The Post reports: “Blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng, who emerged at the center of a diplomatic row between the U.S. and China, left Beijing on a United Airlines flight bound for Newark, N.J., Saturday afternoon after Chinese officials and American diplomats swiftly arranged his travel out of the country for an uncertain new life in the United States.”
There is no better example of America’s essential role in the world and our obligation to defend human rights than Chen’s escape to America. He was not sheltered, however maladroitly, by India or Brazil or Turkey. That Chen and his immediate family will live in freedom and safety is to be celebrated and is a reminder we still lead the Free World.
There are, however, important lessons for policymakers, media and human rights activists.
First and foremost, it is a mistake whenever the administration tries to downplay human rights or shove the topic off to the side (in this case, shove Chen out of the U.S. Embassy). The supposed gains from such actions are nearly always ephemeral. The ensuing embarrassment (from trying to curry favor and avoid causing offense) to the United States winds up outweighing any improvement in the “relationship.” How much better the United States would have looked — and how much more forceful we would have appeared to the Chinese in high-level meetings — had we taken our time, insisted on protection for Chen and his family, and, if need be, delayed the meeting so as to impress on the Chinese that human rights is as important to us as currency and trade issues. In this case, the administration and the Chinese were shamed into spiriting Chen out of China by public opinion, without which Chen would never have been seen again.
And that is the next lesson: It pays to raise a rumpus over human rights.
Without human rights activists, media (in China and the United States) and members of Congress (some of whom talked to Chen by phone during a hearing), Chen would not have been rescued. It’s not “international law” or “diplomacy” that sprung Chen; rather, it was worldwide condemnation and pressure. Unfortunately, it is hard to imagine this will be sustained on behalf of the larger circle of friends and family who assisted Chen. The Post report reminds us:
In an earlier interview on Friday, Chen expressed concern over the fate of his nephew, Chen Kegui, who has been arrested in Shandong and charged with attempted murder, for injuring three officials who stormed unannounced into his house in late April, after Chen Guangcheng was discovered to have fled house arrest.
Chen Kegui had been prevented from hiring private lawyers to represent him in the case, and was instead given two court-appointed government lawyers. Chen Guangcheng said that he feared the government-appointed lawyers would coerce his nephew to plead guilty.
This episode should inform how we think and act toward China. It’s undiplomatic to say, but we don’t “share common interests,” as this administration keeps saying. China is in favor of expanding its power in the region, tyrannizing its people, stealing intellectual property and conducting cyberterrorism, among other things. Our interests diverge sharply in many respects. It doesn’t mean we can’t find areas of cooperation. But we should be more sanguine in our behavior and restrained in our language, lest we be taken for nincompoops who can be stared down.
UPDATE (12:05): A reader calls my attention to an NPR report, which makes the point that getting Chen out of the country is a win for the Chinese rulers. “Chinese dissidents tend to become irrelevant as soon as they leave the country. Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch told The Guardian that by getting rid of Chen, the Chinese government has less incentive to investigate wrongdoing: ‘This is a reflection of the fact that there is no room for human rights defenders in China. We don’t know if this will turn into a temporary stay or exile, but in either case, it begs the questions why someone like Chen Guangcheng cannot freely operate in China. What is it that stops the authorities from tolerating or even embracing someone like Chen?’” Certainly, Chen isn’t going back anytime soon, and he therefore will not be a further irritant to China. Surely that pleases the Communist despots, especially since the incident cost them nothing in terms of China’s relationship with the West.