A “no vacancy” sign has been posted on the gates of the US Embassy and its consulates in China. Two high profile Chinese individuals seeking political asylum – one a blind
dissident, the other a government official fearing for his life — have been turned away in recent months. Washington has shamefully placed its economic jitters above the principles upon which the land of the free and home of the brave was founded.
Sure, a deal has been brokered to allow blind human rights activist Chen Guangcheng to leave China to study in the US, if he chooses. But before that deal was cut, US Embassy officials drove Chen, who had been at the Embassy for six days, to a local hospital and left him there alone to obtain treatment for a leg that had been injured during his daring escape from house arrest and a 500 km journey to find sanctuary in Beijing. Chen later contacted friends who posted to social media sites that he feared for his life in the absence of the US officials.
The other would-be asylum seeker turned away by the US government in recent months was Wang Lijun, the Chongqing chief of police. In February, fearing for his life, Wang had driven some 300 kilometres from Chongqing to the US consulate in Chengdu to ask for political asylum. Wang supposedly had information to trade about his boss, the now deposed Chongqing Communist Party Secretary-General Bo Xi Lai.
He had been investigating Bo’s wife Gu Kailai, a high-profile international lawyer, for possible involvement in the murder of one of her business partners, a British national, Neil Heywood. After spending a night in the US consulate, Wang left the next morning and surrendered to the police who had surrounded the consulate. He hasn’t been heard of since but is said to be enjoying “resort-style treatment” in Beijing.
While the US claims it did not force or try to persuade the two men to leave, it is unlikely that either would have left of his own volition. It seems more likely that they entered the darkness of the Chinese legal system because their families had been threatened.
Three factors probably influenced the US attitude towards the two fugitives.
The first was diplomacy. Just before Chen’s unannounced arrival, Mrs Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner arrived for the Sino-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue. A messy diplomatic quarrel would have spoiled important negotiations on geopolitical and trade issues. Persuading Chen and Wang not to defect would have been a high priority for the Obama Administration. Washington may have achieved several wins in those talks (eg, promises to further open its automotive insurance sector to foreign investment and to allow greater foreign investment into its stocks and bonds) because US diplomats had shoved the two incidents off the agenda.
The second factor is money. Growing commercial links make it increasingly difficult for Washington to give Beijing lectures on human rights. China is now the US’s largest trading partner. Additionally China is one of the largest holders of US treasury bonds –US$1.1 trillion. Neither of the troublemakers affected US strategic interests. Wang was a relatively lowly official and Chen was a mere human rights campaigner. America had nothing to gain and much to lose by protecting them.
The third factor is cynical pragmatism. America wants to deter other people from scaling the gates of its missions in China. Until now, many Chinese regarded the US as the only nation which would stand up to their authoritarian government. By turning Wang and Chen out into the cold, Washington has sent a powerful signal that there is no room in the inn. Defectors and dissidents have been scratched from the invitation list which was once extended to the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”.
Times have changed. Back in the days of the Cold War, defectors and dissidents from the Soviet Union were welcomed. But in the 1980s the fight was ideological and the Soviet Union was an expansionist power. China, despite its socialist rhetoric, is not an ideologically driven expansionist power. It does not seek to impose its political and economic structure on the rest of the world the way the USSR did. Nowadays State Department apparatchiks are reluctant to risk trade and security ties over a few unknown dissidents.
While it is likely that Republican candidate for president, Mitt Romney, will exploit this incident in his campaign, don’t expect him to behave differently. Ronald Reagan negotiated the release of the famous refusenik Anatoly Scharansky from the Soviet gulag. But those days are over. As President, Romney would be lobbied by the foreign policy establishment against “rash actions” which would jeopardise American trade.
But they forget that cynicism jeopardises something more important, America’s honour. People like Chen Guangcheng speak truth to power. Their ideals of democracy, freedom and human rights resonate with the American people. By ignoring dissidents in China – and in other nations suffering under oppressive regimes – isn’t America in danger of repudiating the ideals of its founding fathers? Secretary Clinton and President Obama talk the talk of human rights but they don’t walk the walk.
The US is looking like a nation with double standards. Allies in Asia must be wondering whether it will support them if they are threatened by China. Although the US held joint naval exercises with the Philippines last month to demonstrate its solidarity against China’s claims to islands in the South China Sea, the treaty between the US and the Philippines is so vaguely worded that there is no guarantee that American warships will come to Manila’s aid in a real conflict. A fair weather friend is not what the region needs as China continues to increase its military budget year-after-year to further enhance the world’s largest standing military force.
America’s treatment of Chen shows that it is no longer Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill”, a beacon to freedom. It is time for America to stand up for its principles again. To do this at a time when so much is at stake commercially will take true courage. America needs a president made of sterner stuff than Barack Obama.
Constance Kong is the pen name of a Shanghai-based business consultant.