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Neglecting the Dissidents

When Barack Obama travels to China next month, it’s unlikely he’ll mention the plight of Guo Quan, a pro-democracy dissident sentenced to 10 years in a Chinese prison last Friday.

Thus far, the administration has diplomatically neglected the issue of human rights, as Joshua Muravchik noted in our July/August issue and as Jennifer Rubin addressed earlier today. By toning down the human rights/democracy talk, the White House has felt free to discuss, albeit often ineffectively, collective security, economics, and global warming — higher-priority topics from the administration’s perspective. Obama’s handling of the Dalai Lama is just one example of this shuffling of priorities. Every other president since 1991 has met with the Dalai Lama when he has visited Washington, but Obama did not, apparently to please Beijing.

If there’s one thing the president grasps, it’s how much issues like human rights and democracy rattle China. A 2007 open letter to President Hu Jintao advocating democracy cost Guo his teaching job at the Nanjing Normal University. But losing his job and income didn’t deter him. Guo continued to write and speak out against the single-party government. So he was arrested last November — as the Associated Press reported — just after he had dropped his son off at school.

Guo was charged with “subversion of state power,” punishable by up to life in prison. Guo stood firm, using even his August trial to repeat his calls for Chinese democracy. According to the Epoch Times, he said:

I have written many articles to express my views openly. My intention is to call for a system where multiple parties compete for election. I did not call for the subversion of the nation. I have never found any legal documents that state that calling for a multi-party system is subversion. … There does not exist any legal document that prohibits Chinese citizens from organizing democratic parties.

And so the sentence rolled in — 10 years.

Guo’s case is certainly not unique. China is full of imprisoned dissidents. The world is full of them.

Obama has yet to fully appreciate that Americans have always expected their foreign policy to include a moral component. In fact, the moral aspect usually complements other foreign-policy goals. Issues like human rights or democracy can’t remain unmentioned without a very pressing reason. If a president must delay addressing them, he had better provide good justification fast. Otherwise, Americans will begin to reject the policy and question the administration implementing it. (Take, for instance, how the enhanced interrogation of Guantanamo detainees itched the collective conscience. Or how even when fighting a murderous enemy, Americans want to avoid bloodshed if possible.)

Americans might forgive Obama’s reticence on human rights and democracy if his biggest policy goals are met relatively promptly — for example, if he could persuade North Korea or Iran to yield all nuclear weapons voluntarily, to moderate themselves, and to bound toward the U.S. with unclenched fists.

But so far Obama has yet to accomplish anything of significance with the policy he’s labeled “realist.” And if he doesn’t succeed in meeting his foreign-policy objectives soon, Americans will begin to grow impatient with unaddressed human-rights issues. The president would do well to consider this, especially if he has any doubt about delivering on his other foreign-policy goals during his time in China.


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