A week ago, no one would have predicted that the future of U.S.-China relations could lie in the hands of a blind Chinese human rights defender. But for the moment, U.S.-China ties will be shaped less by currency machinations or Security Council votes than by the fate of dissident legal activist Chen Guangcheng, who upended plans for this week's U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue with a Houdini-like escape out of de facto house arrest and into the arms of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
With his second act on Wednesday, Chen joins the ranks of the world's great escape artists. His dramatic departure from the U.S. Embassy on May 2, escorted by not one, but three U.S. Embassy officials, is a hopeful sign that principled U.S. support for rule of law in China can yield results. Chen was driven to a nearby hospital and reunited with his family; he will be allowed to enroll in university to study law.
Amnesty International will join many human rights groups, inside and outside China, in monitoring whether Chen is allowed to act out this new script -- one of his own design.
Chen's escape from house arrest presented the United States with a dilemma: grant him asylum and risk angering a rising power at a key moment in its development, or send him packing without adequate protections, undermining long-standing U.S. support for human rights in China and around the world.
President Barack Obama apparently chose "none of the above." It was a wise choice.
Now is the time to remind the Chinese that human rights, long viewed as a luxury indulged in only when it does not conflict with core issues of security and prosperity, permeate U.S.-China relations. A China that denies the rights in its own constitution unsurprisingly does not share U.S. indignation at President Bashar al-Assad's brutality in Syria. A China that blames the self-immolation of monks in Tibet on outside agitation rather than injustice will not push Burma to respect its ethnic minorities. What progress can be made on "rebalancing" trade or tackling global warming while China's workers are barred from organizing? Chen bunking on U.S. premises was a physical manifestation of a long-standing reality: Human rights concerns are embedded in debates over security, economics, and power relations.
With nearly half Obama's cabinet in China this week for talks on everything from North Korean nukes to intellectual property theft, a champion of China's least powerful sought refuge in the one place where he knew he could feel safe.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, who was sent early to Beijing to defuse a brewing diplomatic crisis, no doubt studied the case of dissident physicist Fang Lizhi, who was holed up in the U.S. Embassy for more than a year after the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests before U.S. Ambassador James Lilley and President George H.W. Bush negotiated his departure from China. That yearlong standoff did not impose a great cost on the already frosty post-Tiananmen bilateral relationship.
Fang's departure from China in 1990 was a satisfactory outcome for him personally. He and his wife settled in Tucson, where he joined the University of Arizona faculty and returned to the study of his beloved astrophysics until his death on April 6. But like most Chinese dissidents who move abroad, Fang sacrificed his ability to influence events in China, depriving the Middle Kingdom of a much-needed advocate for change. His exile was a blow to the cause of human rights in China.
In 2012, it was inconceivable that the United States and China could let the Chen case drag on for a year or more. The two powers are now intertwined globally, and there are leadership transitions/elections coming to both countries this fall.