Opinion Columns & Blogs

Kathleen Parker: U.S. remains a beacon of freedom for others

News that Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng and his family might be allowed to leave China for a university fellowship in the U.S. 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 pressures from the U.S. 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.

Until his harrowing escape, Chen’s plight was relatively unknown to most Americans, though a handful of people have been working for years to free this man known simply as a “Chinese dissident.”

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 Joe Biden rather famously said he understood China’s one-child policy and wouldn’t “second-guess” it.

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” 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 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 should care what happens to Chen because if we don’t, who will?

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