Jimmy Carter may have sounded grudging about his government’s support to the Pentecostals, but he was president in a time when Americans did not doubt that communist governments were brutally oppressive, and that helping their embattled citizens, however diplomatically discordant it might be, was simply the right thing to do. We were prepared at different levels of government to deal with the possibility, because we knew what state collectivism was, and we knew that people would seek help to get away from it.
The preparedness was not universal, of course. A Soviet sailor who leaped from his freighter – twice – as it sat pierside in a Louisiana port in 1985, hoped to obtain asylum in the US, but was turned back over to his Soviet superiors by two US Border Patrol agents. (The freighter was loading grain, which the US was selling the USSR to relieve the suffering of the Soviet people, incident to their 67th annual crop failure since the 1917 revolution.) The State Department became involved only after the sailor had been handed back over to the ship’s master, and although the interpreter who conveyed his wishes to the Border Patrol agents had been clear that Miroslav Medvid was seeking asylum, Time described what followed in this manner:
When the State Department belatedly learned of the incident 13 hours afterward, it persuaded Soviet officials to let Medvid be interviewed. He was examined and questioned by State Department representatives as well as by the Navy doctor and Air Force psychiatrist, both of whom concluded that he was not under the influence of drugs and was competent to decide what he wanted to do. While his ship’s skipper, its doctor and two Soviet diplomats watched, Medvid insisted that he had merely fallen overboard and had no intention of deserting.
The psychiatrist, however, said the evidence showed that Medvid had jumped “purposefully from his ship” and that when he was returned to it, he “probably felt very afraid of the consequences and very much trapped in a corner.” The Soviets apparently threatened to retaliate against the sailor’s family at home, and he became “rather guilty at having jeopardized their safety,” the psychiatrist theorized. The State Department ruled that he could not be held against his expressed wishes and let him return to the Konev.
There are parallels with the Chen situation in just about every previous instance of refuge-seeking by the oppressed from communist nations. Of all the arms of the US government that ought still to be attuned to the likelihood of these cases, the US embassy in Beijing would seem to be at the top of the list. The key difference today appears to be the basic posture of the US government. As regards China specifically, we should not pin that exclusively on the Obama administration. There has very much been an attitude for the last 20 years that, with the Cold War over, it is outdated to see China through the human-rights lens of the Cold War.
When China proves clearly just how apposite that Cold War lens still is, it may be that a US administration is caught flat-footed. The “tactical” particulars of the situation – Chen’s unexpected arrival at the embassy, the publicity, and his family’s peril in the hands of the Chinese authorities – meant that the embassy could not easily pursue a quiet plan to help his whole family leave the country.
But that is the sort of tactically inconvenient situation that is likely to arise with people in great trouble. If we don’t see China, from a strategic perspective, as a source of such situations, we won’t be operationally prepared for them.
Once they do happen, a US administration has discretion over how it responds, and on that head, the Obama administration deserves criticism. The whole world knows the peril Chen and his family are in. The right approach here is not to seek a “solution” that gets the governments of China and the US off the hook; it’s to stand by Chen and demand that he be treated with the respect for his rights understood in the Helsinki Accords. While China is not a signatory to the Accords, their standard for freedom, travel and emigration, and reunification of families is the touchstone to be invoked in this instance.
If we do not believe that, enough to stand up for it when it is inconvenient to our other diplomatic plans, then there was little point in winning the Cold War. Indeed, if our fear of angering China is greater than our commitment to the freedoms Chen Guangcheng is relying on us to defend, then we didn’t win the Cold War after all.