Five years later, the United States is more deeply involved with Chen’s case than ever, with U.S. officials escorting him from the American Embassy to a Beijing hospital on Wednesday and securing assurances on his behalf. Chen found refuge for a week inside the embassy after fleeing de facto house arrest, and U.S. officials have made themselves responsible for guaranteeing his safety and holding Chinese authorities to their commitment to treat him “humanely.
All of which means that human rights again have been thrust to the top of the Sino-U.S. agenda, just as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner arrive in Beijing for talks on a broad range of issues, from Iran, North Korea and Syria to ways the two sides can help revive global economic growth.
No matter what priority successive administrations give the rights issue, it has proven impossible to ignore — often at the most inopportune times. U.S. diplomats tend to prefer to make their human rights views known privately. But in cases like Chen’s, such discretion is simply impossible.
"The question has always been the place of human rights on the American agenda with China — how high up and tactically how is it pursued," said David Shambaugh, director of the China policy program at George Washington University. "It's never been a question of whether it is on or off the agenda."
Shortly after becoming secretary of state in 2009, Clinton drew criticism for a reply to a question about how she would approach China's human rights abuses. "We know what they are going to say because I've had those kinds of conversations for more than a decade with Chinese leaders," Clinton said. "We have to continue to press them. But our pressing on those issues can't interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crisis."
Human rights groups said she was lowering the profile of human rights.
From the Chinese side, too, Chen’s saga shifts the spotlight away from mutual strategic and economic concerns, which had been where they wanted it. At a moment when Chinese officials would have preferred talking about the positive aspects of the U.S-China relationship, they found themselves again in the position of denouncing the U.S. for “interfering in China’s internal affairs” in the Chen case.
Still, Chinese officials seem to recognize — perhaps with more resignation than acceptance — that the human right issue is always a part of the broader relationship with the U.S., whether they like it or not. Rather than bristling at the mention of human rights problems, Chinese diplomats seem to have adopted a more nuanced response. They stress that no country, including the United States, has a perfect human rights record, and they try to seek recognition for the progress that has been made in China, even while acknowledging that problems remain.