Sometimes the diplomatic decisions of the United States make no sense on any level. This week the world (outside of China, which has censored the news, like it blocks this blog) has been thrilled to the cat-and-mouse case of a blind political activist who hid out in the US Embassy and now seeks to go abroad, having caused a diplomatic incident between the United States and China . Mind you, I have little problem on the level of morality of twisting the dragon’s tail in reminding them of their shoddy record of protecting free speech (not that our own record is perfect), but on the practical level, the United States has only a little to gain and a fair amount to lose by playing such a high-stakes gamble for the life of one Chinese man (and possibly his family).
If the United States is so concerned about protecting free speech in the Far East, it can start by protecting its own citizens. While trying to pander to those who are concerned about liberties in China, America’s diplomats have turned a blind eye to the cruel fate inflicted on one of our own citizens in Thailand (a supposed ally of the United States) for a crime against the majesty of Thailand’s king for having translated a reasonably factual work from English into Thai while living in the United States. This American citizen, known best by his American name, Joe Gordon, is rotting in a Thai jail for about two or three more years and America’s diplomats are not even admitting that he exists, much less is worthy of our protection, even throwing a party a few months ago to throw off attention to the case . If the free speech rights of a blind a Chinese activist are worth defending in the face of diplomatic pressure, surely the free speech rights of an American citizen who simply translated from an American-published book while he resided in America ought to be worth defending even more. But our diplomacy does not seem to be conducted on a rational or consistent level like this.
It would appear that the American diplomatic community thinks that the lives of others are pawns to be manipulated in an irrational and complex game. We offer amnesty to one activist so that we can tweak a rising power with whom we are not particularly friendly, while allowing one of our allies to lock away an American citizen who committed no genuine crime, because American law does not recognize the territoriality of Thai law on our own shores, as that is a denial of sovereignty. The truth of the matter seems not to matter at all, or the facts of the case, or even a rational realpolitik concern about the harm that a nation can do if we conduct a certain policy. We would be far better off to strenuously defend the rights of our citizens everywhere, for we have no business seeking to defend the rights of non-citizens until we can protect our own first.
As it is, I hope that there is a happy ending for the blind man who has spent the better part of a decade in jail or under house arrest for his activism. To speak out about the wrongs of a society, especially one as authoritarian and corrupt as China, is certainly very brave. And I for one commend that bravery and the willingness to suffer for one’s ideals. Far be it from me to criticize it. But the United States ought to protect its own citizens before it seeks to protect the citizens of other states. After all, it takes a great deal of courage for a man to stand up to a nation’s enemies and seek their assistance, but it might take more courage to stand up to the corruption and evil of one’s supposed friends when that same chickenhearted diplomatic establishment turns a blind eye to your cruel imprisonment for having done nothing wrong than to help translate a nonfiction book into your native language from the comfort of your home in the United States. Hypocrisy, thy name is the American diplomatic establishment. Too bad America’s diplomats think it more important to grandstand and interfere in other nations’ affairs than protect their own citizens abroad.