Why Human Rights Can No Longer Be 'Delinked' From Foreign Policy

(A slightly abbreviated version of this article
appeared in the December 1995 issue of the Foreign Service Journal,
a monthly magazine published in Washington, D.C.)

By Robert A. Senser

[I]t was a nightmarish episode of the sort that would never have happened if foreign policy experts ruled the world. But they don't, and it did.

Late on a sunny morning in June, Harry Wu, a naturalized American citizen born in Shanghai, presented his U.S. passport at the remote border crossing at Horgas on the China-Kazakhstan frontier. The facial expression of a clerk checking out his name on a computer screen soon betrayed trouble. After a few minutes of agitated consultations with colleagues, auniformed official asked Wu to step into a restricted area. Thus, shortly before noon on June 19, began an extraordinary ordeal whose outcome remained very much in doubt until the Chinese government expelled him 66 days later, on Aug. 24.

During that prolonged detention, Harry Wu's name, unbeknownst to him, resonated so often in Congress, in the White House, and in the media that a listener to a Washington radio call-in show asked: "Why on earth make such a fuss about just one person?" That particular caller did not empathize with Beijing (he felt that China's growing military might was more deserving of American concern), but his skepticism about the focus on Wu was not unique. Kenneth Liberthal, director of the Center for Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan, told the Associated Press:

"I am not saying we should not be concerned with human rights. But you don't allow a policy to develop in a fashion where everything can be brought to a halt if one guy goes over there...and gets caught. That's crazy."

Crazy or not, why did the plight of this Chinese-American human rights activist become such a cause celebre in the course of two months? Wu's case was special in that circumstances and personalities converged in a highly unusual way that defies recurrence. Yet the various elements in the Wu saga of the summer of 1995 offer clues to why Wu's won't be the last human rights drama on the world stage.

Above all, there was the figure of 58-year-old Harry Wu himself, with an eventful personal history marked by 19 years of suffering in China's forced labor camps. Surviving those years--a third of his life--toughened Wu, and haunted him with memories even after he emigrated to the United States in 1985. Here, he was surprised that Americans knew little about how China's Communist regime victimizes millions in its system of forced labor camps and uses it to undergird the Party's monopoly of power. He resolved to dedicate himself to making the system, called the Laogai in Chinese, as notorious as the Gulag. To update and supplement his Laogai information, he succeeded in visiting China without incident three times, twice in 1991 and once in 1994, always with proper travel documents. His last visit, in April 1994, was to remote Xinjiang Province, where he uncovered evidence of at least 21 forced labor camps with tens of thousands of prisoners working to reclaim desert for cotton and grain production.

When he decided last summer to return to Xinjiang to continue investigating, he brushed aside a close friend's warnings that the timing of this trip would be especially perilous because of troubled relations between Washington and Beijing. After his arrest, James Lilley, former U.S. Ambassador to China, speaking on national TV, dismissed Wu as someone with a "martyr complex." Whatever his basic motivation, however, Wu's very willingness to take grave risks--to be a modern Daniel in the lion's den--was a basic element in the drama.

Another element was that Harry Wu was no stranger to a growing circle of people concerned about human rights in China. These included readers of his two books, "Laogai: The Chinese Gulag" (Westview 1992) and "Bitter Winds: A Memoir of My Years in China's Gulag" (Wiley 1994). For years, he has given lectures to audiences small and large, and networked among policy-makers in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Australia. When the Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans intervened in Wu's behalf with Beijing a few days after his formal arrest, he was speaking up for a person whom he knew personally and whose cause had his warm support. The unanimous bipartisan protest that Wu's arrest aroused in Congress also was no accident--it flowed naturally from his testimony about the Loagai at committee hearings and from the personal relationships he had cultivated. In Washington and elsewhere hundreds of political leaders who differed on much else agreed on one thing: China must free Harry Wu.

