The Corner

What Did the U.S. Promise China?

The mini-stand-off between Beijing and Washington over blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng may have ended with his leaving the U.S. Embassy for a local hospital under promises of safe conduct and no future retaliation by Chinese authorities. From one angle, this is a victory for the State Department, which appeared to secure Chinese vows to keep him and his family together, to allow U.S. officials to make regular visits to check on his status, and to investigate the harassment Mr. Chen has undergone for over a year and a half. Other reports state that Mr. Chen was pressured into staying in China by threats against his family, which would make the State Department agreement for his release a far-from-ideal solution.

The real question hanging over all this is whether there was a quid pro quo for Mr. Chen’s release.

According to the Financial Times (subscription required), “China was demanding an apology from the US, an investigation into the matter, punishment for those responsible and a guarantee that similar events would not happen again.” More significantly, an official quoted by the paper added that “the US had shown contrition and promised to take measures to prevent a similar event from happening again.” American officials seem to confirm this statement, saying that Mr. Chen’s asylum was sought under “exceptional circumstances” and that Washington did not expect it to happen again.

Did U.S. officials agree to no longer accept oppressed dissidents seeking asylum? If true, it is a giant step backward for American moral power in the world. Such a promise will not only discourage those fighting for freedom, openness, and human rights in China, but it may also embolden the Chinese government to greater repression, knowing that America will not step in to help, even in “exceptional circumstances.” This follows President Obama’s failure to stand up for Mr. Chen, and human rights, in China during his press conference with Japanese prime minister Yoshihiko Noda this week. 

The absence of words have as much consequence as their use. It’s not just a moral matter, as important as that is; rather, such apparent weakness will change Chinese perceptions of our backbone, willingness to stand for universal freedoms, and U.S. confidence in dealing with Beijing. Perhaps that’s why the Chinese are not only demanding that the United States provide an apology (which they likely won’t get), but also that the U.S. show “contrition” for its acts. That may be boilerplate for the Chinese masses, but it also shows a strong and growing dismissive attitude towards America. In her meetings this week, Secretary of State Clinton may well see that hard line up close and personal. Regardless of how her talks go, China’s behavior doesn’t bode well for the relationship in coming months.

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