Party convention speeches are often viewed as launching pads for careers in U.S. presidential politics. And this year’s virtual events have featured no shortage of rising stars. Wednesday night’s Republican lineup even featured an intriguing possibility for Chinese presidential politics—assuming the people of China are ever allowed to choose their leaders.
Chen Guangcheng was among China’s most prominent critics of the regime’s barbaric population control measures, which for decades included enforcement of a one-child-per-family limit with forced abortions and other horrors. Blinded during childhood, Mr. Chen became a self-taught lawyer who demanded to know why the Communist Party habitually violated its own laws. On Wednesday night Mr. Chen said:
When I spoke out against China’s “one child” policy and other injustices, I was persecuted, beaten, and put under house arrest by the government.
In April, 2012, I escaped and was given shelter in the American embassy in Beijing. I am forever grateful to the American people for welcoming me and my family to the United States where we are now free.
The Chinese Communist Party is an enemy of humanity. It is terrorizing its own people and it is threatening the well-being of the world.
In China, expressing beliefs or ideas not approved by the CCP—religion, democracy, human rights—can lead to prison. The nation lives under mass surveillance and censorship.
No doubt the speech didn’t go over real well among the men who rule China. Some in the U.S. media are also annoyed that even though Mr. Chen escaped to America during the Obama administration, he criticized Obama-Biden “appeasement” of China on Wednesday night. Mr. Chen went even further. “We need to support, vote, and fight for President Trump,” said the human rights activist, “for the sake of the world.”
A fascinating 2015 interview with the Journal’s Josh Chin provides a little perspective on why Mr. Chen is so grateful to the American people but not especially to the people who were running our government at the time of his escape. The Journal’s questions are in bold in the following excerpt:
What about when you escaped house arrest in Dongshigu, after you broke your leg falling from the wall near your house. What were you thinking then?
Right after I injured my leg it was tough. It was just me facing all that surveillance, all those thugs running around, this entire authoritarian system. I thought, “Why did heaven take one of my legs away at this moment?” But there was no way for me to go back. I could only go forward, I had to succeed. I thought maybe this process was heaven making me atone for all my sins, and that after this there would be no more atonement. I rarely think about giving up as an option.
You made it to Beijing, and after some negotiation and a car chase, you got it into the U.S. embassy. You write that once you arrived, the U.S. government kept changing its position. What kind of impact did that experience have on your view of the U.S.?
When I first got to the embassy, they were very, very good to me. You could tell the staff members were all excited. They thought they were doing something important and right. But not too long after I arrived, there was meeting, I think in the White House, and that’s when things started to change. After another meeting three days later, the situation completely switched and the new order was to get me out of the embassy as quickly as possible to avoid have a bad influence on relations with the Communist Party. Prior to that I believed deeply and without question in the U.S. as a defender of democracy and human rights. Of course, afterwards I realized politicians don’t always think from the standpoint of the people. But if you look around the world, even though the U.S. is sometimes weak in the face of dictators, it’s still the best defender of freedom there is.
In your book, you write that U.S. officials cared too much about giving China face. Do you think the U.S. is too quick to believe in the concept of face?
I think they’ve been fooled. I told officials inside the embassy, “If the Communist Party didn’t want to lose face, it wouldn’t do so many awful things.” All this talk about face is a trick to manipulate foreign governments—or put it another way, it gives Western government officials an excuse when they need to go back home and explain things to their own people. Maybe the U.S. realized that face was meaningless at the time, but they didn’t want to anger the party. What can you do? Just pretend that the fake is what’s real.
Eventually, after difficult negotiations, Mr. Chen was able to flee with his immediate family, though the relatives he left behind have been abused by the regime. Here in the U.S. the episode raises an intriguing question. While conservatives may deride the U.S. government’s permanent bureaucrats as the “Deep State,” it appears that in this case the career staff at the State Department may have helped the political leadership of the Obama administration resist the temptation to abandon a Chinese dissident.