As the diplomatic storm over Chen Guangcheng, the blind Chinese lawyer who escaped house arrest and made his way 300 miles to the US Embassy, dominated the headlines, a New York Times op-ed explained a key aspect of the situation:
Our consistent support of dissidents during the cold war played a key role in the collapse of Communism, and American officials must keep this history and our values in mind as they struggle with each case. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton got it right when she sought a solution to the Chen incident “that reflected his choices and our values.” That must never change. [emphasis added]
The Times is correct in reminding us that our support for people who protested against communist tyranny helped bring the Cold War to a successful conclusion. It does our long-term future no good to have significant portions of the world's population living in bondage to lawless, gangster-like regimes. That's why it's in our interest to urge the Chinese government as strongly as possible to respect what we call "human rights" and they call "intolerable interference in domestic affairs."
Hillary's statement that she sought a solution “that reflected his choices and our values” is an excellent sound bite, but the Clintons' record of respect for human rights isn't stellar. After all, shortly after accepting the position of Secretary of State, Hillary declared that human rights had to take a back seat to economic interests. She implied that human rights are all very well when you're rich enough to afford them, but when times are hard, out the window they go.
Hillary Clinton's coldblooded analysis couldn't be more wrong. Indeed, it's not only morally wrong, but economically wrong as well.
We have no moral interest in letting millions continue to live under tyranny, and it does our economic interests no good for billions to live in poverty, either. Poor people have nothing to lose and are much more willing to be led into war than people who're firmly in the middle class.
The Germans elected Adolf Hitler when their economy was in tatters, because they thought they'd already lost everything they had to lose and anything different was worth a try. Unlike Mr. Obama, Hitler actually was able to fix the economy and create jobs for all; if he'd left it at that, he probably would have gone down in history as an authoritarian, but highly effective leader honored by many, somewhat like Juan Peron or Francisco Franco. Unfortunately for the world and for Germans most of all, Hitler's program of national expansion vastly overwhelmed any temporary good he might have done.
We do not want China to stay mired in poverty; Deng's opening of the Chinese economy was in everybody's best interest. We also do not want China to remain enslaved by Communist tyranny any more than we wanted that fate for the Russians, Eastern Europeans, Vietnamese, Koreans, or anybody else.
What we want is for China to become wealthy enough that its citizens won't want to go to war - much as Europe can't seriously be imagined taking part in a major war because their citizens have lives too cushy to give up. We also want Chinese human and political rights to be institutionalized deeply enough that the leadership can't easily drag the nation into war against its better judgment, as has happened more than a few times throughout history. These things take time; institutions change gradually over generations, so it's essential that China's growth in wealth and freedom continue unchecked for at least another few decades.
Hillary wasn't the first Clinton to unwisely minimize the importance of human rights in China. In describing the experiences of Weo Jingsheng, who spent 14 years in jail for promoting Chinese freedom, the Times reminded us that we can't trust promises made by the Chinese government.
As the International Olympic Committee was about to vote on China's failed bid to host the 2000 Summer Olympics, President Clinton was trying to de-link China's right to trade with the US from human rights. At that time, US law required that in order to trade with the US on favorable terms, China had to be making progress in this area. Given the importance of the US market, the Chinese government had to at least seem to be easing up on protesters.
President Clinton sought to persuade Congress to de-link human rights and trade by making China’s most-favored-nation trade status (now called permanent-normal-trade-relations, or PNTR) permanent. With Congress deadlocked on the issue, Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher set up a meeting with Mr. Jingsheng in Beijing to discuss the matter.
When the Chinese government learned about it, they "persuaded" Mr. Jingsheng to cancel the meeting. Although the government released a few of his friends from jail, he and his fellow dissidents were locked up again as soon as the US changed the law and separated China's right to trade with us from progress on human rights. As Mr. Jingsheng put it:
In my time, the Communist Party kept its promise for as long as one year because human rights were directly linked with trade. Now that such international pressure does not exist, the party no longer feels the need to keep its word. The Chinese leadership does not fear the United States government; it only fears the loss of its power.
Mr. Clinton may have believed he'd gotten a good deal for the US. As our most ardent booster of opening up the China trade, he gave a press conference on March 29, 2000. He said that granting China permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) by allowing China into the WTO, would be a great deal for America:
We do nothing. They have to lower tariffs. They open up telecommunications for investment. They allow us to sell cars made in America in China at much lower tariffs. They allow us to put our own distributorships there. They allow us to put our own parts there. We don't have to transfer technology or do joint manufacturing in China any more. This is a hundred-to-nothing deal for America when it comes to the economic consequences.
Mr. Clinton promised that granting PNTR to China would "increase U.S. jobs and reduce our trade deficit," but it hasn't worked out that way. Our trade deficit with China surged from $83 billion in 2000 to $227 billion in 2009. We lost more than one-third of all our manufacturing jobs even though our consumption of consumer goods increased. Not only that, most American manufacturers are forced to set up joint ventures with Chinese competitors who learn as much of our technology as they can by any means, legal or illegal. The Chinese took Pres. Clinton to the cleaners as the Japanese outwitted President Reagan.
Who knows? If we;d continued to hold their economic feet to the fire, the Chinese might have opened up a bit more and we'd owe them a lot less money.
The Economist summed up the Chinese government's problem rather neatly:
Now [after several decades of stellar economic progress], a slowing economy, corruption, rural anger, and urban freedoms all mean that the party is under pressure to enforce the rule of law—especially in order to curtail the impunity of local officials. ...
The dilemma is that although the party needs the law to govern, it cannot submit to the law without losing power and giving up privileges. At the moment the party still wants to have it both ways.
Chinese elites aren't the only ones who're suspicious of letting ordinary people have influence over their own lives. Hillary was upset when we peasants threw her wonderful Hillarycare plan back in her face. Nancy Pelosi said we'd have to let them pass Obamacare to find out what was in it. It was Hillary who said that human rights in China would take a back seat to economic interests and argued that parents couldn't raise children without government help.
President Obama isn't all that respectful of the law either. His task forced closed far more Republican car dealers than Democrats during the GM and Chrysler bankruptcies. His minions took money that should have gone to senior creditors and gave it to the UAW who'd supported his election campaign. He's threatening to bring down the wrath of regulatory agencies on people who donate to the Romney campaign. He has his own Nixon-style enemies list, just as the Chinese rulers have their lists of people whom they wish would sit down, shut up, and follow the orders of their betters.
We're tempted to believe that liberals are soft on human rights because they don't really believe that ordinary people are smart enough to take care of themselves. Back when American stood firmly behind the cause of human rights, people referred to America as the "shining city on the hill." What now? Our liberal leaders are turning us into a nation of government dependents and letting go of the cause of human rights because economics is more important. Isn't that what Democrats accuse Republicans of doing in domestic politics? Cutting away the social safety net?
That's precisely what Democrats are doing to freedom lovers all 'round the world. We let Iran squash the young people who protested their stolen election. We're letting Syria kill the people who'd prefer a bit of freedom to living under Assad's dictatorship. What happened to our shining city? We've let the liberals destroy it in the name of "fairness."