Prisoners of State: Would what worked for the U.S. in Pyongyang work in Beijing?


Jennifer Leong (Hong Kong, AC 06-08)


“Is it naïve to talk to despots like Kim Jong Il, or is it worse to ignore them?”[1]


This is a question asked by many across the world following the release of Euna Lee and Laura Ling, two American journalists sentenced to hard labor in North Korea for entering the country illegally. Judging by this incident alone, the answer is clear: dialogue (or at least mutual acknowledgement) beats isolation. The journalists’ release was secured on August 4th after the surprise visit of former US President Bill Clinton to the North Korean capital, meeting with Kim Jong Il and occasioning official portraits of the two leaders sitting side by side, thus giving Kim the international press attention and acknowledgement that he so craved. Some condemned the visit as humouring the tyrant and abandoning principles, but should we be more worried if Kim one day didn’t want to talk to America? Should we be glad that the Western world still yields some influence on North Korea? And here’s the surprise: isolating despots, like ignoring terrorists, does not make them go away. Sometimes, it doesn’t even weaken them one bit. If diplomacy is all about getting what one wants, then Clinton surely had achieved his objective to free the two journalists by talking with Kim. It can hardly be argued that just because her former President was seen sitting side by side Kim, America is endorsing Pyongyang’s acts and policies in any way.


The question I think everyone should be asking though, is what happens when diplomacy and foreign influence fail to work? In the face of the rapidly increasing economic might of China, can the West still work its diplomatic magic in assisting those tried (often behind closed doors) in the country? Wong Qi, Tan Zuoren, Xu Zhiyong and Quo Quan are but a few names of a group of mainland Chinese human rights lawyers and activists from the organization ‘Wei Quan’ (literally, ‘protecting rights’) which is currently heavily persecuted in China due to its activities which include investigating the corruption of Sichuan officials which led to poor quality school buildings being built and subsequently collapsing in the major earthquake last year. The disaster killed over 5000 schoolchildren[2].


Tan Zuoren was imprisoned by the authorities for 4 months before his closed trial on August 12. Charged with ‘instigating to subvert country and the ruling regime’, Tan had done no more than to visit the areas struck by the earthquake to compile a list of the dead despite an official list having already been published. Tan’s report came up with a longer list of casualties and touched on the vested interest of those who commissioned the building of the unsafe school buildings.


Despite statements from Amnesty International and Hong Kong Human Rights Watch urging the central government to stop trial proceedings, Tan’s trial took place amidst accusations of violence and suppression. An associate of Tan’s, who was due to appear in court as witness, was beaten by security ‘Gong An’ forces in the middle of the night before the trial; Gong An detained him until after the trial had commenced. The hotel room in which a Hong Kong ‘Now TV’ reporter stayed was also broken into by Gong An officers, claiming they had reason to suspect that the reporter possessed drugs. These blatant attempts to affect the outcome of the trial and to intervene with its coverage in the press are alarming in a country that, only a year ago, had promised the world an improved human rights record for being given the honour of hosting the Olympic Games.


Chinese authorities seem to believe that in the build-up to the celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China this October, it is necessary to jail Chinese nationals who are fighting to bring justice and modernization to the system – the ‘subversive forces’, so they are called. The ironic part is, for all its ‘world-policing’, the US, and the rest of the world as a whole, seems to be quite helpless in restraining the Chinese, who of course, also happen to be Washington’s largest foreign creditor and the key trading partner for many countries besides. As President Obama recently said, Washington’s relation with Beijing would ‘shape the 21st century’. Here’s to the hope that it would be a progressive 21st.


Note: In remembrance of all those suffering in silence for fighting for their rightful freedoms, may your stories be told and your case be raised so that one day soon you would be free to live in a world you deserve.



– United World College Student Magazine –



[1] TIME magazine, August 17 issue

[2] MingPao Daily, Hong Kong, August 6


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