You have to marvel at the bizarre media circus triggered by the zany tale of “human rights activist” Chen Guangcheng. Chen’s saga began fantastically, evolved strangely, and continues as a hypocritical argument between Republicans and Democrats over who is the real friend of human rights.
Media accounts are vague on what earned Chen the mantle of “human rights advocate.” Some point to his opposition many years ago to the campaign in the Peoples’ Republic of China to limit population growth by urging families to birth only one child. There is also agreement that Chen was convicted and served four years in prison and was under home detention until the night of April 22.
On that night, according to Chen’s friends and repeated by the US officials, Chen escaped from his detention, scaled at least eight walls, and wandered around for 20 hours until he hooked up with a fellow dissident who drove him a considerable distance to an ultimate rendezvous with officials from the US embassy in Beijing. This feat is all the more remarkable because the media reports that Chen is blind. US news outlets hailed this accomplishment without any incredulity. Nor did they suggest that there was any connection between the “escape,” the resulting furor, and the beginning of high-level US-PRC talks scheduled to begin 10 days later. For the happily gullible US media these steps were mere happenstance.
After his arrival, confusion reigned. No one could quite figure out what Chen wanted, including US embassy officials. According to The Wall Street Journal, US officials found him “self absorbed.” They remarked how it “feels like the guy is unfairly attacking the US.” What began as another opportunity to show the PRC’s insensitivity to human rights was quickly dissolving into a fiasco.
At different times Chen insisted on talking by phone with PRC Premier Wen, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, and Representatives Chris Smith and Nancy Pelosi in the US. For days, US embassy personnel chatted with Chen about his wishes. At the same time, he called friends in the PRC and the US to discuss his options. PRC officials calmly dialogued with the embassy—no doubt bemused by the increasing impatience of the US officials.
After six days, US officials believed they had determined Chen’s intention. He wanted to stay in the PRC, but with the caveat that he be admitted to law school in his native province. Despite his lack of a formal education, PRC officials quickly granted his wish. But wait: first, he wanted to be reunited with his family. Again, officials granted his wish, whisking his family to Beijing on a fast train.
Thinking the “incident” had been resolved, embassy officials drove Chen to a Beijing hospital to be treated for minor injuries. Overnight, he changed his mind again and demanded he be sent to the US to take advantage of a visiting scholar offer tendered by Jerome Cohen of NYU. He alluded to vague threats by PRC authorities that were denied by embassy officials. Finally, the Chen “human rights” struggle was capped off by a remote open mike dialogue with the US House of Representatives where he surprised House members with the revelation of his forthcoming journey to the US. By the way, Chen has since announced that he reserves the right to return to China when his US R&R is completed. Human rights indeed!
One obvious lesson of the Chen episode is that there is an avenue for convicted criminals to extort a law degree or a trip overseas if he or she plays the cards right, though I would not recommend that anyone try this in the US.
But the more serious lesson is for the myriad human rights groups in the US and Europe. Their ready acquiescence to “causes” that coincide with the interests of their respective ruling classes casts a shadow on their body of work. The critical observer cannot help but notice the coalescing of many human rights campaigns with the foreign policy objectives of the US and its NATO allies.
It’s an old story, beginning in the Cold War with a noticeable tendency for the most prominent rights groups to find human rights violations in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, but curiously overlooking the ravages of anti-Communism in the US. But after the Helsinki Accords of 1975, the human rights provision (though no other element) became an anchor for US and European foreign policy. Millions of dollars were directed towards Western human rights organizations and NGOs that compromised any objectivity for the routine payoff. Human rights pressure intensified on the Socialist countries while waning in the West. Of course some groups and activists were merely gullible; they inherited blindness to repression and oppression in their beloved backyard while bearing a nativist distrust of things foreign or different; cultural ignorance and disrespect of differences always exacerbated the blunders of human rights campaigners. And imperialists were quick to exploit these weaknesses.
In recent history, the irresponsibility of human rights activists has contributed to the dismemberment of Yugoslavia and the demonization of countries seeking an independent path from that chosen by the US and its allies, countries such as Cuba, the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea, the PRC, Venezuela, Iran, Libya, and Syria. Some groups seem to have forgotten the other nine points of the Helsinki Accord.
This institutionalization of human rights organizations, along with their penetration by governmental agencies, has challenged their credibility. The obscene campaign against Libya has resulted in civilian deaths and the brutal rule of bandits and racists. And the current campaign against the Syrian government brings frequent bombings by opponents and a great loss of civilian lives. Surely some human rights advocates owe us an accounting.
As The Colombia Journalism Review reports, the recent Mike Daisey account of workplace abuses in the PRC went viral after paradoxically appearing on This American Life (They show little interest in American workplace abuse). Eight hundred and eighty-eight thousand downloads followed. Consequently, Change.org, the ubiquitous on-line petition campaigner, solicited 256,425 signatures opposing this alleged abuse.
But Daisey’s account was a fraud, laden with inaccuracies and spurious charges. Consequently, This American Life retracted the Daisey episode. Yet only 486 people signed a petition urging the withdrawal of the Change.org petition. The damage was done. The stain remains.
We deserve better human rights advocates: less obsequiousness and gullibility, more responsibility and seriousness.