When the blind human rights activist and lawyer Chen Guangcheng arrived from Beijing to begin a new life at New York University in mid-May, with the camera flashes ricocheting off his dark glasses, his first moments in freedom recalled the euphoric day in 1986 when the diminutive Anatoly Shcharansky crossed the Glienecke Bridge from East to West Berlin with an impish grin on his face. In both cases, a single person demonstrated the asymmetric power that humbles powerful regimes. When Shcharansky—a dissident who had spent nine years in the Gulag—won his freedom, he and those who had gone before—Andrei Sakharov and Alexander Solzhenitsyn—helped to weaken tyranny and set it on the downward slope to its eventual collapse.
The question today is whether human rights activists still possess the power to drain legitimacy away from repressive regimes. Then and now the United States had no desire to upset its relations with a powerful rival just for the sake of human rights, and yet, in the 1980s, human rights demands in Eastern Europe began wearing away the façade and inner confidence of Soviet rule. China now is what the Soviet system was to the human rights movement in the cold war: its largest strategic challenge, the one regime with global reach that believes it can deny full civil and political rights in perpetuity and permanently deny its citizens access to the Internet and the information revolution. The unanswered question and unmet challenge for the contemporary human rights movement is whether the example of activists like Cheng Guangcheng will be able to do, one day in China, what Shcharansky and his fellow human rights activists did to the Soviet system.
Shcharansky’s and Chen’s stories also remind us that international human rights are not a Western construct. It was Solzhenitsyn who first said that in the modern age there were no truly domestic affairs of states, and it was the Democracy Wall activists in Beijing in 1978 who showed that democracy was not just a Western idea. The true inspiration in human rights has always come from the East, from the moral witness and incorruptible courage of those in the prisons of empire. The modern human rights movement was built up from the 1960s onward from this dialectic between the moral example of the East and the dynamic organizational resources of the West.
The dialectic between Eastern courage and Western organization deserves a historian and it has found one in Aryeh Neier, a figure who helped to make the history he writes. Neier was the founding executive director of what became Human Rights Watch until 1993 and then the president of George Soros’s Open Society Foundations until June 2012. A well-worn joke about Neier has it that if Soros is the only American citizen with a foreign policy all his own, Neier has been his secretary …