VP Al Gore (Sorta) Supports Human Rights Protest

Michael Stipe signed the letter. Photo by Jay Blakesberg.

On the eve of news that Chinese Paramount leader Deng Xiaoping had passed away,

word arrived that Vice President Al Gore, who is scheduled to visit China this

spring, has responded to an open letter signed by more than a dozen musicians

(Cypress Hill, Michael Stipe, Tom Petty, Beastie Boy Adam Yauch, Flea, Dave

Matthews, Bonnie Raitt, Ben Harper, Rick Rubin, Sheryl Crow and Natalie

Merchant) expressing outrage about the Chinese government's 18-year prison

sentence for musician/ethnomusicologist Ngawang Choephel.

(According to

the letter, Choephel traveled to Tibet in 1995 to realize his dream of

presenting a "cultural document preserving Tibetan arts," to Tibetan spiritual

leader, the Dalai Lama. After two months of filming, he was arrested and

sentenced to 18 years in jail.)

The letter, which was dated February 4,

urged the Vice President to make his visit contingent upon the release of

Choephel, a Fulbright Scholar who "spent a year at Middlebury College studying

ethnomusicology and film making, skills he would use to preserve traditional

Tibetan song and dance."

The Vice President's response:

"The

Administration shares your deep concern about Ngawang Choephel. We have seen no

evidence to support the charges against him. We are following his case closely

and have repeatedly raised our concerns with senior Chinese officials, most

recently in January.

"More broadly, the Administration seeks improvements

in the human rights...



"More broadly, the Administration seeks improvements in

the human rights situation in Tibet. We have urged the Chinese government to

hold serious discussions with the Dalai Lama at an early date and without

preconditions. I have made these points myself to Chinese officials and have

discussed the situation in Tibet with the Dalai Lama. I will continue to press

for improvements in human rights in Tibet.

"I will keep your views in mind

as I make decisions about my trip to China. Please share my response with the

musicians whose letter you forwarded to me."

Maria Ma, a representative for

the Tibetan freedom group the Milarepa Fund, which organized the letter-writing

campaign, told ATN the Vice President's letter is interesting for both what it

does and doesn't state. "What's interesting about the letter," said Ma, "is an

almost hidden thing. Usually, these letters are from the Assistant to the Vice

President, and this one was from the Vice President himself. Also, these kinds

of letters from the administration usually follow the U.S. government's line,

which is that the U.S. only recognizes Tibet as a part of China and that it

recognizes the Dalai Lama as a religious leader, not a political one. This

letter seems to be inferring that the Chinese have direct talks with the Dalai

Lama, which is not the usual routine."

Gore's trip, the dates of which have

not yet been announced, is reportedly to serve as an introductory visit to set

up an upcoming summit meeting between President Clinton and Jiang Zemin, the

Premier of China. Ma says the response was received on February 12 and that the

group is in the process of drafting a follow-up letter that will ask the VP to

elaborate on when he will be making his trip, what is on the agenda and what

the status is of a Senate resolution on Choephel. Ma also said the group is

curious to see what will happen when the U.N. Commission on Human Rights meets

this spring to vote on a resolution that comes up every year condemning China's

human rights record. "China has voted against it in the past and convinced

others to as well and we plan to ask the Vice President what can be done to see

that it gets passed."

Ma also shared a letter Milarepa received from

Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, who thanked her for sending the letter to the

Vice President and said, "Mr. Choephel was a Fulbright Scholar at Middlebury

College in Vermont, and since I first learned of his arrest last year I have

pressed Chinese authorities to release him."

Leahy said he discussed

Choephel's plight with Premier Zemin when he visited China in November and

recently co-sponsored a Senate resolution urging the Chinese government to

release him.

Ma also forwarded a copy of a letter to recently confirmed

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, signed by 16 Senators (including Leahy,

Edward Kennedy, Alfonse D'Amato, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, John Kerry and Joseph

Lieberman) in which the Senators brought the issue to the Secretary's

attention. In the letter, they suggested, "In keeping with the commitment you

made at your confirmation hearing to 'address frankly the violation of

internationally-recognized human rights...whether in Burma, Belgrade or

Beijing,' we ask that you and ranking officials at the State Department speak

out publicly about Mr. Choephel and raise his case in discussions with Chinese

leaders."

As for how Xiaoping's death might positively or negatively effect

China's human rights policies, Ma said it was unclear. "It's hard to say, since

many people feel the transfer of power had taken place a long time

ago.

"People have been anticipating his death for a long time and, if

anything, I think the current Chinese regime, in an effort to show that Deng's

death hasn't weakened China, will be more macho for the next few months as a

warning sign to other nations that they are still a force to be reckoned

with."

Ma also said that a final cut of the movie documenting last summer's

Tibetan Freedom Concert, which featured the Beastie Boys, Rage Against the

Machine, the Smashing Pumpkins and others, will be finished in two weeks. "We

hope to start shopping it in March," said Ma. "And have a 90 minute feature in

theaters by June."