The news that Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng and his family might be allowed to leave China for a university fellowship in the United States brought relief not only to Chen but also to dissidents around the world.
It also may have put a smidgeon of crow in the mouths of critics who perhaps protested too much too soon.
Then again, maybe not. The outcry over how the State Department initially handled Chen’s dramatic escape from house arrest to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing ultimately may have helped persuade Chinese officials to concede to amped-up pressure from the United States. Whatever the case, the Obama administration and, in particular, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seem to have prevailed under difficult circumstances.
If all goes according to plan, they not only may have saved Chen’s life but also will have invigorated the spirits and convictions of others around the world who still look to the United States as a beacon of freedom and protector of human rights. This result, assuming no further glitches, was not always apparent, least of all to Chen and his family.
Until his harrowing escape several days ago, Chen’s plight was unknown to most Americans, though a handful of people have been working for years to free this man known simply as a “Chinese dissident.”
Those words don’t resonate much in the United States, where dissidence is a national pastime and China, despite its role as our banker, is . . . over there. Furthermore, protesters are just so much landscape in this country — an azalea here, a protester there. We consider political activism to be not just a birthright but a necessary prod to elected officialdom.
Chen’s dissidence was both dangerous and of the highest moral order. Despite years in prison and regular beatings, he persisted in documenting forced abortion under China’s one-child policy. Although blind, Chen was unable to avert his gaze from the abomination of women being forced to submit to abortions even in the latest term of their pregnancies. Sometimes only the blind can see.
And sometimes nations prefer not to look. While in China last year, Vice President Biden rather famously said he understood China’s one-child policy and wouldn’t “second-guess” it.
Our reasoning, to the extent that any share Biden’s view, deserves closer scrutiny. Perhaps we feel it is none of our business. And, of course, China has a population problem, doesn’t it?
A dozen inhumane “solutions” suggest themselves unbidden. I once asked a pro-life activist what China’s remedy should be and she said: “I don’t know, but I know we can do better than tearing babies from their mother’s wombs.”
China’s central government insists that the one-child policy is no longer enforced, but in the provincial regions, things happen. We know this because of Chen’s relentless bravery. But, really, why should we care? On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Friday, regular guest Donny Deutsch said that Chen’s plight has little relevance to everyday Americans. Others on the panel lambasted Mitt Romney for criticizing the Obama administration’s handling of the situation.
Harsh political critiques are probably best reserved for less sensitive moments. On the other hand, what we do know about the State Department’s handling of Chen’s detention, escape and subsequent hospitalization — where he reportedly was abandoned by all but Chinese guards — is troubling. It appeared either that we were naive or that our leaders lacked moral clarity.
U.S. officials contended that Chen left the embassy of his own volition to seek medical treatment, but Chen said his decision was based on incomplete information. He told CNN that, after he escaped, his wife was tied to a chair in their home for two days. Guards carrying sticks moved into their house and threatened to beat her to death.
As the BBC’s Michael Bristow wrote from Beijing, “Mr. Chen came out of the U.S. Embassy thinking his safety had been assured — but it is hard to escape the conclusion that he is already in detention.”
Matters were complicated, obviously, by the then-pending U.S.-China summit. Apparently, discussions to which reporters and others were not privy have led to a satisfactory diplomatic solution.
As to whether Chen’s plight should be the concern of everyday Americans, the answer is clear. Americans are noisy for all the right reasons, and the cacophony of protest from our shores to theirs can’t have hurt. Americans should care what happens to Chen because, if not us, then who?