During an election year everything is seen through the lens of the election, and that is often the correct way to view the political discourse or lack thereof. Most congressional actions can be seen as a warm-up to the election. That is a decent way to understand Congress, except when it isn’t.

This week on our staff intranet, we had a pretty intense discussion about the motives behind the Chen Guangcheng hearings in Congress. One of our more sophisticated staffers thought this was the Republicans trying to embarrass the Obama administration, especially while Secretary Hillary Clinton was over there on official business. I was inclined to agree until I heard that the hearing was put together by the office of Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J. Chris Smith is a respected politician. He is good at his craft, but there is no way that Smith would have a hearing just to embarrass the current president. It is not in his make-up, not a chance, no way. I say, “No way,” as someone who knows Chris Smith. He is one of the great humanitarians on Capitol Hill.

Being a leader means having to make very tough decisions, and sometimes they are the lesser of two evils. Do you save more lives with China’s help in curbing North Korea and in preventing war between Sudan and South Sudan and by looking the other way with Chen? How important is it to let China know that, in America’s system of human rights, freedom of speech is a value we are willing to go to the mat for? I don’t envy any president who has to make those kinds of policy decisions. It is not easy.

For Rep. Smith, one life of Chen’s and, indeed from his view, many lives of the unborn this was a no-brainer. He decided to hold an emergency hearing and to have Chen Guangcheng testify at the congressional hearing. This was not a knee-jerk reaction on the part of Smith. He had been following the Chen case for years. He knew the story of his imprisonment as a result of being an activist against forced abortions. He had followed the reported stories of his house arrest and reported beatings of Chen’s wife. He had heard that Chen’s small daughter had not been allowed to attend school. His escape under the eyes of surveillance cameras is nothing short of amazing. It is the stuff movies are made of.

At the hearing, Chen testified by cell phone. He was not only concerned about himself and his wife but about other family members and the people who had helped him escape. He said, “I’m really afraid for my other family members lives … I want to meet with Secretary Clinton, I hope I can get more help from her. I also want to thank her face-to-face. I really fear for my other family members lives.

“The thing of most concern right now is the safety of my mother and brother; I really want to know what’s going on with them.”

This case is not just some right-wing concern. According to Human Rights Watch, CNN was forcibly prevented from interviewing Chen. He served four years in prison for his activism. In the past, his house confinement has been considered illegal and also involved his wife. People concerned about him and his treatment have not been allowed to visit him in his home. This is not some case of a dissident popping out of nowhere and showing up at the U.S. Embassy. It is a case that has been watched internationally. He was named by Time Magazine in 2006 in its list of “100 People Who Shape Our World.”

How a country behaves toward its citizens is also reflected in its dealings internationally. We can’t divorce Chen’s treatment any more than we can China’s other rights violations, including Tibet. Rep. Smith pointed out that Chen’s treatment had been cruel and that it brought dishonor to the government of China. He is exactly right. China is now a big player in the world. It has more people than any other country and is getting stronger economically day-by-day. It is time for the government to be the world citizens it claims it wants to be. It means China must act in accordance with basic human-rights standards that are recognized by civilized countries and societies. We must take that into account as we continue to formulate our policies toward China. Some things can’t be overlooked.

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