Editorial: Defending conscience

A blind, 40-year-old man under house arrest for the last two years seems an unlikely candidate to draw the eyes of the world — and most importantly, of two of its largest and most powerful countries — to serious violations of women’s rights in China, specifically to the practice of government-coerced sterilizations and abortions. 

Yet on the eve last month of a major U.S.-China summit, Chen Guangcheng, a peasant and self-taught lawyer, managed to slip out of the grasp of his security detail in the middle of the night and into the safety of the American embassy in Beijing. Despite a blackout on news of the escape by Chinese media censors, his flight reportedly “electrified” Chinese human rights activists — and provoked a very sticky diplomatic incident that neither Secretary of State Hillary Clinton nor her Chinese counterparts were expecting or looking to engage. 

Publicly, Chinese foreign ministry officials have demanded that the United States not “interfere” in Chinese domestic matters. 

Privately, though, Chen says central government officials in Beijing have told him they will investigate the abuses he and his family have suffered at the hands of city and county officials, which include house arrest, four years in prison on trumped up charges, beatings and other forms of intimidation. He acknowledges it remains to be seen how serious or thorough the probe really will be. 

Freedom of conscience, speech and religion are central to America’s identity as a nation and as an actor on the global stage. China expects that of us.

Nevertheless, the worst of the crisis seems past. At the time of this writing, Chen, his wife and two children were in a Beijing hospital awaiting arrangements to travel to the United States, where he has been offered a university fellowship. He also hopes to secure guarantees of safety for other family members that will remain in China. 

But the incident underscores the inevitable role the human rights issue will have in the relationship between China and the United States, despite its awkwardness and an understandable American desire to prevent it from endangering, in Clinton’s words, other “significant matters we are working on together” — not least global currency valuation and foreign hotspots like Iran, North Korea and Sudan. 

As unsympathetic as China has shown itself to such values, human rights and freedom of conscience, speech and religion are central to America’s identity as a nation and as an actor on the international stage. China expects that of us. 

That’s why what America does at home with respect to human rights is arguably more influential in driving rights reform in China than simple finger-wagging. 

“Values matter,” noted a former U.S. ambassador to China in a recent op-ed article. “We have an opportunity to shape outcomes by living up to our ideals and demonstrating that we are worthy of the region’s admiration and emulation.” 

That is yet another reason to be distressed by the Obama administration’s continued insistence on violating the conscience rights of Catholic institutions and individuals by requiring them or their insurers to pay for procedures and pharmaceuticals that undercut the Church’s ability to proclaim its vision of human love and sexuality.  

And this Health and Human Services mandate is not silencing simply the voice of a single person, like Chen; its effect would be to silence the voice of the largest provider of social and educational services outside of government itself — the Catholic Church in the United States. 

Values matter. The Chinese, and the rest of the world, are watching. Will our government stand up for conscience — at home?

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor.