For years - decades - I have been writing about the disease that eats away at humanity around the world: the denial for hundreds of millions of people of the simple rights to speak, worship, write and gather together to create a free government.
In the past year or so, I have written virtually every column about such deprivations as they exist in countries ruled by tyrannies. Those governments seize our attention by making war against their neighbors or against those of their people who deviate in any way on any subject already given the official stamp of approval.
And yet I feel laggard, because I know that for months I have had to ignore some countries where vicious violations of human rights bring nausea to the foreigners who know about them and blood or death to those who cannot escape the torture of body and mind. I salve myself sometimes by the fact that since I write only one column a week, I have to vary the subjects. Sometimes, I tell myself that I am a newspaperman, and newspapermen have to write about the juiciest story of the day. Right?
Wrong - unless it suits the columnist's mind and conscience. Otherwise, ignore the friend who warns that people won't read you if you write another human rights column about brutal countries and their brutal affairs.
But I have never heard from readers who are annoyed by learning about the sufferings of other people, no matter how often I write about them. And if I ever do get such letters, I will throw them in the garbage can.
I remember that during the first Clinton administration, a high official visited my office. I said I had an important question. "Human rights again, I suppose," he said with the sneeriest of sneers.
"You bet your sweet whatever," I answered, and then asked my question. I can't remember what it was, but I will never forget the official's contempt for the subject of human rights.
So this column is a visit to Communist China, which strikes me as having the nicest, hardest-working people in the world - and the most vicious of governments.
The skyscrapers recently built in Chinese cities are beautiful and often crowded, but not for a minute are they as crowded as the political prisons and hard-labor camps where millions of arrested Chinese are "taught" to think as the government wants them to think.
The most important tools of the government are prisons and torture. For political prisoners, the two are virtually synonymous. Chinese use of torture is known not only to every official of the country but to all 191 members of the United Nations, plus Switzerland in its clown costume of neutrality.
There's no hiding place for torturers and the tortured. But what about the foreign diplomats in China and the foreign businessmen whose trade costs America jobs and strengthens the Chinese armed forces? Maybe hands over their ears and eyes help their consciences. Maybe.
In the past few years, the Chinese Communists have been frothing with the disease of paranoia. It is a universal sickness for dictators who lie in perpetual fear of their own citizenry.
The nonpolitical meditation group known as Falun Gong probably has millions of [practitioners] and terrifies the Politburo. Maybe that's because it meets so quietly, perhaps as a relief from the government's perpetual propaganda shrieks. At least 350 have been killed by the police out of sheer totalitarian government fear.
My hero for the many years I have known him is Harry Wu, the Chinese dissident. He served 19 years in the labor camps and was released in 1979. He moved to the U.S., then made four return trips to China to get information on the condition of prisoners in the camps.
On his last trip, in 1995, he was detained and deported with a warning that if ever returned he would be imprisoned for 15 years. He tells me that although he does not belong to Falun Gong, he will always defend its right to exist.
I hope he runs out of bravery and does not return to China one more time.
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