Global Dissidents Ask That Obama Pressure Dictators, Not Coddle Them

Saturday, September 26, 2015
By Mike Gonzalez in Forbes:

Global Dissidents Ask That Obama Pressure Dictators, Not Coddle Them

While President Obama was holding a private confab at the White House Thursday night with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping to discuss, among other things, his pet project of climate change, dissidents held a public meeting in another part of Washington to demand more attention for a more traditional American priority, the support for democracy and human rights.

Chen Guangcheng from mainland China joined fellow Hong Kong democracy activists Martin Lee, Joshua Wong and Benny Tai at Washington’s Newseum to repeat a message that has so far failed to dissuade President Obama from cozying up to dictators: you can’t trust someone who mistreats his own people. It was a message that, coincidentally, Cuban dissidents were issuing in a desperate call from Havana at the same time.

“Obama should be on the side of the rights of the Chinese people, not on the side of the leader of the Communist Party,” Chen told me, speaking through an interpreter.

Chen was there for the kickoff of a series of events that will mark the 75th anniversary of the founding of Freedom House, a Washington think tank that focuses on the promotion of human rights around the world. The opening night was dedicated to the three Hong Kong pro-democracy campaigners and their demand that Beijing keep its promises to the territory.

Blown up cables from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt encouraging the start of Freedom House in 1941 were staged on easels throughout the event, poignant reminders of a time when support for human rights and freedom was a bipartisan endeavor.

“The cause of the United States is democracy,” Tai said, adding that it is in U.S. interests to see China become a democracy. “Hong Kong is the place where China can practice democracy.”

A former British colony on the southeastern coast of China, Hong Kong became a part of the mainland in 1997 after Beijing promised that the city would retain a “high degree of autonomy.” Under a system that came to be known as “One Country, Two Systems,” China’s communist leaders also promised that Hong Kong would remain capitalist and would keep such rights as freedom of the press, speech and assembly at least until 2047.

Part of China’s promise was that Hong Kong people would be able to elect their own leader, the Chief Executive, by 2017. However, sometime in 2013 Chinese leaders began to put it about that whoever ran for chief executive would have to not just love China, but “also love the Communist Party” as Wong put it Thursday night.

Later, when Communist leaders insisted candidates would have to be “selected” by a committee made up of Beijing supporters—what Martin Lee termed “Iranian-style democracy, where only the Mullahs decide”—hundreds of thousands of people began to take to the streets of Hong Kong to march in protest. Wong, then only 17, emerged as the leader of what came to be known as the “Occupy Hong Kong” movement.

What they want is support from the world, especially the United States. “We need to get support from the White House,” says Wong. “Hong Kong will continue the fight, but we need support from the world.” President Obama’s statements on Hong Kong’s freedoms, however, have been “very weak,” he added.

This is a point that pro-democracy campaigners the world over bring up. Moral support gives validation to their cause and encourages them to keep fighting impossible odds, though knowing that immediate consequences such as prison or worse are imminent.

Wong, for example, has been charged in Hong Kong with “unlawful assemblies,” “incitement to unlawful assembly,” which could result in up to five years in prison. This “political prosecution,” as Wong rightly terms it, is in keeping with other noticeable deterioration in the territory’s rule of law.

Hong Kong, for example, continued to be the world’s freest economy in The Heritage Foundation’s 2015 Index of Economic Freedom, a position it has held since the Index’s inception in 1995. Its score was lower than last year, however, as “recent political events appear to have undermined public trust and confidence in the administration.”

This is why it is important that the United States make its moral voice heard. Calls by dissidents around the world for support consistently fall on deaf ears at the White House, where Mr. Obama instead has given validation to dictators from Beijing to Havana.

As fortune would have it, while I was attending the dissidents’ event Thursday night, I received in my inbox a letter from a dissident leader in Havana, Antonio Rodiles from the Cuban movement Estado de Sats, signed by him and 13 other Cuban dissident leaders. The letter made almost exactly the same points the Chinese dissidents were making.

“The United States as a nation has declared time and again its total commitment to the defense of democracy and fundamental liberties,” read the letter, before taking President Obama to task.

Obama, it said, affirms that his policy of opening to the Castro dictatorship “is guided by the values of the Founding Fathers … However, the reality of the current situation contradicts this idea and paints a completely different picture. This unconditional rapprochement has only served to legitimize the longest lived and most destructive dictatorship in the history of the hemisphere, and has served to reinforce the violation of fundamental freedoms.”

The Cuban dissidents called on the U.S. Congress to hold firm and not give in to Mr. Obama by lifting the embargo on the Castros.

Obama and Xi on Friday agreed that neither government would engage in cyberspace espionage and issued a joint statement that “outlined new steps they will take to deliver on pledges made last year to slash their greenhouse gas emissions,” according to Reuters. Obama, according to officials, also hopes to see Raul Castro at U.N. meetings in New York next week. Why he thinks he can trust men who don’t trust their own people is a growing mystery in many capitals.