On Human Rights Day, 2008, then President-elect Barack Obama penned these words:
When the United States stands up for human rights . . . we align ourselves with men and women around the world who struggle for the right to speak their minds, to choose their leaders, and to be treated with dignity and respect.
On Inauguration Day, 2009, he said:
To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.
Fine words, all of them.
But now that Chinese human rights activist Chen Guangcheng has effected a daring escape from house arrest, the President’s mouthpiece, chief counterterrorism advisor John Brennan, is striking a much more pragmatic note. Asked yesterday on Fox News Sunday whether the U.S. might hand Chen over to Chinese authorities to preserve relations with China, Brennan said:
[T]he president tries to balance our commitment to human rights, making sure that the people throughout the world have the ability to express themselves freely and openly, but also that we can continue to carry out our relationships with key countries overseas. . . . China-U.S. relations is [sic] very important, so we are going to make sure that we do this the appropriate way and that the appropriate balance is struck.
So much for standing up for human rights. Now, when it actually matters, it’s all about balance.
The Wall Street Journal puts its finger on the fence the President is trying to straddle:
Keeping Mr. Chen at a U.S. facility could strain relations with China. Turning over Mr. Chen to Chinese authorities might subject him to harsh punishment, which could be politically damaging to the Obama administration.
But, as The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin points out, standing up for Chen isn’t going to cause China to stop cooperating with us–because they’re not:
The Chinese have blocked action to pressure Bashar al-Assad. The Chinese have done nothing to restrain the North Koreans, who shoot off rockets (however incompetently) without fear of retribution. On Iran, Reuters reports: ‘China is considering sovereign guarantees for its ships to enable the world’s second-biggest oil consumer to continue importing Iranian crude after new EU sanctions come into effect in July, the head of China’s shipowners’ association said.’
Chen, 40, climbed over the back wall of his home a week ago and slipped through rings of guards. (Did I mention he’s blind?) Fellow activist He Peirong picked him up and drove him 370 miles to Beijing. There another activist, Guo Yushan, shuttled him from safe house to safe house. (The New York Times gives details of Chen’s dramatic flight here.)
Both He and Guo have since been arrested, along with Chen’s brother and nephew. Chinese activists fear Chen’s wife, mother and six-year-old daughter may also be in imminent danger.
Hu Jia, who was detained over the weekend for questioning by the Chinese police, is saying this morning that Chen is now in the American Embassy and has met with U.S. Ambassador, and former Washington State governor, Gary Locke.
In 2005, Chen filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of women victimized by China’s brutal and systematic use of forced abortion and sterilization to enforce its One Child Policy. The suit was rejected, and Chen was sentenced to four years in jail. Since his release he has been under house arrest in his village, without either charge or sentence.
In a video released last Friday and addressed to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, Chen describes the repeated beatings he, his wife and mother have received while under house arrest, and calls on Wen to investigate and punish the wrongdoers and ensure the safety of his family.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner leave this evening for the annual U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Beijing. Sure, they’ve been planning to talk about our enormous trade imbalance. But one of the sources of that trade imbalance is China’s human rights deficit.
Chinese activist Dr. Yang Jianli says:
China’s export success is rooted in removing economic and political rights from the vast majority of Chinese citizens and sticking them with poor working conditions, ultra-low wages and the peonage that most Chinese workers experience. . . . Simply put, it is the Chinese political system that creates the economic system and trade imbalances the dialogue seeks to redress.
. . . Repair the rights deficit, and you begin to repair the trade deficit, the trust deficit, the moral deficit and the political deficit.
Is the President going to walk his talk, or throw Chen under the bus in a craven attempt to curry economic favor with thugs and goons? In an election year, that probably depends, sadly, on how long Chen can manage to capture the attention of the notoriously ADD American public.
Please take thirty seconds to sign a petition to the president, asking him to advocate for Chen. And please ask all your friends to sign as well. Let’s encourage the president to follow through on his fine words.