Speak Out for Li Shaomin

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Speak Out for Li Shaomin July 1, 2001

Frank Monaldo

It was over ten years ago in 1989 when a valiant young man stood alone in front of a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square in an act of protest. The photograph of the incident has become an apt metaphor of the fundamental conflict in China: the intransigent independence of the individual resisting the crushing dominance of the state. Since that time, Chinese military power, influence, and economic strength have grown, but there has not been a commensurate improvement in political and personal freedom in China.

What made the protest at Tiananmen more poignant for Americans is that the Chinese protestors embraced American symbols as well as ideals in their protest. We have grown accustomed to American flags burned in anger usually by puppets of regimes or other groups run by thugs. The site of paper mache reproductions of the Statue of Liberty reminded Americans of the liberty they enjoy.

A short time after the protests at Tiananmen Square had been ruthlessly squashed, George Bush the elder sent high-level Administration officials to mend bridges with the Chinese government. Americans were rightly upset at this capitulation to Chinese tyranny.

Bush did not want Chinese repression to alter long-term trade and diplomatic relationships with the United States. Diplomacy can work in ways that are not readily apparent to those more concerned with principle than tact. If the private rapprochement had resulted in concessions by the Chinese government that loosened its grip over the private lives of the Chinese, we might be able to say that diplomacy succeeded. Success could justify private diplomacy.

However, rather than learning that internal repression has consequences, the Chinese government learned the virtue of patience. Let things settle down and in the long run the Americans will be so obsessed with the prospect of lucrative commerce that not only will there be no trade restrictions, but Americans will not even make serious vocal complaints. Indeed, if you are sufficiently persistent you might even be able to find an American politician for whom illegal campaign contributions can purchase acquiescence.

George W. Bush has in many ways learned from the mistakes of his father. Where his father was aloof, George W. is avuncular and gregarious. However, George W. has inherited much of his father’s foreign policy apparatus. Although that foreign policy team was successful in its prosecution of the Gulf War, they never found a permanent formula for dealing with China. George W. and may be fated to repeat the same mistakes with respect to China.

As this is written, an American EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft brought down by a hot dog Chinese fighter pilot over international waters, is still being held illegally by the Chinese government bent on extracting the maximum embarrassment. Even if you dismiss the aircraft incident as unfortunate and accidental that is only about a little bit of hardware, consider the plight of Li Shaomin. Li was born in China 45 years ago. Li’s father was a Communist Party member imprisoned for his support of protestors at Tiananmen Square. The elder Li was dismissed from the Party and for a time jailed. Cognizant of the restrictions imposed on Chinese citizens, Li Shaomin decided to become an American citizen in 1995. Li is a distinguished academic earning a Ph.D. from Princeton University and a faculty position at Hong Kong University.

The Chinese security apparatus detained Li while he visited a friend in the Chinese mainland. Despite official and unofficial inquiries, the Chinese government has refused to release Li or provide satisfactory information about this American citizen. The Chinese government has accused Li of espionage. Chinese due process allows him a lawyer, but Li has not been allowed to meet with his attorney.

It is the obligation of the State Department to protect Americans abroad and they do not appear to have done so in this case. Perhaps the State Department, in the words of David Tell of the Weekly Standard, is exercising “an expert enterprise so exquisitely subtle that untutored civilians are very often unable to distinguish it from simple appeasement of Beijing’s Communist rulers.”

Any administration has a positive obligation to speak publicly and forcibly on behalf of human rights around the world and certainly for Americans abroad. We do not even have to impose economic sanctions to make our voice heard. Forget about really painful potential reprisals like revocation of most favored nation status for China. This Administration has not even been willing to oppose the staging of the 2008 Olympics in China. The Chinese will inevitably try to exploit the sports event for its propaganda value in much the same way that Nazi Germany exploited the 1936 Olympics. Even a president as weak and ineffectual as Jimmy Carter was able to muster the courage to have the US boycott the Moscow Olympics. This Administration says it is neutral on the possibility of a Chinese Olympics. George W. must either speak out or provide clear evidence that behind the scenes exhortations are reaping unequivocal changes in Chinese behavior. As Dr. Laura would say, “Now go do the right thing.”

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