Are liberty and the right to intellectual freedom – including free speech – on “the right side of history”? I’m increasingly unsure how the Obama administration would answer that question. I’m even a little unsure how the American public would answer it. The latest and most disturbing case in point is the handling of the situation with Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, who was escorted out of the US embassy in Beijing this week and left in the hands of the Chinese authorities.
Chen, who is blind, was transported to the US embassy on 22 April by well-wishers in China, barely escaping pursuit by authorities. To secure his departure from the embassy compound, the US agreed to a deal with China by which Chen and his family, who have been tortured and subjected to a brutal form of house arrest for seven years, would be allowed to live, undetained, near a university where Chen could pursue academic studies. No information has been released as to how the features of that deal would be verified.
Chen reportedly made the decision to leave the embassy when he was told by American personnel that his wife would be beaten by authorities if he did not give himself up. Chen is in a Chinese hospital, in an extremely vulnerable position, and has been making appeals through the foreign media for help for him and his family. He has now officially requested asylum of the United States.
Embassies do not make a practice of publicly spiriting asylum-seekers out of host nations, although the embassies of a number of nations, including the US, have quietly assisted over the years in getting asylum-seekers to safety. During the Cold War, there were official procedures for handling the issue in US embassies and consulates. Nevertheless, in a publicized case inside the country the dissident seeks to leave, the embassy will not, during normal peacetime relations, take him out of the country by force majeure.
What the embassy can do, however, is offer refuge to the dissident. The grounds of the US embassy, anywhere in the world, are sovereign US territory. And what the United States can do is put pressure not on the dissident, but on the dictatorial communist government, to allow Chen and his family to be reunited, and to travel abroad if that’s what they want to do. Such pressure is more effective when the US has the dissident in safety, and is clearly going to withstand any pressure to give him back to a government that has been torturing and imprisoning him for his beliefs.
The US can put a spotlight on the dissident’s plight, and ensure that the world is watching anything the communist authorities do to his family. More than that, the president can make it a personal priority to see the dissident released into a safe situation – abroad, if necessary or desired – and a promising future.
How do we know a president and his embassies can do this? Because it’s what was done by two presidents – Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan – for two Russian Pentecostal Christian families in the former Soviet Union.
On 27 July, 1978, two Pentecostal families from Chernogorsk, in Siberia, burst into the US embassy in Moscow, seeking American help to leave the country. They had been attempting to emigrate from the USSR for as much as 20 years (in the case of one of their number), which had resulted only in more assiduous oppression by the Soviet authorities.
Of President Carter, we may say that he did at least the minimum by allowing the Pentecostals to remain in the embassy (where they eventually lived for five years). There is an interesting echo of the accounts of embassy pressure on Chen in this exchange in October 1978 between Carter and the press (view it here in the papers of the Carter administration):
Q. Mr. President, a family of Russian Pentecostals, the Vaschenkos, are seeking asylum and are lodged in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. They said in letters that have been smuggled out that the embassy is bringing subtle, emotional pressure to expel them into the hands of the Russians, probably at great risk. Did you direct the embassy to seek their ouster, or are you willing to give them asylum and visas?
The President. They are Russian citizens, as you know, and have been in the embassy in the Soviet Union, in Moscow, the American Embassy, for months. We have provided them a place to stay. We provided them a room to live in, even though this is not a residence with normal quarters for them. I would presume that they have no reason to smuggle out correspondence to this country since they have the embassy officials’ ability to transmit messages. I have not directed the embassy to discharge them from the embassy, no.
Reagan had a more proactive approach, one remembered and affirmed by others in later years. His concern for those suffering persecution in the communist world was genuine and passionate. Kiron Skinner wrote about Reagan’s intervention with Soviet authorities – including direct appeals to Leonid Brezhnev and Yuri Andropov – in his 2007 book Turning Points in Ending the Cold War. (See excerpts from pp. 103-4 here.) According to Skinner:
By the summer of 1983, at the height of the Cold War chill, Reagan and Andropov had privately worked out the details of the Pentecostals’ release from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and the families were allowed to leave the country. As Secretary [of State George] Schultz writes in his memoir, “This was the first successful negotiation with the Soviets in the Reagan administration.” Schultz further notes, “Reagan’s own role in it had been crucial.”
