LOS ANGELES — Gov. Gavin Newsom is facing pressure to help free a Californian imprisoned in China when he travels there next week.
David Lin, a 67-year-old pastor from Orange County, has been behind bars since 2006, when he was arrested and given a life sentence for whatthe U.S. government says are bogus charges of contract fraud. His daughter, Alice Lin, said she hopes Newsom will press Chinese officials to release Lin.
Newsom should “raise my father’s case by name as well as the names of other wrongfully detained Americans,” she said in an exclusive interview. “We do not want my dad to be forgotten.”
So far, the Democratic governor has signaled a near-laser focus on climate change for his weeklong trip, which includes stops in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing as well as a reception with U.S. Ambassador Nicholas Burns, who met with Lin and two other American detainees earlier this year.
Newsom’s reluctance to raise human rights and the case of a constituent unjustly jailed in a Beijing prison may help smooth his meetings with Chinese officials. But it will likely spark criticism from China hawks on Capitol Hill who are pushing the Biden administration to take a harder line with Beijing for such abuses. It also threatens to overshadow a trip Newsom hopes will bolster California’s reputation as a leader in the global clean energy economy and build his foreign policy experience for a potential White House bid in 2028.
Newsom should “advocate for the American citizens, lawful permanent residents and political prisoners unjustly detained by China,” said Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), chair of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China. “They cannot be forgotten — and every American official who visits China must demand they be freed.”
Newsom officials declined to respond to a query about Lin and referred POLITICO to the State Department. Neither the White House nor the State Department responded to queries about whether they had briefed Newsom’s team on the administration’s China priorities or whether they considered human rights and unjustly jailed U.S. citizens to be strictly federal issues. However, the governor’s team has been in direct communication with the White House and the Biden administration has signed off on the trip.
A Newsom aide signaled this week that issues like Lin’s case weren’t part of the governor’s priorities.
“The trip is predominantly focused on climate,” spokesperson Erin Mellon told reporters Tuesday in response to a question on whether human rights were on Newsom’s trip agenda. “We are obviously a state, so I think we look to our federal partners on federal issues.”
Beijing has no problem with that narrow agenda. The Chinese government hopes Newsom’s trip “will produce good results and bolster California’s exchanges and cooperation with China,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning told reporters on Thursday.
Religious freedom organizations including ChinaAid say Chinese authorities targeted Lin because of his efforts to build a place of worship foran unofficial “house church” forbidden under Chinese law. He is scheduled to be released in 2029 following several reductions of his sentence.
Lin’s family said they worry Newsom’s disinterest may condemn Lin — who’ll be 68 next month — to die behind bars due to failing health. His release date “is too far off — I honestly don’t know if he will be able to make it until then,” Alice Lin said.
Alice Lin isn’t the only Californian urging Newsom to speak up for her dad. Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.), whose district includes Lin’s Orange County home, “supports Governor Newsom doing what he can to bring David home to his family,” a Porter spokesperson, Peter Opitz, said in a statement.
Linis one of three Americans imprisoned in China whom the State Department’s office of the special presidential envoy on hostage affairs (SPEHA) has designated as “wrongful detainees.” The designation authorizes Roger Carstens, the special envoy, to seek their release. SPEHA didn’t respond to a request for comment on the status of the Biden administration’s efforts to free Lin or the other two detainees, Kai Li and Mark Swidan.
A failure by Newsom to raise Lin’s case will likely surprise his hosts, one human-rights advocate said. “Chinese officials I work with expect him to raise cases of arbitrarily detained Americans — to do otherwise would be shameful and disqualifying,” said John Kamm, founder of the Dui Hua Foundation, which advocates for the release of victims of unjust jailing in China.
Newsom also plans to tour several renewable energy facilities, including an electric bus depot, an offshore wind factory and a Tesla vehicle manufacturing plant. Tesla’s China-based operations have been linked to components sourced in the Xinjiang region, where Chinese officials are known to use forced labor from Muslim Uyghurs.
Media coverage of that Tesla tour — and Newsom’s preference for a narrative of win-win China-California climate ties — will sustain criticism from human rights advocates and attacks from political opponents long after he returns to Sacramento.
“That’s the danger of domestic politicians trying to pad their résumés and stepping into trouble before they actually get to the campaign,” said Samuel Chu, president of the nonprofit advocacy group The Campaign for Hong Kong.