You Can’t Lend a Hand When Your Arms Are Tied

Tell me this won’t make an amazing movie:

Chen Guangcheng, one of the best-known and most politically savvy Chinese dissidents, evaded security forces surrounding his home this week and, aided by an underground network of human rights activists, secretly made his way about 300 miles to Beijing, where he is believed to have found refuge in the American Embassy, according to advocates and Chinese officials. (Source: New York Times)

It’s freaking Shawshank, people.

Blind and once illiterate into his 20s, Chen is a self-taught lawyer and fearless activist. Among other courageous work, Chen infamously filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of women victims of forced abortions and sterilization under China’s “one child policy.” His escape relied on long-term planning and encoded messages after scaling a guarded wall. While the US has not confirmed Chen’s location, many if not most of the people who helped transport him to safety have since disappeared – presumably detained and imprisoned by Chinese authorities.

This Mr. Chen is a serious headache for our busy US government. Sure, we’re the land of hope and change, of the American Dream and freedom and blah blah blah. We’re also the land of maxed out debt ceilings and massive decade-long wars we can’t and shouldn’t afford.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner are visiting China this week to discuss pressing economic and political issues, including nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea and a potential cease-fire in Syria. And they may not mention it directly, but over each conversation an ever-present four-letter word will loom: debt.

The United States currently owes nearly $1.18 trillion to China. If there’s one thing I’ve learned by being a bankruptcy attorney‘s daughter, it’s that the creditor/consumer relationship is a complicated one.

The current administration is clearly hard-pressed. How in the world can it balance a human rights opportunity like asylum for Chen Guangcheng with the fact that the US owes China lots…and lots…and lots of money? And so there’s at least one important thing we can learn from the situation: it’s hard to lend a hand when your arms are tied, and debt is a powerful handcuff.

The same can be said on an individual level. The more debt we accrue, the less we’re able to give back. Time we could spend volunteering becomes time spent working. Resources that could go to someone in great need instead go to loan payments and backed up credit card bills.

If you care about human rights, you have to care about the economy – nationally and in your own household. Debt holds us back not just from the comfort of financial stability but from the rewards of giving sacrificially of our own (unborrowed) resources to the work that tugs at our heartstrings.

And in the case of Chen Guangcheng, it can delay justice and transparency at a time when the world desperately needs both.

(Photo: Mark Coggins)

7 Responses to “You Can’t Lend a Hand When Your Arms Are Tied”
  1. Laura Elkins says:

    excellent, Joanna. now I’m trying to figure how to include “debt” in the Dirty Words calendar.

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  3. […] and offer more freedom to religious groups like Falun Gong and Christian churches; but how much more powerful could our voice be without the debt burdens that further complicate our relationship with […]

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