It must have been extremely tempting for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and her point man, Campbell, to try to whisk Chen and his family out of China as soon as possible. But they listened to the voice of Chen and his advocates, demonstrating their commitment to a process of engagement with China that is rooted in the belief that China is capable of change.
The United States should not view the Chen case as a "distraction" from the more important business to be done in Beijing. Instead, it should focus on the real objective: candid conversation with the Chinese government about the intersection of human rights with what the United States hopes to accomplish with China, and what the Chinese people hope to achieve for themselves.
Beijing's failure to respect the rights of its own citizens to criticize the government, to organize, to speak freely, and to gather and share information on sensitive subjects, impedes China's efforts to become a truly great power. China cannot long sustain robust economic growth in the information age while systematically stifling the Chinese people's ability to access information (e.g., the Great Firewall), to innovate, and to identify, condemn, and eliminate corrupt government practices. Chen's prolonged, illegal detention vividly illustrated the constraints under which the Chinese people are laboring. That is why it made sense for the U.S. government to invite China's most senior leaders to join with the United States in embracing Chen as a patriotic and loyal citizen of China.
Although that sounded far-fetched to some, Chen has been careful to blame his mistreatment on local officials in Shandong province, leaving room for China's leaders to appear blameless. Washington's goal in such cases should not be to humiliate China's leaders, but to encourage them to align themselves with the bravest advocates for human rights: the ones who reside in China, not along the Potomac.
Premier Wen Jiabao has repeatedly called for political reforms and rule of law. Faced with the alternative of a humiliating standoff with a national hero who took refuge under America's wing, Wen and President Hu Jintao apparently surprised most observers by demonstrating the commitment of China's most senior leaders to those stated objectives. China's leaders have saved face, while the U.S. government has remained true to its principles.
Was this ever a likely outcome? No. The chances of negotiating such a resolution were always remote. But diplomacy is the art of turning remote objectives into achievable ones.
I can't wait for the third act.
Update: The story out of Beijing got murkier Wednesday, as Chen Guangcheng gave interviews from Chaoyang Hospital suggesting a preference for asylum over remaining in China. After all he and his family have been through, these reports are perfectly understandable. Amnesty International USA emphasizes that China must honor its commitments to Chen and his family. Ultimately, Chen must be able to decide his own future, free from coercion.