The United States did the right thing in cutting a deal to save blind activist Chen Guangcheng. But his case highlights just how much progress China needs to make on human rights.
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.
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.