Wu's wife, Ching Lee, who had accompanied him on two previous forays into China but fortunately not this time, helped keep the Wu story on the front pages. Traveling across the United States and across the Atlantic (to London, Geneva, and Paris), she pinned yellow ribbons on Margaret Thatcher, Bob Dole, Newt Gingrich, Dick Gephardt, Tony Lake, and many others. When the city of San Francisco welcomed the Mayor of Shanghai in a sister city exchange, Ching Lee Wu was there in July to lead a yellow-ribbon protest and to deliver a message that she repeated many times in the weeks that followed:

"The longer Beijing keeps my husband in police custody, the greater the damage to its own interests, and the more it is helping publicize the Laogai."

The delay by Chinese authorities in revealing why and where they were holding Wu provoked fears ("What are they doing to him?" his wife asked), heightened media interest in his fate, and added to the ordeal of dozens of U.S. Foreign Service personnel working on the case in China and in Washington, all the way from secretaries, communications personnel, political and consular officers to Secretary of State Warren Christopher. With still no word about Wu's whereabouts two weeks after his apprehension, the embassy dispatched a consular officer, Charles Parish, to Horgas. Upon his arrival on July 2, after an arduous trip--the last 375 miles from Urumqi taking 12 hours by taxi--he was told by Public Security officials and others that they had never heard of Harry Wu or Hongda Wu (his Chinese name) or Peter H. Wu (his legal name, on his passport and Chinese visa).

Nineteen days after his apprehension, the U.S. Embassy finally learned that Wu was being held under arrest in Wuhan, in central China, on charges of repeatedly "sneaking" into China under false names, stealing state secrets, and disseminating those secrets to people and organizations outside China. Two days later, or 15 days beyond the maximum period specified in the U.S.-China consular agreement, U.S. Minister-Counselor for Consular Affairs Arturo Macias was permitted to meet with him for 30 minutes but not permitted to discuss the formal charges against him, which had been kept secret from the prisoner.

Then, outside the White House, after a meeting with National Security Advisor Anthony Lake, Mrs. Wu encountered TV cameras and a reporter's question about the invitation to First Lady Hillary Clinton to participate in the UN Women's Conference in Beijing in September: if Mrs. Wu's husband were still in prison then, should Mrs. Clinton boycott the conference? "Certainly," Mrs. Wu replied. Thus, the coincidence of an international event created even more suspense in the on-going Wu drama, and injected Wu's name into daily advance stories about the UN conference.

Finally, on August 24, a People's Court in Wuhan announced the results of a four-hour trial: a verdict of guilty, largely for stealing state secrets (mostly about the system) and revealing them to outsiders, to be punished by a 15-year prison sentence plus a "supplementary" sentence of expulsion from China. By maintaining secrecy about the timing of his expulsion until Wu was on an airliner bound for San Francisco, the Chinese prolonged the suspense and gave the continuing Harry Wu story an additional day of high media exposure.

Free again, tired but unbowed by weeks of police interrogations, Wu immediately seized the new opportunities to promote his cause: national TV interviews, lectures invitations, book signings, a talk at the National Press Club, an address to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, an award from the Anti-Slavery International in London, an appearance on the Tonight Show, during which Jay Leno called him a genuine "American hero." Celebrity status meant that not only were more people listening to him but many gave him standing ovations..

Global Trade Fosters Global Human Rights Linkages

Wu's two-month-long serial story and its still continuing sequel offer no consolation for those who believe that human rights issues should have a very low priority, or none at all, in the theory and practice of modern statecraft. Why won't these issues fade away? Didn't President Clinton delink trade and human rights for China in 1994? Actually, he didn't. He did "delink" U.S. renewal of China's Most-Favored Nation (MFN) trade privileges from the specific human rights conditions that he had imposed by executive order a year earlier. But no government can wipe out the intrinsic linkage in the modern world between human rights and foreign policy. They just keep on getting more and more interconnected.

A major reason is that there are people like Harry Wu around--not very many, but enough men and women who, whether courageous or just foolhardy, are willing to risk everything to challenge powerful regimes and repressive institutions. The Soviet Union had its Andre Sakharov, South Africa its Nelson Mandela, and Poland its Lech Walesa. Now their counterparts are emerging in East Asia. Several are well known, like Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma and Wei Jingsheng in China. Others are little known or not known at all:

Such men and women cannot be denounced as outsiders poking into their country'sinternal affairs. Theirs are indigenous voices, expressing the grievances and aspirations of fellow-citizens muffled by fear.

