It’s hard to know which is worse: one’s grief over Chen Guangcheng’s fate, or the fury over the Obama administration’s abandonment of him to that fate.
Chen was already an internationally known human-rights activist when he showed up at the U.S. embassy in Beijing last week seeking refuge. A blind, self-taught lawyer from Shandong Province, Chen had been held prisoner for 19 months for the crime of publicizing Chinese atrocities enforcing the “one child” policy. Chen had chosen a moonless night (his captors were not blind) to scale several high walls and stumble his way to a predetermined meeting place where Christian friends would help him make the harrowing, 300-mile journey to Beijing. He told supporters that he fell 200 times that night — breaking a foot in the process.
At some point, it’s not clear exactly where or when, U.S. officials did help Chen get to the embassy — which is gratifying. What happened next was not.
Four days of negotiations with the Chinese government followed. The State Department was gearing up for the visit of Secretary Clinton, Treasury Secretary Geithner, and other top officials. Chen’s presence in the embassy would cast a pall over the diplomatic niceties. So while U.S. officials held discussions with the Chinese about Chen’s future, it’s clear that they did so with the usual disregard for the nature of the regime they were confronting.
When, for example, the Chinese rounded up Chen’s friends and accomplices in Shandong, U.S. officials asked China to “investigate” these “extralegal” activities by local authorities, as if they were dealing with a government that enforces the rule of law rather than a criminal state that flouts the law.
Throughout the tense days of talks, Chen’s spirits sometimes flagged, understandably. There are reports that the Chinese threatened his family. He asked, the Washington Post reported, about other human-rights heroes — Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi. “‘Does she ever feel low? Did she ever question her choices?’”
State Department officials claim that Chen repeatedly expressed a desire to remain in China and continue his human-rights work. American officials supposedly worked out an agreement with the Chinese that Chen, his wife, and children would be permitted to move to a small city near Beijing to continue his legal studies free from persecution. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a statement that Chen was leaving the embassy in accord with “his wishes and our values.”