May 12, 2013

JUST A WEEK or so ago, we raised the question on this page about whether the Chinese would keep their promise to investigate abuses against the family of Chen Guangcheng, the blind dissident lawyer who escaped from his illegal home detention in Shandong province last year, was sheltered briefly in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and eventually came to New York. We also questioned the commitment of the United States to keep the pressure on China to honor its pledge at the time Mr. Chen left the embassy and the country.

Mr. Chen lamented to us recently that neither side is living up to its promises. He said that his relatives continue to be harassed in China, with beer bottles and bricks thrown at their houses, cars vandalized and posters put up accusing them of treason. Some relatives were also told by prosecutors that they would be criminally charged. Mr. Chen felt these actions were intended to silence his potent criticism of human rights in China.

On May 9, China delivered a new punch to the gut. According to Bob Fu of ChinaAid, who has been deeply involved with the case, Mr. Chen’s older brother, Chen Guangfu, was riding a motorbike at 9:45 a.m., about two miles from his home, when he was stopped by a black car without a license plate. Two men got out of the car and beat him and wrecked the motorbike. The beating was near a police station in Mengyin county of Shandong province. Chen Guangfu immediately reported the incident to the police, but they have taken no action to find the assailants.

The beating seems to be a defiant message that China could not care less about the promises made last year to then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. This kind of beating does not happen without the instigation and approval of higher officials; it suggests that China is far more determined to intimidate Mr. Chen than to honor any pledge made to Washington. Thugs beating up a brother on a lonely country road sends a message loud and clear.

Last Thursday, acting deputy State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said “we remain deeply concerned” about reports of continued harassment of the family and the beating of Chen’s brother. Secretary of State John Kerry sent a written protest to Foreign Minister Wang Yi about the beating. Such a response suggests the United States isn’t going to make a public fuss.

Often in managing a relationship as complex as the United States and China, it pays dividends to balance conflicting imperatives — security, economics, human rights and politics, among other things. But there are also times when the United States ought to stand up and shout that something is amiss. This is one of those moments. Some forceful, public comments by Mr. Kerry and President Obama might ease the Chen family’s nightmare at the hands of thugs, and remind China’s leaders that their promises should not be simply crumpled up and discarded whenever they feel like it.