A Double Tragedy for China

06/10/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

As we approach June 4th, the anniversary of the tragic events that took place 19 years ago in Tiananmen Square, I find myself thinking about the loss of life of the Chinese people. In one case it was a political crisis. More recently, it was a natural disaster compounded by a political system that still cannot recognize basic human rights

The events in the aftermath of the earthquake in Sichuan, China have left me shocked, saddened, and fearful. Tens of thousands of my countrymen are now dead, and many more remain homeless.

Since the earthquake struck, I have had one question foremost in my mind: How can we help the Chinese government do the right thing?

Common sense and experience tell us that the autocratic Chinese government is by itself incapable of ensuring that life-giving aid, so generously donated, will be equitably distributed to those in need. It is a truism that human rights are the foundation of life in civil society. However, when tragedy strikes, the free exercise of human rights is no longer simply the legal basis for a citizen's life; it is the difference between life and death. The protection of these rights for all citizens, therefore, is the first responsibility of any government, and any government that actively denies these rights is not only irresponsible, it is also illegitimate. Sadly, because of the nature of the regime now ruling China, my countrymen may soon become victims twice over; victims first of a great natural disaster, and victims also, and once again, of a corrupt government.

What must we and the Chinese government do to ensure that humanitarian aid from both the world and Chinese taxpayers gets to those in need? To ensure, that is, that the Chinese people are not doubly victimized?

First, the U.S. government must urge the Chinese government to cancel the Olympic Torch Relay that is scheduled to pass through Sichuan in early June and to focus instead on mobilizing all available resources toward relieving the great suffering of its citizens.

Second, it is well known that disaster relief funds without a system of checks and balances can and will be misused and misdirected to benefit the corrupt, thus adding to the misery of the unfortunate. The citizens of a democracy, such as the United States, who give freely and benevolently cannot allow their generosity to be hijacked by corrupt government officials and their cronies. President Bush and the U.S. Congress should therefore work with the Chinese government to set up a system of citizen-run controls that ensure that the funds and materials given by the world community and Chinese taxpayers will only be used for the purposes intended: to relieve the suffering of the Chinese people.

Third, no system of controls will be effective without the oversight of a free and unhindered press and the free speech of citizens. President Bush and the U.S. Congress should pressure the Chinese Government to make a grand gesture in the name of the victims of this unspeakable tragedy and lift all restraints on the press. The Chinese government must tear down the Great Firewall that constrains the free flow of information over the internet. Let the citizens of China be the eyes and ears that ensure that the munificence of people from all over the world is directed towards those with the greatest need and not towards those possessed of the greatest greed.

These are commonsense actions that will ensure that the suffering caused by this awful disaster will not be compounded by the built-in flaws that inhere in unregulated power accountable only to itself.

These actions will also demonstrate to the Chinese government and, more importantly, to my fellow Chinese citizens, that there is a better way of governance. For not only will these actions bring the greatest amount of relief to the earthquake victims, but they will also demonstrate that free citizens, exercising free speech and enjoying a free press, are the basic ingredients of a truly just society. This is an opportunity to show democracy in action -- to demonstrate the power of individual citizens to produce a greater good. This horrific event has provided the Chinese government with an opportunity both to improve its human rights record and to begin to learn that, for the well-being of its citizens, democracy -- far from being something to be feared -- is to be embraced.