To the surprise of many, US President Donald Trump last week met in the Oval Office with a group of foreign victims of religious persecution. Four of the 27 participants were from China: a Uighur Muslim, a Falun Gong practitioner, a Tibetan Buddhist and a Christian. The others were from North Korea and countries with close ties to China. A couple were from Western nations.
The meeting was held in connection with the administration’s second ministerial to advance religious freedom that featured addresses by US Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Contrary to the conventional wisdom that Trump is not interested in human rights issues, this was far from the first time he has hosted victims of official mistreatment.
In January last year, he welcomed to the White House a group of North Korean defectors who recounted in graphic detail the abuse they had suffered at the hands of the government. That meeting followed his State of the Union address directing the world’s attention to the plight of a disabled North Korean escapee and recounting the horrors of life under the communist regime.
Months before, Trump had given separate speeches at the UN General Assembly and at the South Korean National Assembly, again describing in some detail the numerous crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Pyongyang government and questioning its legitimacy to rule.
As president-elect, Trump accepted a congratulatory telephone call from President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文). Since 23 million Taiwanese are under constant and growing threat from Beijing of losing their democratic rights, that president-to-president conversation also qualifies as a human rights commitment.
Cynics will argue that Trump made these gestures to human rights simply to gain leverage over Pyongyang and Beijing. And, in the case of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Trump’s indictment of his despotic governance did appear to be an important component of the maximum pressure campaign to persuade it to give up its nuclear weapons program.
However, even if the skeptics are right and the US president is acting not out of deeply felt compassion or high-minded idealism, but for hard-headed strategic reasons, that in itself is a good thing — both for the human rights victims and for the US’ negotiating position on trade and other issues.
Given the deep vulnerability of the Chinese and North Korean regimes to popular unrest, the lesson for not only the Trump administration, but other Western governments is that emphasis on human rights is both a moral and strategic imperative.
The Soviet Union collapsed for a number of reasons, not the least of which was its moral bankruptcy before its oppressed population, aided by an information campaign from the West.
Human rights heroes, such as Czech playwright Vaclav Havel, Israeli human rights activist Natan Sharansky and Polish labor activist Lech Walesa, all told of how messages of support from then-US president Ronald Reagan and others, transmitted by Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe, sustained their morale and encouraged their perseverance throughout their ordeals.
A well-planned, aggressive and consistent messaging campaign of truth-telling from VOA and Radio Free Asia can provide a spiritual boost for the more than 1 billion people enduring crushed lives in China and North Korea.
Those regimes already spend as much or more on internal security as they do in preparing to deal with external “aggressors” — or, more likely, external victims of their own aggression.
This kind of informational pressure would be a non-kinetic way of diverting the two tyrannies’ resources from dangerous external adventures. At the same time, they would be incentivized to improve their people’s lot and make concessions in other areas of confrontation with the West.
The cumulative effects of incremental Chinese and North Korean concessions would advance the cause of democratic change in both systems. As Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) and his colleagues are fond of telling Western governments when offering deals: It would be a win-win proposition.
Like Reagan with the Soviet Union, Trump should launch a moral offensive against China and North Korea that will also reap enormous strategic benefits.
Joseph Bosco is a fellow at the Institute for Taiwan-American Studies.
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