One constant of President Obama’s foreign policy has been a marked reluctance to stand up for freedom fighters, be they the masses in the streets or those who languish in solitude under the repression of their governments. As Fred Hiatt of the Washington Post recently wrote, “he has shown little passion for the cause.”
The escape of blind lawyer and activist Chen Guangcheng from house arrest in Shandong Province to the American embassy in Beijing thus presents a major conundrum for President Obama. With the high-level U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue set to begin on Wednesday, administration officials are reportedly frantically negotiating with their Chinese counterparts over Chen’s fate so that the case does not derail the annual talks.
Chen reportedly is not seeking asylum in the United States, instead preferring to remain in China without the restrictions that had been previously imposed on him in retaliation for his activism to expose sterilizations and forced abortions. If this is indeed his wish, the United States should do everything possible to make this happen. Under no circumstances, however, should he be denied entry to the United States if he seeks it. American officials should also ensure that those who assisted in his escape, many of whom have reportedly subsequently been arrested, are freed and that his family is not harmed.
Rocked in recent weeks by the high-profile fall from favor of political figure Bo Xilai, China is going through what may be its most sensitive period since 1989. #more#It is thus imperative that the United States stand up for the fundamental rights of the Chinese people. Human rights should be elevated on the agenda of this week’s Strategic and Economic Dialogue, which in recent years has become a rather meaningless talking shop that skirts the real areas of disagreement in the relationship rather than confronting them. That, rather than sweeping this case under the rug, as the administration appears tempted to do, would be the best message to send to others like Chen who are putting their lives on the line to bring change to China.
Governor Romney has publicly stated his support for Chen, but the Obama administration has been silent. When asked several times about whether the administration would avoid turning Chen over to Chinese authorities, Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan would only state that the president would ensure that “appropriate balance is struck.”
This should be an easy case. China’s future lies in the activism of those like Chen, not the sclerotic leaders with whom the Obama administration is so desperate to curry favor this week at the Strategic and Economic Dialogue. By showing a little passion for the cause and standing up for Chen’s rights, President Obama can take a small step toward beginning to make right three years of what has been a failed democracy and human-rights policy.
— Jamie M. Fly is executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative.