There is an extraordinary diplomatic drama playing out in China today that could have important implications for the presidential race. The Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, who was jailed and beaten for his work against the government's coercive family planning policies, is at the center of an amazing real-life thriller. A daring escape from his home jail, made all the more incredible by the fact that he is blind, a rendezvous with American officials, a car chase to avoid Chinese authorities for the safety of the U.S. Embassy compound. Several days of negotiations between the two governments, made all the more intense by the impending arrival of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner.
The next step in the story may become the crucial controversy if this drama plays out as well in our domestic politics. U.S. officials maintain Chen decided, after extensive questioning, that he wanted to remain in China, albeit in a different city and with his family re-united. Under that supposed agreement with the Chinese government, he left the embassy and entered a hospital for treatment of an injury sustained in his escape. But once in the hospital and again isolated, Chen has had a change of heart, and now, reportedly, not only wants to leave China, but travel on Mrs. Clinton's plane.
The story is “developing” as one web-site would put it with a siren, so it is too early to tell what the domestic political fall-out will be. But here are some possible controversies:
1. Has the Obama administration struck the right balance on support for human rights in China and building ties with our most important rival and benefactor? This is the meta-question. There is nothing simple about this answer, but rarely have Americans or the world had a better view of how China treats its citizens who disagree with the government. It will make many justifiably angry, and increase support for a harder line with China.
2. At the U.S. embassy, did officials in any way pressure Chen to stay in China, albeit under supposedly better circumstances, so they could resolve this embarrassing diplomatic crisis on the eve of high-level talks? Chinese dissidents skillfully and understandably used the eve of the visit as leverage for their causes and for a while there seemed to be an elegant solution to Chen's situation. But was it too elegant? What was said, or not, at the embassy will likely receive much greater scrutiny, and could form the basis of an attack, however unfair, on the Obama administration for putting international politics ahead of human rights.
3. How will this crisis resolve? Chen, if reports are true, wants to leave China. While it won't be on Mrs. Clinton's plane, it had better be on some plane, perhaps through another foreign capitol. This story is far from over.