Argument

Why America Must Save Chen Guangcheng

Now is one of those times when the United States must live up to its ideals.

During a visit to Asia early in her tenure as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton famously said that U.S .concern with human rights issues in China "can't interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crisis."

Her statement garnered shock and dismay from human rights activists at home, and I would venture, abroad -- the very people who historically have looked to America to champion their cause, rather than relegate it to the backburner.

But now, with the daring escape last week of blind legal defender and activist Chen Guangcheng, human rights will "interfere" with the agenda outlined for this week's Strategic and Economic Dialogue with China, which is bringing Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to Beijing for high-level talks.

And interfere it must. America's reputation as a beacon of freedom -- the "last best hope of man on Earth" hangs in the balance. The Obama administration must rise to the occasion and allow the U.S. Embassy in China to fulfill its obligation as an island of freedom in a sea of repression.

On Feb. 10, I was one of several members of Congress to sign a letter to President Obama on the eve of his visit with Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping. We urged the president to follow the time-tested model of President Ronald Reagan during the height of the Cold War, when he spoke out on behalf of specific dissidents by name, linking human rights and religious freedom to every other facet of U.S.-Soviet relations, rather than sidelining the very principles that make this country unique. We urged President Obama to raise the cases of six prominent Chinese citizens who had suffered greatly at the hands of their own government, among them Chen Guangcheng.

China's abysmal human rights record is well known. The government is an equal opportunity oppressor of people of faith, including Catholic bishops, Protestant house church leaders, Tibetan monks and nuns, Uyghur Muslims, and Falun Gong practitioners. Harassment, intimidation, and imprisonment are the order of the day. Our own State Department's annual Human Rights Report found that China is "an authoritarian state" where the government continues to muzzle freedom of speech and press and "rein in" civil society. Chen's case is not an anomaly, but symptomatic of pervasive, well-documented government abuse.

While much remains unknown regarding the specifics of Chen's escape, it is quickly becoming apparent that Chen's heroism is matched only by that of the brave individuals who, at great personal risk to themselves, assisted Chen in breaking free from the captors who had tormented, isolated and mistreated him for more than 18 months. His brutal house arrest, which garnered worldwide attention and outrage, came on the heels of his release from prison on trumped-up charges of damaging property and "organizing a mob to disturb traffic."

Tellingly, many who dared to assist Chen have subsequently been detained, arrested and brought in for extensive questioning. While no negotiations have been officially confirmed, we can assume that State Department officials are presently engaged in discussions with the Chinese government regarding the Chen case.

These diplomats must be ever-mindful of how the Chinese government has responded thus far and refuse to accept vague assurances of Chen's future safety. They need look no further than He "Pearl" Peirong, one of those who provided key logistical support for Chen in his flight for freedom. She is presently under house arrest, location unknown.

The unceasing advocate Bob Fu, president of China Aid Association and himself a Tiananmen Square student leader, noted in the Washington Post Monday that Chen has never "established a political party or organization. He has never advocated overthrowing the Communist Party." Instead, Chen wants "to live a normal life as a Chinese citizen" with his family. He has joined the hallowed ranks of individuals like the Soviet dissidents Natan Sharansky and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose courage in the face of tyranny captured the world's imagination.

Now, a different type of courage will be required: political courage. If Chen is indeed in U.S. diplomatic protection, will he remain there? Will Chen decide to stay in China? Will his safety and that of his family be guaranteed? Will his case, and others like him, be central in any future bilateral engagement?

The situation is complicated, but Chen's case is not. There is a place for pragmatism in diplomacy -- perhaps that is what motivated Deputy National Security Advisor John Brennan when asked this weekend about Chen's case to say that the president will aim to "balance our commitment to human rights" while maintaining "our relationships with key countries overseas." But pragmatism must not result in Chen's abandonment in the name of good relations.

Chen represents China's future. He is bright and bold. He loves his family and cares deeply about his fellow citizens. But until there is a fundamental change on the part of the Chinese government, Chen, like his compatriots, Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo, writer and academic Yu Jie, and so many others whose names we do not yet know, will be viewed as enemies by the country that they love. We can be certain that they are watching closely as Chen's fate unfolds.

Much has been written about the timing of Chen's escape. Coming on the heels of the embarrassing Bo Xilai scandal and this fall's Communist Party leadership transition, in most diplomatic and foreign-policy circles the conventional wisdom is that the timing couldn't have been worse.

But for an opportunity for the United States to show its commitment to freedom, the timing couldn't be better.

Chen's escape is the stuff of history.  All that remains to be seen is whether America will be on the right side.

Ed Jones/AFP/GettyImages

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