The Magazine

Charter of Democracy

Will the dissidents in Beijing ever get the support their Soviet counterparts did?

Jan 26, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 18 • By ELLEN BORK
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America's relationship with the People's Republic of China has followed a different path. From the beginning, Washington has viewed its relationship with Beijing as a counterweight to the Soviet Union. A Cold War accommodation led Washington to subordinate democracy and human rights to other interests. "What is important is not a nation's internal political philosophy," Richard Nixon told Mao in 1972. "What is important is its policy toward the rest of the world and toward us." Dissidents and their causes were largely ignored. Even Ronald Reagan referred to the PRC as "this so-called communist country," a "shrewd formulation" according to writer James Mann, that "deflected attention from the unchanged nature of China's political system and enabled Reagan to keep on denouncing political repression in the Soviet Union while saying virtually nothing about similar conduct in China."

None of this was lost on Chinese dissidents, who felt neglected while the free world took up the cause of their Soviet counterparts. Their frustration mounted as they watched the Soviet Union dissolve and U.S. policy toward China remain unchanged. In 1990, Fang Lizhi, the dissident physicist sometimes called the "Chinese Sakharov," went into exile. A mentor to student democracy protesters, Fang had taken refuge in the American embassy on the night of the Tiananmen massacre one year before. Upon his arrival in the West, Fang criticized the West for its "double standard" toward human rights in China. Fang, now a professor at the University of Arizona, is one of the overseas signers of Charter 08, along with the writers Ha Jin and Zheng Yi.

Twenty years later--long after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Velvet Revolution that made Václav Havel president of Czechoslovakia--the effects of this double standard are still being felt. U.S. "engagement" policy depends on rationalizing Chinese repression. American officials engage in bogus human rights dialogues and delude themselves that China's Communist leaders will see political reform as "in their interest." The end of Mao-era mass repression is taken for progress, yet the methods have simply changed, becoming more sophisticated and often subtler, with cooptation and incentives giving way when necessary to coercion and brutality.

Before the Gdánsk strike of 1980, Polish activists were near despair. "[W]e felt we were at the end of the road," Zbygniew Bujak later told Havel's translator, Paul Wilson.

We had been speaking on the shop floor, talking to people, participating in public meetings, trying to speak the truth about the factory, the country, and politics. There came a moment when people thought we were crazy. Why were we doing this? Why were we taking such risks? .  .  . Then came the essay by Havel. Reading it gave us the theoretical underpinnings for our activity. It maintained our spirits; we did not give up. .  .  . When I look at the victories of Solidarity and Charter 77, I see in them an astonishing fulfillment of the prophecies and knowledge contained in Havel's essay.

Havel wrote that the power of the truth depends not only on "those who already live within it," but also "on the soldiers of the enemy, as it were--that is to say, on everyone who is living within the lie and who may be struck at any moment (in theory, at least) by the force of truth." The fear of such power caused the Soviets to expel Solzhenitsyn, Havel wrote, "in a desperate attempt to plug up the dreadful wellspring of truth, a truth which might .  .  . one day produce political debacles unpredictable in their consequences."

The same fear has led PRC authorities to exile dissidents like Fang Lizhi, Wei Jingsheng, and Wang Dan and imprison tens of thousands of others. Now they have begun to move against Liu, Xiaobo, and other signers of Charter 08. Much as Soviet and Eastern European dissidents undermined détente as the basis for U.S.-Soviet relations, so do Chinese dissidents threaten the logic of American policies toward Beijing. It remains to be seen if their efforts will also become "important to the free world."

Ellen Bork works on human rights at Freedom House.