On April 22, Chen Guangcheng — the blind, self-taught human-rights activist who came to be known as “the barefoot lawyer” for his fearless advocacy for China’s rural poor, and especially for the victims of the forced sterilizations and abortions condoned under the PRC’s barbaric “one-child” policy — dramatically escaped his longstanding house arrest in Dongshigu Village. He fled to Beijing, where he sought and obtained entry into the U.S. embassy. Six days later, Chen left U.S. protection under the terms of a deal negotiated between the State Department and the Chinese government. He was apparently promised medical treatment, and given assurances that he would be free from further incarceration, reunited with his family, and protected from violent reprisals.
But less than a day after his exit, Chen seems to have learned a tragic lesson about the value of Chinese assurances — and, we fear, of U.S. diplomacy. Confined to a hospital, Chen reports that his phone calls are being intermittently blocked, that his family’s movement is being restricted, and that threats have been made against his wife. Having realized that the deal he cut to remain in China was no deal at all, Chen has requested political asylum in the United States, going so far as to directly appeal to the joint Executive-Congressional Commission on China on Capitol Hill, where he expressed via speakerphone his concern for the safety of his mother and brothers, and his hope to “rest” in the United States after years of captivity. The State Department, for its part, is apparently exploring Chen’s “options.” Secretary Clinton reports as “progress” the vague allowance from Chinese leadership that Chen will be permitted to apply to “study abroad.” Whether his “application” will prove successful, and whether his family can join him, very much remains to be seen: The situation is fluid, with rumors of an additional “breakthrough” in negotiations floating through the media.
We don’t know yet whether the U.S. embassy simply made a bad — or craven — deal with the PRC, hastening Chen out the door before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went wheels down in China for the “Strategic and Economic Dialogue” talks that began yesterday. If we did sell Chen out in the interest of expediency, then the damage is irreparably done. We simply haven’t a leg to stand on, or the will to stand on it. Chen’s life will remain in danger, the lives of his family will remain in danger, and Chinese dissidents will think twice about seeking the aid and protection of the United States of America.
We hope this isn’t what transpired. U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke has told the press that Chen was never pressured to leave, that he himself was anxious to rejoin his family. We hope that before he did so the embassy acted aggressively to win promises that Chen and those who helped him would be safe. We hope that they urged him to stay in the embassy until their safety could be assured — and verified. If the embassy did all these things, if Chen left by his own volition, and if the Chinese have reneged on their side of the deal, then the State Department should waste no time saying as much — and outlining the serious consequences China will face for its bad faith.
We suspect that the truth lies somewhere in between. We take Ambassador Locke at his word when he says Chen was anxious to leave U.S. protection. But more important was Locke’s later admission that Chen’s anxiety was caused by knowing “what might happen to his family if he stayed in the embassy and they stayed in the village.” This paints a damning picture of a man negotiating, under duress, for the lives of his family while in the “protection” of a country that either cannot or will not actually protect him.
There are those who would say that the matter of Chen is small potatoes, not worth angering the Chinese or imperiling our trade relationship. If one were to start from the premise that the U.S. is just like every other country, and that our self-interest, in the most narrow analysis, trumps all, then perhaps it would make sense to cut our losses with Chen, to not let the fate of one man’s family compromise our latest economic talks. But if one believes that America’s self-interest is rooted in part in our commitment to securing order — to securing a certain kind of order — then nothing less than our credibility is on the line in the fate of Chen Guangcheng.
But it is not too late to change course. Chen’s request for asylum should be granted, and it should be secured with the full force of U.S. diplomatic muscle. China is more powerful than it once was, but it is thus more dependent on U.S. cooperation. It is also in the midst of overlapping periods of economic turmoil and political transition, and Premier Wen Jibao has signaled his desire to deliver political reforms. All of this puts us in a strong negotiating position to ensure the peaceful emigration of Chen’s family to the United States. Chen is an appealing, admirable man in his own right. But he is also our man — someone to whom the United States and its institutions have offered rhetorical support for some time. If we fail now to back up that rhetorical support with substantive support, then our reputation stands to suffer, even as the cause of human rights suffers in China.