Moreover, they aim their protests at real problems, often revealing hard evidence not readily available to outsiders. They provide details that turn the abstraction, "human rights violations," into graphic reports about persecution of persons practicing a religion not blessed by the regime, or enslaving of children to produce carpets and shoes for export, or jailing of students and workers who try to found their own organizations, or harsh reprisals against journalists whose writings diverge from the Party line, or infanticide to comply with government quotas on births.

New Age, New Context

Many such problems are not new, and even have centuries-old precedents. Yet their context has changed radically in our time, for five reasons:

  1. The communications revolution is the powerful new ally of human rights advocacy. Through the marvels of modern technology, a video camera can capture human tragedies in a way not possible through the printed word or the still camera. Hidden cameras can now penetrate areas that public or private officials declare off limits. Millions of TV viewers in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom have seen Harry Wu's exposes of China's forced labor camps.

  2. There has been a phenomenal increase in the number and effectiveness of non-governmental organizations dedicated in whole or in part to monitoring and publicizing human rights abuses. These range from large groups, notably Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, to thousands of smaller ones, like Wu's own Laogai Research Foundation, based in his home in Milpitas, California. Most significant of all is how many home-grown human rights groups now operate in developing countries, where they manage to carry on their activities despite harassment by governments. Although they constitute a new force in international politics, their influence is often overlooked, perhaps because theirs is a growth industry not listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

  3. The global economy, with its unbelievable flow of goods and services across national frontiers, creates unprecedented connections between the world's people--between those who produce things at one end and those who buy them at the other. At least a few parents get upset when they learn that Chinese school-age girls, working long hours in an unsafe factory in thriving Guangdong province, made their child's toys and athletic shoes. Involvement in the global economy inevitably fosters global concerns. Harry Wu's crusade against the Laogai hits home because the customers for so many of its products, from socks to artificial flowers todiesel engines, are in the United States and other Western nations.

  4. The complexity of modern global integration created a need to establish or strengthen a host of supranational bodies, most organized by governments but some by private groups, having governmental or quasi-governmental powers. In one way or another, all of them set down rules for operations in the international marketplace. "Totally unregulated competition could lead to a global financial breakdown," says Wolfang H. Reinicke, an economist at the Brookings Institution. It should not be surprising that the notion to add a human rights dimension to these operations has gained ground. Even the World Bank, long a bastion for policies narrowly fixated on pure economics, has recently moved to add "equity" concerns to its education projects.

  5. The U.S. Congress and the Parliaments of some other industrialized nations are increasingly sensitive to such concerns. That sensitivity is unlikely to diminish.

China at Center of Whirlwind

Like it or not, foreign affairs professionals will have to pay more attention to human rights, especially in areas with the greatest potential for crises with unforeseen reverberations. It takes no brilliant insight to identify the No. 1 trouble spot. The People's Republic of China has running through its whole economic, social, and political landscape a deep fault line between the rights of its citizens and the rights assumed by an all-powerful party/state bureaucracy. The tension between the two could erupt at any time. Despite much-vaunted economic reforms, China remains (in the words of the Far Eastern Economic Review) "sometimes totalitarian, sometimes authoritarian, always unpredictable."

Modern China dazzles with new skyscrapers and superhighways built where once there were only rice paddies. In awe over its "miraculous" growth statistics, however, foreign observers have downplayed how much of China has not changed, not even in its economic system. While losing its faith in Lenin as an ideology, China has not abandoned a Leninist power structure that reaches into every phase of society. How reformed is an economy in which the central government still owns 90% of the banks, and lower levels of government own most of the rest?

