After listening to Teng, the idea that some clever diplomacy can win a more generous response from Chinese hard-liners seems wishful thinking. The patterns in this crisis are the same ones we saw when outside governments tried to hold China to its promises on human rights during the Olympics: mixed messages, reneging on supposed understandings and an emphasis on projecting power at any cost.
Australian journalist Geremie Barmé has written: “To be a friend of China, the foreigner is often expected to stomach unpalatable situations, and keep silent in the face of egregious behavior. A friend of China might enjoy the privilege of offering the occasional word of caution in private; in the public arena he or she is expected to have the good sense and courtesy to be ‘objective.’ That is to toe the line, whatever that happens to be. The concept of ‘friendship’ thus degenerates into little more than an effective tool for emotional blackmail and enforced complicity.”
China’s lawyers face a different kind of blackmail: the threat of having a wife or mother tied to a chair and beaten. Yet somehow they manage to do what no diplomat has: insistently challenge the state to stop breaking its own laws. “This regime is built on lies,” Teng said. I asked what sustains him in the face of mercilessness and deceit. He replied by quoting Vaclav Havel’s “The Power of Powerlessness.” Teng, Chen and their colleagues revere the example of Havel, the prisoner who became president of Czechoslovakia, and study his writings. Such as, “Those that say individuals are not capable of changing anything are only looking for excuses.” Or this from “Disturbing the Peace,” which seems a fitting description of the recent efforts of Chen and his friends:
“When a person tries to act in accordance with his conscience, when he tries to speak the truth, when he tries to behave like a citizen, even in conditions where citizenship is degraded, it won’t necessarily lead anywhere, but it might,” Havel wrote. “There’s one thing, however that will never lead anywhere, and that is speculating that such behavior will lead somewhere.”