exists in Chinese prisons.
“We have every reason to believe that our marketplace is receiving these goods made by prisoners of conscience, by religious prisoners, by ordinary prisoners,” he said. “As we know, Human Rights Watch and other organizations have documented that many prisoners are incarcerated simply because they voiced their support for democracy during the Tiananmen Square massacre.”
Smith has never believed that trade would bring democracy to China. More than two decades later, he finds his fears constantly borne out.
“There was this false narrative pattern that when Clinton removed human rights requirements under MFN, many, many business people immediately acted and said if you do more trade they’ll move from dictatorship to democracy,” he recalls, “and I said, wait a minute. There’s been no examples of that in the past, and it’s not going to happen (in China). They’re going to continue to build their military capabilities, their ability to spy on their own people, and take down the human rights movement within the entire country.”
“I hate to say this,” he concluded, “but I do get it right.”
More than 40 years in politics focused on international human rights issues
Smith was born in Rahway, N.J., in 1953 and is a devout Catholic. After receiving a degree in business management from the College of New Jersey (NJ), he studied for a semester in England. Upon his return, he worked as a sales director for a family-owned sporting goods company.
In 1978, at age 25, Smith ran for Congress for the first time as a Republican, but lost big to Democratic Congressman Frank Thompson, who was seeking re-election. Two years later, he challenged Thompson again and was successfully elected, becoming one of the youngest members of the House.
Soon after taking office, Smith took on international human rights issues. Besides the Soviet Union and Romania, he said he was most concerned about China.
“There are too many people who turn a deaf ear to the atrocities of the Chinese Communist Party,” he says, “and I introduced my first amendment to that in ’83 or ’84, targeting China’s forced abortion policy.”
For 41 years, Smith has served continuously in congressional foreign affairs, including as a senior member of the House Foriegn Affairs Committee, co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, and twice as chairman of the U.S. Congressional and The Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC).
In fact, most of the congressional bodies Smith has served on or led have been related to international human rights issues. On domestic issues, his concerns include combating human trafficking, addressing diseases such as autism and AIDS, and the well-being of veterans.
As a conservative on the political spectrum, Smith is staunchly opposed to abortion, both in the United States and in China.
But unlike many of his fellow Republicans, he supports stricter gun control measures. He was one of the few Republicans to vote in favor of the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2021, introduced by Democrats and passed in the House of Representatives this past March.
In a day when the Republican Party remains under the enormous influence of former President Trump, Smith seems to be maintaining his independence by comparison.
On January 6, after former President Trump continued to make false allegations of massive fraud in the 2020 presidential election, Smith joined a handful of members of the Republican Party who voted to certify then-Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s victory. He also supported the creation of a congressional select committee to investigate the congressional shakedown involving some Trump supporters that day.
For four years prior to that, Smith could not claim to be a strong Trump supporter either. Smith highly agrees with the Trump administration’s hard-line approach to China, but he disagrees with the White House on domestic issues.
According to data collected by the political statistics website “538,” Smith and Trump have shared the same attitude on only 65 percent of all bills voted on in Congress over the past four years, ranking third from the bottom among Republicans. In Trump’s first two years in office, the figure was 80 percent, while in the latter two years, the two reached consensus on only 51 percent of the bills.
Smith’s differences with the former president were mainly on taxes, gun control, the death penalty, labor, and environmental issues. Smith opposes tax cuts, supports stricter gun control measures, favors reducing the death penalty, and calls for greater labor and environmental protections. But the two are relatively consistent on their opposition to abortion, border security, support for police, non-expansion of voting rights, and opposition to LGBTQ sexual minority rights. Smith’s stance on same-sex marriage rights issues had been criticized by opponents.
However, in the eyes of pro-democracy activists from China, Smith’s efforts on human rights in China year after year are uncontroversial.
Former Tiananmen protest student Fang Zheng came to the United States in 2009, and Smith was one of the first members of Congress he met.
“In that moment, I identified Congressman Smith as a staunch friend of ours. A staunch, American congressman who confronts the Chinese Communist dictatorship and defends human rights and democracy in China,” he told Voice of America at an appreciation and campaign fundraising breakfast for Smith hosted by several pro-democracy groups.
“I think the most important thing is that his strong voice, his many, many meaningful proposals have had a significant impact in the U.S. Congress and an international impact,” he continued, “so it’s been very instrumental in the promotion of human rights protection and democracy throughout our China. .”
Jin Xiuhong of the Democratic China Front, who also attended the fundraising rally and has been involved in pro-democracy activism for more than three decades, told Voice of America that supporting anti-communist U.S. political candidates to win elections or re-election should be one of the top priorities of the overseas pro-democracy movement. For her, Smith is exactly the kind of politician who needs to be supported.
The most senior activist at the fundraising rally was Wei Jingsheng, who was one of the first Chinese pro-democracy activists to participate in the “Democracy Wall Movement” in Beijing in 1978, posting large-character posters and promoting the idea of democracy. For this reason, he is known as the “father of the pro-democracy movement”.
After arriving in the United States in the late 1990s, Wei continued to engage in pro-democracy activities, but he found that the American political establishment at the time was generally more soft on China.
“At the beginning of this century, for a decade or so, there was no one in Congress to talk about human rights in China, and there were only three people who organized hearings and invited me to go,” he told Voice of America, “one was Congressman Wolf, who had retired, one was Congressman Smith, and then there was Congressman Pelosi. “
Frank Wolf, a former federal congressman from Virginia. Nancy Pelosi currently serves as speaker of the House of Representatives and continues to strongly attack China on human rights issues.
Wei said Pelosi and Smith are recognized leaders in Congress on China’s human rights issues and have lost political donations from some business people who want to be friendly to China as a result.
“That kind of blow is very deadly, and they’ve persevered for decades while taking that blow,” he added. “So they truly are old friends of the Chinese people.”
Smith maintains closer working ties with Chinese dissidents abroad, including religious freedom activist Fu Xiqiu. The Rev. Fu Xiqiu served as Smith’s interpreter throughout this year’s June 4 commemoration and at a fundraising breakfast the next day, and Smith was one of the leaders in rescuing blind Shandong lawyer Chen Guangcheng from coming to the U.S. in 2012.
Today’s U.S. Congress is highly bipartisan on human rights issues in China. But just a few years ago, Smith said Congress was hesitant on related issues.
“I introduced the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act in 2014,” he told Voice of America, “and the Umbrella Movement was going on there at the time, and we met with a number of people We met with some people and we thought Xi Jinping’s rule would be a disaster. I couldn’t get the members of Congress to allow the House to vote on this bill until (Hong Kong) had gone into full crisis mode.”
Smith has been on the Chinese authorities’ sanctions list twice in a row in the last year and has been called an “anti-China veteran” by the official media for being vocal on Hong Kong and Xinjiang issues.
“It probably made me more determined,” he said of the sanctions. He revealed that back in 2006, a congressional technician told him that the computers in his office had been hacked by hackers from Beijing.
“But frankly, I’m not backing down,” he continued, “and the actions they took against me are nothing compared to what Hong Kong, China, Xinjiang, Tibet and all the Chinese people face day in and day out.”