Last week, the New York Times finally ran a piece on a story that had been circulation around the Internet for months. A woman purchasing a package of Halloween decorations at a K-Mart in Oregon found a letter in English placed there by one of the workers who had made the product. It said the following:
“Sir: If you occasionally buy this product, please kindly resend this letter to the World Human Right Organization,” said the note, which was tucked between two ersatz tombstones and fell out when the woman, Julie Keith, opened the box in her living room last October. “Thousands people here who are under the persicution [sic] of the Chinese Communist Party Government will thank and remember you forever.”
Ms. Keith was profoundly affected by this shocking message—whose author was recently found—but knew nothing about the situation in the Laogai, the Chinese gulag where “re-education through labor” subjects hundreds of thousands if not many millions of Chinese criminals as well as religious believers and political dissidents to horrific conditions as well as torture and death. So do most Americans. But the really awful truth about the American view of China is that even those who know or ought to know what is going on there simply don’t care. Five days after the Times ran the story about the inmate’s letter, it published a piece about New York University’s decision to push out a prominent Chinese dissident for fear that his continued presence on campus would harm the school’s close financial relationship with Beijing. Just as any hope of abolishing these camps is made impossible by the fact that the Chinese police profit from the suffering of their inmates, so, too, American institutions and businesses are compromised by their financial ties to an evil system.
Chen Guangcheng had his 15 minutes of fame when then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton persuaded the Chinese government to allow the blind lawyer to leave the country. Chen was a forceful critic of the country’s despotic one-child policies that have involved forced abortions and was given a law fellowship at NYU, but he was recently told to leave and vacate the apartment the university gave him in Greenwich Village. NYU claims it has done nothing wrong and treated Chen with generosity, but the school’s interest in disassociating itself from the dissident’s forceful criticism of China’s Communist rulers is clear. Like many American colleges, NYU is opening a Chinese campus and doesn’t want to pick fights with Beijing.
Chen said the following in a statement:
“The work of the Chinese Communists within academic circles in the United States is far greater than what people imagine, and some scholars have no option but to hold themselves back,” Mr. Chen said. “Academic independence and academic freedom in the United States are being greatly threatened by a totalitarian regime.”
According to NYU, Chen’s fellowship simply expired and it was time for him to move on to other opportunities. But even if that were true, the university’s well publicized generosity to scholars that it considers academic stars—including loans and fabulous vacation homes in the Hamptons—makes their eviction notice to a man who might be considered an academic luminary if education about human rights was a priority seem slightly suspicious.
But the problem here isn’t so much NYU’s hypocrisy or whether Chen simply has had a misunderstanding with the school. With the American economy inextricably tied to that of China via an astronomical debt and trade imbalance and with U.S. consumers and industries addicted to the cheap goods produced in Chinese sweatshops or in concentration camps, there is no constituency behind protests aimed at highlighting abuses there.
China is not quite the totalitarian nightmare that it was under Mao as free enterprise has blossomed there, but neither is it remotely free. Political and religious freedom doesn’t exist there. Nor can private property truly be safe in a system where there is no rule of law. For all the talk about the lunacy in North Korea and other tyrannical nations, the scale of human rights abuses in the world’s most populous country dwarfs anything happening anywhere else.
Americans should be ashamed that they don’t know that the cheap stuff they purchase in stores here is paid for in the blood of suffering dissidents and religious believers. Where once mass movements pushed for change in the Soviet Union and even South Africa, people like Chen find themselves stranded in a free country that isn’t interested in what is going on in China. If they lash out in despair at this lamentable situation, who can blame them?