There are two truths about the US that come clearly to the fore in the current diplomatic blow-up between the US and China over the case of people’s lawyer Chen Guangcheng, though neither is really getting stated in the corporate media coverage of the story.
The first is that the US does not, and has not really ever, cared about the issue of human rights abuses in China, and the second is that the Obama administration, including the supposedly “tough” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, doesn’t know squat about how to negotiate — not when it comes to dealing with Republicans in Congress, and certainly not when it comes to China.
In the case of human rights in China, it is certainly true that the US has helped certain brave democracy advocates in China, like the astrophysicist Fang Lizhi who was a mentor to many of the Tian An Men activists of 1989 and who was holed up in the US embassy for three weeks before a deal was cut to get him out of the country, or several of the Tian An Men activists who were spirited out of the country with the help of the CIA following the government’s bloody June 4, 1989 crackdown on the movement. But the motivation behind these actions of support at the time by the US government, which was headed by first Ronald Reagan and then George H. W. Bush — two men notoriously not noted for their concern about human rights in the Third World, as witness their support for the death-squads of El Salvador or the murderous Contras in Nicaragua–was not promoting or defending freedom in China. It was undermining the government of China — a far different thing.
Now we have something arguably worse: an administration so focussed on helping US corporations invest in and reap profits from China, where they are eager to ship millions of US jobs, that they are ready to sell out any brave Chinese activist who might try to turn to America for help under the mistaken belief that the U.S. actually takes its oft touted ideals of freedom and promoting democracy seriously.
When the blind self-taught lawyer Chen made his brave dash for freedom from his house imprisonment in rural Shandong Province, leaving behind his wife and two children, he naively believed that the US Embassy and State Department would stand firm in his defense, helping him to win some justice in his own country, where he hoped to stay and continue to use the law to help establish freedom and the rule of law. He naively believed that the US would stand firmly in defense of not only him but of his very vulnerable family.
Poor Chen should have paid attention to the statements of Secretary of State Clinton, who days after his escape from home confinement was due to arrive with banker’s hack Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to talk business with China, and to try and win Chinese diplomatic support for American action against North Korea and Iran, two allies of China.
Back in February 2009, on an earlier visit to China, Clinton had told Chinese officials and reporters that while the US would “continue to press” China on human rights, as well as the issues of Tibet and Taiwan, these things would not be allowed to get in the way of what she called the more pressing and immediate priorities. As she put it, “Our pressing on those issues can’t interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crisis.”
Having lived in China for several years and reported on China for six years both inside the country and from Hong Kong and Taiwan, I can assure readers that when Chinese authorities heard that, they immediately stopped worrying about further interference from the US over their ongoing often brutal crackdown on democracy activists and public demands for more freedom inside China.
Chen would have fared much better had he fled not to the US Embassy, but to the Norwegian or New Zealand Embassies, or perhaps the French Embassy, or maybe even the Bolivian Embassy–in other words to embassies of countries that were more likely to take seriously their own rhetoric about freedom.
Not only is the US these days viewed in China as a paper tiger, its vast military might spread thin around the globe and demonstrably unable to even defeat poorly armed peasants in one of the world’s poorest countries, Afghanistan. China also knows that the US is financially in the toilet and hangs on only because China has continued to prop up the dollar and support its use as the global currency.
Give this situation, with China holding most of the cards, the last thing Clinton and the Obama administration should have ever done, from a purely practical point of view, was to telegraph that it would not seriously press the one issue that does cause the Chinese ruling elite to lose sleep at night, and that is the powderkeg that is the long-repressed Chinese people.
China’s leaders, as corrupt a bunch as one could find anywhere on the globe, have watched tyrants fall around the world with great alarm. It’s well known that most, if not all of them have shipped vast amounts of their ill-gotten gains abroad to banks in America, Switzerland and elsewhere — the main reason why the government has moved quickly to crush rising political power Bo Xilai, whose astonishing corruption and foreign assets were exposed because of the murder, allegedly by his wife, of a British national. Most Chinese leaders have also, like Bo, sent children abroad where many, including even a son of the late Deng Xiaoping, have borne children with foreign, often US citizenship, who could act as safe havens for them if and when the end finally comes. These leaders have been pumping up the Chinese economy for years, knowing that only so long as they can keep incomes rising, or at least stable, can they hope to cling to power and hold the sullen masses at bay.
The real threat to Chinese leaders is a tsunami of public demands for freedom. That then, it should be clear, is the ace in the hole for US negotiators, and Clinton, like Obama with his concessions on Medicare and Social Security, or on bank regulation, or on health reform, or on the initial economic stimulus plan, gave it all away before she started to bargain!
Chen’s fate was sealed before he entered the US Embassy.
If he manages to escape China with his long-suffering wife and kids, it will not be because of the Americans, who already sold him down the river for the lure of Chinese profits. It will because Chinese authorities decide they have more to gain in the court of world and domestic opinion by releasing “on humanitarian grounds,” a figure who actually is not that well known in any case among Chinese people, than they do from imprisoning him further and making a martyr of him domestically and abroad.