The regime has watchfully opened many doors to foreign trade, investment, technology, and assistance of all kinds, but the economy was in such bad shape that the Communist elite didn't have much of a choice. In a major concession to Western opinion, the country's economic system is now advertised as "market socialism." The new label is catchy, suggesting that the positive-sounding adjective "market" somehow neutralizes the negative-sounding noun, "socialism," and signifies progress toward capitalism and private ownership of property. One might credit Beijing with successfully pulling off a major PR scam, except that Chinese leaders have not fudged on what they are doing. For example, Vice Premier Zhu Rohgji, quizzed by Business Week reporters about China's economic reforms, was straightforward about the meaning of market socialism:

"What we want to achieve through reform is to adopt the operating mechanism of a market economy... The only difference is that your economic system is based on private ownership, while our market economy will still be based on public ownership." (1/3/94)

Enough to Make Beijing Tremble

Beijing is engaged in a highly delicate balancing act. That little place called Hong Kong won't make the job any easier. As the clock ticks toward July 1, 1997, when the British colony gets absorbed back into China, many of its residents, as well as its friends around the world, are understandably worried that the regime in Beijing will make life difficult for Hong Kong. But members of China's Politburo have good reason to worry that Hong Kong will also make life more difficult for Beijing.

The latest shocker came in the September 17, 1995, legislative council elections in which Hong Kong citizens, voting in greater numbers than ever before, handed pro-democracy forces a sweeping victory. (This in a territory where political parties have been legal only since 1990.). Despite stern warnings to show proper respect for the "motherland" by electing pro-China candidates, the one clearly pro-China party won only six out of the council's 60 contested seats. Humiliation of humiliations, that party's three top leaders--chairman, vice chairman, and secretary-treasurer--all went down in defeat.

Imagine (for just this paragraph) that you are a member of China's Politboro pondering the results of that election. It is not lost on you that if the Communist Party of China had to face a similar election, you would be a goner. So would all your close comrades, the mightiest of the Party. No wonder, then, that you and they have promised to wipe out the whole legislative council as soon as the Red Flag flies over Hong Kong. Small comfort, however. The Party's dutiful apparatchiks will of course dissolve Hong Kong's pesky Legislative Council, but how can they dissolve its counterrevolutionary people?

Hong Kong, though still a colony, has been the crucible for a courageous corps of democratic leaders, men and women who refuse to kowtow to Beijing despite a Communist campaign of vituperation and intimidation against them. Martin Lee, a lawyer who chairs Hong Kong's Democratic Party, is the most famous, even abroad. In August an American Bar Association meeting in Chicago gave him its 1995 International Human Rights award. But there are many others, highly respected in Hong Kong and beyond. Among those who won big in the election are Emily Lau, journalist; Lee Cheuk-yan, trade unionist; Szeto Wah, teacher; Lau Chin-shek, labor activist, and Christine Loh, a former business consultant. During the remaining months of British rule, they and their democratic colleagues hope to strengthen laws protecting freedom of the press, to enact a freedom of information ordinance, and to amend the colony's Basic Law to guarantee an independent judiciary after 1997.

For Beijing, Martin Lee and his friends are subversive counterrevolutionaries who, unless they reform and repent soon, richly deserve long terms of reeducation in the Laogai. Another person falling in the same guilty category is Han Dongfang, a former railroad worker who has already spent 22 months in the Laogai for founding a short-lived trade union on Tiananmen Square in June 1989. Han now works out of Hong Kong to keep alive the hope for a free labor movement in China. Barred from returning to China, he has developed a network of international contacts paralleling those of Harry Wu and Martin Lee. Like his democratic colleagues in Hong Kong, he is firm about remaining there after July 1997.

So Hong Kong will not go gentle into the night. In fact, many of its people and institutions believe they are destined to join like-minded neighbors to bring more light into China itself. The odds may be against them, but the risks they take and the fate they meet will impinge on all with interests in Hong Kong and its surroundings. It would be wise for the U.S. and other countries with a large stake in the area to take urgent notice and to confer on a strategy now, rather than to "wait and see." What should they do if, in a year and a half or so, Martin Lee, Han Dongfang, and their closest colleagues are locked up as couterrevolutionaries and sentenced to 15 years in the Laogai?

Meanwhile, on a grander scale, some experts are trying to mold a foreign policy model useful for the post-Cold War world. Such endeavors, always daunting, have become far more so in a complex world that won't hold still for any all-purpose formula. But one item is sure to figure more prominently in any international equation: a concern for human rights. The likes of Harry Wu will make sure of it.

NOTE: The text of the above article is available on the Internet from the Social Sciences Research Bank of the Australian National University at this long URL:

Copyrightę 1995 Robert A. Senser

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