Skinner recounts further the release of well-known dissident Natan Sharansky in 1986 (then known, before his emigration to Israel, as Anatoly Scharansky), as well as Reagan’s advocacy for the Pentecostals and the army of intellectual dissidents in the Soviet Union on his radio program in the 1970s.
Jimmy Carter may have sounded grudging about his government’s support to the Pentecostals, but he was president in a time when Americans did not doubt that communist governments were brutally oppressive, and that helping their embattled citizens, however diplomatically discordant it might be, was simply the right thing to do. We were prepared at different levels of government to deal with the possibility, because we knew what state collectivism was, and we knew that people would seek help to get away from it.
The preparedness was not universal, of course. A Soviet sailor who leaped from his freighter – twice – as it sat pierside in a Louisiana port in 1985, hoped to obtain asylum in the US, but was turned back over to his Soviet superiors by two US Border Patrol agents. (The freighter was loading grain, which the US was selling the USSR to relieve the suffering of the Soviet people, incident to their 67th annual crop failure since the 1917 revolution.) The State Department became involved only after the sailor had been handed back over to the ship’s master, and although the interpreter who conveyed his wishes to the Border Patrol agents had been clear that Miroslav Medvid was seeking asylum, Time described what followed in this manner:
When the State Department belatedly learned of the incident 13 hours afterward, it persuaded Soviet officials to let Medvid be interviewed. He was examined and questioned by State Department representatives as well as by the Navy doctor and Air Force psychiatrist, both of whom concluded that he was not under the influence of drugs and was competent to decide what he wanted to do. While his ship’s skipper, its doctor and two Soviet diplomats watched, Medvid insisted that he had merely fallen overboard and had no intention of deserting.
The psychiatrist, however, said the evidence showed that Medvid had jumped “purposefully from his ship” and that when he was returned to it, he “probably felt very afraid of the consequences and very much trapped in a corner.” The Soviets apparently threatened to retaliate against the sailor’s family at home, and he became “rather guilty at having jeopardized their safety,” the psychiatrist theorized. The State Department ruled that he could not be held against his expressed wishes and let him return to the Konev.
There are parallels with the Chen situation in just about every previous instance of refuge-seeking by the oppressed from communist nations. Of all the arms of the US government that ought still to be attuned to the likelihood of these cases, the US embassy in Beijing would seem to be at the top of the list. The key difference today appears to be the basic posture of the US government. As regards China specifically, we should not pin that exclusively on the Obama administration. There has very much been an attitude for the last 20 years that, with the Cold War over, it is outdated to see China through the human-rights lens of the Cold War.
When China proves clearly just how apposite that Cold War lens still is, it may be that a US administration is caught flat-footed. The “tactical” particulars of the situation – Chen’s unexpected arrival at the embassy, the publicity, and his family’s peril in the hands of the Chinese authorities – meant that the embassy could not easily pursue a quiet plan to help his whole family leave the country.
But that is the sort of tactically inconvenient situation that is likely to arise with people in great trouble. If we don’t see China, from a strategic perspective, as a source of such situations, we won’t be operationally prepared for them.
Once they do happen, a US administration has discretion over how it responds, and on that head, the Obama administration deserves criticism. The whole world knows the peril Chen and his family are in. The right approach here is not to seek a “solution” that gets the governments of China and the US off the hook; it’s to stand by Chen and demand that he be treated with the respect for his rights understood in the Helsinki Accords. While China is not a signatory to the Accords, their standard for freedom, travel and emigration, and reunification of families is the touchstone to be invoked in this instance.
If we do not believe that, enough to stand up for it when it is inconvenient to our other diplomatic plans, then there was little point in winning the Cold War. Indeed, if our fear of angering China is greater than our commitment to the freedoms Chen Guangcheng is relying on us to defend, then we didn’t win the Cold War after all.