The Obama administration's record on human rights, never strong, just got a whole lot worse. This week's dramatic saga of Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng's escape from house arrest in Shandong province to safety inside the U.S. Embassy to the embassy's role in handing him over to Chinese authorities is a disgraceful tale. Once again, the Obama administration has chosen to put human rights violations on the back burner, as it has nearly every time it has been asked for help, whether from Iranian protesters in 2009 or Syrian freedom fighters today.
Chen's fate was complicated by the arrival in Beijing of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner Wednesday. U.S. diplomats seemed eager to shove Chen out the embassy door before the two Obama officials began their strategic and economic talks with Chinese leaders. It was clear the administration found Chen's asylum seeking embarrassing.
Chen, who is blind, has been a thorn in the side of the Chinese government since he began fighting for the disabled and opposing the regime's strict one-child policy over the past decade. His background makes him an unusual human rights activist. He was illiterate until his late teens but taught himself enough law to file a class action suit against the government on behalf of women forced to undergo sterilization or abortions as part of the nation's family planning policies. He spent four years in prison for his "offenses."
When Chen was released, provincial authorities subjected him to imprisonment in his own farmhouse, along with his wife. They built walls around the compound, set up round-the-clock surveillance and armed guards, and controlled all access to him from human rights groups and individuals. He managed to get free by scaling a 6-foot wall in the middle of the night, badly injuring his foot in the process.
From Shandong, Chen traveled more than 300 miles to Beijing, helped by a secret network of activists who moved him from one safe house to another until the U.S. Embassy agreed to shelter him as someone needing "humanitarian" assistance because of the injury he incurred in his flight. But Chinese thugs already had managed to intimidate Chen's wife, according to friends and human rights activists, threatening her with beatings and even death if Chen did not leave the embassy and go to a Beijing hospital.
American diplomats were only too eager to oblige. Photographed with U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke as he departed the security of the embassy, Chen soon enough saw that American promises to ensure his safety were nothing more than a convenient compromise to get him out of the way so as not to jeopardize the Clinton-Geithner mission. The embassy claimed that it had assurances that Chen would be treated and then released and resettled someplace safe, where he could attend law school in China. But the moment Chen checked in to the hospital, the Americans disappeared, in effect abandoning him to Chinese state security officials.
Now Chen has asked to be permitted to leave the country with his family. Of course, China complains that the U.S. has meddled in its internal affairs by even offering the injured Chen humanitarian aid initially. And so far, Clinton has managed little more during her official visit than vague references to China's obligation "to answer to citizens' aspirations for dignity and the rule of law," without ever mentioning Chen by name.
One can only hope that she pressed his case in private meetings. According to news reports, Chen wishes to leave China on Clinton's plane. It is almost unimaginable that an administration as timid as this one would agree to help him do so. The best he and his family can hope for is that backroom talks will continue after Clinton leaves and that those talks eventually lead to China's decision that Chen is a greater danger inside China than he would be if he were to reach freedom in the U.S.
But even Chen's eventual release would not be enough to absolve the Obama administration from its failure to promote human rights as a fundamental element of American foreign policy.