In December 2010, a trio of Western diplomats stationed in China -- one each from Canada, Switzerland, and the European Union -- drove from Beijing to the village of Dongshigu, eight hours away in Shandong province, hoping to visit the detained dissident Chen Guangcheng.
No one has spoken publicly about what happened next. They did not mention the excursion itself, and certainly not the rough reception they received from the hands of the guards who prevented them from seeing Chen. But one person with knowledge of the incident used the words "roughed up;" another said the diplomats had been "threatened" by "thugs." All three embassies declined to comment about what had happened in Dongshigu.
Intimidating diplomats violates the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which asserts diplomats have freedom of movement within a host country, unless there's a national security reason to deny it. It's also a breach of the informal rule against threatening a foreign country's emissaries. But the governments decided it was better to complain in private to Beijing; at least two of the governments coordinated their response to Beijing about the incident. The Chinese Communist Party, after all, bristles when foreign countries embarrass it in public by raising issues it declares "sensitive," such as its treatment of political dissidents or ethnic minorities.
U.S. President Barack Obama also went strangely silent when first asked to publicly comment on the Chen case in early May of this year, taking pains not to use the name of the blind lawyer who his government was already shielding. But at least the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, acting with the Obama administration's backing, had already decided to do something -- incurring Chinese ire by sending a car to collect Chen from those who had helped him escape Dongshigu, whisking him inside the embassy's fortress-like walls.
The Obama administration later took heavy criticism when Chen left the embassy, under an arrangement he soon regretted. After two weeks of waiting, Chen said Wednesday that he and his family have finally filled out their application forms to receive Chinese passports and that he expects to have permission to travel by the end of the month. If the Chinese don't honor the deal that Secretary of State Hilary Clinton arranged while in Beijing -- which would see Chen leave China to attend university in the United States -- the attacks will intensify.
These are arguably valid criticisms, particularly if Chen and his family somehow end up in in a more dangerous place than when he first sought American protection. And, arguably, other Chinese human rights activists have found themselves in trouble particularly because of American attention. But at least Washington remains willing to challenge the Chinese leadership about specific human rights cases. Few other countries do anymore. While Switzerland and the EU have both dialed down their public human rights pressure on China over the past few years, it is Canada which has taken the greatest step backwards in Beijing.
Canada used to be one of the most outspoken critics of China's human rights abuses. When Prime Minister Stephen Harper entered office in 2006, he famously said that Canadians didn't want him to "sell out important Canadian values -- our belief in democracy, freedom, human rights" in dealings with China, as this was far more important than "the almighty dollar." Harper skipped the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which some interpreted as a criticism of China's human rights records. Two years earlier, he infuriated Beijing by bestowing honorary Canadian citizenship on the Dalai Lama.