Editorial: Unchain Chen

On the heels of the news about Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, Charlie Brennan on his morning show Monday on KMOX Radio asked a listener, What should the United States have done if Anne Frank had managed to escape from her secret annex in Amsterdam and find her way to the U.S. Embassy? The question brings close to home the issues surrounding how we as Jews and Americans support civil rights and liberties abroad.

Over the weekend, it was reported that Chen, a leading Chinese human rights dissident, who is blind, staged an almost Hollywood-like “Great Escape” from his home imprisonment and managed to find his way to the U.S. Embassy or another diplomatic residence in Beijing. Like other brave human rights activists and dissidents in China, Chen has spoken out repeatedly against the Chinese Communist dictatorship’s brutal practices, which include forced abortions, organ-harvesting and torture.

The news media since Chen’s heroic and daring escape have been reporting that the incident comes at an “especially delicate time” in U.S.-China relations, given the economic and geopolitical issues facing the nations. Should such issues keep us from speaking out against repressive regimes?

Of course not. Historically, the U.S. has stood with human rights activists the world over, including former Philippine President Corazon Aquino and Burmese (Myanmar) Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. In 1956, when Soviet tanks brutally crushed the anti-Communist uprising in Hungary, the U.S. provided years of sanctuary at its Budapest Embassy to the anti-Communist Joseph Cardinal Mindszenty, who ultimately left after the Communist regime collapsed of its own weight when the Iron Curtain fell.

Closer to our own people’s backyard was the support for Natan Sharansky and the Soviet Jewish dissident movement. During the height of that effort, the late Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson teamed up with Rep. Charles Vanik to put forth legislation that created financial consequences for the Soviet Union regime’s policies towards its Jewish citizens who wanted to either live openly as Jews in the USSR or be granted exit visas to start new lives in Israel, the U.S. or elsewhere.

Hard-nosed foreign policy “realists,” like then Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, expressed opposition to the bill lest it “complicate” the relationships he was cultivating with Moscow. Kissinger said he preferred “quiet diplomacy,” which had accomplished precisely nothing in securing the release of the Soviet dissidents. Later, when Kissinger’s successor George Shultz fully and openly backed the Soviet Jews, the floodgates opened and more than one million Jews finally received permission to go to Israel and another 250,000 became New Americans.

Right now President Barack Obama is trying to walk the appropriate line in his dealings with Chinese officials. With Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner about to head to China on a variety of matters, Obama has to find the right tone to express unwavering U.S. support for human rights while ensuring a constructive dialogue.

So far he has taken the tack of encouraging China to pursue a more open and liberal human rights policy without having direct confrontation over Chen. While some might see this as ducking the specific issue at hand, indeed Chen’s fate might be better served by a more behind-the-scenes approach that won’t overtly embarrass the Chinese government, which itself is undergoing the first stages of leadership change at its highest levels. Only time shall tell.

Whatever the tactics engaged by the administration, they must be directed to encourage both Chen’s specific freedom and a society open to constructive and free political dialogue. How we treat those under the fear of political reprisal abroad is indicative of how we will chart the future of such liberties for Americans as well. For the sake of all those repressed around the world, our words must demonstrate a clear and forceful message in favor of an open and tolerant society. To do less under the fig leaf of “delicate diplomacy” would make our own constitutional guarantees ring hollow indeed.